These suggestions are not intended to be inclusive. The development of a high standard of academic writing is crucial to your studies, and there are many sources of help available. Draw on advice from staff in your department, from books, internet sites and other resources on study skills. The Student Learning Advisory Service has a wide range of books and leaflets on effective study and also runs free workshops on essay writing. For details and dates of workshops see: www.kent.ac.uk/student/skills/
Quick tips on essay writing
Answer the question – the one that is set, not your own version of it
Make it readable
Work with a plan
Acknowledge all you sources according to the required referencing style
Identify key words and phrases. Check the meanings; use a specialist dictionary if appropriate. Take care with terms that have both a specialist and non-specialist meaning (‘Romance’) – use the definition appropriate for your subject discipline. Make sure you check the meaning of ‘instructional’ words (discuss, compare, analyse… see list below).
What you are asked to do
Give reasons for; explain (give an account of; describe).
Give an organised answer looking at all aspects
Look for similarities and differences between; perhaps conclude which is preferable.
Bring out the differences.
Give your judgement on theories or opinions or facts and back this by discussing evidence or reasoning involved.
Give the precise meaning. Examine the different possible or often used definitions.
Show that something is true or certain; provide strong evidence (and examples) for.
Make a survey, examining the subject carefully
Present in a brief, clear form.
Give a concise account of the chief points of a matter, leaving out details/examples
Follow the development of topic from its origin.
Explore the question
Question the question; break it down into smaller part. Brainstorm ideas, use pattern notes or mind maps (Cottrell, 2008).
What are you being asked to do?
What are the links to the module’s learning outcomes as listed in the module handbook?
What should you ask yourself?
How much do you know?
What do you need to know?
How is this topic connected to other topics on the module?
Do some initial reading, collect more ideas and questions and then decide on what you really need to look at.
When gathering material and ideas for your essay, you may start with internet research. However, do not rely entirely on internet resources; they are not always reliable and your marker expects you to work with books, academic journals and other printed matter. When using the library, skim and scan relevant books before taking them out and lumping them home. Aim for focused reading, looking for answers to questions (and for more questions), taking notes as you go.
Record the bibliographical details of all your sources
While reading and researching be sure to record on all your notes where the information came from. You cannot use ideas, data, or graphics produced by others without acknowledging these in your essay. You will need the complete bibliographic details to compile your bibliography or list of references. For more details on how to reference your sources correctly consult the Academic Integrity website: www.kent.ac.uk/uelt/ai
Time to be critical…
Review your notes so far in the light of the essay title. Cross out what no longer appears relevant (or highlight what you hope to use).
First draft of essay plan
List key sections/ paragraphs of your proposed essay by thinking of a heading for each section – whether or not your subject discipline actually uses headings. This is a draft essay plan, not set in concrete; you can change it later as your understanding of the topic grows. Making an early note of the structure as you imagine it might be, helps you to get a good sense of how the essay might develop. Remember – the sections of the essay need to be in a logical coherent sequence, and in proportion to the word count:
5-10% of word count
200-400 words each (however, these are units of thought rather than blocks of words)
5-10% of word count
Now move to a rolling pattern of work:
Focussed reading and note-taking
Modify essay plan; writing
Check as you go
Look at the original question:
Am I answering the question?
Have I veered off track?
Is this developing into a coherent, logical argument/structure?
Am I doing what I have been asked to do?
Comply with what you’ve been asked to do; check any information or advice you’ve been given (in seminars, lectures, course guidelines…)
Cut and paste as necessary; if you are hand-writing, work on one side of paper only! If you are working on a computer, save and number each draft.
When you have a draft that is well on the way:
Check it – see (10) above
Get a friend to read it (for common sense and flow)
Give it a rest. If possible, leave it for a day or so. You will return to it with clearer ideas and renewed energy.
Final draft: Check it!
see (10) above
spelling (don’t just rely on computer: it does not know the difference between site, sight, cite, for example)
punctuation, grammar, academic style (again, don’t rely on computer)
compliance with Department/Seminar Leader’s requirements
presentation: make it look good (readable font, double line spacing, page numbers, sufficient margins, all graphics are labelled etc!
sufficient and correct in-text referencing and tidy bibliography
First: don’t miss them.
Second: if you expect to miss the deadline, see the Seminar Leader first - don’t wait until the assignment is overdue.
Third: be honest. Seminar Leaders have heard it all before.
Learn from feedback on essays
If you don’t understand, ask. Pay attention to what you’ve got right, as well as what needs improving. Look at your last essay and devise an action plan to improve the next one, based on the feedback you have received – the strengths as well as weaker areas. This is one of the most important points on this hand-out – and is one that students are most likely to ignore.
Using this approach to essay writing
Don’t adopt it wholesale. Consider your own approach first. What works well? What could do with improvement? How might you wish to modify your current strategies, to make the process more straightforward or to achieve better results?
Cottrell, S. (2008) The Study Skills Handbook (3rd ed). Basingstoke: Palgrave.