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Advice about writing an essay

Written by Andrew Roberts, but drawing on material written by Jane Moran and others
  • Definition of an essay
  • Importance of essays
  • Suggestions for good essay writing
  • Essay Writing Strategy
  • What to do if your essay is too long or too short.
  • Points that other people could give you feedback on
  • Points to check your essays for

    The importance of essays

    Patrick Dunleavy (1986) describes essay writing as "the central focus of degree work in the humanities and the non-technical social sciences". The four purposes he says essay writing has are (in order of importance): When you listen to a clear lecture, or read a clear book, you may feel you know the subject. Then, when someone asks you to explain it, you may feel you do not. The knowledge has not been internalised. It has not become your own. One of the best ways to take possession of knowledge for yourself is to write an essay about it. This will lead to intellectual development. The essay may get feedback from friends or a tutor. This will result in further intellectual development. Finally, essays are good practise for exams. So, all in all, there is probably nothing you do at University (academically) that is more important than essay writing.

    Some suggestions for good essay writing:

    The suggestions are coloured bullet points. Click on the colours to go to the advice about the point, and then use the "Back" button at the top of your screen to return to this page.

    Develop your own essay writing strategy

    Focus on the essay title

    Do multiple drafts.

    Do not pad. Try to ensure that everything you include is relevant to the essay title.

    Include other opinions. Show that you have considered different sides to the question by discussing points of view that contradict your own.

    Show what you have read.

    Write simply.

    Use technical terms correctly.

    Fully reference what you write.

    Plan to finish your essay ahead of time.

    Essay Writing Strategy

    You will develop your own techniques for essay writing, so use the following plan as advice, not as a straightjacket. The plan starts with bullet points. Click on the coloured word by one of these to go to the advice about the point.

    Analyse the title
    Use your analysis to start drafting your introduction. Start your bibliography.
    Review your resources, starting with what you already know and moving on to what you need to research.
    Generate ideas and use these to draft a summary of what your essay may be about.
    Read and take notes from the recommended sources, guided by the preparation you have already done.
    Develop your ideas in the light of your reading. One way to do this is by revising your draft summary.
    Draft the body of the essay without looking at your notes or books. Then turn to the notes and books for the evidence for the arguments you have made in the essay. Reference as you go along.
    Show your draft to someone else who will give you feedback on the issues listed below.
    Rewrite your essay in the light of their feedback.
    Check your essay
    Write the final version
    Save, File and Submit

    Analyse the title:

    Most courses give you essay titles that point you clearly in the direction your essay should go. Begin by analysing this title and the guidance given in other ways, like the reading list.

    Every aspect of the essay title needs to be covered by your essay. So analysing lets you see what your essay should contain.

    It also helps you to focus your essay. You should not just write around a subject in a general way. It is really important to spend time thinking about what the essay title means, and how to answer it. Analysing helps you see what is wanted.

    A title we can analyse as an example is

      "Outline the concepts of reason and politics in Plato's Republic. Show how they relate".
    This tells you a source you must use (a book by Plato, called the Republic), and two concepts (reason and politics) that you should investigate in it.

    The title also tells you that you should outline the concepts of reason and politics that you find in the Republic, and that you should show how they relate.

    Sources are often suggested in a reading list rather than in the title.

    Your finished essay needs to put the parts together.
    This is called synthesis.

    Review your resources

    Now that you know what you are doing, review your resources:

    What you already know
    What you need to know
    Where information can be obtained

    The resources to start with are what you already know.

    Once you have some ideas on paper, you will see where you need to direct your reading and thinking. You will know what kind of information you need, and that is an important part of deciding where to look for it.

    Start drafting

    Use your analysis to start drafting your introduction. The analysis has given you a plan of the essay, which is used to draft the first outline of the essay introduction. Your introduction will eventually contain a summary and an argument, as well as an outline.

    Start your draft bibliography. Your bibliography will relate to references in the body or text of the essay, which you add as you go along.

    Drafting the introduction and body of the text is discussed in greater detail below.

    Generating ideas

    Use whatever technique you find necessary to start your ideas flowing. Once they have started to flow, you will be able to tighten them up.

