How To Write An Essay
An essay should be an organized collection of YOUR ideas about a given topic. It should follow a logical argument focused on the title, rather than throwing in every small piece of information you have ever discovered about the broad area in which your essay is meant to be situated.
FOCUS is the key
Your essay should be well structured. You should organize your points so that there is a clear logical reasoning for the reader to follow. Presentation is also important in helping your reader understand the points you are trying to make too. A good essay is interesting to read and takes the reader on a journey through your arguments and leads them to the destination you want them to arrive at – your logical conclusion. You should make it easy for your reader to understand you.
Style matters, but it is ideas that will get you the marks – not quotations from experts or critics, not generalizations and definitely not filling and padding. Quotations back up your arguments but they don’t replace them.
It is a good idea to get into good essay writing habits as soon as possible in your academic career. All through your life, potential employers will be interested in your ability to talk, to think, and to write. Learning how to write professionally will help you throughout your career. The guidelines that follow tell you how to do it, or rather how to learn to do it.
These guidelines purposefully set a high standard because:
Your first task is to gather together all the information you will need to write your essay. Your information can come from two different types of sources:
Primary sources are first hand accounts, practical research you have carried out yourself, literary texts etc. These entail going straight to the source to find out your information.
Secondary sources are works of criticism and commentary.
Secondary sources are interesting and useful, but you should always focus on primary sources in your essays. Secondary sources are, after all, someone else’s ideas on a topic. They may not be any more valid than your own responses to primary sources, so have confidence in your ideas about a primary text.
Consult several primary texts so that you can compare and contrast ideas and make an informed judgement about the topic about which you need to write an essay. You can never read too many primary texts – unless of course you’re still reading and not writing two days after your essay deadline! But you can waste too much time bothering what critics say; too much reliance on critics saps your original thinking – and it will not get you a First Class Honours Degree! It is perfectly possible to get a First Class degree without every having read a critic but you can’t get such high marks without extensive research material from original sources.
Remember, the quality of your essay will be judged by the number and quality of your own original ideas about the topic of your essay. The ideas from original texts and from your own head count for a lot more than critics’ ideas. You should have the confidence to use your own original ideas and actively think about what you are reading; evaluate the ideas the whole time – can you think of examples to support the ideas? Are there counter arguments which you could make against these original ideas? The more that you can show that you can use these original ideas instead of simply regurgitating them, the better your marks will be.
To be disagreed with!
Critics let you know what has been thought and said and written about previously, so you can make sure you are saying something original; they can also stimulate your further ideas. You need to remember, though, that when it comes to marks, only your original ideas matter. Don’t waste your time and your word limit by quoting a critic only to agree with him or her. Most undergraduates agree with most critics because they simply become over-awed and agree out of a misplaced belief that if a critic said it and it made its way into a book, it must be a good idea. Not necessarily – and if it IS a good idea – write it in your own words, discuss it, use it and explain what is good about the idea. Never simply quote and leave it at that; it is pointless – and markless!
Not all secondary sources are worth the same
When people think of finding information they usually think of books, but a short warning is in order here:
Books are easily accessible – to everyone. The chances are that almost everyone on your course, writing the same essay as you, will have read the same relevant books from the library. Saying the same things as everyone else from the same books will not help you to stand out from the crowd and get the top marks.
You should be familiar with the library electronic catalogue and how to search it, in order to find books: it's not difficult, and if you don't know how to do it by now then you need to find out right away. Ask a librarian to help you; they will be happy to show you how it works. Then you should spend a few minutes playing around with the catalogue for yourself.
But – a word of warning is in order here: books are not usually much use. All the good books are usually loaned out, as you will surely have discovered by now. Books take a while to produce and so they quickly become out of date and often you gain no special merit points for having read them, because so has everyone else. Books are rarely at the cutting edge of new thinking within your field – whatever your field is.
Articles are a different matter. Articles in academic journals are (a) not normally read by undergraduates, and therefore (b) are normally on the shelves. Your tutor will almost certainly be impressed to see work from an academic journal used in an undergraduate essay. Articles have interesting, original, and up-to-date ideas. Your tutor may not even have encountered some of the ideas in the most current journals, so the journal articles are your chance to really impress. Beware, though – journals also contain a lot of bad, ill-advised arguments – just like many essays your tutors are marking! But this is good because then you have a lot to argue against in your essays.
Wherever you get your ideas from, you need to use them, not simply copy them from anywhere. Apart from the fact that copying ideas is plagiarism and can potentially earn you a very quick exit from your course much earlier than graduation, it will not impress anyone. You need to be able to use and work with the ideas you find from your research and comment critically upon them. You should always make sure that any ideas that you include in your essay are manipulated in such a way as they add to and enhance the answer to the title question. If your ideas are not directed towards answering the essay question you will miss out on an awful lot of marks.
