How to Write an Essay

The basis of most academic work is the ability to construct a good essay. Although this sounds obvious, it is a skill which most students need to develop as none of us is born with the natural ability to write an essay, never mind one which will both address a given topic effectively and adequately support an argument with evidence. It is possible to learn how to do this, however, and this guide sets out to define the major skills which need to be acquired in order to see the writing of an essay through from the moment you are given or select your topic to its conclusion. Clearly, the type of essay you are required to write will be determined to some extent by the particular field in which you are engaged but the general points of construction will hold good for all subjects.

Getting Started:
The first and most important aspect of writing a good essay is to examine the question. The importance of close analysis of the question as the basis of a good essay cannot be overestimated. Despite this, it is surprising how many students simply write down everything they know about a subject without reference to what the question is actually asking you to do. Whether you have chosen the topic yourself or it has been assigned to you, look carefully at the key words which the question contains, as these will give you the pointers you need to begin to think carefully about how to proceed with your essay. Examples of key words might be: ‘examine’, ‘develop’, ‘analyse’, ‘influence’, ‘compare’. All these words offer a way into discussion of the topic in hand and give you a good idea of the way your essay should be written. For example, if you were asked to compare how two poets address a similar theme, you would know that the reader was expecting to see close analysis of the words used and how theme and structure differ in each. However, if you were asked to examine the causes of the outbreak of a war, you would adopt quite a different approach, balancing fact and opinion. Add to this an awareness of whether the question is asking you to give your own opinion in isolation or whether it requires you to assess the previous and current thinking on a subject and follow this up with a conclusion summarising your own thoughts (the latter of these is more usual). As you develop your argument, ensure that you continue to check back to see that you are answering the question and not just reeling of everything you know about a given topic. If you have been assigned a topic, then things such as choice of texts, word count and style will have been outlined for you but if you are ‘starting from scratch’ then you will need to make these decisions for yourself and this is when you should make your choices, only altering them later if your research suggests that other areas than what

you originally planned need to be covered. Whether you have selected the topic or not, you will need to research critical opinion on it before you begin to write.

Researching your topic:
Having thought carefully about what you are being asked to do, the next stage is to gather your evidence. It is worth saying straight away that you should jot down the details of all and any resources to which you refer – either directly or indirectly – because plagiarism is a major concern and it is easy to plagiarise without meaning to. It’s simple to forget where your ideas start, and someone else’s end.” It is a good idea to begin to compile an alphabetical list of all books used at this stage as this will save you time with your referencing and bibliography later, as well as helping you to keep track of where you sourced your evidence. Remember to present this in the academic style required, as there is considerable difference between the requirements of say, Harvard referencing and MLA - seek advice on the referencing style required before beginning. (Most referencing styles will allow for the use of abbreviations but the first time a book is quoted the full details should be given.) Try to strike a balance between the evidence that supports your own ideas and those which appear to contradict you. Remember, a good essay presents a balanced case and displays an awareness of all points of view (within reason), not just those that agree with your own!

It is very tempting to omit this stage – don’t! Thorough planning saves time although it might seem to be wasting it at this point when you just want to start writing. However, even in an examination essay, a plan is essential to complete a structured, reasoned and researched response on any given topic. Begin by looking back over the question and those ‘key words’ that you selected. Next, consider the evidence you have collected and consider how the two complement each other: if you have followed the instructions above carefully, this should be easy, as you will have been keeping the question in mind all the time you were conducting your research. Nevertheless, it can be difficult to know which pieces of evidence best support your topic points as you can’t include everything. Make decisions now as to what you will use and what you will discard. This is harder than you might think because often interesting evidence you have unearthed has to be omitted simply because it isn’t relevant. Increasingly, students are penalized for exceeding the specified word count so ensure that all your evidence is really related to the points you are making and to the topic concerned. It is useful to make a rough plan or diagram of your essay at this stage where you write down paragraph headings and which evidence you will use where. Later, when you are actually writing your essay, you will be able to look back at this to remind you of how your thoughts actually progressed and why you made the choices that you

did. Structuring your essay in this way will also help with coherence as your argument will be more clearly developed and concise, with paragraphs flowing naturally to your conclusion. Doing this will also reveal any gaps in your evidence or linking which you can sort out before beginning to write.

Writing your essay:
At last, the moment has arrived when you begin to write. If you have followed through carefully all the stages above, then this should be the easy part but if the notes are your evidence then the essay is your case and you should present this with as much attention to detail as you paid to your research. It should go without saying that your spelling, grammar and punctuation should be perfect. Nothing makes a worse impression on examiners than bad spelling and punctuation, especially if you misspell an author’s name or the title of a book. You are simply throwing marks away by making mistakes in presentation and with all the assistance that is available today via modern technology there is really no excuse for it. Having said that, don’t rely on your computer’s ‘spell and grammar check’ as it is not by any means infallible. If you are unsure, check with other resources and, at the end, go back and carefully proof-read your work – better still, get someone else to do this as another pair of eyes will often spot mistakes you may have overlooked. Now you have a choice to make: either write the main body of your essay first then go back to construct your introduction or write the introduction first, followed by the main body of your essay. Both have advantages and disadvantages, primarily based on how well you can stick closely to your stated thesis. If you feel confident that the argument can be stated simply in your introduction and developed coherently then write the introduction first; if you feel you might deviate from the introduction then it might be best to write the introduction later because then you can adapt your thesis accordingly.

