I think one of the biggest hurdles when beginning study, particularly if you’ve been away from it for a while, is to understand the ‘standard’ required. In my case, I recall the huge unease I felt when undertaking doctoral studies: wondering if what I was doing was ‘academic’ enough especially in the light of creative/ artefact based PhDs accompanied by an exegesis being relatively new at the time. As a creative writer I worried about what the boundaries were – would my creativity be stifled by the need to meet what felt to me at the time to be an elusive academic ‘standard’?
In writing an essay you are presenting a combination of your own ideas and those of others and in this light, an assessor looks at how well you are able to synthesize the writing/ theory of others into your own understanding and writing. Of course, this is not a one way process but a back and forth one (which again is too simplistic, but hopefully it makes the point) between you testing your ideas against those of others, too.
I think that the development of such a synthesis in writing (and the development of your own strong academic voice) begins in reflective writing – and a reflective journal is a good thing to keep in order to do this. In this private space you can take an idea from someone else and say whatever you like to it: be in love with it, even yell at it. Because it’s yours and no one else has to read it, you might feel freer to challenge the ideas of others.
We can feel daunted when faced with the ideas of another who seems to say it so much better than we can and so we might over-quote them and not put ourselves into the picture strongly enough. Or the opposite happens and we make it about us, drawing little on the voices of others, thus not reaching a deep enough level of critical analysis.
So to sum up: strive for a balance between your own ideas and those of others and how they seem to inform each other. Here is a starting point:
Each time you present an idea – if it’s your own or another’s – you have to address it in some way – answer it, speak to it – but whatever you do, don’t leave it disembodied, just hanging there on its own. As this becomes routinized in your essay construction you can keep working on making the discussion more fluid, taking it deeper, making it more analytical – so that the division between your ideas and those of others flow together and appear almost seamless…(actually it’s not that much different to writing a piece of fiction, which is an essayistic task…I think Stephen King said that).