1.01 How to
write an essay
As soon as you are given an essay question, begin your thinking. If
you don't, you might miss useful information whilst doing other research.
The television and radio often have programmes on topical issues which
could be of use - if you don't already have some ideas for your essay
you could miss their usefulness. It is similar to the process when you
learn a new word: because you have actually looked it up, it then seems
to appear more often. This is because you become more sensitive to it
- the same will happen with your essay subject.
Starting early also gives you the opportunity to draft and redraft your
essay, talk to someone else about it and get it typed up and ready to
hand in on time. If you do your essay the night before it is due in,
Collecting the material
It is important to collect information that is relevant. How? It is
all too easy to dash to the library, collect a huge pile of books and
then browse aimlessly. You might learn something, but you won't get
your essay done.
The best place to start is by quickly jotting down what you already
know about the question: you will probably know more than you realise.
It helps to get you thinking about the topic and may also give you some
ideas to follow up.
You need to adopt a strategic method: in order to read purposefully,
formulate a set of questions before you begin reading. As you read,
more specific questions will arise and you can look for the answers
to these too. It is easy to do too much research and end up getting
confused by the facts and figures. Looking for the answers to predetermined
questions helps to avoid this.
Use varied sources of information
You will usually have a book list which will list the major sources
of information for your subject. Use the bibliographies in these books
to extend your reading. You can refer to your lecture notes, but don't
rely solely on these, as they are often a general overview or could
contain incorrect information if you have misunderstood something. The
most productive sources of information are often subject specific journals,
the "broadsheet" newspapers (e.g. The Guardian, The Independent,
The Observer) and ever increasing on-line resources, such as the Internet.
These publications often have specific days in the week when they focus
on issues such as business, society, law and so on. They will not only
give you solid up to date information on your subject, but they will
give you an indication of the style of writing which is required at
Keep a notebook, record cards or data base
Jot down ideas, discussions, quotations or examples as you come across
them. If you don't write them down, you will inevitably forget them
when it comes to writing up time. This tactic also frees your mind,
because you are not trying to remember small points which can block
creative thinking. As an alternative, try using small record cards which
can be shuffled and sorted out as you plan and write up your essay.
This can also be easily done on a computer - but a computer is harder
to carry around!
Record your sources
Your notebook should also be used to write down exact details of the
sources of information which you use. Failure to do this will result
in wasted time relooking for information, frustration and even information
being wasted because you can't use it, due to not being able to state
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A word on plagiarism (See Guide
Doing the above will help with this. If you use source material, either
as a direct quotation or as a summary in your own words, you must make
a reference to it in your text and give the full details in your bibliography.
You must always credit the original author, otherwise your lecturer
will think you are trying to cheat or pass off someone else's idea as
Understanding the question (See Guide
When tutors set an essay question, they are trying to get you to show
them how much you know about a particular aspect of a subject, and if
appropriate develop a convincing argument. You must always answer the
specific question set. Many students go wrong because they don’t
answer the question; they get side-tracked and focus on the wrong aspect
of the subject, or just write "all they know" about the subject.
Some essay briefs are more helpful than others. Some will just give
a statement followed by the word "discuss". Others give structured
details which guide you step by step through what is really required.
Whichever type you find yourself tackling, checking the assessment criteria
can help you to see in what sort of depth you are required to write.
Think of your tutor as your audience, be strategic, and find out what
your tutor wants to know.
Getting down to writing
Even the most experienced writer can find a blank page daunting. The
trick is to just start writing. It doesn’t matter where you begin
as long as what you write ends up in the right place in the end. Just
write, don’t worry about spelling and style. Get your first thoughts
down on paper. Once you have done this you can sort out your ideas using
your initial plan.
If you compose on a computer you can "cut and paste", moving
paragraphs around to their final place in the essay. If you prefer pen
and paper, leave a line or two between ideas so you can physically "cut
and paste". Get the scissors and sticky tape out and cut your essay
up. Sitting on the floor with your work spread out around you can be
useful at this stage. As long as you end up with a beginning (the introduction),
a middle (the body of the essay), and an end (the conclusion), you won’t
go far wrong.