Whichever approach you choose, remember that your introduction is the first statement your examiner will read. Again, this sounds obvious but many students are careless about introductions, saying either too much or too little. A good introduction sets out clearly your response to the topic and how you are going to present that response. It’s as simple as that. It is commonly agreed that quotation should be omitted from your introduction as this is where you are going to say what your response is not that of others. Remember to keep your introduction short and to the point ending with a ‘feed’ into the opening paragraph of the main body of your essay.

Main Body
In the main body of your essay, each paragraph should be based on a separate but related aspect of the main topic of the essay. Following the plan you made earlier,

write each paragraph almost as though it were under a sub-heading to the main title and supplement each of your points with the evidence you have collected. Students are often unsure about the length of paragraphs but though there is no hard and fast rule, it is a good idea to keep them to four or five sentences. Supporting your statements is vital and, in the case of a literary essay, this evidence should also be analysed. This means that you should comment on individual words and/or phrases that seem to you to be of particular interest or importance. Analysis of this kind will not only get you extra marks but will also sometimes suggest additional lines of thought which may be helpful, if relevant to the main argument. Quotations should not be too long, never more than a few lines at most, except in exceptional circumstances, and should adhere to the referencing style you have been requested to use. It is usual to indent longer quotations and set them out on a separate line, single-spaced, following a colon. Shorter quotations (i.e. a line or less) should be incorporated within the text and enclosed within quotation marks. Try to end each paragraph in the main body of the essay with a ‘hook’ to the next i.e. an idea that introduces the topic of the subsequent paragraph; follow this up by opening the next paragraph with reference to the link. This will help your essay to flow better and seem to be establishing a pattern which will ultimately lead to your conclusion. Paragraphs should move on using the basis of furthering the argument. This can be achieved in several ways:
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Sequential writing, where one event follows naturally from another Elaborative writing, where you develop a point made previously Contrasting/comparing, where an idea contradicts or questions a point in a preceding paragraph

These are just a few ideas, there are many more and your choice may be determined by the type of essay/argument you are constructing.

The conclusion should be a summation of your argument. Students often lose marks for presenting an abrupt conclusion which overlooks the implications of the overall argument, its future development and unavoidable contractions/omissions due to shortage of space. It is acceptable to use quotations in conclusions but not to introduce new ideas at this stage. By now, your reader should have been given such a strong sense of your central argument that no further information is necessary anyway. In your conclusion, you are just giving a more generic context to your specific thesis and tying up any loose ends which you feel have occurred during the writing of the essay.

General points:

The importance of following the required referencing style has already been stated. However, there are other stylistic features which should be adhered to and these will normally be set out in the instructions you are given when an essay is set. As a general rule, do not write in the first person unless specifically asked to do so i.e. avoid the use of phrases such as ‘I think’ or ‘in this essay I am going to’. Rather, allow your essay to reflect a personal perception whilst being presented in an objective manner. It is useful to look at how professional writers construct essays to gain style tips (though remember, do not plagiarise under any circumstances as this is sure to be detected, is unfair on the writer whose ideas you are stealing and ultimately selfdefeating). Most essays are required to be typed and double-spaced using size 12 font in ‘Times New Roman’ but it is advisable to check on this as requirements vary. Do not use colloquial expressions, stick to Standard English throughout. Lists are not a good idea unless the essay specifically requires them, as they can appear to be rushed, a truncated way of presenting a lot of information without sufficient explanation.

Final checks
When your essay is completed, read it through to check for errors. As mentioned above, it can be useful to ask someone who has not seen your work to proof-read it for you, maybe even reading it aloud, as we tend to see what we expect to see and typographical errors can easily be overlooked. Correct any errors before handing in your work otherwise you are throwing marks away. Ensure that you have correctly referenced all quotations and completed a bibliography according to the stylistic requirements to which you have been asked to adhere. Your bibliography is very important, as evidence of your research and wider reading and to demonstrate that you recognise the importance of acknowledging sources. A bibliography should never be a rushed, last-minute task but rather should evolve naturally, as your research does. As previously stated, noting full publication details of every book you consult at the time will help enormously with this.

And finally...
Remember that your essay is essentially a response to a suggested idea. Different academic disciplines will, of course, require different content but no matter what you are writing about your argument should be clear, coherent, well-referenced and appropriately structured. You need to follow any instructions carefully, especially those relating to style and word count. Bear in mind that although you are answering a question, you are also writing to engage your reader’s interest so try to combine thorough, factual research with an engaging, interesting style; it is your aim to compile an essay that will both inform and entertain. Think of the engagement of your reader’s interest as a challenge which your essay will meet; remember, your essay will be one of many to be read by your tutor/teacher/examiner and making your work stand out as impressive is quite an obstacle to overcome! The ability to write a good essay is a skill that is difficult to acquire but not impossible and, once acquired, can even be enjoyable: ‘good luck’!

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