Your guide to writing an Essay
We have compiled this guide to essay writing skills, including structuring essays, reports and dissertations, to help you in planning and producing your essay. We hope that you find it helpful - please let us have any comments and suggestions you may have for improving this free study area.
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It is important to assess, before anything else, what it is you are being asked to do. The directives in essay questions are often very specific and require that you deal with the question in a particular way. For example, if you are asked to 'analyse' something, you should approach the question by breaking the issue into components parts, examining each critically and critically and minutely. If however you are asked to 'compare' a number of things, you will be expected to identify clearsimilarities and differences between each, and perhaps to reach conclusions about which is preferable.
A very good guide to these directives can be found in our essay writing area: Interpreting Essay Questions.
Most universities will give you library access, which means you have a wealth of material available to you - your search should not be limited to books, but also may include journals/periodical collections, theses, videos, DVDs, e-books, e-journals, access to electronic resources and databases.
With so much material available to you, translating your essay question into a search strategy or statement is an important first step in tracking down the information you need. Your development of a search strategy must start with thinking about the kinds of words related to your topic that you might expect to find in books or in newspaper articles. A good search statement can be applied to whichever sources you might decide to use, such as specific computer databases or library catalogues.
The next step will be to decide, based on your formulated search statement, which will be the most relevant, appropriate resources in your subject area. For example, if your search statement was:
I want to find out about the consequences, harm, risk or side effects - of giving or denying the MMR vaccination, either as a triple vaccine or as three single injections, to children
You might be looking for:
- ideas and opinions - expert opinion, opinions of pressure groups, public opinion, opinion of companies involved in trials, opinion of governments and other organisations, parents' concern
- research results - medical experiments, scientific information
- history - where the debate began and why, specific cases which make the vaccine questionable
Once you have a clear idea of what you need to know about your topic to deal with the assignment posed, you will be able to look more closely at the individual resources available to you, such as database, to see what information they contain. You will need to weigh up the relevance of the information you find, and develop a critical awareness of the positions represented in what you read - in some cases, authors may be explicitly expressing a particular viewpoint but in others there may be hidden bias, which can be misleading.
Don't forget that one of the best ways to source relevant material for your essay is to ‘snowball’ your reading: i.e. to use the footnotes and bibliographies of the books you already have to extend your reading list on a subject. Your reading lists will already include many of the most important writers; by checking their bibliographies and works cited in those articles, you will have access to the most up-to-date writing on the topic.
Your search for relevant information for your essay will undoubtedly generate a mass of material and so it is essential that you develop concise note taking skills. A good place to start is to make a document on your computer just for source material, but divide it into the parts of your essay (for example, if you are writing a dissertation, you may wish to include sections such as introduction, background, methodology, literature review, evidence, conclusion and recommendations). Into this, copy all good sections, quotes, statistics and other useful source material that you find, making sure that you note where you found each piece of information. Each source can be placed into the section (introduction, conclusion etc) where you are most likely to use it. This will give you a rough framework for when you begin writing and will help you form a direction of where your essay is likely to go, based on your findings.
Some key points to bear in mind when taking notes for your essay are as follows:
- Write down anything you find that is good - and where you found it (including page numbers and search terms so that you can repeat your search if needs be). Don't depend on your memory!
- If you are writing a balanced or comparitive argument, make sure your source document has both a 'for' and 'against' section so you can find appropriate material for both sides of your debate.
As you read and note sources, you may find that ideas and questions come to you which you may want to address later. Add a box to your source document for these so you can clearly distinguish them from other people's material.
When you come to analyse what you have found, take great care not to simply summarise the source material (i.e. Brown says that "MMR is absolutely safe and there is no evidence to the contrary" whereas Smith says that MMR is an "untested and dangerous vaccination". An essay which merely summarises other people's thoughts without analysing each opinion or finding will score very little marks. You need to develop your own arguments and use other people's findings and opinions to support them.
An excellent guide to notetaking for essays can be found online here:
There are two main methods of referencing articles in published journal and book publications. These are known as the Harvard (author-date) and Vancouver (author-number) reference systems. Many universities have specific variations within these general conventions and you should check with your university whether a specific referencing style is required.
There are two British Standards that outline referencing styles. They use an author-date format:
- Recommendations for references to published materials: BSI, 1989. BS 1629
- Recommendations for citing and referencing published material: 2nd Ed. BSI, 1990. BS 5605
You can download a free guide based on these British Standards here: (right click and save file as...). We have summarised this guide online here: Harvard Referencing Guide.
Most word processors have spelling and grammar checkers and so there is no excuse for poor spelling, grammar and punctuation! We have produced the following basic guides which cover some common problems that students experience with punctuation when writing essays:
However, if you would like a free lesson in English grammar, try the at Grammar Station - this even has a grammar checker so that you can verify sentences of up to 25 words instantly.
- : This guide asks 'what is an essay?' and 'why write in this way?' It offers guidance on developing skills in professional essay writing, collecting material, reading, making notes and having ideas, creating the bibliography and styling references, planning and structuring, and good presentation.
- : This useful site discusses choice of topic, creating essay outlines, writing the thesis, body, introduction and conclusion, and adding finishing touches. It also has sample essay writing.
- This friendly guide looks at essay writing skills including research, developing the proposal, compiling notes, planning the essay, writing the essay and analysing the finished product. It suggests the extras that make essays stand out and gives examples of good and bad essay writing.
- This guide looks at the essay introduction and supporting paragraphs, and editing/publishing essays. It examines the types of essays by classification and description, and looks at skills such as comparing, contrasting and evaluating material.
- This site provides a step by step guide to essay writing including analysis, brainstorming, thesis, outline, introduction, paragraphs, conclusion, MLA style citation and works cited, and language (clarity/style/grammar).
THE ULTIMATE ESSAY WRITING GUIDE
This guide provides a detailed overview of the essay writing process with tonnes of practical advice to help you attain a better grade for your academic assignments. We've presented the chapters below so you can delve in and out at a point to suit you - but the easiest way to read the guide is to start on the first page and use the walk-through links to access the rest of the pages. You will notice that we have split some of the chapters into more than one part to make them more manageable.
Our essay writing resources provide a wealth of information on the writing process, evaluating materials, punctuation, grammar, referencing and those all important final essay checks before you hand in your work.
Essay writing tips and advice
Essay writing skills
Brief essay writing guide
A brief guide to the essay writing process with examples of good writing.
Study skills and idea generation
Advice on essay source materials
Essay referencing help
Essay presentation help
Essay advice for particular subjects and types of essay
Research paper writing help
Term paper writing help
Before you hand in your essay...