The ability to write a good essay begins with careful and efficient planning. This means that the preparation and research of an essay are as important, if not more so, than the actual writing.
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Looking at your essay question
The first thing to do when planning an essay is to look carefully at the question. This may sound obvious but more students fail because they misread the question than for most other reasons, so it is essential that you read through and identify precisely what the question is asking. A good way of doing this is to look for key words in the question such as ‘compare, ‘contrast’, ‘analyse’, ‘discuss’ etc., as these words tell you the approach you need to take when constructing the essay and will help you to formulate your response to the question.
Conducting your research and finding references…
The next thing to do is to decide how to conduct your research. You will need to look at the key texts for the subject you are going to discuss and jot down references from each piece to use as quotes to support the points you make in your essay. It is a good idea to look at the references and bibliographies of these texts as they will give you more ideas about how to extend your own research. Remember that all referencing, in your in-text quotes and your reference list and/or bibliography, must be in the referencing style required by your school, college or university. These are very different but employ two basic styles:
- Parenthetical in-text quotes identified by a reference list
- Footnotes and bibliography.
You need to find out precisely which style is adopted by your academic institution and adhere to it strictly as the structure and formatting of the reference differs from type to type. Your library should have a copy of the style guide available for you to consult. It is very important to stick to this as varying from it will lose you marks.
Planning your essay’s structure…
After you have completed your research you need to plan the structure of your essay. Although this varies (to some extent) according to the essay you are required to write, most academic essays conform to the following basic structure:
- Main body
The introduction must be brief, without quotations, and will include your thesis statement, i.e. your response to the question; a brief outline of the methodology you intend to employ; and an overview of the works you intend to centre on. You should close with a ‘hooking sentence’ which links to the opening paragraph of the main body of your essay. These linking sentences should be provided throughout to give cohesion to your essay.
The main body of the essay should be structured with each paragraph being separate (but linked to the overall theme) and have your argument developing throughout. In other words, each paragraph should focus on a different aspect of the topic under discussion but should also always be clearly identifiable as connected to the essay question. This can be quite difficult, especially if you find one particular aspect of a question particularly interesting. You may be tempted to stray from the main argument but it is important to stay focused, as you will be penalised if your argument is not always seen to be relevant to the question. Careful planning can help with this as you can ensure that when you make your essay plan, you are certain that each paragraph topic is linked directly to the question.
In the main body of the essay you need to use evidence to support the points your make and each quotation you use must be properly referenced. Quotations can often lead to further points through analysis as well as supporting those you have already made. For this reason, it is useful to assign quotations that are to be used in evidence to a particular paragraph at the planning stage as this will help you to organise your research as well as ensuring that each point has sufficient evidentiary support. Even if you only take ideas, rather than direct quotes from texts, you need to reference them because otherwise you might be accused of plagiarism. Plagiarism is something which you must avoid at all costs as it is a serious problem and, even if done accidentally, if it’s detected your school, college or university will take a very dim view of it. Again, careful planning and notation of sources will prevent the possibility of this. Remember that the main body of the essay is building towards a conclusion, so make your plan reflect this.
The conclusion of your essay must be as carefully planned as the rest of your essay. It is a common error to believe that the conclusion is simply a ‘tagged on’ repetition of your introduction but, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The conclusion should be a summation of your thinking in the essay plus a synthesis of your thoughts. In other words, it should leave the reader with a clear idea of what you have argued throughout, how well you believe you have accomplished it, and what possible future areas of study might be carried out. At the planning stage, the conclusion might be constructed as a series of notes taken from each paragraph stating briefly what was achieved in each. Future research suggestions are important because you need to indicate to your reader that you have recognised the limitations of the scope of the present work and are interested enough to see where the topic might be developed. If you plan this carefully you will see that the conclusion has a key role to play in the writing of a well-structured essay.
Planning your bibliography…
Finally, do not leave the compilation of your bibliography until after you have written your essay. You should begin constructing your bibliography at the planning stage and allow it to evolve as your essay does. Referencing and bibliographies are a major part of any well planned essay and should be constructed to reflect this in your planning.
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