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ABC of Academic Writing
& ABC of Essays

What is an essay?

An essay is a relatively short piece of writing dealing with any one subject. But what the subject is and the way it is done can vary greatly:

"For me an essay is a piece of writing about anything. Sometimes it is personal, about a significant event, for example. Or you can be arguing about two contrasting viewpoints. In another essay you may be evaluating the work of someone else (perhaps a famous writer). I have found that essays for different subjects, have different requirements. The essays I wrote in English lessons at school differ from the ones I write for psychology at University. And those differ from what is required for other subjects at University" (Dorienne Chang-Time)

Despite this diversity, people find it possible to share ideas and advice about essay writing. The literary essay of the past has developed into the magazine article of today, but most of today's essays are written by students and this web page is about the kind of essay students write. As a form of writing, student essays could be thought of as practice for writing academic articles - the name given to essays when they are developed and published in academic journals.

Student essay writing develops many of the skills needed for other forms of academic writing, and most of the words used to think about and assess essays are used to do the same with other forms. If you want to write a good report or a dissertation, for example, you will need to know and understand the words discussed here.

Essays and exams are the main means used to assess or measure the academic progress of a student. An exam often requires a student to write a small number of short essays in a fixed period of time under supervision and without being able to use books or notes.

The word essay means an attempt. Like a single throw in a javelin competition, it should deal with one issue in a unified way. Essays, therefore, focus on their title, rather than discussing everything to do with the subject. Some people say that the unity should come from taking the form of an argument that takes the reader from the title at the beginning to a conclusion at the end.

"I remember being told that an essay is just a debate, where you give an argument, the evidence and a conclusion. Whether that is right or wrong I have no idea but I have always believed it because no one has told me anything contrary." (Hira Sharaf)

Literary essays, like those of
Charles Lamb have a very different style to the essay that students submit for assessment. Lamb rambles, where you should be focused. Lamb's introductions do not summarise his essays, yours should. Lamb is entertaining. Well, I do not think you should be boring!

It is helpful to think of an essay as having four parts:

1) The
introduction will explain the academic problem as you see it, and say how you intend to handle it. It tells the reader what to expect, and what to look for.

2) The body or content of the essay will contain the points you want to make, with supporting arguments and evidence. It must show the reader that you know your subject. You do this by explaining the subject to the reader. It should also present the evidence for the essay's argument.

3) The conclusion

4) The bibliography is the list of books and other sources you use for the essay. The bibliography should relate to references in the essay

Advice about: Academic
Writing generally
writing essays writing reports

Other forms of academic writing

I look here at some of the other forms of writing that students are asked for, and how they relate to essays.

Students studying some subjects may never be asked to write an essay. Engineering students, for example, will mainly write
reports on projects that they have undertaken.

Parts of essays, like the summary, may also be forms of writing in their own right.

An essay is usually based on
library research.

Students may be asked to carry out empirical research, or conduct a project like designing something. When this is written about it will probably be called a Report, a Dissertation, a Thesis or a Proposition.

The same terms can be used for a research project that is based entirely on library research. A dissertation (etc) using one's own empirical research is called primary research. One using library resources is called secondary research.

Whichever kind of report/dissertation/thesis or proposition you engage in, it is important to realise that it is not just a long essay. Research has its own structure of discovery, and this should be reflected in the structure of what you write. Reading the discussion of possible parts of a report or dissertation should help you understand how they differ from essays.

Summaries, Abstracts and Reviews are interrelated forms of writing.

An essay summary is a short version of the essay, in the introduction.

An Abstract is more or less the same as a summary. The word is used for summaries that appear at the beginning of academic papers, journal articles or books, and for similar summaries in collections of Abstracts.

Sometimes students are asked to write summaries of books or articles. Even if you are not asked, you may find it useful to write summaries of some of the books (or other works) you read. You will try to convert a large number of words into very few, so you will look for the main points. The summary will describe the book, it does not evaluate it.

