Department of Social Sciences Guidelines for essay writing

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Department of Social Sciences
Guidelines for essay writing

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Assignments in the form of essays, reports, reflective journals, observations and theses are central to the evaluation of students’ performance at college. Unlike exams, continuous assessment gives you the opportunity to research a topic extensively, organise your material, plan carefully and write up the essay in a less stressful situation. A much higher quality of work is therefore expected. While the proverbial “person in the street” could write an intelligent and well-argued essay, your essay must go a stage further and show familiarity with theoretical concepts, frames of references and research.

These guidelines are designed to help you produce high quality written assignments and they focus particularly on essay writing.
Getting started
Define the problem The first task is to define the problem. Underline the key words in the title and if necessary clarify with the Lecturer and/or consult a dictionary or key textbook. Clear definition of terms is a hallmark of academic writing.
Consider the instructions carefully. Clearly, an essay requiring ‘comparison’ would be very different to one involving ‘discussion’. An assignment that does not meet the requirements of the title cannot hope to achieve a good mark and may even result in a failed assignment. Consider the following frequently used instructions:
Analyse: examine in detail, showing pros and cons

Assess: weigh up the value of and give a judgement

Compare: show the similarities between two given items

Contrast: point out all the differences between items

Criticise: show both the good and bad points

Define: give the exact meaning

Describe: give a detailed account of

Explain: make really clear, possibly giving and reason

Explore: examine from various standpoints, showing the implications

Outline: give the main points of

Summarise: give a brief account of

(Rose, 2001, pp. 90-91).
Define the limits. Time spent at the start in limiting the problem is important. A problem is limited by reducing the scope of the investigation (for example, “the essay will focus on services for under twos in Dublin” rather than “all preschool age children”) not by omitting relevant information. Unrelated information is likely to lose you marks.
Plan the Assignment. Before you begin to write you should have a clear framework that provides a structure for both the writer and the reader. Remember assignments are marked on structure and content. All assignments have (a) an introduction, (b) a body and (c) a conclusion.

(a) The introduction should indicate the problem and the main issues to be addressed in the assignment. The introduction should not include details but should serve as a map of what is to follow.

(b) The body of the assignment should present the evidence. Theories and issues should be presented (with examples and comment where relevant) as per instructions, for example, discuss/compare/ summarise.

A new paragraph or heading should be used for each new point.

(c) The conclusion should sum up the main points discussed with reference to the problem set but should not be a repetition of material already covered. Conclusions should be drawn based on the evidence/comment presented.
This standard format can be shortened to:

  • Say what you are going to do

  • Do it

  • Say what you have done

Writing Style
Write in a simple, clear, precise style taking particular note of the following points:

  • Write impersonally, without using the word “I” or “he/she”. Instead use the word ‘one’. It is, of course, incorrect to refer to oneself as ‘one’, as in ‘One chose to research this topic because …’. One would imagine that this goes without saying, but not so!

  • Be consistent by using the same tense throughout.

  • Clichés, jargon, colloquial speech and slang are not acceptable as academic writing must be factual and precise. Keep your language specific. Precise, scientific language allows clearer communication with your reader. Take for example the two sentences below:

“B.F. Skinner experimentally investigated the effects of punishment and concluded that, while effective as a means of controlling behaviour, punishment may bring about negative consequences such as a generalised state of fear in the organism.”

“A guy called B.F. Skinner got down to the business of looking into punishment and figured out that it can work but also went on about the down side being that it may make the person afraid.”

  • Accuracy is essential…

“recent research…” is better stated as “research since 2008…”

“some researchers have shown…” is better stated as “McNaughton and Hughes (2011) have shown…”

  • Abbreviations such as e.g. and etc. are generally not acceptable. The word should be written in full…. for example, not e.g.

  • Ensure the subject of a sentence is either singular or plural. It cannot be both, as in ‘A person [singular] can choose themselves [plural] whether or not they [plural] send her [singular] children to fee-paying schools.’ Such poor written expression grates and will irritate your examiners. The sentence above should be rewritten as either ‘‘People can choose themselves whether or not they send their children to fee-paying schools’ or ‘A person can choose him/herself whether or he/she sends his/ her children to fee-paying schools.’ The former is more elegant.

  • Acronyms are acceptable if one has previously indicated the full meaning of the acronym. Thus, to use “DIT”, one must have initially used Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT)

  • Spelling and grammatical errors are not acceptable and spelling/grammar checkers and proof-reading should ensure a high level of accuracy.

