A Short Guide to Academic Essay Writing

How to Write an Academic Essay

Not To Be Used As A Replacement For The Proper Perusal And Understanding Of The Academic Guidelines And Information Provided To You By Your Institution

This will be a short guide on how to write an essay or assignment. On most academic pathways in further and higher education, you will be asked to produce essays and assignments that generally range between one thousand and three thousand words in length. Essay writing, like everything else, is a skill, a skill that engages you in researching, formulating and demonstrating an argument. And of course, as it is a skill, it is acquired through practice. There is a reason you have to write so many of them; eventually you just get a “feel” for what an essay should read like. These are some ideas and basic points that are the bedrock of well written essays, and can act as a quick reference “how to” if you really, really, don’t know what to do.

N.B: This is what I, personally, consider to be a sound method or general outline of good academic practice, and may be particular in parts to the institutions and courses and teachers that I have experience of, all of which have been Humanities/English Literature based. Always check with your lecturer or head of module if you’re unsure, they will be happy to help. Always make sure to read any course materials/handbooks, especially your institutions guidelines for the presentation of written work.

Choosing a Question

An essay can’t get started until you have decided what you are writing about. Ideally, as soon as you have access to the questions for the assignment, you should read them over and decide which ones you might like to do. Writing them down can be helpful, but if nothing else, you can bear them in mind as you read and as you attend lectures, and gather material or ideas that way. More often than not the questions are set deliberately to cause a spark or angle of comparison between particular texts, for example “Consider the role of courtship in Elizabethan Drama” on a module that includes both Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. Writing about the more obvious texts is fine, but if in your reading you have come across a different argument or something else you think fits, use it. Read the question, carefully, as well as the instructions for the assignment in general. If you are to write about two texts from the module, then make sure you are going to write mainly on two texts on that module. You may not have time to read all the texts on a module, but make sure that you have read the texts you are writing on. Doing it from lecture notes and secondary commentary is possible, but you will write a worse essay than if you’d read the texts. Reading as much as possible gives you more options in choosing a question to answer. Also, read the question. Read the question. Read the question.

Researching

Before we begin talking about how to research an assignment, we have to talk about Wikipedia. Wikipedia is ubiquitous; it will probably appear if you google a person, concept or historical event, and when it does appear it will probably appear as the first result. This means that you are probably going to look at it. This is understandable. Wikipedia is a useful tool and should be considered for use as such, it should not be considered as a means to researching and writing an entire assignment. Yes, it is the quickest way to find out when a person was born and died, and yes, it is good if you’re wondering where somewhere is, and yes, it will tell you who published a book and when. It is useful for quickly checking a fact, but you should be able to find evidence for these facts elsewhere, too. If you must reference something from a Wikipedia article, try and find the original reference. All good Wikipedia articles have a reference section which evidences the points made in the article. You can use these references in your own assignments or consider them as wider research, as places and ideas to explore next. Your institution will have its own guidelines on whether citing Wikipedia is bad academic practice, but during study for a degree it is almost universally discouraged. By referencing what the Wikipedia article references, or finding the evidence corroborated in a book or article and then referencing it, one can use Wikipedia, not cite Wikipedia itself, and still avoid plagiarism.

If you feel you can avoid using Wikipedia, do so. Your research skills will develop the stronger for it.

When researching an assignment, you are looking to gather enough evidence from both the text being written on, and secondary sources, to adequately back up your argument. Following this, a thousand word essay will generally require less research to be completed satisfactorily than essays of larger length. Wider reading is always good, but the focus should be on finding evidence that relates directly to your argument. Your institution will have a guidebook of its own on research which should detail the facilities available to you at your place of study. The library will always stock both titles that are being taught in the classes as well as related material, and is a good first bet for researching any essay. The library staff will be happy to help you find material or guide your research. Higher Educations students should have access to JSTOR, which will allow you to search for peer-reviewed journal articles. Your institution will have its own means of searching JSTOR, and will also have guides on how to search and use the online library resources, but when in doubt, simple keyword searches can help you find articles relevant to your assignment. Example: Let’s suppose that you’re researching an assignment on the portrayal of sexuality in Romantic poetry, and plan on using the poetry of William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley, one could search, “sexuality romantic poetry blake shelley.” This can give you your start. You can then refine the search by changing the words, or modifying the parameters, for example, searching just, “sexuality percy shelley”, and asking only for results published after the year 2000. Again, always check the references in books, articles, anywhere you find them. People writing on a given subject have already done research, the evidence of which is waiting for you to find and use for your own purposes. Save the planet. Recycle Refer.

Planning

Planning an essay means knowing what your main line of argument is, gathering the evidence necessary to support the argument, and then deciding on the general structure and content that your finished essay should have. Your plan should take all these in to account, but the means by which you plan is up to you and depends on your style of learning. As an independent learner, you should hopefully have identified the ways you like best to organise things. If you like mind maps and spider diagrams, then by all means plan it graphically. If you grasp things better when they are gone through step by step, bullet point short summaries of what your paragraphs are going to say. Planning in your head works, as long as you carefully consider it, but don’t feel adverse to putting down odd ideas in an unformatted text document.

Find someone, a classmate or friend, that you can talk about your essay with. If you can’t explain it to them, you probably don’t fully understand it yourself yet. This is fine, as simply trying to explain your argument, or getting some feedback, can make things more clear. Even explaining your argument aloud to yourself works.