A Review may both describe and evaluate. Sometimes we write reviews of just one book, article, electronic source, film or whatever. However, you may have to write a literature review. These are often asked for in Reports. A literature review surveys and comments on the main (or several of) the books and articles that have been written about a subject.

Essay Summary:

An essay summary is a very short version of your essay that covers the main points. There is a one paragraph summary of a student's essay in the introduction example.

You might write a summary after you have written the essay. However, if you draft a summary as you go along, it will force you to think about what you are doing in a way that will help you redraft the essay itself.

If you draft your summary as you go along, you could start by explaining briefly what you have written under each part of your essay plan

When you have written most of your essay, you can use the traditional steps in précis writing to summarise it

An essay summary can often be conveniently placed after the argument and outline and before the body of the essay. Students often write a summary for the conclusion

Adapt or scrap?

What you have written will not be perfect, but it can usually be altered (modified) to make it better. Think creatively about inadequate writing, and make it serve its purpose better. For example, this sentence seems to limp along in a very unhappy fashion:

"In order to address this question, it is important to set it in the context of the 1789 French Revolution"
The writer could have scraped it. But, instead, she thought about why it was important to do what she said, and what her essay question asked. This sentence emerged:
"I will argue that Wheeler and Thompson's arguments on the relation of gender and family to politics and class should be interpreted in the light of the principles of political rights and liberty for all men that were publicised by the Declaration of the Rights of Man in the French Revolution"

So although she started with waste words, exploring her reasons for what she had said led to her developing an argument capable of holding the whole of her essay together.

Appraise: Look for qualities in something. You must be able to appraise something before you can evaluate it, or criticise it in a scholarly way.


Plato's Meno

If you click on the image of Socrates arguing it will take you to Socrates' dialogue with Meno over the nature of reason in men and women.

The word "thesis" is sometimes used as an alternative for argument. For example "My thesis is that the plays are better read than performed. I will argue this with examples." In an essay, the argument (thesis) is the central case that the writer is making - supported by reason.


An argument is the case that someone makes, in a theory or in their writing, as in essays. Here I discuss the argument in an essay. For more about argument in theory (which is related), see logic.

To make a case means to put forward the arguments for. Another way of putting this would be that you give the reasons for saying what you do, and present evidence to support what you say.

In the sense of being "the case you make" an argument is not a disagreement or attack, although a disagreement with an author may be your essay's argument. However, there are many other kinds of argument, and the attack argument should be avoided if it means that you criticise without demonstrating a real understanding of the author.

A better start for many essays is the interpretative argument. This is an argument that makes the case for your interpretation or understanding of the author's theory, by reference to parts of their work that you have read.

      The sample introduction includes an example of an interpretative argument, based on Freud. There is another example below relating to Aristotle.

      It is easier for most students to understand the idea of argument as either

      1. Their criticism (good and bad points) of the author/s they are discussing.

      2. A contrast between two cases. This is often in the form "x argues that ......., but y argues that"

      Both these forms of argument have their place, but the interpretative argument has the advantage that it emphasises the student's discovery and demonstration of the logical thought forms that author's are using. When the student has explored why the author holds his or her opinions, the student is in a position to consider the logical grounds for agreeing or disagreeing with the author.

      Some concepts related to argument are critical, interpret, critical interpretation and theory. You should read the entries about these.

In an essay we can distinguish between the

argument statement: made in the
introduction and the

demonstration of the argument made in the body of the essay.

An argument statement might be:
"I will argue that Aristotle's stance on the family and slavery denied women and slaves any rights".
The body of the essay then has to demonstrate or present the evidence for, the statement. You need to pursue the argument logically
( rationally) in the body of the essay.

 Tutors use adjectives like basic, interesting, sophisticated and original to describe arguments in essays. An interesting argument in an essay is not one that just happens to interest someone. It is one that is more than basic. If, when you discover problems with your first (basic) arguments, you develop more sophisticated ones to cope with the problems, the argument will become more interesting. This will be reflected in both the argument statement and the demonstration. Your first draft of an argument statement will probably be a basic one. This is an example from one student's first draft:

"I will argue that Aristotle's stance on the family and slavery denied women and slaves any rights. Rousseau disagreed with Aristotle with respect to slaves, but his position with respect to women in the family is very similar to Aristotle's".

