A Beginner’s Guide to Essay-Writing

www.essayacademia.com A Beginner’s Guide to Essay-Writing How to Use This Guide Where to Seek Help What Do We Want from You and Why? Some Introductory Remarks The Writing Stages: Before You Start, in the Middle, and After You Have Finished Structure and Argument Language Use and Style ‘Flow’ Sentence Structure Spelling and Word Use Citing and Quoting Formatting and Bibliographic References

How to Use This Guide
Many new students feel ill-prepared to write essays, either because they lack confidence in their own abilities or because they are unsure about what is expected of them. While you will simply have to take the plunge eventually and while there is no better way of learning than by doing, this guide is intended to help you on your way and avoid some of the commonest pitfalls. It is based both on my own experiences as a writer and on what I perceive to be the most frequent problems encountered by students. The best way to use it is to read it carefully before you embark on your first essays. Not everything will be of equal use to you at first, and you are not expected to get everything right from the start. But if you do find some of the advice useful, you may want to keep the guide in a safe place and consult it whenever you need it. Also keep in mind that the suggestions I make in this guide are only that: suggestions – you are not to follow them slavishly if they do not work for you. Everybody works differently, and it is for you to discover your particular method; we can only help you with that. So, make your own experiences! Where to Seek Help


What Do We Want from You and Why? Some Introductory Remarks
In many of your courses essays form a large part of the assessment. You should see this as an opportunity to tell your side of the story. Whereas many other forms of assessment, such as unseen exams, focus largely on the reproduction of facts, essays bring your critical intelligence into play. Although knowing the facts is indispensable for a successful essay, it is your ability to make sense of them that really makes a difference. Another advantage of essays is that you can learn a lot while writing them: firstly, how to research a topic on your own, secondly, how to develop an original argument, and thirdly, how to fashion your ideas into a written text. While there can be a great variety of positive examples, a successful essay will normally demonstrate a sound grasp of the subject matter, present an original argument, and support this argument persuasively in a well-structured text. Some students find it hard to accept the second and third items of this list. However, as mentioned above, being able to reproduce the facts is only the beginning in an essay; being able to evaluate them critically and making one’s case articulately are at least of equal importance. Demonstrating your capacity for independent thought does not mean that you have to square the circle or reinvent music history every time you write an essay, nor is it an invitation for purely subjective judgement. Rather, you should be able to show that you can critique what you read in books and complement it with your own assessment of the subject matter. Admittedly, getting the balance right is not always easy, but this can be learned over time. Moreover, there is more than one ‘correct’ spot on the continuum between a neutral summary of published material and completely independent ideas. As with so many things, learning by doing is the best method. What all this implies is that what counts is not which answer you give to an essay question, but how you substantiate the answer that you do give: what we look for as examiners is not the ‘right’ answer but consistency in your argument and in the evidence you cite. What many students take issue with is that such aspects as language use, essay structure, and writing style form part of the assessment. At this stage, I could content myself with citing university legislation, but, as it happens, I support the legislation in this particular instance. What seems to have happened is that these students have fallen victim to a popular belief according to which there is a clear distinction between the content of an essay and the words used to express it. Proponents of this view regard language simply as a conduit for the ‘message’. Linguists have known for many years that this is erroneous: textual meaning only resides in words, not outside them. To put it closer to home: we can only give you credit for what you do say, not for what you may have wanted to say. As I mentioned above, part of your task is to make a persuasive argument, and this requires a certain facility in language use. (Interestingly, when I discuss books with students, they are more likely to critique the writing than the content, arguing that one is ‘more comprehensible’ than another, www.essayacademia.com

or that it makes a ‘more convincing case’ – you should follow the same ideals in your own writing.) But more importantly, being able to argue your case articulately and eloquently is one of the greatest assets you can gain while at university: there is no profession or walk of life where this skill is not a prime advantage. Finally, from my personal experience the old maxim that clarity of language shows clarity of thought is mostly true (with the exception of such cases as dyslexia). Accordingly, acquiring greater verbal dexterity may help you to achieve deeper insight too. This is not so surprising since mental processes are influenced by language, while, conversely, language structures to a certain extent reflect cognitive processes that is the working of the mind. In case this sounds intimidating – which it isn’t meant to be – help is at hand. Firstly, we as lecturers are aware that writing is a skill that isn’t acquired overnight: we are all still learning and few of us like to be reminded of our first efforts. This is reflected in our marking. But in order to improve you should read our comments carefully and try to take them on board: they are not designed to ‘tell you off’, but to help you progress. Furthermore, the good news is that, to a large extent, essay-writing can be learned; following the ground rules below may make the plunge easier! Before I go into details, however, here’s the most important rule: the best way of learning to write is to read. The publications we cite in our reading lists should normally be good models: try to emulate them (not slavishly of course). This may also teach you how to read more critically: you have probably been taught to distil the contents of books and articles; now try also to analyse how they are structured, how authors present the material to make their points, how they write, and how they cite. This skill may lead you to revise your opinion of certain publications, and this may in turn come in handy when it comes to demonstrate your personal judgement of which I spoke above.