An Example of a (Very) Basic Plan

  • Introductory paragraph – What your argument is, and how you are going to demonstrate it. Your two texts will be introduced here.
  • First paragraph – Points of comparison between the two texts, similarities, a link to the question
  • Second paragraph – Points of difference and divergence between the two texts, what makes them stand apart when considered in the light of your argument?
  • Third paragraph – How is your main thesis (argument) underlined or undermined by these two texts? What do their differences, or similarities, mean when considered as a whole in relation to the question
  • Concluding paragraph – Repeat main argument and how it was demonstrated within or between the two texts. Consider your arguments on the text against the question, have you answered it? Shown it to be irrelevant? Clearly state a summary of your answer to the question or synthesis of the discussion. Do not, ever, introduce a new point in the concluding paragraph.
  • Remember also that an essay does not have to be written in the order it will be read. If you write the main body of text first, the introduction can be a lot easier to write, as you essentially summarise what you’ve just written.

Paragraph Structure

Every paragraph in and of itself should have a basic structure. The best way of keeping a paragraph on track is by sticking to the idea of Point, Evidence, Explain.

  • Point – State, clearly, what you are trying to say or argue in this paragraph. Example: The city of London is portrayed as filthy and dangerous, whereas Paris is beautiful and filled with culture.
  • Evidence – This will generally be a quote directly from the text, and, if you got your point from a secondary source, a relevant quote from there also. Example: This theme is set up early in the text, the narrator stating, in the first chapter, ‘London, to him, had been a city washed by the garbage of the Thames, killing him with its fumes. The Left Bank, the green murky water of the Seine, relaxed him and made him feel safe, stood among the canvases and the bookshops’ (p. XX). This is corroborated by Steiner, who states, ‘The divide of the channel is cultural and economic’ (p. XX).
  • Explain – Demonstrate how the evidence backs up the point. Explain any literary devices or pick out particular words and analyse them and their impact, and relate this to your interpretation of the text. Example: The twinning of the rivers that course through London and Paris is a direct comparison that aims to demonstrate that the essence of each city differs wildly. Each river, being both famous and used by the narrator to essentialise the cities they run through, represents in a microcosm the reality of each city; The Thames causing London to swim in rubbish and pollution, and the Seine lending a relaxing environment to the then creative quarter of the Left Bank.

  • Link – This is optional, and can be built in to the main part of the text instead of being tagged on the end of a paragraph. Evaluate your argument, particular point, and evidence, with regards to the question you are answering. Try make sure that with every paragraph you are linking in and referencing the question and demonstrating your response to it.

Style

Avoid the first person. The third person is your friend and will never do anything wrong to you. An exception to this rule is encountered in “Personal Development” essays where you must use the instance “I” to talk about your experiences. Another is the use of the first person plural “we” which can be acceptable if used with restraint. When in doubt, write in the third person, and do it in short, direct, sentences. If your grasp of the vocabulary is good (get a copy of A Glossary of Literary Terms by M.H. Abrams and use the OED online) and it is used correctly and appropriately, you can lose nothing by writing in a simple, direct manner. You will lose points if you try and use a fancy prose style and mess it up. Puns, jokes, rhymes and other wordplay can be fine and demonstrate ability, but use sparingly and when making a point. If you don’t know how to use semicolons; don’t use them. Do not use contractions. If you are stuck on how to make the punctuation or grammar work in a sentence, it is sometimes better to reword or rewrite it, to work around the problem, rather than get in a mess with clauses and conjunctions.

Word Count

Your institution will have its own regulations regarding word counts; these will be found, like everything else, in the guidelines for the presentation of written work. Over the count by a word or two is generally fine, but going past it by more than that is a sure sign that you have not properly structured or planned the essay. The word count you are given is always enough, they are looking for a certain quality, not voluminosity. You will generally be slightly under the word count; hitting it exactly is a fun game, but not practical. Generally, the bigger the assignment the more leeway in words not used, but as a quick example, two thousand words when you had space to write two thousand five hundred means you probably haven’t answered the question in enough detail.

Referencing

Your place of study will have its own standard of referencing that it expects its students to be familiar with and to use in the presentation of written assignments. This should be made clear to you anyway, but your institution will have a style book for assignments, which will be sure to tell you. The most common referencing convention is Harvard, an excellent guide to which can be found here.

The author finds doing the in-text referencing easier to manage if inserted during the composition of the essay; if you don’t do this you can note where the references need to be inserted. Don’t forget any, you don’t want to accidentally plagiarise. Reference properly, and there is no chance of you having plagiarised. If you have a problem figuring out how to reference something and the guide is no help, look to be consistent. As long as you’re doing your best to stay within the conventions, it’s not too big a deal. All the same, accurate referencing is important and should be double checked. Once you’ve built up a nice stock of assignments, materials that you reuse can have their references copy-pasted from previous assignments. Automatic referencing software is also useful, but be sure that you, yourself, understand the referencing convention you are using, so that you can check the results.

Proofreading

Ideally, when finishing an essay you should have time to take a break, and then return later with fresh eyes to proofread. Try and do something completely different in the break, like play a videogame or catch up on last weeks reading. With the essay no longer so fresh and immediate in your mind, you catch mistakes you wouldn’t otherwise. Spell check is goo if you consider it as a tool to use, bear in mind it do say a word is spell correct eve when it is clearly miss. The last sentence doesn’t have a single red line under it. Don’t rely on spell check. Changing the font of the text can help you, too, defamiliarising you from the words and letting you read it as a stranger (or anonymous marker) would. Try read it aloud at least once, you can sometimes catch things because the sound doesn’t correlate with the letters. If you have time, this is also the period where you check things like the first paragraph, to make sure that you argue what you said you would argue. Rewrite this stuff, if you need to, and have the time, and you should have an essay that clearly and consistently makes its point, building its argument paragraph by paragraph. Proof read it until you feel sick of looking at it, then hand it in.

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