Some notes on Essay Writing
No-one can lay down rules about how to study, but it is worth working out
a rhythm that suits you, and that will enable you to make the best of your time
as a student. This includes deciding when and where to read as well as how to
plan and write an essay. Some people find they are at their best in the mornings
while other prefer to work late into the night, so it is a good idea to decide
whether you are a lark or an
owl and plan accordingly. Can you concentrate best in the Library, or do you
prefer to work at home? Do you work best in long, uninterrupted blocks of time,
or do you prefer to work in short bursts, with frequent breaks? You also need to
recognise that your friends’ rhythms may not be the same as yours: some people
produce good work by studying through the night sustained on black coffee,
others do not.
Try to embark on an essay in a positive frame of mind. The best way to do
this is to begin work well in advance of the deadline and then you will have
time to enjoy your reading. Make sure you allow time to think as well as read;
talk about the topic with others, mull it over, re-read your notes, follow-up
further references. Writing an essay is like cooking; you may be able to throw
everything together quickly in the end, but unless you have decent ingredients
it won’t taste very good.
You should have been shown how to find material in the Library, but if
not, there will be someone willing to help with information at the issue desk
nearby. But you need first to be sure what material you want. If the reading
list is not clear to you, then ask the tutor who prepared it to clarify which
material is relevant for your particular essay. Some students seem to feel that
it is ‘cheating’ to talk with the tutor about an essay in preparation. On
the contrary, such discussions can be a useful part of the learning process.
You will need to decide how much reading to do. A common difficulty is
that students read so much and take so many notes that they exhaust their
interest in the topic before they come to try to order their thoughts. If you
keep the essay question in mind all the time you should find ideas occurring to
you as you read, and then it is easier to decide when to stop reading and begin
organising these ideas into an essay.
Oddly enough (and this will vary from subject to subject) you may have to
learn how not to read books. Unless your study is based closely on particular
texts, you will find that you have not enough time to read
books all through. Tutors may want you to look at a number of
different sources and you have to develop strategies for finding
what you need. Some books are like annotated bibliographies, in which case you
will probably need to concentrate on one pithy section and then follow up the
leads in its footnotes. For books with a more extended treatment of a theme try
starting with the Conclusions, and then use the chapter heading and index to
direct you to the most relevant sections.
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Taking notes from your reading is a rather personal process, but it is
important to try and develop a system that works well for you. It may be helpful
to think about why you are reading something, and in relation to writing an
essay there are perhaps three main reasons:
to collect information and ideas,
to find some good quotations, and
to trigger ideas of your own.
the case of (a) the best way to take notes is to read the passage or section
right through and then summarise the key points in your own words. This is a
good basis from which to return to the text for (b), to select appropriate
quotations. Obviously you should note down the ideas or comments of your own as
they occur to you. When taking notes you should try to avoid extensive
quotations. At the time it often seems easier to copy out vast amounts of
material than to select and summarise, but it only postpones thinking. NEVER
mark a Library book. It destroys the book for future readers and it is a sign of
lazy, sloppy thinking.
It is extremely important that when re-reading your notes you can easily
identify what type of notes they are. Are they your précis of the content? Are
they quotations? Or are they your own ideas? The simplest system is to put
quotation marks around quotations, and to put your own ideas in brackets perhaps
with your initials (like alterations on a cheque), but some people prefer other
methods, such as different coloured pens. In both cases you should include
details of the relevant page numbers alongside your notes. Plagiarism (passing
off someone else’s work as your own), is a serious offence (see
Appendix A on Acknowledging your Sources).
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can be no hard and fast rules about how to write a good essay, but the following
points should help to guide you in the right direction.
To plan or not to plan. People construct essays in many different ways
but it will help you if you identify which way suits you best. Try starting with
a plan or diagram of some sort which maps out the sequence of ideas, perhaps in
answer to a series of imagined questions such as: What exactly is the essay
about? How am I going to tackle it? What evidence am I going to bring in to
support my augments? Is there supplementary material which could be brought in
to strengthen or challenge the argument? Where does all this get us in the end?