After further reading or thought, however, this student came to the conclusion that Aristotle was not treating slaves and women in exactly the same way. Her argument needed to be refined (elaborated) or made more sophisticated. This is her new argument:

"I will argue that Aristotle sees both similarities and contrasts when he compares the relations of men and women within the family to the relations of master and slave. He says that both relations are natural, but of different kinds. In contrast, Rousseau argues that slavery is not natural and is against nature. However, he argues that the relations between men and women are natural, and are according to nature".

A feature that markers look for in first class essays is originality. Originality does not just mean that the student is thinking for herself. Students have to think for themselves to obtain any grade. On the other hand, it is very unlikely to mean that the argument has never been made by anyone else. Originality is applied to an argument that is even more interesting than interesting. "Some evidence of originality" might mean the student's thinking about the issues and familiarity with the texts was reflected in a confident expression of ideas about them that related well to the primary sources. "Original" might involve such a thorough understanding of the principles of the theories discussed that the student uses them to think. It is analogous to learning a language. A superb speaker and writer in a foreign language might still think in her own language, but a first class linguist would think, maybe even dream, in the foreign language.

See also creative thinking

The terms used in this article on argument are also used
in the one on self-assessment

Assert your arguments

"I feel the evidence shows that the family is a good model for political society" is a tentative, uncertain and insecure way of saying "I argue, from the evidence, that the family is a good model for political society"

If ever you write "I feel" or "I believe" or "I think" in an essay, stop to consider if you have the basis of an argument . Sometimes one of these is the correct, or the best, term for what the writer want to communicate, but often they are arguments in disguise and would be better expressed that way.

Bibliography, References, and Harvard System


A conclusion is a final result, a judgement reached by reasoning, or the summing up of an essay, book or other piece of writing.

In logical argument, a conclusion comes at the end.

In essays, it is useful to state your conclusion at the beginning - so that the reader knows where you are going. Often, students discover the argument of their essay when they reach their conclusion. The presentation of the essay can then be much improved by stating the conclusion as the argument statement in the introduction, and checking that all the points need to demonstrate the argument have been made in the body of the essay.

If your essay's argument has been stated in the introduction, your conclusion can then be just a brief summary of your main points. [Click for a (rather long) example]. However, as you should already have summarised you main points more extensively in the introduction, you may not need a conclusion. [Click for an example of an essay that has all of its logical conclusion and summary in the introduction.]

Some people write conclusions in which they return to the ponts made in their introduction. Clicking on these links will take you to examples: Born with a Broom - Beautiful Baby

If you find that your conclusion includes important points not already fully covered, you should consider whether they need including in the introduction, and demonstrating in the body, or omitting.

Some people make a feature of making such a point at the end of their essays. I think this is a mistake. A point at the end that was not dealt with in the essay could be called a throw away point. It is as if the writer is saying, "Before I leave, I will throw this point in for you to think about. I leave you to decide if it is important, or should have been thrown away". If it is an important point, it should have been dealt with in the essay. If you have an undigested point that may or may not be important, you should decide if you have time to digest it and (either) include it in the essay or discard it. If it is an insubstantial, unimportant point, you will want to discard it.

A conclusion converted to an argument:

This is the conclusion that a student made to summarise what she had discovered in writing her essay:

"Aristotle's stance on the family and slavery denied women and slaves any rights. Rousseau disagreed with Aristotle with respect to slaves, but his position with respect to women in the family is very similar to Aristotle's. Olympe de Gauges has compared the similarities of oppression of both slaves and women, and emphasises the importance of giving women rights."

To convert this into an argument, holding her whole essay together, all she had to do was to add "I will argue that" at the beginning and move the whole into her introduction.


