Essay Planning and Writing
In this section:
What is an essay?
Traditional academic essays are pieces of writing which are designed to demonstrate the following points:
This means that you have to combine important ideas, examples, and interpretations from other writers with your own. All of these have to be put together in a linear, written format (making one point, then moving on to the next), which persuades the reader that your line of argument is a convincing one.
There may be variations in the approach you need to take depending on the discipline you are studying. Check your department handbook or learn.gold pages for discipline specific guidelines.
Brainstorm your topic by creating a mind map
Check you understand what your essay question is asking you
When you choose, or are assigned, an essay question, you are asked to focus on something very specific. It's not just a case of writing down everything you know about the subject. An essay question instructs you to do something with the knowledge you have, and to put it into a certain context, which will allow you to demonstrate the range of your critical thinking.
Essay questions therefore have instructional verbs to determine what your approach should be. These are words such as: discuss, analyse, argue, compare, review, evaluate, examine, outline, illustrate.... These tell you what you have to do with the information once you have found it
Download this list of instructional verbs and their definitions.
Academic writing style
You will usually be expected to write using academic language and specialist vocabulary from your subject area. Academic writing normally contains these features:
Linking words and phrases help give your writing more fluidity. This list of common linking words and phrases will help the flow of your academic writing. You can download and refer to it while you are writing.
Linking words are particularly useful for use in comparing and contrasting ideas.
Building an argument and summarising other people's ideas
Once you have understood exactly what the essay title is asking you and brainstormed or mind mapped your ideas, you will need to start your research and find out what other people have written or published about your topic. In an essay you apply those ideas, alongside your own interpretations, ideas and conclusions, to the question. This mixture of 'voices' provides the basis of your argument. Remember to reference other people's ideas even if you are not using a direct quote.
Often the clearest way to combine different points of view and to show that you have understood those points of view is to summarise them. Each summary of a different viewpoint can include direct and indirect quotations of key points, plus your understanding of what they mean and a comment on the weaknesses and strengths of the idea or viewpoint. Having described, interpreted and analysed other people's ideas, you can then go on to describe your own point of view and explain why you have chosen it.
Writing which ignores any of the parts described above, can become unbalanced. For example, if there are none of your own ideas, the piece becomes a review of everyone else's work. In these circumstances you could be accused of being uncritical. If the writing does not refer to other people's ideas (directly or indirectly), there is a problem of being too personal and non-academic (this partly depends on your subject). Neither of these would be persuasive arguments.
Writing a summary
To write a summary you first have to understand the main points of someone's theory or ideas, then write them concisely and accurately in your own words. A good summary manages to condense the essence of someone else's ideas, sometimes down to a single sentence.
This quotation is taken from Louisa Buck's Moving Targets 2 (2000:11) and discusses the artist Francis Bacon's exploration of the body:
The bloody carcasses and bodies that morph into raw lumps of meat in such works as Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962) are there because, according to the artist, that's what we are. But, with a characteristic reluctance to be committed to any philosophical standpoint - another quality that [Damien] Hirst was to pick up a few decades later - Bacon could flip from a breezy nihilism ('of course we are meat, we are potential carcasses. If I go into a butcher's shop I always think it's surprising that I wasn't there instead of the animal') to a tender profundity ('when you go into a butcher's shop and see how beautiful meat can be and then you think about it, you can think of the whole horror of life - of one thing living off another').
By taking out the details, elaborations and examples, the paragraph can be summarised as:
Bacon depicted the human body as chunks of raw flesh in his work. His attitude towards the body showed an opposition; on the one hand nihilistic, and on the other, life as precious and beautiful (Buck 2000:11).
The introduction is the official start of the essay and it usually includes some or all of the following:
The body is the largest part of your writing and this is where you guide your reader through your main ideas and arguments. These ideas and arguments come from your brainstorming and research. It is therefore a mixture of other people’s ideas and your own. These points should be organised into a logical order which allows your reader to follow your train of thought.
The balance of discussion between your own ideas and information and those from external sources is crucial to the development of your argument. Without this balance, the writing can become either a summary of other people's ideas and theories, or a description of your personal ideas and experiences with no evidence of research. Both of these would lack analysis, a core component of a good essay. It is therefore vitally important to ensure that a mixture of positions are presented.
Each main point will be described, supported and analysed using examples from your own experiences, and information and theories from external sources (books, journals, websites, lectures, etc.). The main points should be clearly organised by using paragraphs.
In short pieces of writing (< 3,000 words), there will be groups of paragraphs which together form one part of your argument. Usually these sections in "short" essays do not have specific headings. However, they can be clearly identified by using linking phrases which show for example:
There are four main reasons why ...
Another important point to consider is ...
A further issue of importance is ...
Moving on the the issue of ...
On the other hand, ...
In contrast to the above, ...
An alternative understanding of the issue is ...
Longer pieces of writing and dissertations
In long pieces of writing (> 3,000 words) it is sometimes useful to identify clear sections by using sub-headings. Each section (or chapter of a dissertation or thesis) with a sub-heading is like a short essay which could stand alone. The sub-headings may come from your brainstorm and/or your research. However, the best order for the sections in long essays may only become clear after you have started writing them. When the best order becomes clear, chapter introductions and conclusions can be written in each section.
A short chapter introduction should briefly outline the contents of each section and where possible, should also refer back to the sections before and explain how they are related. Similarly, each section needs a conclusion. This should summarise what has been written in this part and should again make connections to other sections. In particular, it should describe the relationship between this part and the next. These are crucial in order to tell the reader what each part is about and how it fits with the other sections. It is like tying knots between separate pieces of string in order to make a single, stronger cord: your argument.
The conclusion is the closing part of the essay and, like the introduction, connects the body of the essay to the title. However, whereas the introduction often starts generally, becomes more focussed and often includes an outline of the main points; the conclusion attempts to summarise the main ideas and arguments, then leads to a final statement.
It should not include new ideas which have not been mentioned before, although you can join ideas you have mentioned in a new way. You may also want to restate questions which you could not answer in your essay, but which you think deserve further study. As the final part of the essay, the conclusion is the last thing which the reader sees. Therefore, it should tie together the different points you have made.
Conclusions often include the following elements:
A bibliography (or reference list) comes after the conclusion (or appendices and final figures) and includes all the information about the sources you have mentioned in the essay. For more information on referencing please see the Referencing section of this guide.