Writing an essay


There are a number of key parts to writing an essay.


What is an essay?


Realise what the questions are asking (general)

Some questions asked

Choose the right question (if there is a choice)

Realise what the question is asking (in detail)


Planning the work – and the "steamroller" approach

Critical thinking (article) on essays


Discriminate between evidence and ideas?

Style and structure

Adding in the writer’s (your) point of view


Clear writing


Receiving back and evaluating the essay

Making the work useful for revision

Making the work useful for a dissertation


To conclude



What is an essay?


An essay should be from end to end a consistent, argued (often with balance, sometimes not), piece of writing into which evidence and other viewpoints are put. It should not be about finding this and finding that botched together in something that is then called an essay. The essay should focus again and again on the question, and each piece of evidence should have its relevance argued within the text back to the question.


Realise what the questions are asking (in general)


It is very easy to look at a list of questions and get a false impression of what they are asking.


Postmodern sociologists and social anthropologists may as well just be novelists. Discuss.


Summarise how later approaches to analysing bureaucracy would make Weber less pessimistic?


Postmodern historians ignore the “social” in history. Should sociologists do the same?


Consider, as a sociologist, Arthur Marwick’s view of Sociology in The Nature of History (1989, 180-188)? Is he right?


Suppose a History and Sociology student looks at the essay list. The last essay might be a good one. Perhaps though the argument is limited to sociological analysis. Suppose an English and Sociology student also looks at this essay list. He or she might jump at the first title because of the reference to novelists. But would that necessarily be correct? It might be, but it might not. It is not, after all, a question about novelists, but a criticism of postmodern social anthropology.


Dive into the question that seems the best and the danger is that the wrong question is being answered. Once there is reasonable certainty about what is being asked in each question, then it is time to choose one.


Choose the right question (if there is a choice)


Everyone thinks differently and has varied interests. It is always best if an essay title can be chosen which is the most interesting. More enthusiasm in the writing is noticed by the reader (its like people who smile on the telephone!). The flow of writing and its narrative qualities improve. The danger is, however, that strong opinions get in the way of a disciplined essay structure.


If it is difficult to decide which title is best to choose, write out items of evidence and points of view (in different directions) for the essay titles under consideration. Notice however, in this exercise, whether writing down a point brings forward another point. Essays should be interconnected like this, and if one point is leading to another, it is likely to be a good choice of essay. Best of all is the essay that can be written first as a narrative, with the substance added in within it.


Then do the essay which seems most productive.


Realise what the question is asking (detail)


At this stage the question must be asked more rigorously, and in more detail, just what the question demands.


Here the essay chosen may be subsequently rejected and the process of deciding may begin again. Suppose that, given the essay’s importance, given the time available, given the research needed, the title involves far too much work? It may be better to pick another title!


What the question excludes is as important as what it includes. Essays that include points to impress a tutor but are not relevant should carry no mark. Essays where the question dominates the whole narrative carry most marks. If in doubt, argue the information into the title’s relevance.


There are some key words to consider that lead a question:


Describe  Give a detailed description of something
Define  Precisely give the exact meaning of something
Explain  Be simple and straightforward in displaying knowledge
State  Lay out matters clearly and concisely
Summarise  Bring together the substance of a concern and leave out details


Account for  Explain why something is like it is
Analyse  Give a detailed examination, breaking parts down
Argue  Debate the case for and/ or against something
Compare  Investigate the similarities (and illustrate some differences)
Contrast  Investigate the differences (and illustrate some similarities)
Consider  Engage with the issues involved
Criticise  Give a critical analysis (not about being negative)
Discuss  Give arguments for and against a situation
Evaluate  Give a qualitative judgment of the argument presented


Assess  Give a skilled weighed argument of a situation
Comment on  Give a view as well as a presentation of information
Interpret  Be straightforward and clear in translating and developing something


Illustrate  Offer practical and concrete examples
Outline  Ignore details in presenting an argument or principles of a subject


Reconcile  Bring oppositional points together
Relate  Show the connections between various views or matters


Justify  Give sufficient arguments for holding a position (and those against)
Show  Give the arguments and examples for holding a position
Prove  Give convincing arguments for holding a position


Enumerate  Go through the arguments one at a time, possibly numbering them


Review  Bring forward a critical survey of existing material
Trace  Give an historical analysis or follow step by step




Planning the work – and the “steamroller” approach


This is a three stage process. The first is to become acquainted with the subject matter. This means gathering material, like lecture notes, reading core texts and around the subject, making notes in spider diagram form or Literary Machine fashion, building ideas and connections in the mind, and checking what has been said in the literature. Along the way keep a record of all sources so that evidence and ideas can be traced back. After all, the first reading of them may be inadequate.


A possible extension of a spider diagram is a very basic essay plan, but let this be intuitive and not data dependent. Think of the general flow required, the ‘story’ within the title. Not all – in fact comparatively little – source material may have been gathered at this stage. Think of the introduction that does not give the whole story away, the substance, the summary of points and the conclusion which tightly ties everything together.


Then with this essay building in the mind, put the books and sources out of arms’ reach (not the plan, necessarily) and write it. Keep to the title, but just do it. This is the steamroller approach. It is good exam training too. The reason for this approach is that it allows the fitting of evidence and arguments to the narrative, rather than the other way around. It stops resource material being a crutch. It also helps to show which evidence is more important and what can be left our when there are length and time constraints. To go from the material to the essay is to make the evaluation of the material more difficult.


