Guidelines for Writing Essays Why write an essay ?

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Guidelines for Writing Essays
Why write an essay ?

Before you start to work through this guide, pause a moment and consider why you are going to write the essay. You may wish to write your ideas for the essay down below:

You possibly have a number of ideas for your essay. Writing an essay essentially gives you the opportunity to:

· Demonstrate your understanding of a subject by explaining and analysing the essential features.

· Show your knowledge of a subject by presenting factual information accurately.

· Put forward your personal opinions on a subject, by evaluating the various features and issues and deciding upon their respective worth.

An essay is more than a list of information and ideas - certainly, these are your raw materials, but writing an essay requires that you use these raw materials in some way. Depending on the approach you take to the topic, you might interpret, comment upon or analyse the information you have gathered. To decide upon the approach, you have to consider the essay title. Your tutor may provide you with an essay title, or you might be asked to write an essay on a topic you find particularly interesting.
The Essay Title

The first step in writing an essay is to consider what the question is asking for, or, if you are deciding upon the essay title for yourself, what you are hoping to get across to your readers.

The key words in the question or title will indicate the type of approach that is required. Are you describing a topic (that is, relating events in a sequence as you would in a story), or evaluating it (giving the pros and cons, advantages and limitations) ? There are certain key

words in essay titles which have certain meanings. Some of these are outlined overleaf.
Account for or explain.

Examine and/or interpret the parts that make up the subject

Comment on

Offer an opinion.


Show especially the similarities, but also point out the differences between two things. It would be good to use analogies and metaphors in answering this type of question.


Bring out the differences in.


Analyse and judge the worth of something. It might be useful to refer to the opinion of experts in the field.


Give a concise, short statement of the specific meaning of a term or word. Look for the essential characteristics.


Give a detailed account of the subject. Make it as clear and real as possible, as though you were telling a story. Move from a brief overview to a more detailed description.


Debate advantages and disadvantages, compare and argue merits.


Give your opinion on the subject. State the points for and against, quote supporting evidence from experts, studies or experiments.


What is the principle? How does it work?


Give clear examples. You might wish to use analogies or similarities, perhaps a diagram.


Explain the meaning of and give an opinion.


Give good reason for your conclusions.


Give an overview of the main factors or important ideas. Summarise.


Support with facts, figures, evidence and examples.


Present in clear, short form.


Give a brief account of the main points, with your own conclusions.


Describe the order in which events happened, and comment on causes and effects.

If you are trying to decide upon a topic for yourself, you may start off with a vague notion of the area you would like to write about. For example, your areas of interest might be:

"The History of Witham, Hull" or

"The Development of Psychology as a Science" or

"My Teenage Years"

In preparing for such an essay, it is still important that you have a clear and precise idea of the approach you are going to take. If you are going to describe the history of Witham, what time period are you going to cover? Are you intending to approach the entire history in chronological order, or concentrate on a few specific events and explore each in turn? With the development of psychology as a science, are you intending to consider the social reasons for the development of a scientific approach, or concentrate on the people who instigated this approach? When writing about your teenage years, are you going to focus on your social life, your working life or a combination of both?
If you have an essay title, or some idea of the topic you would like to write about, you may wish to make notes about it in the box below. Underline the key words in the title or topic, and make a note of the approach you intend to take. Take advice from your tutor on the best approach.

Essay Title:

By now, you may be developing a clearer idea of the topic you intend to write about, and the way in which you are going to tackle the subject. However, perhaps the essay title still seems daunting - a massive subject with no clear starting point and with areas about which you feel you require more information. Before trawling through books and notes in the hope that the right information will present itself, it is important to give yourself pointers to follow in your search. A useful technique can be to "brainstorm" around the essay title, to write down all the sub-questions and pieces of information that spring to mind when you think about the topic.


First, clear your mind of everything but the your essay topic. On a blank piece of paper write down all the ideas that come into your head that are related to this topic. At this stage, don't stop to think whether the ideas are good or bad - the aim of brainstorming is to generate as much material as possible.

Here are examples of brainstorming around the essay title “The Development of Psychology as a Science”, using a list format and a spider diagram. Using your own essay title, brainstorm on a sheet of blank paper, choosing the layout that feels most comfortable.

The sub-questions and ideas you have identified by brainstorming can be useful in giving you a way in to a topic, and break down what may seem a daunting task into smaller tasks that are easier to deal with. They also help focus your search for information to include in the essay.