Journals are traditionally found on CD Rom in the library, rather than in print. Also, look on the internet for relevant journals and articles. They will still be there, of course, but nowadays with the spread of the internet, you can access numerous journals online in full text versions. You will have to pay a subscription fee to some of these journals but if you find a good one in your subject area, it is well worth it, even if you have to pay a small fee. These journal databases are updated regularly so they always stay contemporary.
There is a wonderful web-based database called BIDS that lists articles published since 1981. There are a wide range of subjects covered here and if you fill in their online search form the site organisers will e-mail you a list of articles which fit your search criteria. Now isn’t that nice of them!
Questia is quite simply the world's largest online library, with over 45,000 complete books, and 400,000 titles in all. It costs a little to subscribe to this database, but for 24/7 access to this huge database of resource, it is well worth the small subscription fee.
Business Source Premier is a great business database and is the industry's most used business research database; it provides the full text of thousands of business publications and the world's top management and marketing journals. If you are on a business or marketing course, you’ll find plenty of useful material to interest you here.
Emerald is an online digital database of over 180 business, marketing and engineering journals.
Exercise some caution when using internet resources
The internet is potentially a huge and amazing source of information, but be careful. There are no criteria for publishing on the internet and you need to be aware that these ideas therefore do not necessarily come with any authority or credence, so be a critical reader. Think carefully about the ideas expressed in what you read; do they seem plausible? Is there evidence to support them? Is there agreement on these ideas? Thinking about all of these things will help you to decide how useful and valid an idea is.
It is worth reminding you, too, that you can even mention a questionable idea within your essays – so long as you then go on to question it! However good and intelligent the ideas from your research appear, you should analyse and critique them in your essay. Your tutors want to know that you can think intelligently about the ideas which are presented to you.
You need to be an active reader. Always carry a notebook and something to write with. Whilst you are reading, you should be thinking constantly. Some of the things you need to think about are:
You should always make a bibliography as you carry out your research. You will not remember the details you need to have later, with all the sources you are going to need to consult, so save yourself all that time of back-tracking in an attempt to find references. Write them down at the time and be sure to include details of every book that you consult. That helps in three ways:
The same can be said of all your ideas. Write all of them down as you think of them and don’t be embarrassed about your ideas. No-one else ever needs to see your notebook. Many of these ideas will help you later when you are faced with a blank page or a blank screen and you must begin writing your essay. If you have them in your notebook you can easily add to your ideas when you have done further reading. For that reason, it is a good idea to write each new idea on a new page; that will allow you room to add to it, critique it or simply jot down more of your own related ideas as they come to you.
Your essay should always be structured around the main ideas that are relevant to the title. If you get into the habit of organizing your note-taking in this way, you will find that you have a head start on structuring your essay.
Don't make notes in the form of summaries, unless you need it to help you remember a plot; instead, think about what you are reading and write down your thoughts. Your ideas will be stimulated by quotations from what you are reading, so write down that stimulating quotation too. Also, write down a page reference so you can find it again and refer to it later.
The next piece of advice will sound wasteful, but bear with me here – it is worth repeating: always write one single idea per page of your notebook. Why? Two more reasons we didn’t even mention before:
You can remove the pages from your notebook and file and order your ideas and that will be a huge help in structuring your essay later.
You may have further ideas and thoughts to add later when you have researched more and your brain has had a chance to mull over these ideas.
Can you see now why this is such a good tip? I hope so!
The more actively you can engage your brain with your note-taking, the better your essay will be because it will be your own work, articulating your own coherent ideas, rather than a simple regurgitation of other people’s ideas. Basically, that means that the higher your marks will be.
The style of note-taking doesn’t matter, so long as it is active. You can create mind maps or colour code your notes; you can stick pieces of paper together to show relations; however you want to start thinking about the ideas you read is up to you, so long as you do that thinking.
You should make a note of the author/s, title, date, publisher, shelf mark and place of publication of a book. Do this for every source you read. You can never know when you will want to go back and consult a source again – or when you will look at this book again having forgotten that is was useless in the first place. Proper note-taking will help you to avoid such a waste of time.
Now – the moment you’ve all been waiting for: you’ve compiled your research notes and you are ready to start writing your essay.
First – go back to your notes, gather them all together and read them - all of them. You should write down any new ideas that come to you as you read and also re-write the slips of paper that detail ideas which you have now developed or changed your mind about, after further research. Write down any examples that you might wish to use to illustrate your understanding and make the meaning clearer within your essay. You will want to start thinking at this stage about how each of the main ideas that you want to include in your essay relates to the others. These relations can be complimentary or contradictory.
