This page continues from our page: Planning an Essay, the essential first step to successful essay writing.
This page assumes that you have already planned your essay, you have taken time to understand the essay question, gathered information that you intend to use, and have produced a skeleton plan of you essay – taking into account your word limit.
This page is concerned with the actual writing of your essay, it provides some guidelines for good practice as well as some common mistakes you'll want to avoid.
Structuring Your Essay
An essay should be written in a flowing manner with each sentence following on logically from the previous one and with appropriate signposts to guide the reader.
An essay usually takes the following structured format:
- The introduction
- The main body: a development of the issues
- A conclusion
- A list of references of the sources of information you have used
The function of the introduction is simply to introduce the subject, to explain how you understand the question, and describe briefly how you intend to deal with it.
You could begin by defining essential terms, providing a brief historical or personal context if appropriate, and/or by explaining why you think the subject is significant or interesting.
Some people are far too ambitious in writing their introductions. Writing a lengthy introduction limits the number of words available for the main body of the assignment.
Keep the introduction short, preferably to one or two paragraphs and keep it, succinct, to the point.
Some students find it best to write a provisional introduction, when starting to write an essay, and then to rewrite this when they have finished the first draft of their essay. To write a provisional introduction, ask yourself what the reader needs to know in order to follow your subsequent discussion.
Other students write the introduction after they have written the main body of the essay – do whatever feels right for you and the piece of work you are writing.
The Main Body: A Development of the Issues
Essays are generally a blend of researched evidence (e.g. from additional reading) and comment.
Some students' essays amount to catalogues of factual material or summaries of other people's thoughts, attitudes, philosophies or viewpoints.
At the opposite extreme, other students express only personal opinions with little or no researched evidence or examples taken from other writers to support their views. What is needed is a balance.
The balance between other researchers’ and writers’ analysis of the subject and your own comment will vary with the subject and the nature of the question. Generally, it is important to back up the points you wish to make from your experience with the findings of other published researchers and writers.
You will have likely been given a reading list or some core text books to read. Use these as your research base but try to expand on what is said and read around the subject as fully as you can. Always keep a note of your sources as you go along.
You will be encouraged and expected to cite other authors or to quote or paraphrase from books that you have read. The most important requirement is that the material you cite or use should illustrate, or provide evidence of, the point you are making. How much evidence you use depends on the type of essay you are writing.
If you want a weight of evidence on some factual point, bring in two or three examples but no more.
Quotations should not be used as a substitute for your own words. A quote should always have an explanation in your own words to show its significance to your argument.
When you are citing another author's text you should always indicate exactly where the evidence comes from with a reference, i.e. give the author's name, date of publication and the page number in your work. A full reference should also be provided in the reference list at the end.
See our page: Academic Referencing for more information.
At the end of an essay you should include a short conclusion, the purpose of which is to sum up or draw a conclusion from your argument or comparison of viewpoints.
In other words, indicate what has been learned or accomplished. The conclusion is also a good place to mention questions that are left open or further issues which you recognise, but which do not come within the scope of your essay.
Neither the conclusion, nor the introduction, should totally summarise your whole argument: if you try this, you are in danger of writing another assignment that simply repeats the whole case over again.
You must include a reference list or bibliography at the end of your work.
One common downfall is to not reference adequately and be accused of plagiarism. If you have directly quoted any other author's text you should always indicate exactly where the evidence comes from in a reference. If you have read other documents in order to contrast your argument then these should also be referenced.
See our page: Academic Referencing for a more comprehensive look at the importance of referencing and how to reference properly.
Signposting or Guiding your Reader
When writing an essay it is good practice to consider your reader.
To guide the reader through your work you will need to inform them where you are starting from (in the introduction), where you are going (as the essay progresses), and where you have been (in the conclusion).
It is helpful to keep the reader informed as to the development of the argument. You can do this by using simple statements or questions that serve to introduce, summarise or link the different aspects of your subject.
Here are a few examples:
- There are two reasons for this: first,... second,...