Brainstorming Example: Listing thoughts

"The Development of Psychology as a science"

  • What is meant by a science? - Identifying a hypothesis, testing it out.

  • Why is a scientific approach important? Prediction and control

  • What other approaches were there? Philosophy - in the past, philosophy and science not separated.

  • How far back should I go? - the Greeks? - Aristotle, Plato

  • The Renaissance? - Search for new lands - exploration,

Brainstorming Example: A Spider diagram

Identifying a hypothesis,testing it out Prediction

What is meant by "science" Why is a scientific

approach important?

"The development of Psychology as a science"
Other approaches ? How far back?
Philosophy / science Greek Renaissance

not separated?
Aristotle Plato Exploration

- new lands

Sources of information

You may already know the answers to some of the sub-questions, but other questions might require information that isn't immediately available. The next step is to think about where you could get this information from - your potential sources. In the box below, jot down the sources of information you could use. These sources depend on your chosen subject and may include text books, notes, public records and, where the topic demands it, interviews and discussions.

Sources of information

As you collect your information, it is very important that you make a note of your sources so that these may be included in your list of references and the bibliography. This will enable readers of your work to find the information for themselves, should they wish to. Primary sources provide information "from the horses mouth" - they are records created at the time of a particular event. These may include reports and articles written by researchers about their own studies and experiments, or quotes, letters and memoirs from the people in whom you are interested. Secondary sources, on the other hand, are records and discussions of an event made at a later date. General text books are often secondary sources of information, quoting the work of other people (the primary source) and supplying references to help the reader track down the original reports and articles. Bear in mind that authors of secondary sources of information will often re-interpret primary sources to fit in with their own viewpoint. If it is possible to track them down, primary sources provide the most valuable information . Keep clear notes of your sources as you gather the information, perhaps in a notebook or in a card index. This will make putting together your list of references and the bibliography a great deal easier.

References and Bibliography

You have probably come across sections at the end of books and articles that are headed References and Bibliography. These sections list the sources of information that the author has quoted from and consulted when preparing the piece of work.

References - The Harvard System

References list the sources of information you have referred to in the text of your essay.

One of the most commonly used referencing systems is the Harvard System. This involves stating the author’s name and date direct following a reference in the text for example (Pratt & Bennet, 1985) after a reference to information means that you found the information in the book/article/journal by Pratt and Bennet published in 1985. In your bibliography at the end of your essay you would write out the full title, authors, publication date and publisher . Where a direct quote is given the page number of the publication is also stated, for example “Various influences lead to policy decisions and formulation” (Pratt and Bennet, 1985, p.7). This allows the reader to check the quote directly on page 7 of Platt and Bennet’s book.

In researching for an essay, you may have consulted a number of books to gather background information, but not actually quoted from them. The Bibliography section lists all the books and other sources you have used and consulted, whether or not you have quoted from them. Entries should be in alphabetical order of the authors surnames.

For example:

K.J.Pratt & S.G. Bennet Elements of Personnel Management, 1985, Van Nostrand Reinhold (UK) Co. Ltd.

Note that the publication title is in italics (although it is also appropriate to underline it, especially if you have handwritten rather than word processed the essay).

Planning the structure of your essay

By this stage you should have a fair idea of what you are going to write about and the range of information you could include in your essay - your raw material . The next thing you need to do is to plan out the structure of your essay.

Taking time to prepare an essay plan is time well spent:

• It helps you identify and clarify the main points you want to cover, and the most suitable order in which to address them.

• Planning ensures that you don't forget to include important points and also gives you the opportunity to weed out information that isn't relevant.

• As you plan, you will clarify in your own mind what you want to say and how you want to say it - you may find that you make connections and gain insights that previously hadn't occurred to you.

At this stage, you can begin to sift through the information you have gathered and decide upon its position in your essay. Be ruthless - don't be afraid to leave aside material that is not relevant to your approach to a topic. Sometimes there is the temptation to include every single thing you know about a given subject, regardless of whether or not it contributes to the clarity of your essay, just because you have gone to the trouble of finding the information.
The structure of any essay, regardless of the subject matter, can be broken down into three sections - the introduction, the main body and the conclusion.

