Every single student will write an essay at some point during their time at University. Here are some tips on how to approach and structure your essays.
A good essay will:
- answer the question by covering all relevant points
- include references in support of arguments
- be well structured, with clear links between paragraphs
You can easily lose marks by:
- including irrelevant information, not required by the question
- failing to answer all parts of the question
- basing arguments only on personal opinion rather than on a sound knowledge of the range of evidence available
There are six stages to writing a good essay:
- Examining the question
- Organising the relevant material
- Making a plan
- Producing a rough draft
- Developing key points in paragraphs
- Writing up the essay
Read the question two or three times. Ask yourself:
- What are the key issues and central questions?
- What is the assignment looking for?
- What is it asking me to do?
Check the exact wording:
- Highlight words that tell you the approach to take in one colour.
- Highlight words that help you to focus on the subject matter in another colour
You need to be clear about the purpose of the essay, and to work out what the most important issues are. This will enable you to approach texts purposefully, identifying the parts that are relevant to your essay.
- Try writing down the question on a piece of card and using this as a bookmark whilst reading a chapter or an article.
- Make topic headings and note relevant page numbers under these headings as you come across them.
- Highlight parts of photocopied texts and make notes in the margin to remind yourself why you think this section is important.
When reading the relevant texts you will have noted down possible points to include in your essay. The next stage is to make these into a plan. There are no set rules for what a good essay plan should look like - it could be a linear plan, or a concept map. Try different ways and see what suits you best.
The basic steps in constructing a plan are:
- Decide on your main points
- Select the sub points, examples, illustrations and details that support your main points
- Put them in a suitable order
- Think of a way to introduce the essay - make sure it enables the reader to see the direction your essay will take
- Think of a way to conclude the essay. Don't just leave your essay hanging in mid-air: it is important to refer back to the question and summarise your main arguments
When you have made your plan:
- Look at the essay title again.
- Make sure you have included relevant information only.
- Think about what you have been asked in your title.
- Take care to define any terms used - avoid dictionary definitions, which are not context-specific.
Producing a rough draft is valuable as you can leave your work for a short while and return to it later to identify which parts are satisfactory and which are not. You may not have time to do this however, which is why thorough planning of your essay is very useful.
- When you write your draft, try to stick to your plan
- Think about what the central message of each paragraph is
- Don't worry too much about your style at the rough draft stage
- If possible, ask another person to read through your essay and make constructive comments
In your introduction:
- Say how you interpret the question - if relevant, provide definitions of key terms
- Refer directly to the title in order to focus your reader
- Identify the issues you will explore
In your conclusion:
- Refer back to the title to demonstrate to your reader that you are still focused on the set question
- Summarise the key points
- State your general conclusion(s)
- Make it clear why these conclusions are significant
At the rough draft stage you can:
- Change the order of the points
- Check the length of your essay
- Add or remove quotations according to how effectively they contribute to your argument - if you are over your word count, try to cut direct quotations, and paraphrase material instead
- Add or remove examples - check whether points remain unsupported, and make sure you haven't strayed into unsubstantiated personal opinions
- Make sure that all your information is relevant and clearly explained and that the essay is not repetitive
Your paragraphs should:
- Have a clear structure
- Contain linking words
- Show links to the next paragraph
Clear structure within your paragraphs
A paragraph may vary in length – typically it can be between 8-10 or 10-12 lines in length, or it can contain 5-6 sentences, if a sentence is typically about 1-1.5 lines in length. A paragraph usually explores one key point.
The following general structure can be useful when you're deciding how to set out your ideas within your paragraphs. However, you may find that it’s not possible to put all of your information into one paragraph – in this case, you may choose to apply this structure over two paragraphs.
- The opening sentence usually acts as a mini title, presenting the key point to be discussed. For example, "A definition of ‘anti-oppressive practice’ will now be presented and considered"
- In the next sentence you explain your key point
- You may then support this with a reference from some of your reading. Or, you can vary the order - you could introduce your key point first with a reference and then follow this up with an explanation
- Then, you may wish to critically assess or question your key point, for example "However, this definition of anti-oppressive practice does not embrace differing cultural values."
- You could then discuss why it is important for a working definition to reflect cultural sensitivity.
- The final sentence usually acts as a ‘conclusion’, drawing together the point you’ve made in the paragraph
These are very powerful – they can help you decide:
- how to talk about your key point in a paragraph
- they give a clear idea to your reader about the kind of information to be presented in your sentences
For example: "To begin with, a brief introduction to the principles of ‘reflective practice’ will be presented."
Links to the next paragraph
Clear links are important because:
- they help you move through the key points you may want to present in your essay
- they help you to structure your essay in a coherent way
How to link?
You could introduce your next key point at the end of a paragraph: "Therefore, a child-centred approach is a fundamental requirement of assessment strategy. A further factor to be next considered is the importance of classroom layout, during class-based assessments."
Or, you might conclude your discussion of a key point in one paragraph, and then use an opening sentence to introduce your next key point in your following paragraph.
For examples of linking words see: library.bcu.ac.uk/learner/writingguides/1.33.htm
For further information on paragraphs see: www.open.ac.uk/skillsforstudy/dividing-your-work-into-paragraphs.php
Make sure you:
- Have a clear introduction and conclusion.
- Have clear links between paragraphs.
- Use correct abbreviations - eg SENCO, DDA are acceptable, but make sure they are explained the first time they are used.
- Define and explain key terms and technical or subject-specific words or phrases.
- Use the correct system for quotations and references - when substantiating points you have made, check you comply with your School's referencing regulations.