It may well be that this very first draft is nothing like the result. The sources already used and the additional ones needed to bring in support to the narrative, should affect the essay content and direction afterwards. Perhaps the presentation will become more balanced later. Yet the result of the steamroller will be an achievement of a consistent narrative from beginning to end. Imagine doing an exam question after self-training in this method!


Discriminate between evidence and ideas…


Notice how some points made are evidence and some ideas, and some seem completely woven together. This is true in the sources, and in rough drafts of essays. For the purposes of presenting an argument, it is right to be aware of which category any point falls into. Even the most value neutral factual material probably contains some methodological bias in it, so it is best to be aware that these categories vary at the margin and are not complete. All history and social science, for example, is ideological and selective, business is often a presentation, English is value-laden and indeed most essay using disciplines are reconstructions of reality. Plus, no postmodernist will accept a complete demarcation of ideas and evidence.


Nevertheless an awareness of these issues, and especially being self-critical of over-eager personal opinions, is valid and necessary, and should inform the work.


Style and Structure


The structure depends upon the title – see the leading questions above. However, all essays share the fact that they are driven by the title. Every piece of evidence, every idea, should relate to the title. If this is not obvious, say why the idea or evidence is given. Argue the hind leg off the donkey if necessary. The ideas may predominate, or the evidence, there may be one opinion dominant with other opinions appearing, or a balance. The presentation maybe historical, logical, or, may be one stage removed from a Powerpoint type presentation or literary and creative. Which of these is chosen depends on the impications of the title – the style and structure should follow on from the title and also subject conventions.


Adding in the writer’s (your) point of view


The point of view may come as an afterthought or through the piece. It may be subtle in presentation, bold and obvious, conclusive of already given arguments, or part of the argument. Again this depends on the title and the subject conventions, and may be assisted by the steamrolling process.


Clear writing


If there is a simpler way to put it, use the simper way. There is no academic credit in being complex for complexity’s sake. So this means simpler words, and if two sentences say it better than one then use two. Whilst all essays are written for a target audience, always write just below the level of the target audience, and show that complexity is understood.


The final draft and completed essay should be a model of clarity. Spelling should be checked and phrases critically assessed.


Then, does the essay flow, does it keep to the question and return to the question if it seems to stray? Plus, are the references all there in the text. It is always better if a word is technical or potentially ambiguous that it is referenced to where it was first found and used. Referencing is for more than just indented quotations. The flow of an essay is not affected by referencing, and should be a good read hopping over the references. The reader may tackle the references later on, for example.


Receiving back and evaluating the essay


Every essay is read and criticised by people who mark it. They have a schedule of marking, officially or perhaps in their own ways. Students often think that what one tutor wants is very different from another. This is not really so. A consistent well argued easy to read essay will score well with anyone. An essay that may be answering the question even if full of detail will get marked less well. Something thrown together will always get the weakest mark. Tutors do perhaps give advice on the level of the students, so a first year student is expected to be less skillful in the production of an essay than a third year, but what makes a good essay is usually the same, just as what makes a bad essay


So what went wrong, and what went right are questions to be asked on receipt of the marked essay. The comments are usually constructive, and there to be used. The tutor's purpose is to educate and improve performance, so that assessment and evaluation are essential for feedback to the student as well as just recording a mark.


So the criticism should be used for improvement, and the skill of essay writing further further developed.


Making the work useful for exam revision


If there is no exam at the end of the course, this does not apply. Basically, essays are good training for exams if the student can master the process of writing as in the "steamroller" approach, and has a good memory. The ability to have the information in the head and write well will score in an exam where there are no references and where doing it right first time scores highly. The essay as a construct is less useful for revision of evidence, however. It does join the dots of evidence, and it may be that a similar essay appears in an exam question - however, because the style and structure answering the question as put is paramount, that particular argument is not exactly going to be reproduced in an exam. Every essay is a new essay, even if the facts and argument seem to be the same in places.


For revision purposes, the essay needs stripping. Strip the essay down back to a visual or textual mind map. The narrative may inform the branches of the new mind map but the content is what needs to be revised, and the evidence needs stripping out to become bite-size chunks for revision.


Making the work useful for a dissertation


This does not apply if there is no dissertation later. In essence each essay is training for more complex work. A dissertation, even a thesis, is a long essay. The kind of discipline needed to produce 2000 words needs to be reproduced for 10,000, 50,000 and 100,000 words! It is all about a narrative, about a good ending, handling data and argument together, keeping to the question or topic area central to the narrative, and making it easy to read at whatever level the writing is pitched. So it is important to learn the skill of essay writing for the more complex work that comes later.


To conclude


Essays are writing. They are governed by style and structure according to a question and conventions. They are not piled in facts, or attempts to impress with knowledge. They are skilled handling of arguments and concentrate on the question in hand.


Marshall, L., Rowland, F. (1998), A Guide to Learning Independently, 3rd edition, Buckingham: Open University Press, 181-212

For more on answering questions (including short answers, essays and exams) see Worsfold, A. J. (2003), Answering Questions, [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: http://www.change.freeuk.com/learning/advskills/answering.html.