Hello, my name is Robin Banerjee and I'm a senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Sussex. I teach many first year, second year and third year students so if you come into the Psychology department I'm sure I'll see lots of you while you're here. Today I'm going to be talking a little bit about guidelines for writing essays. Now I'm sure that when you've got essays to write you'll find lots of different instructions to follow for the different assignments that you've got, and of course you'll have to pay attention to them. But what I'm going to give you today are some helpful guidelines which I hope will be useful to you as you set about the task of writing an essay.
1. Come up with a clear line of argument
Well, my first guideline for writing an essay is to make sure that you have a clear line of argument. If the essay title is in the form of a question -- this might seem obvious -- answer the question. Although it seems like an obvious point, I've read many essays where student simply don't answer the question. They'll talk about lots of things that relate to the question but they don't actually give you an answer to the question. So if the title is in the form of a question, make sure you answer the question. And even if the essay title isn't in the form of a question, make sure that you have something clear that you want to say. Don't just talk in general terms about the subject area. Make sure you have a clear point that you want to communicate in your essay.
2. Make it clear where you are going
All right, so my second major guideline for writing an essay is to make it clear where you are going. The reader needs to know what you're saying and needs to be aware of the path that you are taking in the essay. So don't wait until the very end of the essay to reveal the main point that you're trying to communicate. As I've said before the most important thing in an essay is to come up with a clear line of argument and it's important to tell the reader about that right at the beginning. So set out your plan for the essay at the outset and then use the rest of the essay to actually build up your argument. Use examples and evidence to support the points that you're making. Don't run through a whole range of different examples and pieces of evidence and theories and then at the end say the point that you want to make about it. Make the point first and then use the evidence to support it.
3. Plan your essay
Express your key points in complete sentences
My third guideline for writing an essay is to use a plan. Once you've done all your reading, once you've done all your research you need to step back from it and decide what you're going to say. Come up with your main line of argument, but plan your essay before you launch into the actual writing of the essay. That means that you need to decide exactly what your key points are. So you need a logical sequence of key points that actually build up your argument. It's really important when you've arrived at your key points, it's really important to express them in complete sentences. One of the mistakes that I often see students doing, and one of the things that makes plans a bit problematic for a lot of students, is that when they're coming up with their outline for their essay they just have a list of subject headings: First I'm going to be talking about this, then I'm going to be talking about that, and then last of all I'm going to talk about that. And actually that's not a very good plan, because when you go down to write something you don't know what you're going to say. You know what you're going to talk about, but you don't know what you're going to say about it. So the most important thing about the plan is to decide what your main points are and to express them in complete sentences -- not just what are you going to talk about but what are you going to say about it? Once you've got that sequence of key points expressed in complete sentences you should have a pretty good summary of your essay. And that should be able to stand alone as an answer to your essay question.
Select your evidence
Once you've decided on your sequence of key points, then you can start to flesh out your plan by listing the evidence that you're going to include for each key point. What examples are you going to draw on? What pieces of evidence or empirical work or theoretical work are you going to use to actually support each of those key points? Once you've actually done that you've got a really good framework for writing your essay: you know what your main argument is, you know what each key point is that you're going to use to support that argument, and in turn you know what key bits of evidence or examples or theories you're going to use to make each of those key points.
Review your choice of key points and evidence
One final point about the plans. If you look at your plan and you find that you've got nine, ten or even more key points then think again about whether they really need to stand separate from each other as different points. In an essay, and even in longer essays like 4,000 word essays, you'll usually only need to have a handful of key points. Remember the main objective is to support the main line of argument that you want to present to the reader. That doesn't mean that you have to cover absolutely everything that you've read. It may be the case that there will be material that you've read that really isn't relevant to the point that you want to make in this essay - so decide what the best pieces of evidence are to support the points that you actually want to make in this essay.
4. Ask someone else to read you essay
My next guideline for writing an essay is to make sure that you give it to someone else to read. It's really important to get a second opinion on your essay and sometimes when you've been working on an essay for a long time it can be really hard to adopt a fresh objective stance and look at your essay. So find someone, maybe a friend that you can bribe to read your essay, maybe a family member, long suffering flat mates - whoever you can. Get someone else to read the essay and to try and extract the main points. If you've done your job well -- if you started out with a good plan, with the key points expressed in complete sentences, and you based your essay on that plan -- then when you give that essay to someone else to read and you ask them, ‘Can you pull out the main points from this essay?', their extracted main points should look very similar to the main points that you had in your plan. So that would be a good sign that you've accomplished what you wanted to accomplish in the essay.