Competent means properly qualified to do a task. A competent essay demonstrates that you are capable of doing the task that was set. These are the qualities (I suggest) of a competent essay:

  • It must focus on the question
  • It must give a clear, structured reply.
  • The focus should be made clear in the and maintained throughout the essay.
  • The structure will be shown by a clear and accurate outline in the introduction of the order in which you wrote about the issues.
  • The essay should demonstrate a good knowledge and understanding of the subject
  • Thought should be clear, sequential and coherent
  • Evidence for what is said, mainly in the form of good referencing should be provided.

See what the Marking Guide says about essays that are competent.

Critical: See describe and descriptive

Just as argument, in relation to academic writing like essays, does not mean a squabble, so 'critical' does not mean attacking.

Something is critical if it is characterised by careful analysis: as a sound critical estimate of the problem. Critical implies an attempt at objective judgment, so as to determine both merits and faults.

But there is a deeper meaning to it than this. Following Kant: criticism is questioning what we know in order to discover the truth. It is contrasted with dogmatism, which just lays down what is true, and with scepticism which just denies that we can know anything.

A tutor who told his students to "Criticise everything that moves" did not mean they should be nasty or negative about everything - He meant that instead of just accepting what you are told, you should ask why, and try to find the answers.

For example, why did Rousseau think that women should not be involved in politics?

The answer to this would involve understanding

  • what he thought reason is,
  • how he thought reason differs between men and women
  • why he thought it differs, and
  • how he thinks this relates to the family and to politics.
If, in an essay on Rousseau, you explained those links, you would have written a critical rather than a descriptive essay. The reader would be able to see why Rousseau thought that women should not be involved in politics. As a result the writer and the reader would be able to evaluate Rousseau's argument, rather than just say whether they agree or disagree with his conclusion.

o See what the Marking Guide says about essays that are critical.

o Click here for discussion about what a critical essay is.


In an essay title, criticise probably means you should give your judgement about the merit of theories or opinions or about the truth of facts, and back your judgement by a discussion of the evidence. See critical


If you define something, you say what it is or means. A definition explains what something is or means.

The (very) old meaning of define was to bring to an end or finish. It was part of the settling of disputes. To define the extent of someone's land would be to settle exactly where the boundaries are. From this we have developed the meanings of describing, or explaining the nature, of something so that others can understand (as in "define what you mean") and interpreting or stating precisely the meaning of a word or phrase (as in "I will define what I mean using dictionary definitions").

One of the big problems about "define" in relation to essays is deciding when (if ever) to be dogmatic (For example "The family is a social unit consisting of parents and children"). Something more elaborate than a dogmatic definition is usually required. Sometimes the whole of an essay may be an exploration of the definition of issues by the authors you are reading. This requires interpretation rather than dogma. [See below under dictionary and other definitions]


To describe is to write down. It means that we use words to convey what something or someone is like. A description of a book should leave you with a good idea of what the book contains. A description is distinct from an evaluation, which would tell you the reviewer's opinion of the book. That is, an evaluation will tell you the points about the book that the reviewer found good, and those that he or she thought bad.


When essays are called descriptive, it usually means just descriptive; without argument, interpretation or evaluation.

The results of a questionnaire survey are descriptive. They provide a statistical picture of the subject surveyed. We want questionnaire results to be descriptive, but in an essay we want more. We want the student's explanation of the facts.

Essays are descriptive and uncritical when they present facts and ideas with little argument or interpretation. Theory, argument and critical evaluation are related. An essay that shows the theory behind the facts is critical, not descriptive. Without an analysis of theory it is not possible to evaluate a person's views. If a critical essay carefully provides the textual evidence for the argument it makes, it is called well supported, not descriptive.

See what the Marking Guide says about essays that are just descriptive.

dictionary and other definitions:

When writing an essay, you may think it a good idea to start with an explanation (or definition) of the terms used in the title. If you do this, I suggest you look for the explanations (or definitions) in the books that the essay relates to.