The Introduction

This is an overview of the topic, and gives your reader an indication of what is to follow. You should refer to the actual title of the essay in your introduction and include a statement about the way in which you intend to interpret the topic. The introduction can also highlight the key issues that will be covered . Try to avoid putting your conclusions in the introduction - you are setting the scene for what is to come, rather than writing a "mini-essay"

The main body

Keep to the subject, and include only relevant information - that is , information that contributes to your interpretation of the essay title. Arrange your points logically, and remember to interpret, comment upon and analyse information where appropriate. Always bear in mind the approach you are taking with a particular topic. If you are evaluating a subject, consider both sides of the argument, and weigh up the merits of both views. If you are commenting upon something, include your own views backed up by evidence drawn from your researches.

The Conclusion

This summarises the main points of your essay and emphasises your final, considered view, Leave the reader with a clear idea of the conclusions you have reached and why you have reached them. Again, check that you have actually addressed the topic in the way you intended at the outset.

Summary so far:

At this stage, you should have:

  • An essay title or question

  • A clear idea of your approach to the essay.

  • Your raw material - the sources of information you can draw upon

  • An essay plan, briefly outlining:

The Introduction - key points listed, and how you will interpret the title

The Main body - the relevant information you will include, and the order in which you will include it

The Conclusion - Your final, considered view
Putting Pen to Paper

Now you can begin to build on the plan to develop the complete essay. Refer to your plan as you write, and use paragraphs to order your material and help the reader follow your train of thought.


Each paragraph should deal with a single idea or theme that is stated clearly in the first sentence - the topic sentence. The body of the paragraph then goes on to develop the idea stated in the topic sentence. The final sentence of a paragraph returns to the idea in the topic sentence to show how it has been developed.

If this seems rather complicated and long winded, remember that what you are trying to do is to write in such a way as to make your ideas accessible to your readers. In addition, you are hoping to make the process of writing the essay as painless as possible! Paragraphs allow a reader to skim the first sentence in order to grasp your idea, and then follow the way in which you develop this idea by reading the body of the paragraph. When writing an essay, paragraphs help you focus upon one theme at a time, and ensure that the material you include is relevant to that theme. When you wish to move on to the next idea, you start a fresh paragraph. In this way, you avoid becoming muddled and lost in a sea of information.
The first draft

Your essay will really be taking shape by now, and this is a good stage to ask other people to read through your first draft. Volunteers for this task might include friends, family, fellow course members and of course, your tutor. Even if readers are unfamiliar with the subject, they can still give you valuable feedback on spelling, punctuation, and comments on the overall "readability" of the work. Use this feedback to develop a final draft. Remember to include a list of references and the bibliography at the end of your essay.


No matter how well thought out a piece of work, with a logical structure, accurate and relevant information and clear discussion of the subject, the fact remains that if the reader has to struggle with "inky spider" handwriting or a small, faded type face then much of the sense of your essay may be lost. However, this doesn't mean you require a top-of- the-range word processor to produce a readable essay. If you have clear, easy to read handwriting (ask for comments of others on this!), then a hand-written essay is fine. Use wide-lined paper, and leave 1" margins for any comments or feedback. If using a typewriter, then make sure you leave double spaces between each line. For those with access to a word processor, use a type face of reasonable size (this typeface is 12 point Times New Roman, this is 14 point), and again, double space between lines, and keep a back-up of your work on a floppy disk. And finally, always make sure you have a spare copy or photocopy of your work to avoid disaster striking in the form of a hungry dog or spilt cup of coffee!


Casey F. How to Study - A Practical Guide 1985 Macmillan

Freeman R. Mastering Study Skills 1991 (2nd edition) Macmillan

Williams K. Study Skills 1989 MacMillan

The University of Hull, Department of History Writing History Essays - Some Advice 1993

Further Reading

You will find that all of the books listed below will provide you with useful information about study skills and essay writing skills. There are many other books available on study skills.

Percy D. Adult Study Techniques, A Springboard to Learning MacMillan 1989

Jones B. and Johnson R. Making the Grade Volume 1. A Study Programme for Adult Students. Reading and Learning Manchester University Press 1990

Jones B. and Johnson R. Making the Grade Volume 2. A Study Programme for Adult Students. Thinking and Writing Manchester University Press 1990

Madox H. How to Study Pan books 1988

Bate D. and Sharpe P. Student Writer’s Handbook: How to Write Better Essays Harcourt Brace Iovanich 1990

Clanchy J. and Ballard B. Essay Writing for Students (2nd edition) Longman Cheshire 1991

The University of Sunderland Study Skills Package 1994


AHolmes updated Jan 1998 vers 2b

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