Your essay should follow this pattern:
An introduction should contain some comment on the
topic of the essay - perhaps definitions are needed, or some explanation
of what you understand by the title. This section should also state
which aspects of the topic you intend to deal with and why. Remember
you are not writing a book, so you need to select a few main arguments
to support your answer to the question. Your introduction should consist
of a guide to the essay giving the reader a clear idea of what will
follow and making it clear to your tutor that you are going to answer
the question set. (See Guide 1.22)
The body of the essay will take each of these main
points and develop them with examples and illustrations, using clearly
defined paragraphs. This is where you will need to think about the structure
of your essay and make sure you follow a clear path through to your
conclusion. This section is where most writers go wrong, but if you
plan carefully you should have a direction for your essay before you
Your conclusion will summarise your main ideas. It
might also be appropriate to give a firm or tentative answer to the
question. Or you may have chosen a question where you need to suggest
wider implications, or future trends. You could also suggest areas worthy
of further consideration. It is in this section that you can introduce
your own views - as long as they are based on the arguments you have
developed earlier. (See Guide 1.23)
It can help to have some idea of the length of each section; the following
is a very rough guide, NOT A REGULATION.
Introduction 7 - 8% of total length
Conclusion 12 - 15% of total length
Style (See Guide
Many students worry about their
writing style but remember, your words express your thoughts and if
you've got a clear plan and a real grasp of the material, then you will
have very little trouble writing with clarity and coherence. It's much
better to use clear straightforward language, although there is a difference
between written and spoken language. Don’t use obscure or complex
words or phrases for the sake of it, but avoid slang and abbreviations.
Generally, stick to shorter sentences, but remember to vary these with
some longer ones occasionally. The main objective is to be clear and
concise so that your reader can follow your argument, and is not distracted
or irritated by irrelevant padding.
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A paragraph normally deals with
one topic or aspect of a central issue. Two paragraphs may be on different
topics but linked by that difference - you may have two paragraphs dealing
with cause and effect, or positive and negative aspects of one argument,
or a before and after situation. Sometimes, the first sentence of a
paragraph is the "topic sentence" - that is, it explains what
the paragraph is about and gives the main theme.
Cohesion (See Guide
The transition from one paragraph
to another often presents some difficulty - but it is essential to maintain
continuity and give verbal signposts to your reader. Some common linking
words and phrases which can help you to do this are:
on the other hand, yet
|for example, that is
|similarly, moreover, furthermore,
as a result, thus
|then, after that, ultimately
|THE NEXT STEP
Referencing (See Guide 1.13)
Referencing within your work can
be done in several ways, though most people now favour the "Author,
date" or "Harvard" referencing system. To use this, when
you quote from a book or other written source or summarize information
in your own words, you must put the author's surname and the date of
publication in the text like this:
According to Barnes (1996),
there is a comprehensive guide to referencing available in the library.
There is a comprehensive guide to referencing available in the library
At the end of your essay you should
give a full list of the material you consulted to complete your essay
- a bibliography. If appropriate you should also list the organisations
and people you have contacted. This is useful to the reader and to you
if you should need to check back on points or take some of your ideas
further. Referencing can be tricky; ask your tutors which system they
want you to use and check with someone early on that you are doing it
Editing and proofreading
(See Guide 1.36)
A review is essential even if it
may not result in much rewriting. You might even get a friend to listen
while you read aloud - this can help a lot if you're worried about clumsy
sentence structure, punctuation or illogical ordering of your ideas.
If you have no willing friend, read to a tape recorder and play it back
to yourself. Try to be objective and as critical as possible. Make sure
you spellcheck your work and refer to a dictionary for words that your
computer doesn't recognize as mistakes. Don't use the grammar checker!
What have you learned from
Researching and writing your essay
will have consolidated your learning of the subject at hand. However,
the feedback you get from your lecturers can be used as further learning.
They might, for example, suggest new ideas, fresh examples or different
opinions. These are really worth considering while the ideas and arguments
are still fresh in your mind.
There may be simple corrections of facts or mistakes. Note these! There
may be ideas on how you could express yourself more clearly or remarks
about the detailed aspect of the structure of your essay. Study them
The overall comment you receive will evaluate your essay as a whole,
and probably involve some justification of the mark you receive. These
comments have been thought through carefully and are designed to help
you to improve your work - use them, don't waste them. You may get the
opportunity to discuss your work with the marker: use this as a positive
opportunity, especially if you haven't done as well as you expected,
and build on what you learn.
It should be clear to you by now that essays are about a lot more than
just covering a few sides of A4 paper. They are a vital part of your
learning and it is up to you to maximise their usefulness to you.