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How to Write an Essay

Activities

An exercise taking you through some of the Components of Academic Style

Derek Davies, University Language Centre.

The process of writing an essay can be broken down into four phases:

  1. analysis of the question asked

  2. gathering together the relevant facts, quotations and references which will form the raw material of your argument

  3. sketching out a plan of the assignment (which may well include writing out your - provisional - conclusion)

  4. writing the assignment

1) Analysing the question asked

One of the first things a tutor will look for in an essay is: to what extent have you answered the question?

The wording of the essay title, therefore, is absolutely vital. Your first task is to fully understand the question.

It will probably have been set in such a way as to raise a complex of issues. Try to separate out the various issues raised - whether raised explicitly or implicitly - by the question and then see how these issues fit together. If you don't answer the question that's being asked, your essay could be a disaster, no matter how elegantly-written or logically-structured.

Identify the key words of the essay title. It may be worth rewriting the essay title in your own words if it is at all complex or confusing. (You might even want to incorporate this into your essay, defining the terms and drawing out what you perceive to be the overall meaning of the question in your introduction).

Think also about any built-in assumptions in the essay title. For example, 'To what extent did the House of Commons increase its power in the sixteenth century' almost invites you to agree with the assumption that the House of Commons did increase its power. You may think that it didn't. Remember that you can disagree with such assumptions, or treat them critically. Your argument will, of course, have to be well supported with evidence and rational argument.

Our Key Phrases Used in Essay Titles page might come in useful if you do not understand the title.

In general, the results of your reflections and brainstorming in this phase should ultimately turn into the introduction to your assignment.

You should also start to think seriously about your overall answer to the question: this will become the conclusion to your assignment. Be absolutely sure that you are answering the question asked, and not another question which you would like to have been asked.

2) Gathering the raw material

As you unravel the issues raised by the question, start to note down different examples (including facets of relevant texts, particular passages or episodes, quotations, etc.) which might be pertinent. At this stage of the proceedings do not be afraid to indulge in a certain amount of free association, allowing anything concerning the subject to rise up from the depths of your memory: firstly, it is much better to have too much material and to be able to reject what you find you do not need; and secondly, one thing can suggest or recall another which may turn out to be more useful. Jot down in rough whatever you want.

3) Drawing Up A Plan

Everyone knows that good ideas can come to us as we write. However, it is very unwise to rely solely on this when producing an assignment. An assignment must follow a coherent argument, set out clearly and logically. It must be structured. For this reason you should first make a plan, which will:

  • allow you to write more quickly, and to concentrate on developing a more fluent style
  • focus your thoughts on the essay question
  • give you a chance to think through and develop your argument(s)
  • help you to avoid repetition and confusion
  • tell you whether you are ready to start writing or not!

Let's start with the conclusion...

Your assignment structure must above all lead to a conclusion. Ideally you will know at the outset what your conclusion is going to be - you can even write out the thrust of your conclusion before you begin. That way you know what you are aiming at and avoid going off at a tangent. If you find at some later stage that you want to modify your conclusion in keeping with the main body of your text, then you are perfectly free to make the final version different.

Arguments...

The way to begin making a plan is to think of all the reasons/arguments/aspects of the question which support your conclusion. Make a list of these arguments.

Consider counter-arguments, (see Critical Thinking for help) so as to show why your reasoning on a particular point is closer to the truth or more pertinent than other possible ways of thinking.

Structure...

Having made your list of reasons/arguments/aspects, you can develop the structure of your essay. Each section of your essay - and therefore of your plan - can deal with a different reason/argument/aspect of the question. Gather all the information relevant to each reason/argument/aspect of the question into one section or paragraph.

Your structure will appear all the stronger and more convincing if you give the reader the impression that these reasons/arguments/aspects of the question have been ordered in the most logical way. To get the best structure, take your list of reasons/arguments/aspects of the question and order them in such a way that reason no. 2 seems to depend on the prior establishment of reason no. 1, and reason no. 3 on no.'s 1 or 2 or even 1 and 2, etc.

When you come to write the essay, you can easily refer the reader back, at important moments, to points that you have already made. Each section of the essay, and each paragraph of your text, should make the argument move forward.

Add flesh...

Your reordered list is now the basis of your plan. It is still in very skeletal form. Begin to add 'flesh' to it by adding to each section some of the raw material mentioned above - examples, references, quotations, etc. All of this can obviously be done in an abbreviated short-hand that you understand.

4) Writing The Essay

Having drawn up a detailed plan, you will find writing much easier. Many students will now write the final version of the assignment straight away. There are good reasons, however, for writing a first draft, reading it through carefully, then writing an improved final draft. This allows you to improve the structure and style, to check whether the assignment is too long or too short, and to correct any mistakes.

A. The First Draft

Work closely from your assignment plan. Your first draft will test whether your plan works in practice. Don't rush the first draft or allow it to become a mess. This simply makes more work for yourself later. Make sure the reader knows why you are including pieces of information. Be explicit. Try to use the model of 'Statement, followed by reasons and evidence'. Don't be afraid to leave something out if it doesn't fit. Make sure everything you write is relevant to the question, accurate and clear.

B. The Review

Read through your first draft carefully and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Have you answered the question?
  • Have you done what the Introduction said you were going to do?
  • Is the logical progression of the argument clear for the reader?
  • Is there a good balance between discussion and factual detail?
  • Are your general arguments supported by evidence?
  • Are there any errors of grammar and spelling?
  • Could the writing style be improved?
  • Has anything important been left out?
  • Does the Conclusion show how you have answered the question?

C. The Final Draft

Find out from your department how the assignment is to be presented. i.e. does it need a cover sheet? What information has to go on this cover sheet? Do all the pages need numbering? Please see our How To Reference page for more information.

Material adapted from the Department of French Studies Guide to Essay Writing and Study Skills in History