Sometimes we think that there must be "real" meanings to words, or meanings that everyone agrees on, and that by starting from there, writing the essay will be simpler. One way students try to do this is by giving definitions from dictionaries.

It is common sense to use dictionaries to understand words. But, do not treat their definitions as a secular form of dogma. Dictionaries try to give agreed meanings to words, but academic life is about competing meanings. It is about questioning meanings. We even argue about whether real meanings exist. Plato believed we could find the real meaning to the concepts contained in words by using our reason. Hobbes thought that the meaning of words has to be imposed on us by authorities.

Sometimes a dictionary will show you that competing meanings exist - See the note at the end of entry for idea.

However, a dictionary's meanings may not be the same as the ones your essay should relate to. To avoid this problem, use dictionaries as an aid, for your own benefit, but discuss, in the essay, the meanings that you find in the books that the essay relates to.

Usually your imagination and explanatory skills will be needed to discover and explain (interpret) what you think the book/s are saying about the topic.

Discursive - Padding - Rambling - Waffle - Wasted Words

Discursive, when applied to the style of writing, means rambling or wandering from point to point, and off the point. A discursive essay is, therefore, not focused, as an academic essay should be. Charles Lamb's literary essays wander all over the place - But an academic essay should keep to the point.

See what the Marking Guide says about essays that are discursive.

Waffling is talking or writing in a vague way without saying anything important - or without saying anything at all. The following paragraph, for example, only wastes space. Any passage like this should be deleted:

My essay aims, principally, at bringing about a greater level of understanding of this important subject and the many factors that have made a very significant contribution to it. Before I start, however, it is vitally important that I stress to the reader how many, multitudinous and diverse factors must be taken into account here. Clearly I cannot cover all of them in such a short space, so I will focus on the ones I believe are most important. Although it is my central and inescapable aim to concentrate primarily on the role of the concepts that have already been outlined for us in the title, I will nevertheless acknowledge other factors...

Superfluous words

Words may also be wasted within sentences that are othewise useful. Here the writer needs to edit out the wasted words and preserve the useful ones:

"Although it is my central and inescapable aim to concentrate primarily on the role of science in evaluating the truth of fundamental and vital issues such as the way we remain healthy, let alone alive, I will obviously need, as clearly as possible, to demonstrate to the reader the role of other factors, such as a clean and wholesome style of life, warm and comfortable housing with adequate space, sufficient nutritious food, general economic prosperity and a positive outlook on life, in the aforementioned healthiness and vitality"
Might become:
"In evaluating the role that science can play in keeping us healthy, I weigh its contribution against five other factors: clean living, good food and housing, economic prosperity and a positive outlook on life."

Jack Lynch says that:

"One of the distinguishing marks of clear and forceful writing is economy of style... Many words and phrases rarely add anything to a sentence. Avoid these whenever you can."

Some wasted words and phrases that he identifies are

It should continuously be remembered that
it should be noted that
it can be seen that
Moreover, it has been previously indicated
it is imperative that
at the present moment in time

Quite,   very,   extremely,   as it were,   moreover,   basically,   essentially,   totally,   completely,   therefore,   thus

It is not that such word never serve a useful purpose, but that they are often an indication of padding - filling out an essay with emptiness.

Explain and Explanation:

To explain is to make plain, to make clear or intelligible. Explanations are important in academic writing and in science.

To explain the technical words you use, you will define them, or show that you know what they mean.

As an essay term, explain is similar to interpret. An example of an essay title with explain in it is:

    Explain what Rousseau meant by the general will
In an essay, providing explanations helps to change a descriptive essay into a critical one. (See the example of Rousseau under critical).

To explain something fully is to make all the links in your chain of thought clear

Write simply: A good explanation is a clear one


Evaluate means give a value to something. In an essay title, this has a similar meaning to criticise. The title may be asking you to evaluate a range of things in relation to one another. It can also mean look at the arguments for and against one thing, and come to a reasoned judgement in your conclusion. In both cases, you are being asked for your personal opinion, but you must back this up with fact, examples and explanation.


