Writing essays

Study guide (adapted for Occupational Psychology)

Essays are a particular form of writing, with their own structure and conventions.  This guide explains the conventions of the essay and shows you how to write clear, well structured essays that communicate effectively with the reader.

Other useful resources: Planning essays; Referencing and bibliographies; Avoiding plagiarism.

The key elements

A good essay takes the reader into account by clearly presenting material in a way that is logical, coherent and easy to follow. Before you begin to write your essay, you need to select and order your material in the form of an essay plan. Refer to the guide Planning Essays for information on preparation and planning. When you have an effective essay plan you are free to concentrate on the expression of your ideas and information. You can learn to guide your reader by being aware of how to use the key elements of an essay. This guide shows you how to make the best use of:

  • the introduction;
  • paragraphs;
  • evidence;
  • the conclusion.

This guide uses the following essay question as an example:

Examine and compare the nature and development of the tragic figures of Macbeth and Dr Faustus in their respective plays.

The introduction

The introduction is a signpost for your reader, showing how you intend to answer the question. You will need to show your understanding of the key issues and indicate the main areas your essay will cover. One possible structure for an introduction is shown below.

  • Begin with a general point about the central issue
    Dr Faustus and Macbeth are both plays which show their respective playwrights at the pinnacle of their careers.
  • Use the words of the title to show your understanding of the question
    When comparing the nature of the two plays' respective heroes, both parallels and contrasts can be found.
  • Show what your essay structure will be
    In the first section of this essay, the role of the tragic hero will be considered ... The second section of this essay will examine the ... Finally, a comparison will be made of the development of the two ...
  • Make a link to the first point
    In examining the characters' tragic qualities, a useful starting point is Aristotle’s definition of tragedy...

The use of paragraphs

Your essay plan should show clearly what the main sections of your essay will be and which points will be including in each section. Ordering your points in each section should also take place at the planning stage. You now need to use paragraphs to take your reader step by step through each section. Each paragraph you write should express clearly one point or one aspect of a point. Your paragraphs should link together to provide the reader with a sense of logical progression. The example below shows how a paragraph can have its own internal structure which:

  • introduces the paragraph's point;
  • presents and comments on evidence;
  • makes a link to the next paragraph.

paragraph

Figure 1: Sample paragraph

The use of evidence and/or examples

You should use evidence to illustrate and support your points. Evidence may be the opinion of an expert or the results of a study or experiment. It may be written or in diagram format. Use the evidence to:

  • add authority to your point;
  • add credibility to your argument;
  • add interest to your discussion.

Whenever you refer to someone else's ideas or opinion you must acknowledge
your source through referencing. It may be in the form of a quotation:

Gardner believes that Faustus' inability to change is, "a human representation of the inability of the fallen angels to turn back from their damnation." ²

or you may paraphrase or summarise an opinion or idea:

Faustus' inability to change can be seen as the same inability that the fallen angels have, but represented in human terms (Gardner, 1982).

There are two main ways of referencing your evidence:

  • the use of a number referring to a note at the end of the essay or bottom of the page (as in the first example);
  • the inclusion of the author and date of publication in the body of the essay with the full details included in your bibliography (as in the second example).

At the end of your essay you must include a bibliography which lists all the books you have consulted in writing your essay, whether or not you have referred to them in your essay. A bibliography should include the details of author, title, date, place or publication, publisher and edition for each book.

Gardner, H. (1982) The Tragedy of Damnation. New York: Oxford University Press.

Most departments have their own preferred style of referencing and bibliographies. Check your department handbook for details. For further guidance, refer to the

The conclusion

The conclusion is another signpost to your reader. It gives you the opportunity to:

  • use the words of the title to show you have answered the question;
  • remind the reader of what has been covered;
  • show the overall significance of the material;
  • provide an overall assessment of theories or arguments, summarising your own view point.

An example of an effective concluding paragraph is shown below.

  • Brief recap

The characters of Macbeth and Faustus are very similar in many respects; they both willingly follow a path that leads to their damnation, for example.

  • Reference to the larger issue

The differences lie in the development of the characters in what are essentially two different types of plays.

  • Evaluation of the main arguments

As has been shown, the character of Macbeth has a nadir from which he ascends at the conclusion of the play. This is in keeping with Aristotle's definition of tragedy. For Faustus however, there is no such ascension. This fits the style of the morality play: the erring Faustus must be seen to be humbled at his end for the morality to be effective.

  • Highlighting the most important aspects

It is this strong element of morality in Dr Faustus which ultimately divides the two plays.

Drafting your essay

Planning your material before you begin writing should reduce the need for drafting. Whether or not your department requires all essays to be word processed, learning to write essays on a computer has many advantages. It enables you to easily make amendments and changes to your work without the need to rewrite whole parts of the essay. If you find it necessary to make a first draft by hand, then write each section on a separate piece of paper, so that changes can be made easily.

Don't try to make significant changes to the sequence of your material through redrafting. Go right back to the planning stages and revise your original essay plan or make a new one. Remember that just as the essay question should be your focus in the planning stages, you can regularly refer to the question in the writing of your essay. Use the essay question to check that you are keeping to the point and that all your material is relevant to answering the question.

Editing your essay

It is often difficult to edit your own writing. Read your work aloud, carefully adhering to the pauses of the punctuation you have used. This will help you identify problems with clarity of expression or sentence structure. Spell checks on computers are useful, but be aware that they don't identify an inappropriate use of a correctly spelt word. Have a break from your essay (preferably overnight) to make the final check more effective.

Presentation

Your department will have its own guidelines for the presentation of essays which may include word-processing. Check your departmental handbook for details. The Computer Centre and the University book shop have written guides on using the University's word-processing packages.

Feedback

The feedback and comments you receive with your marked work are an invaluable aid to identifying the strengths and weaknesses in your written work. By rereading your essay in the light of this feedback you can see the areas you want to develop and then decide on a strategy for improvement. To develop your writing skills further you can:

  • discuss your essay with your tutor;
  • share your experience with other students;
  • attend a Student Learning Centre workshop or individual consultation.

Summary

  • Select and order your material in an essay plan before you begin writing.
  • Guide your reader by making the best use of the introduction and conclusion.
  • Use paragraphs to present your points in a clear, linked sequence.
  • Use evidence to support and illustrate your points. Be sure to acknowledge all your sources.
  • Make use of essay plans to reduce the need for redrafting.
  • Check your handbook or ask your tutor for the department's guidelines to referencing, bibliographies and presentation.
  • Take a break before checking your essay and read your work aloud to check your expression and sentence structure.
  • Make the most of feedback to plan your strategy for improving your writing skills.

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