Writing an Essay/Dissertation (with an appendix on ‘reading a paper’)



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Writing an Essay/Dissertation (with an appendix on ‘reading a paper’)
Remember you are writing an essay with the following purposes in mind:


  1. To show the marker that you have read and comprehended the course reading material; you should be aware of the ‘Learning Outcomes’ for the course and your essay should demonstrate a good understanding of them

  2. That you have read additional material that is relevant to the specific topic of the Essay; you should make sure you deal with the question. There is a list of essay questions for each course. Some are in the form of questions, others in the form of topics or proposed essay titles. You can title your essay with a listed question, a title of your own that is related to the question. Whatever you do, make sure that it is clear what question/topic on the list you are dealing with.

  3. That you can think critically; that is, that you do more than just hand on information from your reading and seminars: you select the best readings you can find for you essay, and you compare ideas and criticize them.

  4. That you can do some original thinking about the topic of the essay and in relation to the reading you have done.

  5. In the case of a dissertation you have to show you have done some research (which may be textual or empirical) to reach convincing conclusions.

  6. For both essays and dissertations, it is best to make a case, rather than just survey literature related to the essay question/topic. Say straightaway the point you aim to make; your essay or dissertation should be a sustained demonstration of the evidence (empirical or logical argument) for your case.

If you can accomplish all these aims to a high standard, you are likely to get a distinction. Make sure you read the whole section of the Handbook on essays and dissertations, which explains what is expected of you to achieve a pass, a good pass, a distinction.


Title: An Essay starts with its title, related to an essay question or topic, usually chosen from a list given for the course You need to formulate your own question. This may be the one in the list of suggestions, or it may be connected with the questions and topics in the list. However it needs to be a question you are personally interested in from the course learning. You may, with permission from the course organiser, adopt another title that is closer to your interests, but does not easily connect with the list of suggestions. If you do this, you must get written confirmation for your question, on your essay submission form. For a dissertation your title is your own choice preferably with discussion from you supervisor.
Your Question: The title should indicate the specific question which you will attempt to answer, or the argument you want to make. For instance if the title – either the question or topic from the suggested list, or your title based on it – is ‘Freud was always keen to apply psychoanalysis of the individual to understanding society’, it could suggest a number of questions. For instance, ‘Is society made more understandable by the psychoanalysis of the individual?’ Or, ‘How does society as an aggregate of individuals differ from the psychoanalytic understanding of the individual?’ Or it could be interpreted more specifically as, for instance, ‘Does the Oedipus complex, discovered in the individual, throw light on societal phenomena?’ Or was the Oedipus complex discovered in the individual? Or, was it the case – and what is the evidence – that Freud did want to apply the psychoanalysis of the individual to society?
It is easier to ensure that your title is in the form of a question that you will pursue, as it focuses the reader’s attention (and yours), and it gives you an endpoint to reach - the answer to the question.
The argument: You should then decide on the way in which you will answer the question. Dissertations may often rely on some empirical evidence which you collect from a particular method.
The argument is a series of logical steps leading from the question to the answer. Each step may be supported by empirical evidence in the case of a dissertation where a data-gathering method has been employed. Mostly, in essays, you will rely on papers in the literature which give authoritative opinions, often themselves supported by empirical evidence.
In the course of this argument you will need to show that you have read in some depth the psychoanalytic literature that is relevant (see Appendix). Your argument should be supported by an exposition and critique of these relevant papers. For instance if your argument requires you to introduce Freud’s paper on ‘The Ego and the Id’ (Freud 1923), you should give the core of the structural model, with some of your own critique about why Freud thought this was a useful development of psychoanalytic ideas, and why you agree (or disagree) with his argument for introducing the structural model; as well as stating clearly why it is relevant to the particular step in your argument. It is not enough to imply that you are making use of it, and to leave it to the reader to figure out whether you are, or where you got it from.
Part of your aim here is to show the reading you have done, your grasp of it, and your selection of it as relevant for your argument. You must take account of conflicting ideas, evidence and information, as well: that is part of being critical.
Bear in mind that there are two kinds of literature that you will search: first primary sources, those writings of the great innovators, like Freud himself, Klein, Ferenczi, and so on; and secondly the secondary literature which critiques the primary sources. Do always stick to these, and avoid popular accounts of psychoanalytic ideas, including those appearing on websites on the internet.
The answer: Having proceeded through a series of steps, you should reach an answer to the question you have extracted from the title.
You do not have to find a ‘yes’ answer to your question. Counter-intuitive answers are often much more interesting, than ‘proving what you already know’. You do not even have to confirm that psychoanalysis is right – so long as your argument that it is wrong, is a well-argued one.
The conclusion: Your answer should be sufficiently solid, and interesting, for you to (a) discuss the significance of the answer, and (b) debate what further questions it could lead to, and thus what further knowledge could be indicated by your answer.
References: You must make references, in the text and in the list at the end, in the standard form – see the style of referencing in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, and copy it. This is called the Harvard system and further details can be found at: http://www.library.uq.edu.au/training/citation/harvard_6.pdf
Quotations: Although you may find certain texts very helpful in understanding the key ideas you are using, you must not copy any part of that text into your essay/dissertation, without stating that it comes from someone else’s text. If you do copy other texts, it must be indicated by (a) quotation marks – ‘ ’, or (b) by using a separate indented paragraph for the quotation, usually for larger quotations, say, above 20 words. In either case the quotation must be followed by a full reference, made up of a citation at the end of the quotation (author(s) name(s), date, page number) and a full reference inserted into the list of reference at the end of your essay or dissertation.
A note on plagiarism: There is now software used by the University which can identify text in your essay copied from other published works. If you do not state where it comes from that is plagiarism, and that may disqualify you from your degree. Don’t risk plagiarizing. You don’t learn anything and you put your registration at risk.
Marking: The marker of your essay will

  1. look for clarity in your argument;

  2. its relevance to the question from the list of questions or the topic;

  3. how convincing the argument is;

  4. the relevance and grasp of the literature you have chosen (and in the case of a dissertation, the suitability of the method of data collection, and of data-analysis in an empirical study);

  5. your critical ability:

  6. the competency and style of the English:

  7. the correctness of making references, and indicating quotations;

  8. and finally the degree of originality of your own thinking which has gone into the essay and its conclusions.

Good luck – enjoy writing.

Bob Hinshelwood

Karl Figlio



Appendix - Reading a paper
At a Masters level of study, you should have learned to read, study and critique a paper in the academic and professional Journals.
1. In reading a paper, you should first note the date of original publication, and in your own mind connect that to other papers/books that you know of around the same time of publication, or a little before. This will give you an idea of how the paper you are reading enters a debate on a specific topic. You may find it helpful to look at the bibliography at the end of the paper. You need to be able in your own mind to answer the question: Why did this author decided to write this paper at this time?
2. Then you should get its single most central idea – the one around which the whole of the paper turns. This core idea should be presented when you refer to the paper, and be the reason for introducing it to your argument.
3. Finally, in reading the paper you should develop you own critique – that is, you should give your own view of the validity of the argument, whether its question is relevant to a debate that you are aware of from other papers you have read, and other knowledge that you have, and if the argument is sufficiently convincing, and evidenced, to make you confident of the conclusions that the paper comes to.




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