    Click here for some techniques to start your ideas flowing

    Read and take notes
    Develop your ideas
    Essay Drafting

    Click here for advice on reading and taking notes

    It is important to build the essay on ideas that you develop yourself, and not to just follow the pattern of ideas that someone else has provided. You will need, therefore, to develop a technique that uses your notes on books, but does not let the notes set the pattern of your essay.

    Click here for advice on avoiding copying and plagiarism

    Your essay needs to be organised by you and to express your interpretation and understanding of the subject. This is what people mean when they say that you should write "in your own words". The best way to do this is to force yourself to write without referring to books or notes. Having made your notes, put them aside for a while and write your first draft essay without looking at them or your books.

    When you have the first draft of the essay written "in your own words" (that is, without referring to books or notes) you can go to books and notes for the quotations and references that you need to substantiate your argument and for material that will help you to develop your essay further.

    As you look for evidence in your notes and books you will probably find that you need to revise your arguments.

    Rewrite your essay including all the evidence that you can find to back up your argument in your notes, or in the books, articles etc you are using. Adjust your argument if the evidence does not fit it.

    Try drafting your essay in four parts:

    1. an introduction
    2. a body (which includes references)
    3. a conclusion
    4. a bibliography (which relates to the references in the body)
    If you draft on paper, the draft of each part should be on separate sheets to allow you to redraft more easily. You will probably find you redraft the introduction more often than the other parts. The parts will be physically put together in your final version.

    introduction explains the academic problem as you see it and tells the reader what is in your essay. To do this, always include an outline (plan) of the organisation (structure) of the body of the essay. You should also include a summary of the essay. A good introduction will also include an argument statement.

    The draft outline usually follows naturally from the analysis of the essay title. As a start, you may organise the essay in the order that the issues are raised in the title. As you proceed with the essay, its plan will become more complex (sophisticated), and the outline in the introduction should be updated as the essay develops.

    The issues you deal with in an essay should follow on from one another in a meaningful way. Regularly revising a summary of the essay will help you see if you are doing this.

    Your argument is the case that you are making. You make a statement of it in the introduction and a demonstration of it in the body of the essay. The body of the essay presents the evidence for the statement.

    Click here for more on the meaning of the term argument

    The body of an essay is also called its content or text. It is the largest part of the essay and contains the points you want to make in greater detail than the introduction (because they are being explained) and with the evidence for them. It must show the reader that you know your subject. You do this by explaining the subject to the reader. It is a fatal mistake to think "the marker already knows this subject. I will discuss it without explaining it." The marker is looking for evidence that you know the subject.

    Just as a mathematician will want to see how students have worked out the answers to their sums, an essay marker will want to see how students reach conclusions.

    It should also present the evidence for the essay's argument.

    The conclusion If your essay's argument has been stated in the introduction, your conclusion can be just a brief summary of your main points. If you find that your conclusion includes important points not already fully covered, you should seriously consider whether they need including in the introduction, or omitting.

    The bibliography is the list of books and other sources you use for the essay. The bibliography should relate to references in the essay. See ABC Referencing for a list of what you need to reference.

    Reference as you go along

    Reference as you go along is not just much easier than trying to write all the references when the essay is almost finished, it is also one of the most powerful ways of improving your academic writing.

    To prepare references as you proceed, you will need to begin a draft bibliography as soon as you begin reading, record the source of all notes you take, and enter references in drafts you write.

    To prepare a draft bibliography you should make a list of each book or article you use, recording:

    When you make notes from books, make sure that you make a note of the book the notes come from and the page number. Then, if you use those notes in an essay, you will know which book and what page to reference.

    Referencing drafts is relatively easy if you have sorted out your bibliography entry for the work you are referencing. If you want to reference something on page ten of a book whose Bibliography entry is:

    Smith, A. 1997, Invented Book, Burke Publishers, London.

    You just need to enter (Smith, A. p.10) in the text of your draft at the point you want to reference the book.

    Show your draft to someone else and rewrite it in the light of the feedback

    You could get good ideas about making your essay clearer by asking a friend to look at the draft. Sometimes tutors will look at essay drafts and make comments. Or you may get comments from English Support Tutors.

    When you show someone a draft, include the draft bibliography. This always helps a tutor understand an essay draft better, and may help a friend.

    Click here for an explanation of feedback
    Why feedback is important
    and why friends and other students
    may be good at giving it.

    Points that other people could give you feedback on

    The Title. An essay should have its correct title fully written out at the top. If it is an "either/or" essay title that requires the writer to chose which aspect to focus on, the title on the essay draft should be the one the writer is using. A reader can think about the title before reading the essay. An essay that explains all aspects of the title to the reader suggests the author understands each aspect. However, there are likely to be aspects that the reader remains puzzled about. These will suggest points for the writer to think about more, and express more clearly.

    The Bibliography and References. The reader can check that there is a bibliography at the end of the essay and that the key word in each bibliography entry matches the key word in the relevant references. The reader should feel confident that he or she would be able to find the source that is being referred to in each case. References to books should give a page number. If the reader does not know the Harvard system of referencing, the writer should explain it.

    The Introduction. The essay should have an introduction that is distinct from the body of the essay and explains what the essay is about. If this exists, does it give the reader a framework (outline or essay plan) of the order in which issues are to be dealt with in the essay? If so, the reader should look at the body of the essay to see if it is clear to him or her that the author is following the outline. The outline indicates the organisation, or structure, of the essay. Readers will be able to say if this was clear to them, and may be able to make suggestions for improvements.

    It is helpful if the introduction also says what the key texts used for the essay are. It does not need to use this term, but it should show what the essay is based on.

    The outline of the essay is the essential part of an introduction. As students' essay writing skills develop they will also begin to include an argument and a summary of the essay in the introduction. Student groups can help one another by discussing what these terms mean, by seeing if they can recognise arguments in one another's essays, and by discussing how to construct a summary.

    Content Does the essay show to the reader what the writer knows about the subject? Or are there issues that the reader is left in the dark about? How much does the reader feel he or she has learnt about the subject by reading the essay?

    Readability Can the reader understand the essay? Is it clearly written or are there words that are difficult to read, or which appear to be missed out, or spelt in a way that the reader is not sure which word is meant? Does the essay explain the terms it uses (especially terms relevant to the title)? Is the meaning of every part of the essay clear and unambiguous?

    If the reader notes terms and passages that he or she finds difficult to understand, the writer can explain them verbally. This should help the writer to rewrite the passages and explain the terms in the essay.

    Checking an Essay

    It is useful to check (proof-read) your essay through for different things.

    Check that you have written the title at the top of the essay. Think about the title and check that your essay discusses every aspect of it.

    Check that the introduction correctly describes the body of the essay. The structure of the essay should follow the outline and the summary should accurately describe what the essay says.

    Check that you say what you mean. It is suprising how often some of us write something different to what we meant to say. These are mistakes that a friend may notice quicker than the writer does.

    Check for logical argument: Have you got an argument? Have you stated it in the introduction? Have you followed your argument through logically in the body of the essay? Have you recapped it in the conclusion?

    Check for the use of evidence to back up the argument. Evidence may be references to an author you are interpreting. Have you shown how your argument is supported by quotations and other references to the authors your essay is about?

    Check for the accurate presentation of quotations and references. Are quotations clearly identified? Do the references use the Harvard system? Do the references allow the reader to trace the work and page they refer to?

    Check for grammatical accuracy - clear English and correct spelling. Well constructed sentences in plain English are the most likely to convey the meaning you want.

    If you are using a wordprocessor, take time to run the spellchecker. Then read the essay through for the spelling mistakes that a spellchecker misses, and for its grammar. You may have a friend who can read the essay through for spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. Someone else can often see errors that the writer misses. Some people find computer grammar checkers useful.

    Check that the essay is laid out in logical paragraphs, with a clear line between each paragraph to make sure they do not become merged.

    Write the final version of your essay

    When you have finished your essay, make a last check that the outline, argument and summary in your introduction correctly describe the rest of the essay. If they do not, rewrite the introduction.

    Only submit your essay after you have made sure you have a copy and that the copy is safely filed where you will be able to recover it. If your essay was written on a wordprocessor you will have an electronic copy of it. If not, make a photocopy. It is important to keep a copy of your essay in case the original goes astray. Essays are also sources you will want to refer to later. So file it in a way that is convenient for future reference.

