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How to write essays

Essays are an opportunity for you to argue: for you to give reasons to support your opinion. Learning to write them is a key academic and life skill. Throughout your life you will need to be able to persuade people of your view. Learning to write an essay is key to doing this.

The first sections of this article consider essay writing in general, while the last part focuses on writing essays in exams.

Step 1: Know what you are being asked to do

You can't start working on an essay until you have the clearest possible idea of what the essay is expected to do. Thinking  usually begins with the title of the essay: don't start work until you have worked out the following:

  • what 'material' you are expected to cover,
  • what approach you are expected to take to the material
  • how the audience - those reading the essay - will respond to it.

Material

That's the topic, the area of knowledge that you need to deal with in the essay. This could be very straightforward (eg 'Describe the role of the judiciary in the making of English Law'), or might need careful thought (eg 'Should we trust experts?'). The first asks about a nice clear topic, the second requires you to choose relevant examples from the whole range of knowledge.

Approach

Essays are rarely as simple as 'write everything you can think of' about the material. Generally you have to do something specific and thought-requiring. Often words are used in the essay title that have very specific meanings to that subject, e.g. analyse, compare, contrast, describe etc.

Make sure that you are absolutely clear what these ‘command words’ mean in each subject that you are taking. They could well mean different things in different subjects. Marks for an essay often depend considerably on getting the approach right. If you take the wrong approach your marks will suffer badly even if everything you write is factually correct.

You may well also need to think about the 'angle' you are going to take within the possibilities suggested by the essay title - am I going to argue for or against, which side am I going to take, what sort of conclusions will I end up with? You can't start serious planning until you have decided on the 'angle' you are going to take, though you may have to start jotting down ideas while waiting for the right angle to suggest itself.

Audience

Who will read your essay and what will they do with it? In the wider world essays are often written to influence opinion, but at A level they are usually written with an eye towards exams. Your main audience will be your teacher and the examiner.

Part of doing well in exams is knowing how the examiner will mark your work. He or she will have a detailed 'mark scheme' which governs what the marks are awarded for: if it's on the scheme it gets a mark, if it's not it doesn't. You need to know how mark schemes work (your teachers can provide examples) and you need to write with the mark scheme in mind.

Ask yourself

  • Do I know what the assessment criteria are for this essay?
  • Can I explain the assessment criteria in my own words?
  • Do I know how long this essay needs to be?

 

Step 2: Plan

You should spend at least 10% of the time you have to write an essay planning it (even during an exam). And by the way, many examination boards will give you credit for what you write in your plan. Reading your plan can also help examiners understand what you are doing in the essay and thus give you more credit.

However, the main reason for planning is to help you order your thoughts so that you answer the question. If you have completed step 1 properly you should be ready for working out how to do this!

It can help to think of an essay as having three parts: introduction, main body and conclusions. What goes into each depends considerably on the essay title and is something that only good teaching, plenty of practice and good feedback can tell you.

Introduction

The Introduction is where you tell the reader what you are going to cover in the main part of the essay. If that is straightforward the introduction can be a short paragraph. However, if the essay is more complex, the introduction will need to include  a description of  how you intend to approach the title, and that may well involve defining key concepts and terms: the 'angle' and framework you have decided to adopting in your essay.

It is difficult to be sure what will go into the introduction until you know what you are going to put into the main body of the essay, but you may well find it is best to start by defining the key concepts in the title.

Let's take an example essay title: ‘Is the British education system the best in the world?’ Discuss with reference to three examples.' Before you dive into the examples, you will need to consider

  • What do we mean by the ‘British education system?’ Do you mean the system run by the government? The ideology of the majority of schools in the UK? The ‘British system’ as it is perceived out of the UK. Trying to define this term should also getting you thinking about the assumptions behind the question, e.g. Is there a British education system as education is devolved to regional government?’ etc. Challenging the assumptions of the title is vital in writing a good analytical essay.
  • What do you mean by best? Often when people are writing essays they make assumptions about key terms in the title which must be discussed. “Best” is a key concept here. Best for what? For creating happy people? For creating people who pass a particular sort of examination? For creating an economy that benefits the rich? It is essential that you define this term AND that you then give some criteria as to how you are going to measure this.
  • You need to be clear how you are going to discuss. What criteria will you use? How? The question is unclear about what it means by 'examples' so you need to define these carefully. (However, it is not unclear about the number of examples and you must stick to that.)

