is no mystical skill to writing essays.
Rather like your less welcome relatives, these come around about
twice a year at the point when you are least prepared, leave you
with low self esteem and lack of sleep, and return just when you
have forgotten the trauma of the previous occasion. Essays are best
written between 12a.m. and 4a.m. on the day before they are due
in, and like exams, preparation is best undertaken on a diet of
caffeine and takeaways. Seriously, like other apparently complex
and difficult skills - driving, filling in social security forms,
seducing members of the opposite sex - essay writing is a craft
that is learnt through practice. Anyone can produce a good essay
if they do the work and follow some simple guidelines that apply
to all academic writing. Like any apprenticeship, learning comes
through practice. I'll present a few simple pointers for you to
despatch the troublesome task.
essay markers look for
The key thing to demonstrate in the essay is that you understand
the subject matter, be it Marx's ideas on class society or the sexual
habits of leading social theorists. To do this, show clarity of
argument; understanding of the reading used; and if possible some
original thinking. There is nothing mystical to it: these are all
skills that come through practice. Ensure you get the maximum amount
of feedback on your essay so you can develop your style to include
essay markers don't like
Over-reliance on the core text is annoying, as is material clearly
paraphrased from it. This makes for boring reading, and one thing
you don't want to do is bore your marker. Also, don't use terms
or arguments you don't really understand. Markers can usually see
through this, and it just irritates them (they're a sensitive bunch).
Limited reading and derivative arguments are bad, as is a weak conclusion
which has little to do with the essay question. Rambling off the
essay topic and including irrelevant material will make you look
like you don't really understand either the question or your own
an essay question
Some courses offer more choice, some less so. Whatever the case,
it is important that you make the most of what choice you have.
The question that interests you most, which is often the one you
will have the strongest opinions on, is usually the best to choose
for an essay subject. This'll make the whole process more pleasant,
and allow you to put more of yourself into the work.
Structure is vital, and get it down right away. It is best to write
some sort of a structure before you start the reading, as this will
allow you to slot the material you get from the reading into the
You have to be both balanced, in summarising the various viewpoints
on an issue, and opinionated. The whole essay should work towards
a conclusion you are happy with, and the stronger the conclusion
Both what you read and how you read are important. Selecting reading
is often difficult - particularly if the only copy of the key text
for your essay topic seems to be permanently out of the library.
It is often hard to tell from a list of titles what is relevant.
The first stop if you are unsure should be your tutor, who will
be able to point you in the direction of something intelligible.
It is vital not to rely on the central course textbook for an essay
- a reworking of the one thing you can be sure your tutor has read
is going to ensure you are marked down as derivative and unoriginal.
When taking notes only write on one side of the paper.
How to read
is as important as the choice of texts you make. With limited time,
and the delights of Neighbours a continual temptation, you want
to make the best of your time. If reading a book, select the important
chapters, according to the structure you have already written. Articles
often benefit from being read more than once, this being easier
as they are shorter. At this point the benefit of having prepared
a structure in advance will become clear to you, as instead of taking
swathes of notes you can slot each note you take into its place
in the essay structure. This should save time and effort, and ensure
that everything you are putting into the essay is relevant.
to put in
Restraint is important. Don't take a kitchen sink approach, and
assume that what your tutor wants is for you to throw in everything
you know about the subject, or worse, everything that is in the
course text. This will just make it look like you have rehashed
the course textbook, a guarantee of a mediocre mark.
material is the clincher that makes a good grade essay
into an excellent grade essay. There are several sources to draw
on for originality. Develop your own argument on the essay topic
which contrasts with that contained in the lectures or the course
text. Include personal experiences where relevant to the topic.
Use work from other subjects to give an unusual or complementary
perspective on the work under review. Philosophy, history and psychology
can often give an unusual and interesting slant to a sociology essay,
though don't overdo it.
Academics fall prey to a number of irritating habits. These include
the use of the passive voice and overlong sentences. The passive
voice is something like, 'The evidence suggests that...' 'The research
indicates...'. Well, who suggests, who indicates? Though often unavoidable,
the use of the passive voice should be kept to a minimum. Overlong
and convoluted sentences are murderous. Ideally, try and keep them
to around a dozen words long. It is easier to read a set of short
sentences than a few very long sentences with too much information
in each to be taken in properly.
being derivative or plagiaristic
Plagiarism is defined as direct copying of another's work and passing
it off as one's own. It will ensure your essay is returned unmarked.
If persistent, severe trouble may ensue in the form of a rapid expulsion,
so don't bother. Everything must be in your own words, unless in
is easy to do, and is a much bigger problem than plagiarism, especially
with that old 'A' Level essay lying about the house and temptingly
similar to what your essay will be on. Don't use overlong quotations
- try and put everything in your own words. This is a matter of
practice, and you will soon be able to word arguments in your own
The University Library publishes a guide to the standard Harvard
referencing system, but here's a summary. Reference any work whose
argument you are using in your essay. If that work is itself summarising
another, then you can either reference it or the work being summarised.
Do use the references/bibliography to show your tutor that you have
gone beyond the course text. References should be indicated by the
use of the author's surname and date of publication in brackets,
as in (Russell, 1984). Then in the bibliography list it thus (the
system varies somewhat) -
Russell, B. In Praise of Idleness, London: Unwin Press 1984. (author,
title, city of publication, then publisher)
Hawes, D. "Gypsy Site Policy - A Failure of Both Carrot and
Stick." Policy and Politics 15, 1, 49-54. (author, article
title, journal title, volume, issue, page numbers)
For book chapters:
Weber, M. "Major features of world religions", in Robertson,
R. (ed) Sociology of Religion. Harmondsworth, Penguin, pp 19-41.
(author, chapter title, editor, book title, city of publication,
publisher, page numbers)
This is rather a lot to remember, but you'll get used to it.
spelling and presentation
It's amazing how annoying this can be; correct punctuation and spelling
make a huge difference to one's essay, and simple grammatical mistakes
detract from an otherwise fine piece of work. You should as standard
word-process your essay. Your tutor will be eternally grateful not
having to decipher your appalling handwriting, though this will
not always be reciprocated and you will while away many happy hours
of your University career deciphering the kind of scribble that
looks as if it was made by an acid casualty on a particularly bad
flashback. I have never understood why academics feel they have
to write in the kind of simian scrawl that would in the Secret Services
be mistaken for a fiendishly unbreakable code. Nevertheless, word-processing
your essay allows you to use the spell-checker, thus gaining valuable
The conclusion of your essay is when you should bring together the
strands of the arguments you have been developing, and give something
like a direct response to the essay question. It doesn't have to
be just one paragraph. A good guide is to have one or two paragraphs
summarising the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments that you've
put in the essay. Then have one paragraph on your own opinion, which
should ideally point to some weakness in the essay question, or
attempt to go beyond it in some way.
Always re-read what you've written. Even better, get a friend to
read it - preferably one who will tell you if you aren't making
sense. Better they should tell you than you find out from your tutor.