In a Punch and Judy show, Punch may say one thing and Judy contradict him. Punch then hits Judy who hits him back. Punch hits harder, Judy drops dead, the policeman arrests Punch, the judge sentences him and the hangman kills him. Punch and Judy are both dead. When people disagree they can resolve their differences by a "Punch up", with the possibility only of defeat or victory, or they can evaluate one another's arguments. When Judy contradicts Punch he could ask her for her reasons. He could then mentally weigh her arguments against his own by setting out, as fairly as he can, the logic of her argument. That is an evaluation. It makes boring puppet shows, but interesting essays. An essay is evaluative, or critical, even if it just sets out the logic of the argument made in the primary text. The student may explain her own opinion on the argument, but this is not essential.


A focus is the point at which several rays of light meet. An essay that is focused also comes into a point. Contrast focus with diffused. A room light is diffused because it has to light everything in the room. A theatre spotlight focuses on the actors. An encyclopedia article is diffused because it has to tell the reader as much as possible about the subject.

An academic essay should focus on specific points. Essays set for students usually indicate the points to concentrate on in the title. So, to check whether your essay is focused, first check that the issues in the title are all clearly dealt with in the essay.

Click here for guidance on analysing a title, and an example.

See what the Marking Guide says about essays that are focused and those that are sharply focused.

  Empirical research also has to be focused - but the researcher has to provide his or her own focus without a title to help!

Hi! I am not focused:
Here are some introductory phrases that might indicate the essay is not focused. They suggest the student has not starting with an analysis of the title:. The essay writer may just be wobbling into the question, or may be attempting more than the question requires:

"I will first explain a bit about..."
"I will start with some background..."
"First I will give some brief information on..."


Words like interpret and interpretation come from the French for explaining or translating. If someone says that

"We initially accumulate knowledge in the form of simple interpretations of our surroundings."
it implies that we do more than just observe our surroundings. In order to understand them, we have to explain them to ourselves.
click here to read about Locke, Hume and
Wollstonecraft's theories of observation and imagination We may see a carrot as something red and pointed, as the root of a plant, as something we can eat, as a symbol for sex or even as a baby space rocket.
Each of these interpretations contains some of our own imagination, as well as our observations, although some of them contain more imagination than others.

If you are asked to interpret a a book, extract or other piece of writing, you need to bring out its meaning. Interpret is similar to explain.

Interpretation: To interpret an author you need to put something of yourself into the interpretation. One person's interpretation of what Wollstonecraft means by reason, for example, will probably not be the same as another's. It is therefore necessary to show how your interpretation fits in with what Wollstonecraft (or whoever) said. As part of the answer, you can (and probably should) say what you think about the issues the author raises. Before doing this, however, you should fully explain to your reader what those issues are.

Critical interpretation:

Critical interpretation is a phrase tutors find easy to use but difficult to explain.

Being critical

  • may mean that you have said what you think about the issues the author raises.

  • It should not mean (or just mean) that you have made an attack on the author or that you have listed the author's faults.

  • It may mean that, as part of your full explanation of the author, you have asked questions about the adequacy of some aspects of the theory.

  • It may mean that you have drawn out implications from the theory. It could mean, for example, that in discussing what Wollstonecraft means by reason you have examined the implications for gender relations today.

The critical aspect of your critical interpretation should add to the reader's understanding of the author rather than detracting from or praising the author.

flash you colours
Click for:
ABC Language
ABC Thinking
Academic writing
Adapt or scrap?
Advice on essays
Advice on reports
Advice on writing
Analysing a title
Argument statement
Creative thinking
Critical interpretation
Dictionary definitions
Essay Summary
Harvard System
Other Writing
Short essays
Wasted words

links to writing guides 
on other web sites

be specific - provide as
much content as possible The peacock flashes its colours forward

All the colours of your writing should
be displayed in your introduction

Introduction to an essay

The introduction to an essay tells the reader what to expect in the essay. The same applies to the introductions to reports, articles and other forms of academic writing.