Next, make sure each of your slips of paper has a heading which shows its main idea. These main ideas are what you are then going to order to form a logical argument to structure your essay. They should be what you keep in your mind throughout the essay writing process.
Do not be distracted from these main ideas. You should make sure that when put together, you have all the information that you need to fully answer your essay question with no gaps and no ambiguities, but once you have assured yourself of that, stay focused on your main ideas. Including other ideas will just muddy the waters and weaken your central argument – thus lowering the mark you will get for your essay.
Then, when you have each of these main ideas represented in a heading, you need to put the headings together in a logical order (headings, sub-headings, sub-sub-headings), on a sheet of paper in the form of an outline of the essay. Writer’s block should be a thing of the past as you then go from heading to heading on each slip of paper, writing your essay.
Your outline structure for your argument should be clearly perceptible in the way in which your essay is written.
The plan you construct should be in the form of an indented outline. This is a series of headings and subheadings, indented, as below:
notes on subheading 1
notes on subheading 2
and so your outline plan should continue until you have dealt with all the main ideas which you feel are relevant to your essay title.
After your outline, your paragraphs are the next smallest building blocks of the argument which will make up your essay. Notice I keep saying ‘argument’, because there really needs to be a clear argument in the structure of your essay. Don’t jump around from topic to topic. Follow the essay outline you have made for yourself and block out all other distracting ideas.
Some understanding of the purpose of a paragraph will help you to keep your essay focused and relevant. Every paragraph should represent and flesh out a heading or sub-heading in your outline. If it doesn’t do that, it is not a paragraph worthy of inclusion in your essay.
Furthermore, a paragraph:
Should be of a reasonable length. Do not write one sentence paragraphs because that is not useful for showing that you can develop an idea. If an idea is worth stating in your essay then it is worth developing. One sentence paragraphs do not help with that development at all. At the other extreme, you should not make your paragraphs so long that your reader loses the plot – or the will to live – as they read! A paragraph length of four or five sentences is a good goal to aim for.
Each paragraph should have a topic sentence. This tells your reader what your paragraph will be about and should be near the beginning of the paragraph – the first or second sentence. Your essay outline should be really helpful in writing these topic sentences so when you have your essay outline, it would be good practice to write a topic sentence concerning what you think each of your essay paragraphs should be about.
You should make sure your paragraph sticks to the point of your topic sentence and doesn’t stray onto other points which will confuse the reader and weaken the strength and focus of your overall argument. There should be only one main point made within a paragraph; if you are introducing a new idea it is time to introduce a new paragraph.
The first sentence in your paragraph should be linked to, or contrast with, the last sentence of your previous paragraph. That is why your topic sentence may have to be your second sentence of a paragraph, in some cases.
Your first paragraph of an essay is special. It should clearly state the theme of your essay. You should usually quite blatantly set out the way you are going to demonstrate your argument; that will give your grateful reader some signposts for the direction of your argument and it will signal to your marker that you have done some serious thinking about your essay topic. Some tutors, however, do not like this style of introduction so it is best to ask the person who will be marking your essay for their opinion on this before you complete your essay, so you will have time to change it to suit their preferences if you wish to.
You should also define the essay title as you understand it within your first paragraph. This gives the person marking your essay a clear indication of your point and then they can watch for how your argument develops through the paper – or when it strays, so beware of that. Being able to define the title in your own terms shows that you have thought about the subject of the essay and that gives you a chance to demonstrate your understanding from the very beginning of your essay.
The last paragraph of your essay is not as important as the introduction, which is not what people will often tell you. You can proclaim how you have fulfilled the aims of your first paragraph, if you want to, but if your argument has been logical and each paragraph links to the preceding one, your essay will have done its job without much of a conclusion. Again, you may be well advised to consult your tutor about what style of conclusion they like.
The key to good essay writing is to ensure that each of your paragraphs solidly develops a clear sub-theme of your argument and that it states in a topic sentence its main point. This will make your essay outline obvious and you will leave anyone reading your essay with the feeling that they have indeed gone on a journey of understanding with you. They won’t be lost and your mark won’t be low! Your readers and markers will really feel that you know what you are talking about on this topic and that your essay contains real, original insight into a topic in response to good, solid research of worthwhile texts.
The tone or register of your essay is important in they way your reader perceives your argument. You should aim for a certain scholarly brevity but you should not make your writing dull. Your reader should be interested and motivated to continue reading your essay, even if they weren’t paid to read it.