5. Show originality in your essay
OK, my final guideline for writing an essay concerns originality. You'll probably see in most of the assessment criteria for essays in different subjects across the university that originality is one of the markers of first class essays. Can you show originality and flair in the way that you write your essay? Well, a lot of students often ask, ‘What do I do to show originality in an essay? Do I just say what my opinion is about the subject matter?' Well, partly -- but it's not just a matter of expressing your personal opinion without justification or rationale. Originality in an academic essay is all about the way that you interrogate the material in front of you and the way that you put the material together. So, regarding the first of those points, if you are dealing with evidence, examples, theories, other people's writing - question it, adopt a critical standpoint, evaluate it, don't just accept it at face value. Regarding the second point -- about how you put ideas together and how you put your points and evidence together in your essay -- that's a really important opportunity to show your originality. It's not so much about waiting until you get to the end of the essay and then coming up with - ‘well I think ... blah blah blah..' But it's about how you put the argument together. That's where you can really show your originality. Have you taken these theories, these different bits of evidence, the different readings that you've done, have you put them together in an interesting and innovative way to answer the question? That's how a student shows originality in an essay!
As the government begins its crackdown on essay mill websites, it’s easy to see just how much pressure students are under to get top grades for their coursework these days. But writing a high-scoring paper doesn’t need to be complicated. We spoke to experts to get some simple techniques that will raise your writing game.
Tim Squirrell is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, and is teaching for the first time this year. When he was asked to deliver sessions on the art of essay-writing, he decided to publish a comprehensive (and brilliant) blog on the topic, offering wisdom gleaned from turning out two or three essays a week for his own undergraduate degree.
“There is a knack to it,” he says. “It took me until my second or third year at Cambridge to work it out. No one tells you how to put together an argument and push yourself from a 60 to a 70, but once you to get grips with how you’re meant to construct them, it’s simple.”
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The goal of writing any essay is to show that you can think critically about the material at hand (whatever it may be). This means going beyond regurgitating what you’ve read; if you’re just repeating other people’s arguments, you’re never going to trouble the upper end of the marking scale.
“You need to be using your higher cognitive abilities,” says Bryan Greetham, author of the bestselling How to Write Better Essays. “You’re not just showing understanding and recall, but analysing and synthesising ideas from different sources, then critically evaluating them. That’s where the marks lie.”
But what does critical evaluation actually look like? According to Squirrell, it’s simple: you need to “poke holes” in the texts you’re exploring and work out the ways in which “the authors aren’t perfect”.
“That can be an intimidating idea,” he says. “You’re reading something that someone has probably spent their career studying, so how can you, as an undergraduate, critique it?
“The answer is that you’re not going to discover some gaping flaw in Foucault’s History of Sexuality Volume 3, but you are going to be able to say: ‘There are issues with these certain accounts, here is how you might resolve those’. That’s the difference between a 60-something essay and a 70-something essay.”
Critique your own arguments
Once you’ve cast a critical eye over the texts, you should turn it back on your own arguments. This may feel like going against the grain of what you’ve learned about writing academic essays, but it’s the key to drawing out developed points.
“We’re taught at an early age to present both sides of the argument,” Squirrell continues. “Then you get to university and you’re told to present one side of the argument and sustain it throughout the piece. But that’s not quite it: you need to figure out what the strongest objections to your own argument would be. Write them and try to respond to them, so you become aware of flaws in your reasoning. Every argument has its limits and if you can try and explore those, the markers will often reward that.”
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Fine, use Wikipedia then
The use of Wikipedia for research is a controversial topic among academics, with many advising their students to stay away from the site altogether.
“I genuinely disagree,” says Squirrell. “Those on the other side say that you can’t know who has written it, what they had in mind, what their biases are. But if you’re just trying to get a handle on a subject, or you want to find a scattering of secondary sources, it can be quite useful. I would only recommend it as either a primer or a last resort, but it does have its place.”
Focus your reading
Reading lists can be a hindrance as well as a help. They should be your first port of call for guidance, but they aren’t to-do lists. A book may be listed, but that doesn’t mean you need to absorb the whole thing.
Squirrell advises reading the introduction and conclusion and a relevant chapter but no more. “Otherwise you won’t actually get anything out of it because you’re trying to plough your way through a 300-page monograph,” he says.
You also need to store the information you’re gathering in a helpful, systematic way. Bryan Greetham recommends a digital update of his old-school “project box” approach.
“I have a box to catch all of those small things – a figure, a quotation, something interesting someone says – I’ll write them down and put them in the box so I don’t lose them. Then when I come to write, I have all of my material.”
There are a plenty of online offerings to help with this, such as the project management app Scrivener and referencing tool Zotero, and, for the procrastinators, there are productivity programmes like Self Control, which allow users to block certain websites from their computers for a set period.
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Look beyond the reading list
“This is comparatively easy to do,” says Squirrell. “Look at the citations used in the text, put them in Google Scholar, read the abstracts and decide whether they’re worth reading. Then you can look on Google Scholar at other papers that have cited the work you’re writing about – some of those will be useful. But quality matters more than quantity.”
And finally, the introduction
The old trick of dealing with your introduction last is common knowledge, but it seems few have really mastered the art of writing an effective opener.
“Introductions are the easiest things in the world to get right and nobody does it properly,” Squirrel says. “It should be ‘Here is the argument I am going to make, I am going to substantiate this with three or four strands of argumentation, drawing upon these theorists, who say these things, and I will conclude with some thoughts on this area and how it might clarify our understanding of this phenomenon.’ You should be able to encapsulate it in 100 words or so. That’s literally it.”
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