More often than not essay writing is an essential part of university life. To impress your tutors and achieve top marks you need to know how to successfully plan and execute your work

You might think you know how to write a good essay from your time at school but writing an essay at undergraduate level is a whole other ball game. Taking the time to properly plan your work can lead to higher grades, with lecturers welcoming a logical structure that clearly demonstrates your understanding of the subject.

However, knowing where to begin and how to go about completing the assignment is not always easy - especially if you've not had to write at undergraduate level before and are still adjusting to university life.

Dr Amanda Tinker, academic skills tutor at the University of Huddersfield, agrees that although daunting and challenging for many students, 'essay writing is a complex and valuable skill of many facets'.

'It provides an opportunity for you to express your own opinion and to debate, by presenting and supporting an argument to engage and persuade the reader. Beyond university - in our information, communication and social media age - developing effective graduate writing skills is ever more important for many areas of employment.'

Mastering how to write an essay early on will also help you prepare for writing your dissertation in your final year.

Understand the question

The first step in tackling an essay is to make sure that you understand what is being asked of you.

'Take time to read (and re-read) the question closely and carefully, breaking this down into its component parts,' advises Dr Tinker. 'Read the question aloud and pay particular attention to any instruction words, for example, 'explain', 'discuss', 'outline' - what do these actually mean in practice? What are you being asked to do? Essays can take several different forms and a 'compare and contrast' essay would take a different approach to an analytical ('analyse') or argumentative ('critically examine') essay.'

You may need to approach the lecturer who devised the essay to understand what is being asked and the complexity of the response expected from you, so don't be afraid to ask for clarification if you need it.

A good tip to figure the question out is to break up the title. 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. 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've done your research, create another mind map. 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 good 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 start planning. There are two main ways to do this:

  • Linear plans are useful for essays requiring a rigid structure. They provide a chronological breakdown of the key points 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. You'll be able to better visualise how the points you're contrasting differ across several aspects. This should hopefully give you a clearer picture 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.

Dr Tinker identifies five key stages in planning and essay writing:

  • Clarifying the task - 'Examine, understand and break down the essay question, mind map or make lists of what you know already to identify what you need to find out to develop a working plan.'
  • Finding, evaluating and recording information - 'Write questions to guide your research, generate keywords (broader, narrower terms and synonyms) for searching, identify types of information sources that might be useful, engage in active reading and note-making using a strategy that works for you and keep organised with good records.'
  • Reflect and evaluate - 'Revisit your initial working plan and consider what you have discovered and identify any gaps. Start to think about the key message of your essay and your overarching argument.'
  • Planning and drafting - 'Develop your working plan by starting to order your ideas. There are different ways to structure an essay, so explore different orders to see which is most logical for you and best responds to your essay question. Will this order provide a clear line of argument for both you and your reader? One helpful strategy is to talk yourself through each part of the essay by asking: 'What's the story I am trying to tell here?' Note down possible paragraphs for each main point/topic, which you could then develop further with your notes and own ideas.  Use this more detailed plan to help you begin writing.
  • Final draft and reviewing.

'There are different approaches to planning an essay and it can be helpful for students to reflect upon and gain an awareness of how they approach different writing tasks,' explains Dr Tinker.

'Some students prefer a step-by-step, structured approach, similar to that described above. Others might find it helpful to begin in a more fluid way, without a clear plan, beginning with some free-writing, jotting down keywords, ideas and sentences, which they later develop with evidence and examples into a more structured working plan and written essay. Essay planning can take several forms, including visual mind maps, bullet-point lists and tables.'

Tackle the introduction and conclusion

You might find it useful to outline your introduction during the early stages of writing your essay. You can then use this a frame of reference for your writing. If you adopt this approach, Dr Tinker stresses 'you should recongise that your ideas may develop or even change when you start to write. It's therefore important to revisit and review your introduction in later stages to ensure that it reflects the content and direction of your final essay.'

Logically, while the conclusion may not be the first thing that you write, it's still helpful to consider the end point of your essay so that you develop a clear and consistent argument.

'Leave enough time to write your conclusion. It needs to do justice to your essay and have impact, as it is the final element and will leave the greatest impression on your reader,' says Dr Tinker.

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

Evaluate what you've written

Once you've written your first draft, leave it for a couple of days if possible. When you return, edit its ideas and how you've organised your thoughts if you need to.

Dr Tinker recommends:

  • Checking that your introduction provides a clear purpose and remit for your essay.
  • Ensuring that the conclusion provides a clear response or answer to the essay question, summarising your key findings/argument. 
  • Signposting. Check the structure of your paragraphs for clear topic and link sentences. Are the paragraphs in a logical order with a clear and consistent line of argument that a reader can follow?
  • Reading your essay slowly and carefully. Try reading aloud so that you can 'hear' your writing. Writing has a rhythm - does your writing flow and is it correctly punctuated?
  • Checking for unnecessary repetition.
  • Reviewing the examples and evidence that you've used. Is there enough to support your argument?
  • Remembering to spell check and be aware of any common mistakes.
  • Checking your in-text citation and corresponding references for accuracy.

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

'A good essay is a pleasure to read, with a real sense of the student's own academic voice and an awareness of the reader in the writing, which is effectively supported by relevant, published evidence that is critically analysed, integrated and acknowledged through effective referencing,' adds Dr Tinker.

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