Also, you should avoid the use of colloquialisms within an academic essay; they will risk misunderstandings and make it seem as though you have approached your subject casually. It may also be that your colloquialisms don’t travel well and your reader may not understand you as well as they would if you had written in Standard English.
It’s also a good idea to avoid abbreviations (like ‘it’s’!) in your essay. They aren’t really appropriate in an academic essay – although I hope you DON’T mind them here. Again, it is about not giving the impression that you have approached your essay writing casually.
You should be careful to consult your course handbook on the referencing methods that your particular institution requires – and you should follow the instructions to the letter. You don’t want to be accused of plagiarism by not accurately referencing any material which you have made use of from elsewhere and you do want to look like a clearly organized student who knows where your ideas come from and how you have developed your own arguments in response to what you have read. All of those things will attract further marks.
There is no substitute for good solid argument in an essay, but you should bear in mind that there are humans marking your work. How your essay looks on the page will influence them and their marking, whether they admit it or not.
Typing your essay may be a requirement of a particular tutor or of your whole institution – you will need to check that before wasting your time by submitting an essay in an inappropriate format. Otherwise, even if you are told that do not have to type your essay, it might still be a very good idea. Remember you are meant to be putting the reader first here; a type-written essay is a lot easier to read than a hand-written one, even if you have neat handwriting - and many of us don’t! It also looks a lot more professional if you have typed your essay – but here is a little incentive too: just say your essay planning has gone a little awry and somewhere along the way as you write your essay you think of a point that really ought to have been included earlier in your essay – it is very easy to go back and to include it in a typed (i.e. word processed) essay; not so if your essay is hand-written. You may say that it won’t happen to you and even if it does, you won’t care; you’ll just leave out the argument; trust me – you will think about that argument and kick yourself; you’ll wake up in the middle of the night thinking of it – and if your final essay grade is not quite what you’d hoped for, you will blame it all on missing out that one argument; trust me – it’s not worth the trauma!
You should consult your course guidelines on the layout of essays that is required, but if nothing is stipulated, here are a few good rules to follow; you should make sure your essay is:
No, of course your tutor will not think you are stupid if you leave in the typos and inconsistent spacing – they will just think you don’t care enough about the writing of your essay and this negative impressive could detrimentally affect your mark.
Computers know when you are stressed; they know when a deadline looms, I am absolutely sure of it – and these times of stress and panic are when you are more likely to push the wrong button and lose your work – or to have a computer crash – and lose all your work. I speak as someone who watched in horror as their degree dissertation disappeared from their computer screen, line by line; before their eyes.
So what is the moral of that story? – Save your work often. Each time there is a lull in your thinking, or at least every five minutes – save your work. You should also save your essay to floppy disk or CD, to avoid losing your work if there are problems with your computer’s hard drive like in the true and very sad story above. Also, what would you do if your computer was stolen? This is unfortunately a real possibility and is yet another reason to save your work to disk. Oh, and don’t leave your disk in the machine. That won’t help if the computer is stolen, will it?
Saving your work to disk and taking care in the storage of your disks saves an awful lot of heartache and disbelieving looks from your tutors when you fail to submit your essay on time.
There is no real agreement over how to bind your essay for submission. The best thing to do is to consult your tutors or your course guide to see if they offer you guidelines or rules on the format of essay submissions that they require.
If they don’t say how your essay should be presented for submission, here are a few notes of good practice:
Don’t go for blood. Avoid sharp staples and clips that a marker can rip their finger on; they may not consciously mark you down for this unfortunate incident but they won’t be as happy as they could be when they are reading your essay and that could be reflected in their marking. If there is no guidance on the method of essay submission that your institution requires, you should go for loose sheets – which is why each page should be numbered in case you or your marker should drop them; a busy marker will not want to waste too much time putting your essay back in order and that can of course spoil the flow of your essay’s argument. You can hold the sheets of your essay together in a plastic wallet for practicality if you want to, although some institutions discourage this. If in doubt – ask what your marker wants; it can’t hurt to try to please him or her in the presentation of your work.
You should always remember to keep a copy of your essay for yourself. Academics are notorious for losing work, unfortunately. You should have another essay ready to produce when your tutor rather tersely enquires after the essay that you conscientiously submitted last Thursday. You may also need to submit a second copy for cross-marking within the department and some universities and colleges also require you to submit an e-mail or electronic copy of your essay to so it can be checked for plagiarism, amongst other reasons. Make sure that you check these procedures and abide by them, still always keeping a copy of your essay for yourself.
Bearing in mind all of the above guidance and using it as a plan by which to write your essay should take a lot of stress out of the essay writing procedure; it should also see you getting grades that you will be proud of.