An essay is a piece of academic writing which makes an evidenced argument in response to a question or series of questions. Some essays aim to prove something by developing a case, by reasoning, using examples and by taking a position. Essays may also involve providing clear explanations about a topic and allow you to demonstrate your understanding. In many cases, writing essays will involve gathering examples and evidence, and involves carrying out some initial research and reading.
Sometimes you will be assigned an essay question; in other cases, you will be given a topic and it is up to you to identify the possible questions you will seek to address in your essay.
Doing a piece of writing
"So when you're preparing a piece of coursework, or an essay: how do you tackle that job?"
"In terms of an essay I usually start off with a balanced structure ..."
At university, you will therefore usually be expected to read more widely and support your essay argument by referring to a more diverse range of sources and evidence. Good essays will still need to meet important criteria that you have probably encountered at school and college: essays should be appropriately presented, clearly structured, and should demonstrate they have been proofread to check for clarity of expression and to minimise errors. However, you will also be expected to follow academic conventions on how to reference existing research from books and journals as well as other appropriate sources. You will need to engage critically with what has been written on the subject so that you explain the significance and importance of issues and examples. You may also need to discuss the consequences and purposes of theories, methods and analyses presented by existing scholarship beyond identifying what has been said or done.
For many students, writing essays at university may be difficult to begin with and it is very important to pay attention and try and respond to any feedback you receive.
Starting an essay
The first thing you should do is to read any guidance your school has provided and make sure you understand how your essay will be assessed. Pay particular attention to any assessment criteria or marking sheets, as well as any feedback you've been given previously.
- Identify the question(s) to be addressed
- Develop your thinking and reading to note down some initial ideas and thoughts
- Don't become fixed in your early ideas: remain open minded, as you may wish to change your perspective as you read more
- Consider the arguments against your view - how could you defend or rebut alternative positions
- Begin to think of the structure of your essay and the sequence you wish to introduce points. Work towards sketching out an outline of how these points can be linked together
- Start writing - some students find they can refine their ideas by trying to express them in written form
- Be prepared to re-draft your work before final submission
- Where possible, give yourself time to put the essay aside for a day or two and come back to it during the drafting phases. Seeing it with fresh eyes will be particularly useful when re-considering the structure and placing of paragraphs.
- Try asking friends to read your draft work. It can be very difficult after repeated reading to see your own mistakes. Alternatively, use text-speech software such as TextHelp Read&Write (available on the UoN network) to read the text aloud to you.
- When you have a fairly complete and well-organised draft, revise sentences, with special attention to transitions, checking that a reader will be able to follow the sequences of ideas within and between sentences and between paragraphs.
Points to remember
Check that when you are starting work on your essay and reading materials and sources, make a clear note of the bibliographic details (e.g. author, date, title, publisher etc.) as you will need this information to accurately complete any citation of references and list of sources or bibliography. Harvard is often used in many schools, but check and follow the recommended system of the School or department offering the module.
Before submission, proofread the final copy checking for grammar and spelling mistakes. You might find it helpful to print out your essay and make notes on the hard copy.
Structuring your essay
Your structure should embody a basic plan necessary to write an essay relevant to the title.
It will need an introduction, a main body and a conclusion (or summing up at the end). However beyond this basic structure, it is likely that your school can provide more detailed guidance.
Introductions are like an itinerary or road-map for your reader. They will usually identify what specific questions or issues you are tackling in the essay (the focus) and indicate how you will work through answering the question/title you are writing about (the method or theory applied).
It can help to think of the introduction to an essay being around 10% of the total word count. For a short essay of 1500 words, it may be just a single paragraph of approximately 150 words. For longer essays, you may need to set the scene of the topic first, so it may be two or three paragraphs in length.
The paragraphs in the main body develop your argument or response to the essay title, using examples to explore the different aspects of the question. Think about how each paragraph builds up the argument and use connecting words and phrases to link together the paragraphs. In some departments, you may be encouraged to use headings for the different sections, but check this with your assignment guidelines or tutors.
The conclusion will indicate the overall themes and summarise the key points you have raised in the essay, identifying how this has addressed the question. It can help to think of the conclusion as being around 5-10% of the total word count. For a short essay of 1500 words, it may be a single paragraph of approximately 100-150 words. For longer essays, the conclusion may be a couple of paragraphs long. The conclusion is where you summarise and synthesize the significance or importance of the key evidence and examples you have discussed.
Remember to not include any new ideas or information in your conclusion.
Many students find it easier to proofread from the printed page rather than a computer screen, but do think about using technology to support your proofreading process. Text-to-speech software such as TextHelp Read&Write can read text aloud to you, highlighting each word as it reads, and can help identify homophones along with a range of other proofreading support strategies. Read&Write is available on the UoN network.
- Check paragraphing for length, transitional links, and internal coherence
- Check word choice - use a dictionary to check accurate meanings
- Review your style and check for clarity - reading aloud can often help
- Check grammar. Running a grammar checker can offer you choices for revising, but will not catch all your errors. Look at using your own awareness and any feedback you have had already to identify a checklist of your own common errors. Common problems can include:
- incomplete sentences
- missing or mis-used punctuation
- possessives (The dog's bone or the two dogs' bone)
- matching verbs and subjects (plural or singular).
- Check spelling and typing for possible errors. Run a spell checker, but remember if your mis-spelling actually spells another real word it often won't identify these.
Evaluating your essay
When finishing an essay you should check it against the marking criteria provided by your school. Here are some useful questions to ask yourself:
- Did you give a brief introduction that provides any indication of the overall flow of your essay?
- Did you use a logical progression of concepts and information using subheadings, if appropriate, for the main body?
- Did you include too little information? You will need detail, or specifics and examples.
- Did you include too much? You often don't need more than one or two examples to make a point; you need to make theories, issues or arguments clear, but not verbose. Make sure you keep within the word limit set for the essay.
- If appropriate to your discipline, did you use clearly labelled diagrams, figures, or images that are referred to in the body of the text? (Diagrams are not free-standing items and are of benefit only when they highlight key points or mechanisms.)
- Did you write clearly and unambiguously? Keep your sentence construction simple, and avoid overlong sentences. Punctuate correctly.
- Did you give a brief concluding paragraph to round off your essay?
- Did you acknowledge your sources using the appropriate referencing system?