An introduction must tell the reader about your work: (essay or whatever). If it does not tell the reader what you have done, it is not an introduction. - Make sure your work has all the elements of a good introduction

An introduction saves readers (including markers) having to read the essay twice, once to find out what it is about and the second time to evaluate it. The reader can concentrate on seeing if the writer fulfils the promises made in the introduction.

Writing a draft introduction before you start your essay will focus your mind, and help you to write a focused and structured essay.

As you proceed, the introduction will probably need re-drafting many times. If your essay reaches a conclusion you will almost certainly improve the introduction by including the conclusion in it.

The elements of a good introduction include:

  • an outline of the order ( structure) of the essay.

  • the argument statement that focuses the essay (or whatever does focus the essay)

  • a summary of the essay's content.

    If the essay title gives you options, the essay introduction should say which options you have taken. Similarly, the introduction could indicate the main sources or methods you have used.

Click here for a sample introduction to illustrate these points.

Introduce what your essay has done
In a plan, you might write "I then intend to...", or "I then hope to show the connections between". When the essay is completed, you know what you have done. So you would write "I then..." or "I then show the connections between...."

Provide as much substance as possible in your introduction

Not all essays start with introductions

I think the safest course is to start an essay with an introduction to the essay. If you start another way, you should have an introduction after the start. Two succesful examples of other starts, both followed by conventional introductions, are:

Laura Leland's Beautiful Baby begins with two memories that hold the attention of the reader and focus it onto the issue she wants to discuss. The conventional introduction follows. This technique is rarely used with the success that Laura achieves.

Catriona Woolner's Essay on John Stuart Mill starts with a quotation. It there highlights the importance of the essay she is analysing, although it is not directly related to the content of her essay. Her introduction follows.

Another quotation technique is to use a quotation that the essay writer believes sumarise the essence of the issues discussed in the essay. I find this technique fails more than most because key quotations are more fruitfully used as part of the essay to illustrate the essay author's argument. By using them at the start the writer is expecting readers to write part of the essay in their minds: the part that explains the significance of the quotes.

A draft or essay
without an
is embarrassed

Do not present
drafts or essays
without clothes

Give them a good
introduction and
reference them well


Some writers speak of signposts in writing as a metaphor for the features that help the reader find and recognise the different parts.

Important signposting features are an introductory outline, well constructed paragraphs and a structure that follows the outline.

Parts of the essay can be signposted by subheadings or by phrases at the beginning of paragraphs that tell the reader which part of the writing he or she has reached.

This page uses subheadings to mark the different subjects. So I signpost passages about different parts of an essay with subheadings like introduction and body.

The same purpose could be served by introductory phrases. For example, I could write

"Having considered the introduction to an essay, I will now consider what the body should contain".

It is your responsibility to see that your readers do not get lost in your essays. Consider the introductory outline as the map that shows where its parts should be. As the reader reaches each part there should be a marker of some kind (sub-heading or introductory phrase) that is recognised from the outline.

Good signposting and clear English ensure the reader knows what you are saying.


Structure refers to the way that parts are arranged, so the structure of writing is the arrangement of its parts.

Most academic writing has an introduction and a body, so we could call this its basic structure.

But structure refers particularly to the way the body is organised. This structure should be indicated by an outline in the introduction.

In longer pieces of writing, such as a report, there will also be a contents list that shows the structure.

The structure of an essay is the way the parts are arranged in the body of the essay. Structure, Order, Organisation, Outline and Plan are all words that refer to the framework of the essay, and the way the parts interconnect. Plan and Outline refer more to what you say about the essay (in the introduction, for example), the other words to how the body is organised. Students are usually given titles for essays. Analysing these gives a basic outline that can be developed as the essay progresses.

If a report has a contents list that does not match its contents, readers will be perplexed. It is obvious that if "chapter three" is listed as "Car ownership in Northern Ireland" in the contents list, that should be the title of the third chapter in the body of the report. Similarly, it is obvious that if there is a chapter four in the body of the report that is about "The effect of car ownership on holiday habits", it should be listed in the contents. All the chapters and sections will also be discussed in the introduction.