The Writing Stages: Before You Start, in the Middle, and After You Have Finished
Let us imagine you have done all your research (normally the research and writing phases overlap because your writing may take you in unexpected directions – which is generally a good sign – or you discover that you are unclear about certain aspects, but let’s leave all that aside): how do you start writing? For most people it is not advisable to start writing the actual text straightaway, but first to produce drafts. This can take the form of keywords that reflect the structure of the argument, an abstract presenting the whole of the essay in a compressed version, or a mind map which represents key issues and their interrelations graphically. Experiment with these or other ways of sketching the basic ideas to find out what works best for you. In any case, it is almost always better to have a clear idea of what you want to say www.essayacademia.com

before you start writing – even if you revise your ideas at a later stage (that’s generally a good sign too!). When you think you know what you want, start writing. It is important to note that you do not have to start with the very beginning; in fact, most writers write their introductions last so they know what it is they introduce (personally, I generally prefer starting with the introduction as it forces me to clarify what I’m really after). Whatever you start with, remember that you can always revise, reorder or erase what you write – and rigorously do so if you don’t find it satisfactory! Word processors have made this a lot easier. Particularly if you suffer from writer’s block, it may help you to know that whatever you write is only provisional. You may also want to start with what you are most certain about. The third phase after planning and writing is revising. In my experience, students greatly underestimate the importance of this. At this stage, you have to be very hard on yourself: read your own text very carefully, always asking yourself whether you have actually written what you wanted to, whether this is the best way of expressing it, whether your text is consistent and the order of the material reflects the stages of your argument, whether syntactical structures used exist and whether they mean what you think they do, whether words used mean what you think they do, and so forth. It is always useful to give your essay to a friend to read (to avoid academic misconduct, this friend should not take the same course and should not comment on the actual subject matter). If you think that this is taking friendship too far, how about exchanging essays? If you are not quite happy with your text, try to analyse what is wrong (this may not be easy) and rectify it. Obviously, time is limited, but in your planning always leave some space for rigorous revision. I sometimes spend more time revising and rewriting a text than it has taken me to write it in the first place. What is important about these three phases is that they overlap. While you are writing you will almost inevitably amend some of your initial assumptions. As I mentioned above, this is a good sign because it shows that writing helps you develop your thoughts. However, you may have to go back to your planning phase and reconsider what the consequences of your new line of argument are. Moreover, you may also have to revise some of your earlier text as this was written with an argument in mind that you have since altered. Therefore, always ask yourself whether what you have just written really continues to serve the function in relation to your argument that you originally had in mind (e.g. illustrating, supporting or challenging it). This implies that, just as you are going back to the drawing board while writing, you are also already revising. Obviously you should try not to be too obsessive and labour endlessly on your first paragraph – on the contrary, it is often a better idea to keep going and see that you ‘find your way in’ – but analysing your own writing is never a bad idea. This may all sound more complex than it really is: the chances are that you are already working in this way – perhaps without being aware of it – and it will come quite naturally with more practice. Nevertheless, it needs saying as a mismatch between the ostensible www.essayacademia.com

argument of an essay and the evidence cited to support it is a fairly common flaw. A system of checks and balances between the three writing phases should ensure an argument that appears to flow naturally. Needless to say, this process takes some time, so don’t leave things for the last minute! This does not mean that you are going to spend more time writing: on the contrary, if anything, a well-planned and properly drafted essay will make for easier and more fluent writing. But ideas need time to mature.

