1. The basics of writing an essay
The basis of most academic work is the ability to construct a good essay. Although this sounds obvious, it is a skill which most students need to develop as none of us are born with the natural ability to write an essay. None of us are born with the ability to write an essay that will address a given topic effectively and adequately support an argument with evidence, either.
Do not worry as these skills are possible to learn. This guide sets out to define all of the major skills which need to be acquired in order to write your essay whether you've been given a topic or you select your own essay topic.
The type of essay you are required to write will be determined, to some extent, by the particular field in which you are engaged but the general points of construction will hold good for all subjects.
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1.1. Getting started:
The first and most important aspect of writing a good essay is to examine the essay question. The importance of close analysis of the question as the basis of a good essay cannot be overestimated. Despite this, it is surprising how many students simply write down everything they know about a subject without reference to what the question is actually asking them to do.
Whether you have chosen the topic yourself, or it has been assigned to you, look carefully at the key words within the question, as these will give you the pointers you need to start thinking carefully about how to proceed with your essay. Examples of key words might be: 'examine', 'develop', 'analyse', 'influence', or 'compare'. All these words offer a way into discussing the topic in hand and will give you a good idea of the way your essay should be written.
For example, if you were asked to compare how two poets address a similar theme you would know that the reader was expecting to see close analysis of the words used and how theme and structure differ in each. However, if you were asked to examine the causes of the outbreak of a war, you would adopt quite a different approach, balancing fact and opinion. Add to this an awareness of whether the question is asking you to give your own opinion in isolation, or whether it requires you to assess the previous and current thinking on a subject (this is more common), and follow this with a conclusion which summarises your own thoughts.
As you develop your argument ensure that you continue to check back to see that you are answering the question and not just reeling off everything you know about a given topic.
Whether you have selected the topic or not, you will need to research critical opinion before you begin to write. If you have been assigned a topic then things such as choice of texts, word count, and style will have been outlined for you but, if you are 'starting from scratch', you will need to make these decisions for yourself, only altering them later if your research suggests that areas other than what you originally planned need to be covered.
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1.2. Researching your topic:
Having thought carefully about what you are being asked to do the next stage is to ensure you are not committing plagiarism. Plagiarism is a major concern and it is easy to do without meaning to. It's simple to forget where your ideas start and someone else's end.
Try to strike a balance between finding evidence that supports your own ideas and those which appear to contradict you. A good essay will present a balanced case and display an awareness of all points of view (within reason), not just those that agree with your own!
It is a good idea to compile an alphabetical list of all books used during your research stage as this will save time with your referencing and bibliography later, as you will have kept track of where you sourced your evidence. Remember to present this in the academic style required by your school as, for example, there is considerable difference between Harvard referencing and MLA. We recommend that you seek advice on the referencing style required before starting your research. A good tip to remember when referencing is that, although most referencing styles will allow for the use of abbreviations, the first time a book is quoted the full details should be given.
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It is very tempting to ignore this stage – don't, thorough planning saves time! Although it might seem to be wasting time at this point, a plan is essential to complete a structured, reasoned and researched response on any given topic, even in an examination essay.
Begin by looking over the question and those 'key words' that you have selected. Next, consider the evidence you have collected and how the two complement each other. This should be easy if you have followed the instructions above carefully as you will have kept the question in mind at all times during your research stage.
Nevertheless, it can be difficult to know which pieces of evidence best support your topic points as you can't include everything. Make decisions now as to what you will use and what you will discard. This is harder than you might think because often interesting evidence you have unearthed has to be omitted simply because it isn't relevant. Increasingly, students are penalized for exceeding the specified word count so ensure that all your evidence is really related to the points you are making and to the topic concerned.
It is useful to make a rough plan or diagram of your essay at this stage where you write down paragraph headings and where you will use each piece of evidence. Later, when you are writing your essay, you will be use this to remind you of how your thoughts actually progressed and why you made the choices that you did. Structuring your essay in this way will also help with coherence as your argument will be clear, developed, and concise, with paragraphs flowing naturally to your conclusion. Doing this will also reveal any gaps in your evidence or linking which you can sort out before beginning to write.
2. Writing your essay:
At last, it is time to write. It should go without saying that your spelling, grammar and punctuation should be perfect. Nothing makes a worse impression on examiners than bad spelling and punctuation, especially if you misspell an author's name or the title of a book. You are simply throwing marks away by making mistakes in presentation. Don't rely on your computer's 'spell and grammar check' as they are not, by any means, infallible. If you are unsure, check with other resources and, at the end, go back and carefully proof-read your work – better still, get someone else to do this as another pair of eyes will often spot mistakes you have overlooked.
You can start writing your essay by choosing either: to write the main body of your essay first, then go back to construct your introduction; or write the introduction first, followed by the main body of your essay. Both have advantages and disadvantages, primarily based on how closely you can stick to your stated thesis.
If you feel confident that the argument can be stated simply in your introduction, and then coherently developed, then write the introduction first. If you feel you might deviate from the introduction then it may be best to write the introduction later as you can then adapt your thesis accordingly.
Whichever approach you choose, remember that your introduction is the first statement your examiner will read. Again, this sounds obvious but many students are careless about introductions by either saying either too much or too little. A good introduction clearly sets out your response to the topic and exactly how you are going to present that response. It's as simple as that. It is commonly agreed that quotation should be omitted from your introduction as this is where you are going to say what your response is, not that of others. Remember to keep your introduction short and to the point, ending with a 'feed' into the opening paragraph of the main body of your essay.
