In all probability, you will be expected to write at least one essay during your degree. This is not surprising, as essays are a very effective way to demonstrate advanced cognitive skills. In an essay you will research and critically assess knowledge; organise it in a coherent structure; and use it to present an argument, or answer a question.
In the initial stages of essay writing you should check the assignment instructions, analyse carefully the essay question, generate ideas, draw an outline, start research, and start devising your argument.
Check the assignment instructions
Reread the module handbook and learning outcomes and consider the marking criteria. These documents are like contracts between you and the marker. Fulfill those criteria and you shall earn a high mark!
Analyse the essay question
Too many essays are marked down because students fail to specifically answer the question provided. Look at the title and break it down.
After the preliminary reading you should be able to generate ideas relating to the essay question. Why not draw a mind map?
Mind-mapping is a simple, practical tool for improving creative thinking, planning and problem-solving abilities. It can help you to generate more ideas and make new connections.
How to draw a mind map
Place a blank sheet in landscape position and write the essay question in the middle. Draw branches from the question, which are possible ideas and topics to include in the essay. Add sub-topics (“leaves”) and connect ideas and evidence from your reading. You can use colours and images to stimulate your thinking.
Based on the key areas identified on your mind map, draft a structural plan for your essay. Consider focusing on one key topic/area per paragraph.
2 Overview of global warming
3 Causes of climate change
3.1 Man-made causes
3.2 Natural phenomena
4. Consequences of climate change
4.2 Societal issues
5.1 Legal remedies
5.2 Technological solutions
Good essay writing involves doing a considerable amount of reading.
From general to specific and further reading
If you are unsure where to start, begin with introductory works dealing with the broad area of your topic and then move to more specialised works. Use the further reading list on your module handbook to direct you to relevant reading materials that you can find in the library. Check the footnotes and bibliographies of the texts you are reading; they may lead you to other useful texts. This guide on Finding Sources provides help on finding sources in the library.
You should not attempt to read everything you come across that might be vaguely relevant to the topic. If you have taken the time to think about the essay title (as above), you will start your research and reading with thoughts in mind that will direct you to answering the question. In other words, you’ll be engaged in active research targeted to the requirements of the essay – a much more effective way to undertake your reading.
You need to engage with your reading: analysing, comparing, contrasting, evaluating, commenting, using the literature, rather than just reporting it. Thus, you need to undertake critical reading, which is key to critical writing. Check the guide on Critical Thinking for more information on Effective Reading and Critical Reading.
As you read, make notes, keep track of your references and start building your bibliography. Check the guide on Citation and Referencing for more information on referencing and plagiarism.
You essay needs to demonstrate some degree of analysis and critical thinking. The more you progress in higher education, the more you are expected to use and apply knowledge. This is reflected in critical writing, whereby you move from mere description to analysis and evaluation.
Check the guide on Critical Thinking and Writing for more information on writing critically.
What is an argument?
Essentially, the aim of an essay (and other forms of academic writing, including dissertations) is to present and defend, with reasons and evidence, an argument relating to a given topic. In the academic context argument means something specific. It is the main claim/view/position/conclusion on a matter, which can be the answer to the essay (or research) question. The development of an argument is closely related to criticality, as in your academic writing you are not supposed to merely describe things; you also need to analyse and draw conclusions.
Tips on devising an argument
Argument or arguments?
Both! Ideally, in your essay you will have an overarching argument (claim) and several mini-arguments, which make points and take positions on the issues you discuss within the paragraphs.
The introduction sets the tone for an essay and should act as a clear guide to your reader. The introduction may include the following content:
The introduction is roughly 10% of your word count, which gives a rough indication of what you might include. For example, if you're writing a 2000 word essay then your introduction will only be 200 words and therefore unable to incorporate all of the points below, whereas a longer essay, which in turn has a longer introduction, will be able to include more information. As a result, it is important to be selective and check what is the most valuable information to include in the introduction, given the word count you have for it.
Within the main body you develop your argument and line of reasoning through presenting and discussing your evidence. Longer essays may be divided into heading and sub-headings (please check with your markers if there are specific guidelines in relation to this). Try to keep your structure logical and systematic. Progress from the general to the specific. Keep a flow.
Paragraphs, and namely strong paragraphs, are an essential device to keep your writing organised and logical.
A paragraph is a group of sentences that are linked coherently around one central topic/idea. Paragraphs should be the building blocks of academic writing. Each paragraph should be doing a job, moving the argument forward and guiding your reading through your thought process.
Paragraphs should be 10-12 lines long, but variations are acceptable. Do not write one-sentence long paragraphs; this is journalistic style, not academic.
You need to write so-called strong paragraphs wherein you present a topic, discuss it and conclude it, as afar as reasonably possible. Strong paragraphs may not always be feasible, especially in introductions and conclusions, but should be the staple of the body of your written work.
Topic sentence: Introduces the topic and states what your paragraph will be about
Development: Expand on the point you are making: explain, analyse, support with examples and/or evidence.
Concluding sentence: Summarise how your evidence backs up your point. You can also introduce what will come next.
This is a strategy to write strong paragraphs. In each paragraph you should include the following:
Point: what do you want to talk about?
Evidence: show me!
Evaluation: tell me!
Link: what's coming next?
Example of a strong paragraph, with PEEL technique:
Paragraphs may be linked to each other through "paragraph bridges". One simple way of doing this is by repeating a word or phrase.
|Last sentence of a paragraph:||First sentence of next paragraph:|
|In short, a number of efforts have been made to....||Despite these efforts,...|
|Last sentence of a paragraph:||First sentence of next paragraph:|
|Smith suggests that there are two types of personalities: introverts and extroverts...||Introverts typically favour...|
In many respects, the conclusion is the most important part of your essay, and it is also the simplest. During your essay you have presented the evidence, and now you must round up the argument. You will need to: