How to write an essay

Daniel Higginbotham, Editor
August, 2016

By approaching your essay in the right way, you can ensure that your ideas are fashioned into a coherent and persuasive argument

It's widely accepted that strong essay preparation can lead to higher grades, with examiners welcoming a logical structure that clearly communicates a student's understanding of a subject. However, knowing where to begin and actually complete this assignment is not always easy - especially if you've not had to write at this higher level before and are still adjusting to university life.

So we've questioned two academic experts on how to go about planning and writing a first-class essay.

Adopt a strategy

Planning your essay will make the writing process quicker and easier, as you can focus your efforts on expressing your ideas while remaining within the word count, rather than having to formulate your thoughts along the way.

Michael Shields, academic skills tutor at Leeds Beckett University, argues that there are numerous different planning strategies, though key stages generally include evaluating the topic, reading around the topic and discovering an argument.

'Many successful essay writers plan consciously and deliberately, and commit to extensive notes, lists or mind maps,' he adds. 'Some - those who work less consciously - may have a very sketchy plan.

'Others, however, will have no tangible plan at all and begin by writing a draft. They then do their planning in reverse by altering the order of ideas, adding examples and expanding on their original draft.'

Address the topic

First and foremost, you must fully understand what you're being asked and in how much depth you must answer. Michael says that one of the biggest problems students face when it comes to essays is squarely addressing the topic.

'Fellow students can sometimes help in analysing what's required,' adds Michael. 'However, the lecturer who devised the essay topic may have to be approached to understand what precisely is being asked and the complexity of the response expected.'

Breaking up the essay title is the first step to analysing exactly what's required. For example, the question, 'Compare and contrast the representation of masculinity in two James Bond films from the 1960s and 2000s', can be classified like this:

  • instruction (i.e. compare and contrast);
  • topic (i.e. the representation of masculinity);
  • focus (i.e. in two James Bond films);
  • further information (i.e. from the 1960s and 2000s).

Place the question and these individual components in the context of your subject's key issues, then create a list, diagram or mind map collating your ideas and thoughts on the essay topic. Ask yourself:

  • What is significant about the question and its topic?
  • What existing knowledge do you have that will help you answer this question?
  • What do you need to find out?
  • How are you going to successfully address this question?
  • What logical sequence will your ideas appear in?

Gather resources

With so much information available, it's vital that you only look for directly relevant material when researching. 'Decide where the gaps in your knowledge and understanding are, and identify the areas where you need more supporting evidence,' recommends Michael. 'Make a list of keywords that describe the topic and use them to search with.'

Useful resources include:

  • course material;
  • lecture notes;
  • library books;
  • journal articles;
  • websites.

Once you're familiar with your readings, create another mind map. This time, carefully note the key theories, information and quotes that will help you to answer all components of the question. Consider grouping these into three or four main themes, including only the most significant points. You must be ruthless and exclude ideas that don't fit in seamlessly with your essay’s focus.

Create an essay plan

When you have a strong idea of what points you're going to address in your discussion, and a rough idea of the order in which these will appear, you're ready to plan. There are two main types: linear and tabular.

  • Linear plans are useful for essays requiring a rigid structure. They provide a chronological breakdown of the key points that you're going to address. This means that, when writing your essay, you can progress through these points.
  • Tabular plans are best for comparative assignments. These allow you to better visualise how the things that you're contrasting differ across several aspects. You will then have a stronger idea of how your discussion will progress.

Scrutinise the notes that you've already made - including those from your evaluation of relevant materials from your literature search - and ensure that they're placed into a logical order.

The key themes that you've identified should begin to form into clear sections, while the individual points within these sections should also develop a structure. 'Aim for a clear, objective and logical presentation of material,' suggests Michael.

Tackle the introduction and conclusion

Michael recommends that you begin writing your essay by expanding your plan. 'You may find it helpful to write the conclusion first, especially if you know exactly what it is you want to argue' he adds. 'This can help you to clarify your ideas and also give you something to work towards.

'If you're unsure what shape your argument may take, then you're best to leave both your introduction and conclusion until last.'

Plans should have the flexibility to change as your work develops, but remember to ensure that any adjustments are consistent across the essay. Dr Michelle Reid, study adviser at the University of Reading, suggests that noting new ideas in a separate document before incorporating them will give you thinking space to judge whether they're relevant.

'The success of a plan is not whether you stick to it rigidly, but how well it helps you to generate, sort and group your ideas to make the writing process more efficient and your structure more coherent,' she says. 'Deviation from your plan is natural, as your ideas will refine as you work out what you really think.'

Evaluate what you've written

Once you've written your first draft, leave it aside for a couple of days if possible. When you return, edit its ideas and organisation if required. Michael adds that you should ask yourself:

  • Is your thesis or argument clear?
  • Have your organised your proof in a logical and easy-to-follow way?
  • Should you add more examples to prove your case?
  • Do you need to make your argument more cohesive?
  • Have you summed up appropriately?

Once you've completed your second edit, you should proofread it for any spelling or grammar errors, check your citations and references, and ensure that you've not inadvertently plagiarised.

Find out more