Structure and Argument
In the following, I present some basic hints for the construction of essays, starting with the hierarchically highest level, that of the whole essay, and moving successively downwards to the smallest unit, that of the individual word. The most common flaw in students’ essays is the lack of a central proposition. The result is often a conglomeration of perfectly useful insights and observations which, however, do not add up to something like a coherent picture. If you are not quite sure about what you actually want to say, how can you say it well? Hence, from your researching the topic and planning the essay, always think about what your hypothesis is going to be (it can happen that you only really find this while writing, in which case you may have to go over what you have written as mentioned in the previous section). This presents problems for some students because they are not used to developing their own views. Apparently, schools tend to train pupils not to express their individual opinion, but instead summarise other people’s arguments as neutrally and objectively as possible. By contrast, while you need to be able to do this, we are also interested in your own ideas, and you should aim to communicate these in your essays. These views do not have to be ‘balanced’: they can be passionate and even polemical – provided you can support them through rational argument and proper use of evidence. If you have an hypothesis, the structuring of your text will seem quite natural: you first state the problem and introduce your hypothesis (if you don’t want to save it for later), then, in the middle section, you cite the evidence supporting it – also mentioning possible counterarguments – before concluding on how the evidence supports your proposition. What you get is a three-part structure with an introduction, a main body containing the evidence and most of the argument, and a conclusion. This is often summarised as ‘say what you are going to say, say it, and say what you have just said’. This sounds inane, and, if you follow the recipe too slavishly, it is, but more often than not, this structure works remarkably well (you can find out yourself if you think about how many of the articles you find convincing use this structure: that’s what I meant when I said that reading is a good guide for writing!). Another important advantage of having a central argument is that it orders your material in arguments for and against, as well as in more important and less important points. Without www.essayacademia.com

such a proposition, a fact is just a fact, and there is any number of them and all seem equally important. Consequently, essays lacking a clear proposition often suffer from a multitude of scarcely related facts scattered among the text whose relevance and function is often unclear. Therefore one of the ground rules is: only cite the material that is related to your proposition and subject matter. Essays are not primarily about showing how much you know, and additional information can be confusing if there does not seem to be a reason why it is mentioned. Even if you have a central proposition and a clear overall structure, it may sometimes be necessary to guide your readers through the argument. You may know how any given passage relates to the overall argument, but for a reader this is not always clear. Therefore, ask yourself whether the relation of any given passage to the whole is clear and, if not, draw the necessary connections. If, for instance, writing about the relation between the publishing trade and the evolution of sonata form in Beethoven’s time, you want to include a passage about the increasing importance of domestic music-making among the burgeoning middle classes, you could include something like this: ‘the relation between such social conditions as the rise of the middle classes on one hand and changes in musical form on the other may not be entirely evident at first sight. However,...’; or: ‘while the influence of commercial publishers has been duly noted, the importance of the greater availability of affordable pianos for the new middle classes has often been overlooked’. This should ensure that readers know why you are mentioning these things. Sometimes it may be useful to foreshadow your argument so your readers know where they are: this is what I did at the beginning of this chapter. This approach can seem a little over-didactic and inelegant, but sometimes it is helpful. If you find it hard to develop a clear structure – many do – you may want to include subheadings. Sub-headings force you to stick with a topic for a while and deal with only one issue at a time (in too many essays one gets the impression that students are writing about everything and nothing all the time). In the example I used above, the sub-heading could be, for instance, ‘The Rise of the Middle Classes and the Piano Trade’; but you can also use generic sub-headings such as ‘Introduction’ or ‘Conclusion’. Sometimes you may want to erase your sub-headings at a later stage just as you would dismantle scaffolding after the actual edifice has been built. In other cases, you may find that the sub-headings help readers to orient themselves too – this is why I use sub-headings for the present text. As with different methods for planning and drafting a text, what works best for you depends on the subject matter and on what kind of writer you are: experiment with it.


Language Use and Style
As with all aspects of writing and language, there is no one ‘correct’ style; individual variations are not only inevitable but also desirable. If there is a general rule, however, it is to aim for a relatively simple, clear and factual style. Colloquialisms, florid prose (beware of liner and programme notes!) and emotive or emphatic language are best avoided, unless for special expressive purposes (and these should be rare). It is best to get used to different registers of language: the language you use on a Friday night at the club is normally inappropriate in academic contexts, but the style you use in an essay shouldn’t be a foreign language to you either, as it easily sounds stilted otherwise. While language use is an expression of individuality, it does not follow that only one style can be yours: we all use different languages in different circumstances. As with other matters, follow the example of recommended books that you like and consider our suggestions.

