This free guide sets out the basics for writing your first essay. We’ve kept things as simple as possible
and provided links to example content where it is helpful. For more detailed guides on writing specific
parts of an essay, you can find more resources in our main study guides index.
Table of Contents
- 1. Starting your essay
- 2. Writing your essay
- 3. Final essay checks
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
1.1. Getting started with your essay
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 essay 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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1.3. Essay planning:
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
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.
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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
Other content related to essay writing:
- Sample Essays (Professional Written and Graded)
- Free Essays (Student Written, Ungraded)
- Essay Writing Service
2.1. Writing an essay introduction
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. Writing the main body of the essay
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
of particular interest or importance. Analysis of this kind should not only get you extra marks
may also suggest additional lines of thought which may be helpful, if relevant to the main
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.
2.3. Writing an essay conclusion
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.
2.4 Referencing your 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
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.
Other content related to referencing:
- APA Reference Generator
- Harvard Reference Generator
- Vancouver Reference Generator
- Referencing Tools and Guides
2.5 Essay writing styles
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
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 essay 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
Ensure that you have correctly referenced all quotations and completed a bibliography
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
importance of acknowledging sources. A bibliography should never be a rushed, last-minute
rather should evolve naturally, as your research does. As previously stated, noting full
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
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.
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.
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