If you find that you can follow your plan fairly closely as you write your essay
then you are probably a one-draft or two-draft person. Some people find that
even with a detailed plan their ideas only become clear as they write, and the
finished essay bears little resemblance to the original plan. If you are one of
those people who don’t find out what you are writing about until you’ve
written it, then don’t agonise over the commas in the opening paragraph; you
are a two-draft person, or even a multi-draft person. Word processors make the
business of redrafting easy, but ironically for some people they can also make
writing a good essay harder because it is so easy to get bogged down in the
detail instead of letting the thoughts and line of argument flow.
A good essay is a selective analysis. Before starting to write you
may have gathered pages and pages of notes but the skill lies in
selecting the evidence, organising the material into an argument,
and arguing the point concisely. If you find yourself going over the
word limit (usually 2,500 words, about 8-10 double spaced typed
pages), you are probably including too much material which does not
contribute to the argument or exegesis. If your essay is too long
you may be penalised. It is worth remembering that quantity is not
the same as quality.
To be good an essay needs to be focused. If you have been given a
question to answer, then answer it. If you have been given a more open-ended
essay topic or title you will probably find it helpful to frame a suitable
question to answer as this will help you organise your thoughts and your
material into an argument. Keep the question or title in your mind as you write.
Ask yourself how each paragraph or section relates to the question. Students
seldom recognise that considerable thought has gone into the setting of essay
titles, to define a field, to give scope, but also to delimit the amount of
Think of your reader. It helps the reader if the essay has an
introduction which raises in a general way the kinds of issues with which the
essay will be concerned, and give the reader some kind of guidance as to the
sequence in which they will be tackled. Then in the body of the essay you should
develop your material, always trying to make the links between the different
ideas as clear as possible. And finally, there should be a set of concluding
remarks which sum up rather then introduce new material. Don’t worry about
trying to come to tidy, tight conclusions. If there are ambiguities, or if in
the end you feel that the question posed cannot be fully resolved then it is
better to say so.
An essay should have an argument, a thesis or a point of view. You need
to convince your reader, and to do so is much easier if you are convinced
yourself. It is possible, but not so easy, to write a good, convincing essay
defending a thesis with which you yourself disagree. But it is almost impossible
to write a good essay if you have not made up your mind and have no clear point
of view about the topic. Having said that, you should aim to convince your
reader with evidence and argument, not with a harangue.
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It may help with the structure if you give your essay informative side
headings. Even if you do not formally write in these headings it is the mark of
a good, readable discussion that you could write them in – or your reader
could – if necessary. This means that your text needs recognisable paragraphs,
each of which contains a theme or idea. And when the theme changes, so does the
If you are dealing with numerical data, you should make sure that any
tables you present have a self-explanatory title, so that they can be read
without the accompanying text if necessary. However, the tables themselves will
rarely be self-explanatory, so you should explain in the body of your essay what
you think the table shows, and how it relates to your argument.
You can make your essay easier to read, and more convincing, by
presenting data in more imaginative ways. Try not to use a single table to
present a number of different types of comparison; instead, produce fresh tables
for each dimension of the argument. And don’t present the data in such a way
that the reader has to do a lot of work on it (eg, calculating percentages,
proportions or trends) in order to see how it supports your argument; do the
work yourself, and use the table to present the results. You should also ask
yourself whether a table is the best way to present your data. A pie-chart, a
histogram, a strip-chart, or a graph might help you to communicate the same
information more directly and convincingly to your reader.