If your essay has a clear argument and is well-structured, it should be easy to read. However, some texts are still somewhat clunky, and this often has to do with the connections between sentences and paragraphs – or rather the lack of them. First of all, you should use the sentence as a unit thoughtfully: make the full stop your friend! Quite often, one comes across passages that look as if the material as been poured over the paper without being first divided into ‘edible chunks’. Separate your material into units of information and group these into sentences (this seems obvious, but isn’t always easy). If you find this hard, the chances are that you haven’t thought enough about your material and therefore don’t know which are the important bits and which are only supplementary. Sometimes it helps rearranging different phrases to form new sentences. If you have your sentences, these may need to be linked to one another. On the simplest level, a sentence is a statement of fact, but lining up statements of fact does not produce an argument. The question is how sentences relate to one another. As far as I am aware, there are four basic types which account for most relations between successive sentences, the first three of which are particularly important in academic writing: a sentence may, firstly, add to the preceding one, secondly, illustrate it or follow from it, thirdly, refute it (or seemingly so), and fourthly, introduce a different time level. All these relations can be expressed through conjunctions (or adverbs used as conjunctions), normally introduced at the beginning of the second sentence, as follows: 1. If a sentence supports the preceding one and adds to it (consecutive, the ‘and-type’):


Furthermore; Moreover; Additionally/In addition to that; Besides, And (this was generally not sanctioned by traditional style manuals, and for good reason, but is now quite accepted). 2. If a sentence illustrates the preceding one or follows logically from it (causal, the ‘sotype’): Thus; Hence; Therefore; Consequently/As a consequence; Accordingly; As a result; So (somewhat colloquial) 3. If a sentence refutes the preceding one or presents a counter-argument (the ‘but-type’): However; Yet; Nevertheless/Nonetheless; By contrast; Though; But (like ‘and’ this is not traditional) 4. If the action of the sentence precedes or succeeds that of the preceding sentence (temporal: this is usually unproblematic) Before; After; etc. Using these conjunctions judiciously may sometimes be enough to transform a stodgy passage into a nicely flowing one. Moreover (!), this helps you to analyse your own writing: if you cannot decide which of these relations fits your passage, the meaning of the sentences may be unclear. As a rule, though, conjunctions should not be overused as this can make a text appear pedantic and over-written. Paragraphs are used to bundle information into more easily consumable parcels. There are no particular rules for this, but if your paragraphs are consistently one sentence or a whole page long, the reason may lie in your not organising your material properly.

Sentence Structure
Apart from interpolated clauses and relative clauses, which do not normally cause great problems, the relations between different clauses within a sentence are normally the same as between different sentences which I dealt with above. Being aware of this may make it easier to survey the jungle of syntactic structures. There are also alternative structures for practically all the major types of sub- or coordinated clauses. See, for instance, different versions of the ‘but-type’ which all produce a slightly different emphasis (although not all work equally well, ‘whereas’ and ‘while’ – normally also yielding similar meanings – don’t seem to work at all): Note too that in most cases the two phrases can also be exchanged (although this is a little awkward in this case), It is best to get used to juggle around sentences in this manner, and many of you will already do so; it becomes an automatic process after a while. In any case, never just write what comes into your head first: always take care to construct proper sentences that communicate your meaning! Again, this may mean that you need more time


than you have originally envisaged. For an inexperienced writer, a rushed essay will never be a good essay.

Spelling and Word Use
At this stage, I can only give you some ground rules: • • • Always use a spell check. Consistently faulty orthography is unnecessary and will be penalised. However, using a spell check does not free you from ‘manual’ proof-reading. Use a dictionary. Use a thesaurus. If you find yourself constantly using the same words or not quite finding the right ones, see what alternatives you find in a thesaurus. For Microsoft Word users the Word thesaurus can be accessed by highlighting a word and pressing Shift+F7 (it’s not as good as a proper thesaurus, but much faster. I use it all the time). • Related to that, a note on repetition: you have probably been taught to avoid repeating words. This is generally a sound rule. However, if you cannot find a proper alternative to the word you are using, better stick to that, lest your text becomes vague and imprecise. If the choice is between a lack of elegance and imprecision, opt for the former! Furthermore, you can and should of course repeat technical terms and terms you are writing about (see, for instance, how often I repeat the word ‘essay’ in the introduction to this text: I don’t see this as a problem, and choosing synonyms would have been less clear). Technical terms have been coined precisely because there is no other way to unequivocally refer to the matter at hand. • • Apostrophes. Foreign names and titles: make sure you copy these correctly; it does matter! Also use diacritics such as accents and umlauts where appropriate (these can be accessed through the ‘insert’ menu of your word processor •

Citing and Quoting

Formatting and Bibliographic References
There are different ways of citing someone else’s work. The most common is to make a footnote which contains the name of the author; the title of the publication; place, name of publisher and year of publication; and the page number(s) – in that order (for more general references page numbers may not be necessary, but if you do refer to a specific passage, you have to name them – this is always the case in literal quotations). Remember that in titles everything except grammatical words are normally capitalised, and that titles of independent publications (e.g. books, journals, dictionaries, but not articles) are usually italicised (or underlined). There are differences between different kinds of publications


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