The structure of an essay must also follow the order of the outline in its introduction. For each item in the outline, there should be a corresponding paragraph, or paragraphs, in the body. The same principle applies in reverse. The topic of each paragraph (or group of paragraphs covering the same topic) should be stated, in order, in the outline.

For most of us, this degree of organisation develops painfully over time. We draft an outline, find that our writing needs to follow a different plan, redraft the outline, find that we need to adjust the contents, and so on. It is important to check that, in the final version, the outline and the contents match perfectly.

Many people like to use subheadings in essays to show the structure of the essay and how it relates to the outline. To me this seems sensible for the writer and helpful to the reader. A few academics say that it should not be done. If you know that one of these is marking your work, you could remove the sub-headings before submitting. Or, have the courage of your convictions and leave them in.

Outlines: and Plans

An outline tells the reader the order in which you deal with the issues. Often people mean the same by "plan" as they do by "outline". Plan, however, suggests planning ahead, so it could be used for the draft order of your essay.

Look at how analysing a title
can provide you with a plan

The plan that you start with may be written as ("bullet") points (in note form). This should then be converted into sentences, arranged in a paragraph, for the essay.

Here are examples, in both forms, of the first outline a student might make for an essay with the title:

Discuss the relationship between sexuality, gender, personality and society in the work of Freud

In bullet points:

In sentences:
    "I will discuss Freud's views in the order indicated by the title: First his views on sexuality, then on gender, then on personality, then on society. I will then look at the relationship between them".

Look at the sample introduction
to see how this outline might
change as the essay develops.

Provide as much substance as possible in your introduction:

The plan and outline above are abstract rather then concrete. They tell the reader the order of the essay using general terms, but they are not specific about Freud's theories of sexuality, gender etc. They serve only as a starting point.

In planning an essay, move on to substance as soon as you can.

In introducing an essay be specific, rather than general about what you say in the essay.

Here are examples of abstract and specific (concrete) outlines for a question about the meaning of science:

An abstract outline does not say much:

"I first state my own theory of science and then examine the ideas of Locke, Hume and Wollstonecraft (in that order), before concluding by comparing the ideas to each other."

This outline is specific about what the student is saying:

"I first explain my own theory of science, that science starts with theories and tests these against empirical observations. I then examine the ideas of Locke, who argued that science should start with observations. Locke is compared to Hume who, although he agreed with Locke about starting with observations, found by his thought experiments that observation alone can establish very little. Hume thought that we are governed by convention (custom, prescription) much more than by any knowledge based on observation. Finally, I look at Wollstonecraft's idea that we need not be the slaves of custom, but can create new theories with our imagination and test these by experience. I compare this idea to mine and to the ideas of Popper about "falsification".

Upgrade your essay by being more specific in the introduction:

When you have finished your essay, reconsider the summary in your introduction to see if you can make its content more specific.

For example:

"My essay argues that Hobbes' and Locke's theories of man and society have value and importance, but my own interpretation of man is different and takes a more individualistic perspective."
would be more specific if it said what the value (and importance) of Hobbes' and Locke' theories is, and summarised how the writer sees each of them, in different ways, as not allowing enough individuality to the members of society.

These issues should have been dealt with in the body of the essay and, perhaps, the conclusion. Re-stating them concisely in the essay summary may also show the writer ways to tighten and clarify the argument in the body of the essay.

Hi! I am putting off telling you things until later:
Here are some phrases that suggest the writer could improve an introduction by including what is later stated in the body or the conclusion: "I am going to" "I will discuss" (rather than I discuss). "I look at whether it is relevant" (rather than summarising its relevance). "I explore the contrasting ideas of...and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each." (when you could have summarised them and given your evaluation as an argument statement).

A powerful way to put content into your introduction is to use the traditional steps in précis writing to systematically write a full summary


Assess and improve your essay by using the Essay Marking Guide

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