2.2. Main Body
In the main body of your essay, each paragraph should be based on a separate (but related) aspect of the main topic of the essay. Following the plan you made earlier, write each paragraph as though it were under a sub-heading to the main title and supplement each of your points with the evidence you have collected. Students are often unsure about the length of paragraphs but, although there is no hard and fast rule, it is a good idea to keep them to four or five sentences.
Supporting your statements is vital and, in the case of a literary essay, this evidence should also be analysed. This means that you should comment on individual words and/or phrases that seem to be of particular interest or importance. Analysis of this kind should not only get you extra marks but may also suggest additional lines of thought which may be helpful, if relevant to the main argument.
Quotations should not be too long. Never quote more than a few lines at most, except in exceptional circumstances, and ensure you adhere to the referencing style you have been requested to use. It is usual to indent longer quotations and set them out on a separate line, single-spaced, following a colon. Shorter quotations, of one line or less, should be incorporated within the text and enclosed with quotation marks.
Try to end each paragraph in the main body of the essay with a 'hook' to the next i.e. an idea that introduces the topic of the subsequent paragraph. Follow this up by opening the next paragraph with reference to the link, this will help your essay to flow better and seem to be establishing a pattern which will ultimately lead to your conclusion. Paragraphs should move on using the basis of furthering the argument. This can be achieved in several ways:
- Sequential writing - where one event follows naturally from another
- Elaborative writing - where you develop a point made previously
- Contrasting/comparing - where an idea contradicts or questions a point in a preceding paragraph
These are just a few ideas. There are many more and your choice may be determined by the type of essay/argument you are constructing.
The conclusion should be a summation of your argument. It is not uncommon for students to lose marks by presenting an abrupt conclusion (usually due to a shortage of space) which can overlook the implications of the overall argument, its future development, or unavoidable contractions/omissions. It is acceptable to use quotations in conclusions but do not introduce new ideas at this stage. By now, your reader should have been given such a strong sense of your central argument and no further information is necessary. Your conclusion is space to give generic context to your specific thesis and to tie up any loose ends which you feel have occurred during the writing of the essay.
Academic work requires referencing. Put simply, this means declaring the sources which you have used as part of your research, evidence, or justification for your arguments. Referencing is vital, both to improve the strength of the arguments you make, and to ensure you are not plagiarising the work of others, in any academic work.
There are many different varieties of referencing styles and it's really important that you follow the specific guidance provided in your course or module handbook. Some of the most popular referencing styles are: Harvard; Footnotes; APA; OSCOLA; and Oxford. In general there are two common formats for referencing styles: author-date and notes-bibliography. The author-date system provides the authors surname and date of publishing in the body of the work, for example. The notes-bibliography referencing style consists of footnotes or endnotes which are numbered and correspond with a superscripted citation number in the body of the work, this is then followed by a bibliography which provides full details of each footnote or endnote.
If you're struggling with referencing, refer to your module handbook first, in order to find the correct style, and then take a look at our referencing guide for the necessary style.
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2.5 Writing style
It's highly likely that your university will set more guidelines about the style in which your essay should be written. You should find all of these guidelines as part of the instructions you were provided, be beware that there are some considerable differences between universities.
There are, however, some rather common stylistic instructions that you will more than likely be provided as most universities require essays to be typed and double-spaced using size 12 font in 'Times New Roman'. One instruction that you may not be provided is that, as a general rule, you should not write in first person unless specifically asked to do so i.e. avoid the use of phrases such as 'I think' or 'in this essay I am going to'. Rather, allow your essay to reflect a personal perception whilst being presented in an objective manner. It is useful to look at how professional writers construct essays to gain style tips though remember, do not plagiarise under any circumstances as this is sure to be detected. Plagiarism is also unfair on the writer whose ideas you are stealing, and ultimately, is self-defeating.
It is also important that you do not use colloquial (slang) expressions, stick to Standard English throughout. Lists are not a good idea, either, unless the essay specifically requires them, as they can appear to be rushed or a truncated way of presenting a lot of information without sufficient explanation. Be careful to note any guidance on the information required on your cover sheet - this often includes, your name, the module, your candidate ID and the lecturer's name.
3. Final checks
When your essay is complete, read it through to check for errors. As mentioned above, it can be useful to ask someone who has not seen your work to proof-read it for you. You can also try reading your work aloud as, when reading, we only tend to see what we expect to see and typographical errors can easily be overlooked. Correct any errors before handing in your work, otherwise you are throwing marks away.
Ensure that you have correctly referenced all quotations and completed a bibliography according to the stylistic requirements to which you have been asked to adhere. Your bibliography is very important as evidence of your research and wider reading, and to demonstrate that you recognise the importance of acknowledging sources. A bibliography should never be a rushed, last-minute task, but rather should evolve naturally, as your research does. As previously stated, noting full publication details of every book you consult at the time will help enormously with this.
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Remember that your essay is a response to a suggested idea. Different academic disciplines will, of course, require different content but no matter what you are writing about your argument should be clear, coherent, well-referenced, and appropriately structured. You need to follow any instructions carefully, especially those relating to style and word count.
Bear in mind that, although you are answering a question, you are writing to engage a reader's interest so try to combine thorough, factual, research with an engaging and interesting style - it is your aim to compile an essay that will both inform and entertain. Think of the engagement of your reader's interest as a challenge which your essay will meet. Remember, your essay will be one of many that is read by your tutor/teacher/examiner and making your work stand out is an obstacle to overcome!
The ability to write a good essay is a skill that is difficult to acquire but not impossible and, once acquired, can even be enjoyable: 'good luck'!
You can find a huge range of resources to help you write the perfect essay in our Essay Help section of the website including information on the correct use of grammar, how to create references and citations, and simple, step-by-step guides to writing essays for a number of subjects and topics.