    Essays are valuable records for future reference.
    here for advice on record keeping.


    What to do if your essay is too long or too short

    On most courses you will find that word limits are not very precise. A rule of thumb is that plus or minus 10% is allowed. Variations above and below these limits will not, normally, have a major effect on your mark. The content is what matters most.

    There may be courses which are very strict about word limits, but usually the following student will be throwing away marks by not writing an extra hundred words:

    "I have written as concisely as I can, but there is an essential point I have not been able to explain properly because of the word limit. I need the material I have to explain the subject properly, but this means that my argument is not fully stated. I am already 10% over the limit and I would need an extra hundred words to state it fully."

    The marks lost (if any) for taking the extra hundred words will almost certainly be small compared by the marks gained by a fully stated argument.

    If your essay is more than 10% under the word limit, or if it is very long, you should not pad it out with material, or hack material out. Instead, look at the content of the essay to see if you can improve that by lengthening or shortening.

    What to do if your essay is too short

    Do not make an essay longer by padding it with waffle or material that you do not understand. You will make the essay worse by just filling up space with lecture notes, or something that you hope will be relevant.

    Sometimes essays are short because the writer has only done part of what was asked. Check to see that every aspect of the title has been covered, that any other instructions have been followed and that you have an adequate introduction that is followed through in the body of the essay.

    An essay can be too short because it needs to be more explicit. Look at whether you have fully explained everything. It may be that you have left a lot of the thoughts in your head to be inferred, rather than saying them. The reflections of this student may help you:

    "I realised through my essay drafts that I tend to condense information making the essay very short and straight to the point. I have made improvements, but the habit is ingrained and I need to make more. To do this, I must expand on my thoughts, ideas and opinions, explain in more depth the point I am trying to make, and write an essay imagining that the person who may read it has no clue about the subject."

    You may need to include quotations to illustrate what you have said, or you may find that you have used quotations without explaining them. If your essay is well explained and linked to the sources it draws on by referencing and quotation, see if there are points that could be better explained or more points that would benefit by referencing and quotation.

    What to do if your essay is too long

    You should not shorten an essay by hacking out pieces in a way that destroys the meaning. Instead, see if you can improve the meaning by making the essay less verbose and more precise.

    Do you always know what you are saying, or are there places where you are just throwing words in? Replace vague passages that do not say anything important, and passages that ramble, with sentences that are to the point.

    Try focusing your introduction more on the title, and then checking to see that the body of the essay sticks to what you focused on and does not wander all over the place. Remove material that is not relevant to what you say you are doing.

    Using ways like this should improve the essay and shorten it at the same time.

      A summary of salient points is called a Précis.
    Précising and paraphrasing are good practice for any writer.

    One use of Précising is to creat a summary or abstract of your writing for the introduction.

    Traditonal steps in précis writing

    You could précis any piece of writing, including your own. In the traditional précis students reduce a passage of writing to a third or a quarter of its original length by taking these steps:

  • Read through the whole passage to get an overall view

  • Read it through again, underlining each important point. These will all need to be included in the précis

  • Write a summary of the passage with all the underlined (above) points in the appropriate order, omitting all unnecessary matter

  • Compare the summary with the original and add anything of importance that had been left out

  • Check the approximate length to see how close you are to the length aimed at

  • Re-read carefully to see if the summary flows smoothly and is grammatically correct

  • Polish your précis
  • Understand what you write

    As a general rule, do not write anything you do not understand. If you fully understand what you are writing, you should be able to control your writing. This should include being able to expand on it or make it more concise.

    If you write things that you do not understand, in the hope that they are the right thing to say, you will have lost control of your writing. Read about clear English

    Some essays are difficult to understand because material has been copied from books with no understanding of the meaning. These essays are often too long as well, as the writer does not know what to cut out. If this is what you do, read about: avoiding copying and plagiarism

    read all the advice about writing an essay

    the essay writing strategy

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  • index
    Analysing a title
    Argument statement
    Critical interpretation
    Essay Summary
    Harvard System
    Précis steps
    Short essays