One of the common weakness in essay writing is the assumption that
quoting an author whose opinion agrees with your own counts as evidence in your
favour. But your reader will be asking ‘Why should I accept your view, or for
that matter the view of the authors you quote?’ To answer that question, you
need to mention some supporting arguments or data. If you don’t have any, then
you should not try to hide the fact. Instead, include it in your essay; comment
on its absence, and say what you’d like to know, what the evidence would look
like, why you think there isn’t enough data.
A different weakness is the tendency some students have to compile masses
of evidence, but without telling the reader what it means or why it is being
amassed. If, as you are writing, you keep in mind the question ‘Why are you
telling me all this?’, it should never occur to your reader.
If you get really stuck, try and decide where the problem lies. Do you
have too much material? Because you find material interesting doesn’t mean to
say it is going to be relevant to the essay question. Do you feel you have lost
the thread of the idea? Perhaps your approach to the question changed as you
were writing. It is often helpful to try and explain your ideas to a friend, or
if you have time, put your essay aside for a day or two. Sometimes when you come
back to it after a break it suddenly seems much clearer. If you can’t resolve the problem yourself then you can always go and
see your tutor about it. S/he cannot write your essay for you but will be able
to help you by, perhaps, clarifying the question, suggesting a different line of
enquiry or reassuring you that your approach is valid.
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There are a number of conventions you should observe about how to
organise and present your quotations, footnotes, and bibliography. See the
detailed discussion in Appendix A
on Acknowledging your Sources. It will
also help if you observe the following stylistic conventions:
Always put your name, the name and code of your course/module, and the title at
the beginning, or on a coversheet.
Number each page of the essay, and make the margins wide enough on both
sides of the page for your tutor’s comments. Using double spacing, and one
side of the paper only, is also advisable.
If at all possible, word process your essay; it will be much easier to
read. Most departments require this.
Short quotations (a few lines, or less than 50 words), can be run on as a
part of the main text, in inverted commas; longer quotations should be indented
from the text (in which case they can be single spaced, and there’s no need
for inverted commas).
If you want to omit part of a sentence or paragraph that you are quoting,
indicate this by spaced dots . . . (this is called ‘ellipsis’).
Number your footnotes continuously, rather than by the page.
Always read through a finished essay carefully. Make sure it is within
the word limit, and correct errors of spelling and punctuation. Don’t rely on
the spell checker on your word processor; a spell checker cannot tell you if you
mean ‘their’ or ‘there’, or ‘start’ or ‘smart’. A good way of
checking for problems with syntax and punctuation is to read your essay through
out loud. It should flow reasonably smoothly, and the length and structure of
your sentences should allow you time to breathe. If English is not your first
language, try and get a native English speaker to read your essay through for
you. An uncorrected essay looks unloved, and carelessness in the writer can
hardly stimulate a tutor to care about what you have written.
Keep a copy of your essay when you hand it in, in case of mishaps or
If your essay seems to be late in being returned to you, don’t be
afraid to ask your tutor about it. Most of us would expect, all things being
equal, to return essays within a fortnight of getting them.
When your essay is returned, make sure that you don’t just concentrate
on the overall mark, but spend some time trying to understand how your tutor’s
marginal and concluding comments explain why your essay got the mark it did. If you
still find it puzzling, or if you don’t understand some of the comments, you
should talk to your tutor about it. The best time to do this is probably during
your tutor’s ‘office hours’, a period of time each week when s/he will be
in the office and available to talk to students about anything relating to their
coursework. As a general rule, students make far less use of this important
opportunity for one-to-one contact than they could.
If you can’t sort out your worries about the mark in this way, most
departments have a system of double marking for essays. This means that students
can ask that their essay be marked by another member of staff in the department,
and the initial mark either confirmed or altered. But be warned: the second
marker may judge that your essay should have received a lower mark than the one
your tutor originally gave you.
Finally, you should remember that none of these rules and pieces of
advice are absolute. Good essays come in a variety of shapes and forms, and one
of the pleasures of essay writing lies in experimenting with different
approaches to the task. We hope, nonetheless, that these guidelines will be of
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