In trying to define your terms you should have seen that this question, like many, can be answered in a variety of ways, depending on how terms are defined. Therefore, you need to re-define / re-work the question in a way which means that you can answer it in the time / number of words that you have.

Conclusions

Having defined your terms so that you are clear about the question that you are answering, decide clearly in your mind what your conclusion is going to be. Many people find it very helpful to write this out so that they know that they can clearly articulate it. By thinking about the conclusion you can check that your answer actually answers the question that has been asked. 

In a simpler essay, such as one asking you to describe something, your conclusion may just be a general sentence or two to summarise the detail given in the main part of the essay.

Main part of the essay

It may seem odd to put the main part last in this section on planning, and in practice you may find you are thinking about the main part while doing the vital introductory work of analysing the title. However, if you have analysed effectively and decided how you will conclude, the main body of the essay may well be easiest of all to plan.

You will probably need to jot down your ideas and examples first, then decide on the best order to put them in. Here's one approach which can work well:

Introduction – Define your terms and answer the question

Paragraph 2 – Give the best argument in favour of your answer to the question and develop this using an example that suits your case.

Paragraph 3 – Give a different argument to support your case, supported by a different example.

Paragraph 4 – Briefly outline other arguments in favour of your case. N.B An essay is not supposed to be “balanced” it is supposed to be an answer to the question, well argued with reasons to support your answer.

Paragraph 5 – Consider arguments against what you are arguing and show how these are wrong / not relevant

Paragraph 6 – Question the assumptions that you have made in answering the question as you have. How could different definitions lead to different answers? Show that you have thought about the question from different perspectives.

Conclusion – Return to your answer to the question, showing how you have answered it and making your answer very clear.

Some questions to think about when you are planning your essay

  • Have I clearly defined the question so that it can be answered in the time I have available?
  • Does my plan clearly answer the question?
  • Does my plan show that I have thought about other points of view and shown that I have dealt with them effectively?

 

Step 3: Write your essay

Once you have planned your essay you need to write it.

Give the reader clear signposts as to how you are arguing.

The reader is not a mind-reader. Make sure that your essay is very clear. Write in short sentences that communicate effectively. Use language that you understand and which communicates clearly.

Every paragraph is a mini essay

Treat every paragraph as a mini essay. In the first sentence explain what you are going to argue, how and why. Then give your example and analyse how this supports your argument. At the end of the paragraph conclude as to how this paragraph answers your question. It should be obvious from each paragraph what the question is that you are answering. If it is not make it so!

Quality of written English matters

Essays are a test of communication and the quality of your written English matters. You should write in full sentences. If, in an examination, you are running out of time use note form / bullet points but if you have planned effectively this should not occur.

Some questions to think about while you are writing your essay

  • Is what I am writing answering the question?
  • Is what I am writing clear?
  • Would an intelligent reader, who is not an expert in this subject, be able to follow this argument?

 

Step 4: Check your essay

You should spend as much time checking your essay as you do planning it, i.e. about 10%. When you are checking your argument you should be checking that it is clearly answering the question. Often when people are checking an essay they find it useful to:

  • Delete irrelevant information / argument
  • Add pointers so that the line of argument is clear and errors of argument are avoided
  • Correct errors of written English or fact so that the argument is clearer and well supported.

 

Some other things to think about

In some subjects it is helpful to quote from scholars and experts. If you do this it needs to be in such a way that helps your argument. A quote in itself is not a reason to support your conclusion. If you quote from scholars or experts, say where the quote came from.

In some subjects a picture / diagram can be worth a thousand words. Use them if they support your argument.

Writing essays takes practice. The most common errors involve forgetting what an essay should be – an argument to support a conclusion. If you keep focused on ensuring that your argument is clear you will write good essays.

Exam essays

Writing essays for an exam is an art, and one you can only learn by practice. While it has much in common with other long pieces of writing, exam essays add the extra problem of time pressure.

In your examinations you will need to write your essays / long answers by hand. You should make sure that you get into this habit. Research also shows that essays written by hand are usually more coherently argued. Using a word-processing programme also means that the temptation to cut and paste material is great. This means that you are highly likely to copy material that you have not written. This is plagiarism and is viewed as very bad in British academia. Being caught cheating in this way could seriously impede your progress through the education system.

 

Article by George Casley, a teacher and Key Professions co-ordinator at CATS College London who has taught Philosophy, Religious Studies and Critical Thinking for over twenty years.

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