- Moreover, it should not be forgotten that...
- With regard to the question of...
- Another important factor to be considered is...
- How can these facts be interpreted? The first point...
- There are several views on this question. The first is...
- Finally, it is important to consider...
One important way of guiding the reader through your essay is by using paragraphs.
Paragraphs show when you have come to the end of one main point and the beginning of the next. A paragraph is a group of sentences related to aspects of the same point. Within each individual paragraph an idea is introduced and developed through the subsequent sentences within that paragraph.
Everyone finds it easier to read a text that is broken into short paragraphs.
Without paragraphs, and the spaces between them, the page will appear like an indigestible mass of words.
You should construct your essay as a sequence of distinct points set out in a rational order.
Each sentence and paragraph should follow logically from the one before and it is important that you do not force your reader to make the connections. Always make these connections clear signposting where the argument or discussion is going next.
Although the points you are making may seem obvious to you, can they be more clearly and simply stated?
It is also worth bearing in mind that the marker of your work may have a lot of other, similar pieces of work to mark and assess. Try to make yours easy to read and follow – make it stand out, for the right reasons!
There are two general misconceptions about essay style:
- One is that a good essay should be written in a formal, impersonal way with a good scattering of long words and long, complicated sentences.
- The other misconception is to write as we talk. Such a style is fine for personal letters or notes, but not in an essay. You can be personal, but a certain degree of formality and objectivity is expected in an academic essay.
The important requirement of style is clarity and precision of expression.
Where appropriate use simple and logical language and write in full or complete sentences. You should avoid jargon, especially jargon that is not directly connected to your subject area. You can be personal by offering your own viewpoint on an issue, or by using that view to interpret other authors' work and conclusions.
Drafts and Rewriting
Most essays can be improved by a thorough edit.
You can cross out one word and substitute another, change the shape or emphasis of a sentence, remove inconsistencies of thought or terminology, remove repetitions and ensure there is adequate referencing.
In short, you are your first reader, edit and criticise your own work to make it better. Sometimes it is useful to read your essay out loud.
Another useful exercise is to ask someone else to read the essay through. A person proofreading the essay for the first time will have a different perspective from your own and will therefore be better placed to point out any incoherence, lack of structure, grammatical errors, etc.
Ideally find somebody to proofread who has a good grasp of spelling and grammar and at least a casual interest in your subject area.
One or two edits should be sufficient. It is best not to become involved in an unproductive multiplicity of drafts. The remedy is to analyse the question again and write another, simple, plan based on how to organise the material you are not happy with in the draft of your essay. Rewrite the essay according to that revised plan and resist the tendency to panic in the middle, tear it up and start all over again. It is important to get to the end and then revise again. Otherwise you will have a perfect opening couple of paragraphs and potentially the rest of the essay in disarray.
You will learn and improve much more through criticising and correcting your work than by simply starting again.
A few students can get so anxious about an assignment that they find themselves unable to write anything at all.
There are several reasons why this can happen. The primary reason is usually that such students set themselves too high a standard and then panic because they cannot attain it. This may also be due to factors such as the fear of the expectations of others or placing too high an expectation on themselves.
Whatever the reason, if you cannot write an assignment, you have to find a way out of your panic. If you find yourself in this position, do not allow the situation to drift; try to act swiftly. Discussing your worries with your tutor and/or peers, or simply writing them down, will help you clarify why you might feel stuck.
Another trick is to dash off what you consider to be a 'bad' essay, hand it in and see what happens, or decide to write the assignment in two hours without notes or references and see how that goes. You can always come back to enter the references later.
Students often say that their hurried and most casual essay got a higher mark than one which they struggled with for weeks; in fact this happened because they got down to essentials and made their points quickly. The experiment might be worth a try.
If, despite study and good intentions, you cannot seem to get your essay written, or even started, you should let your tutor know as soon as possible.
Your tutor will have encountered such problems many times, and it is part of his/her job to help you sort them out.