Essay writing is at the heart of education. The process of writing an essay may be a struggle, but it is worth it. It is one of the best ways of gaining an active understanding of your chosen subject. Writing is a kind of thinking. It also leaves a trace that allows your tutor to give you feedback and help you move forward. The key ways in which students learn in the Humanities, and in most other subjects too are: reading, listening, discussing and writing. But without the last of these, the discipline of writing essays, study can become unfocussed and progress slower. Most people don’t achieve a good grasp of any topic until they have tried to explain it clearly to someone else in writing.
Everyone can improve their essay writing. There is no mystery about how to do this. You need to practise. But as in all effective practice, you have to work on acquiring and reinforcing good habits and eliminating bad ones. Realise that there is always scope for improvement.
1. GET STARTED. Don’t procrastinate. Get down to it now. If you have an essay to write it is amazing how easy it is to find other things to do. It’s also easy to underestimate how long the process of writing and rewriting will take. If you find yourself lapsing into an avoidance strategy, trick yourself by just writing the first paragraph, or committing to a focussed ten minutes of writing. Once you’ve started, everything gets easier.
2. ANSWER THE QUESTION. The worst mistake you can make is failing to answer the question set. No matter how brilliant your writing if it is an answer to a different question it won’t get you any marks. If the question is a direct question, give a direct answer. All your work on your essay, including the planning, research, writing and rewriting, should be driven by your awareness of the question and your angle on it.
3. RESEARCH YOUR ANSWER. Unless you are writing under examination conditions you should research your answer. Read the question first, though. Pay particular attention to TMA notes, lists of recommended reading and any advice your tutor gives. Don’t, however, let research become an excuse for not planning or writing the essay. Research should be driven by the question set and your angle on it. Don’t think of your research as something that you complete before beginning writing. Often it is only when you try to explain a concept or defend a position that you realise that you need to research some facts. Remember that you may not know what you need to research until you have attempted to answer the question.
4. MAKE A CASE. In almost any subject, when you write an essay you need to make and defend a case for your conclusion. This typically involves using argument, evidence, quotations and so on, to back up generalisations. It also involves considering counterarguments and evidence that seems to challenge your reasoning or conclusion. By the end of your essay your reader should be completely clear about where you stand on the question set. This sounds obvious, but many students fail to make a case for their conclusions, and some fail to draw any conclusion whatsoever.
5. STRUCTURE YOUR ANSWER. The structure of your essay is the logical framework of the case you make. Structure helps your reader understand the significance of any point you make. One useful three-part structure that works for most paragraphs is this: 1. make a general point, 2. back it up with some evidence, quotation or argument, and 3. show the significance of this point to the question you were asked. If you are unsure whether or not your essay has a coherent structure, try reading just the first sentence of each paragraph. Do these sentences reveal the framework of your essay? If not, rewrite them.
6. AIM FOR CLARITY. Here are some suggestions for achieving greater clarity in your writing. Be economical with adjectives. Be concise. Avoid using adverbs wherever possible. Avoid complex syntax. Explain any technical terms. Don’t show off your knowledge of obscure jargon. Use the active voice rather than passive constructions. Use shorter rather than longer sentences. Whenever you read a particularly clear passage in a book, try to analyse how the writer achieved this clarity.
7. GET THE TONE RIGHT. An easy way to irritate your readers is to use colloquial language in an academic essay or to make over-familiar asides. Getting the tone right requires sensitivity to the genre within which you are writing. A peppering of exclamation marks in an academic essay is a sure sign that the writer doesn’t appreciate this point.
8. AVOID PLAGIARISM. Don’t try to pass someone else’s work off as your own. It’s immoral and you may well get caught, not least because many institutions are now using software that detects plagiarism. Resist the temptation to cut and paste unattributed paragraphs from weblogs and webpages. Even if you manage to get away with plagiarism, you deprive yourself of the chance to think the topic through for yourself, and reduce the chance of learning from the process of writing. Always be sure to distinguish your own notes from copied sentences and longer quotations: when you come to write your essay there should be no risk of including someone else’s writing without acknowledging its source.
9. EDIT YOUR ESSAY. If you have the luxury of re-writing or at least revising your essay, use it. Obviously this won’t usually be an option in an examination, but in other circumstances you should leave yourself enough time to edit and amend your first draft. Try reading what you have written out loud – poor phrasing and bad grammar will be more obvious, as should any weaknesses in argument. Make sure keywords and the names of people you discuss are correctly spelt. Although you may not lose marks for poor spelling, it is likely to colour any reader’s view of your writing ability.
10.LEARN FROM FEEDBACK. Many students are more concerned with the mark they get than with the other feedback their tutors give them. This is a mistake. Try to find patterns in the feedback you get and remind yourself of the criticisms of your previous essay before you start the next one.
© Nigel Warburton [You are welcome to print or otherwise copy this for personal non-commercial use only.]