  • Good punctuation enhances the clarity and readability of your assignment. Accuracy is assumed and not taught on our programmes. If you need a fun but rigorous revision, see Lynne Truss ‘Eats, shoots & Leaves’

  • Paragraphing sorts a piece of writing into sections and helps the reader understand your meaning. Generally a new point requires a new paragraph

Paragraphs should be neither too long (check to see if you have more than one point) or too short (one or two sentences).

  • Drafting and re-drafting is a vital part of academic writing and helps to tighten the structure and content of your writing. You may need to add or delete material as well as re-order material. It is best to leave some time between reading drafts to ensure you will look at the work with a fresh eye. Much of the incomprehensible writing one encounters can be prevented simply by re-reading and re-drafting what has already been written. Always re-write your essays. Hemingway claimed to have re-written the ending to A Farewell to Arms 39 times before he was satisfied with it! (Paris Review, 1958).

Assignments should have a title page (a template for the title page is provided in Appendix 1) and should include the following information:
Student’s Number

Lecturer’s Name

Programme (degree)



Submission Date

Word Count

Title of Assignment

Declaration of ownership
Assignments should be typed on A4 paper according to the following guidelines:
Style and Font: Times New Roman, Font size 12.

Spacing: The body of text should use 1.5 line spacing. Quotations, footnotes, tables and figures and appendices require different spacing.

Punctuation: No space before a full stop. Text resumes two spaces after a full stop. No space before commas, colons or semi-colons. Text resumes one space after commas, colons and semi-colons.

Justification: The text should be fully justified (straight edges on both left and right sides of the text)

Margins: The usual margins recommended are 2.5 cm at the top, bottom and right side of the page and 4cm at the left of the page

Pagination: Pages should be numbered starting with the first page of text. Title page is not numbered

Examiner’s Comments: A single clean page should be included at the back of the assignment for the examiner’s feedback

Submission of Assignments: Pages should be stapled with a single staple or paper clip. Assignments should not be submitted in plastic pockets unless necessary for large pieces of work.
Keep a copy or back-up file as all your assignments are retained by DIT for one year after submission.
Plagiarism is the deliberate use in a paper of material drawn from the work of another person without acknowledgement and can lead to an assignment being failed outright. To avoid plagiarising, either use your own words or acknowledge your source.

Every assignment requires a declaration to state that the work is the student’s own and has not been copied from another person, either a student or published author and that all materials (paper and electronic) have been referenced according to guidelines of the Department of Social Sciences at DIT. The declaration of ownership should accompany every assignment.
Academic writing requires that you read and cite the work of others. Any material that is not your own must be sourced to the original author. Every book, article, thesis and all electronic material that has been consulted and cited should be included in the bibliography. Only material which is publicly available should be cited so lecture notes, for example, should not be referenced. The use of quotations and references in the text is followed up by a list of references, alphabetically presented at the end of the work, which is known as the References. There are specific guidelines that you must follow for referencing in the text and in the References section. The referencing system adopted by the Department of Social Sciences is the American Psychological Association Style, or APA Style. What follows is a summary outline of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 6th Edition. An outline tutorial can be found at:

Referencing format to be used in Text

a) After a summary of an author’s work, or a reference to his/her work you must insert the author’s surname and the date of publication.
(Murphy, 2010).
In the case of two authors, both are listed: (Wilson & Thomas, 2009).
In the case of three to five authors, all authors should be listed the first time the work is cited:
(O’Brien, Smith, Horgan, White & Dunphy, 2009).
As listing five authors would become quite cumbersome, after the first citation you need only name the first author, followed by et al. (from the Latin, meaning ‘and others’): (O’Brien et al., 2009).
When citing an author who has published two or more works in the same year, use lower case letters (a, b, c) with the year to distinguish them:
The Department of Education and Science (2012a) has reported that …
b) If you are including the author’s name as part of your sentence you can put the date in brackets after it as follows:
Murphy (2010) has argued that …
c) A straight forward quotation:
However, it has been noted that “this is a phenomenon which is not unique to Ireland” (Murphy, 2010, p. 12).
d) When you are summarising someone else’s ideas:
Murphy (2010) has argued that it is not just Ireland that has experienced such difficulties; other countries including Finland have also faced similar economic problems.
If you are citing a number of works to support an argument or position, they should be listed alphabetically, separated by a semi-colon:
A considerable number of researchers have reported similar findings (Barry, 2006; Doyle, 2008; Zacchus, 2004).
e) Let’s say you are reading a book by Smith, and in Smith’s book there is a quote from another book by Jones. You decide that you would like to include the quote by Jones in your essay, but you haven’t read Jones’ original source. You present this kind of material as follows:
More evidence to support this assertion has been presented by research in North America, which concluded that 23% of women are likely to choose not to have children for a variety of reasons (Jones, as cited in Smith, 2012, pp. 254-256).
The page number given is the page number from the book by Smith from where you got the quotation from Jones. Your bibliography will contain the book by Smith.
f) If referencing from a newspaper, follow the same format as above. If there is no identifiable author, use the name of the newspaper, the date and page number if required:
(The Irish Times, 19th January, 2010, p. 6)
g) Quotations
A short quotation of less than a line may be included in the body of the text in quotation marks but if it is longer (typically, 40 words) start a new line and indent it. All direct quotes must be single spaced and indented. This makes it easier for the reader to establish what is sourced work and what is your own work. Include the page number if using a direct quote:
Russell’s (1997) work on incest in South Africa confines itself to white incest survivors. She notes:

a few women have made valiant efforts to bring this problem to public attention over the past decade, but the handling of this crime [incest] is still in the dark ages in South Africa compared with most Western nations … [and] no adequate studies of the prevalence of incestuous abuse have been conducted in South Africa (1997, p. 9).

h) Referencing Internet sites or online journals.
The suggested format for WWW page entries in the text is Constructor (person or organisation), year, page no. [if given]:
Department of Health and Children (2006, p. 8).
Many webpages do not contain page numbers. Try to include a marker to help your reader find the relevant passage, for example a paragraph number:
Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform (2009, para 121).
Referencing format to be used in the ‘References’ section
‘References’ is a list of all the sources you quoted or paraphrased to prepare your paper. You should arrange entries in alphabetical order by the author’s last name or, if there is no author, by the first main word of the title. It should start on a separate page at the end of your essay; label the page ‘References’ centred at the top of the page.
Use hanging indent paragraph style (align the first line with the left margin, and indent all subsequent lines one tab space from the left margin). Type all authors’ names with the surname first, separated by a comma. Use only initials for the first and middle names, and an ‘and’ before the last author's name.


(a) Books

The title of the publication should be italicised. Capitalise only the first word, the first word after a colon and proper nouns.

Charleton, M. (2007). Ethics for social care in Ireland: Philosophy and practice. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan.

Kessler, S. & Bayliss, F. (1985). Contemporary British industrial relations. London: Macmillan.

Where an organization is the author,
Department of Education and Science. (2009). Etc.

(b) Edited books

Where a book has been edited you must insert (ed.) (if there is only one editor) or (eds.) (for two or more editors) after their names:
O’Connor, T. & Murphy, M. (Eds.). (2006). Social care in Ireland: Theory, policy and practice. Cork: CIT Press.

(c) Contributions in edited books

When quoting the work of a contributor to an edited book the following format should be used:

Kitchen, R. & Bartley, B. (2007). Ireland now and in the future. In B. Bartley & R. Kitchen (Eds.), Understanding contemporary Ireland (pp. 301-07). London: Pluto Press.

(d) Journal articles

Labbé, J. (2005). Ambroise Tardieu: The man and his work on child maltreatment a century before Kempe. Child Abuse and Neglect, 29(4), 311-324.

(e) Newspapers

Bloggs, J. (2008, September 1). Government at crossroads. Irish Times, p. 1.

(f) Websites and Online Journals

Online citation

Irish Council for Civil Liberties (2009). ICCL Submission on the (Retention of Data) Bill Nov 2009. Dublin: Irish Council for Civil Liberties (

Online Journals

As with any published reference, the goals of electronic references are to credit the author and to enable the reader to find the material. Where possible, cite the DOI (digital object identifier). If there is no DOI, use the webpage URL.

For example, with a DOI:
Tobin, C. (2006). Tips to remember about allergy, asthma and immunology [Online]. American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, 24, 225-229. doi:


Another example, no doi, so the URL is used instead:
Hemingway, E. (2007). The future of Irish social policy. Irish Journal of Social Policy, 99, 423-455. Retrieved from

(g) Theses

Ajax, J. (2004). The marketing of tulips in 17th Century Holland. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Utrecht University, Utrecht.
Real names of clients, staff, agencies or locations should not be used in assignments and any details, which might make it possible to identify any of the above, should be avoided. Special care must be taken if photos are used and permission from client/parent/guardian/agency must be obtained. A breach of confidentiality in a written assignment may result in a failed assignment.

Appendix 1: Assignment title page

Department of Social Sciences Assignment Title Page

Student number:

Lecturer’s Name:
Programme (degree):

Submission Date:

Word Count:
Title of Assignment:

Declaration of Ownership: I declare that the attached work is entirely my own and that all sources have been acknowledged: 

Date: ___________________________

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