Essay Writing Strategies

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Essay Writing Strategies

There are several types of written work--essays, reports, projects, and assignments—which depend on the purpose. For instance, writing up a lab report or a practical is different from writing a critical essay. Your first task is to understand for what purpose you have been asked to write the paper.

If you are writing a critical essay the following steps might prove useful. But remember flexibility is important so constantly monitor and evaluate the strategies and approach you have chosen.

  1. Scheduling

  • Determine date of submission and work backwards to the present, remembering things usually take longer than you expect!

  • Generate a list of writing tasks involved, such as selecting a topic, writing a thesis statement or research question, initial research, creating an outline, research, first draft, revising, second draft, references, proof reading, final draft.

  • Estimate how much time each task may take and assign it a deadline. You may have to revise your schedule once you have clarified your topic.

  • You will get better at estimating the time required for each task as you become more familiar with the library and your own writing style.

  1. Understanding the question.

  • If you have been given a specific topic, find out as many details as possible such as who will be reading the paper, what is the specific purpose, how long should it be, what type of content is expected.

  • If you have a choice in topic, start by generating ideas. Ensure the topic is feasible (given time limits and resources), of interest to you and appropriate (check out the idea with your tutor). Keep an “ideas” file for future reference, ask your lecturer, check journal articles, brainstorm or use free writing.

  • Create a thesis statement or question. Similar to a news headline using key words that makes an assertion or describes an action. Be as specific as possible.

  1. Do initial research

  • Try to get an overview of the subject that may help you to determine the structure of your paper.

  • Scan the relevant literature to see how much material is available, always keeping in mind your thesis statement/research question so you do not get sidetracked.

  1. Create an Outline.

  • Using the key words in your thesis statement try to make a skeletal outline. As you gather more information this can become more detailed. Keep in mind both content and structure of the essay.

  • Take into account the length of the paper.

  • Try to write a sentence or paragraph per heading. Keep room for additional ideas.

  • Essay papers usually have an introduction, the main body, and conclusions section.

  • As you begin to write, an outline keeps you on track!

  1. Doing the research

  • You are looking for information to answer your question and evidence to support your argument.

  • One suggestion is to use 3” x 5” index cards, putting one idea per card.

  • Read the information critically, evaluating the relevance and validity. Take summary notes.

  • Possible sources include books, journal articles, correspondence, radio, TV, notes.

  • Copy all information carefully, noting when the ideas are your own or the author’s, especially quotations; keep track of page numbers.

  • Be selective. Students often go overboard on researching, never getting around to writing. Ask yourself is this relevant to my question/statement?

  • Use source cards that record relevant information such as author, title, and year of publication, city of publication and publisher. It’s hard to backtrack at a later date when you are under pressure to get the paper written.

  • Check what type of referencing your department uses; this can differ.

  1. Writing the First Draft

  • Gather your notes and outline; start writing!! This step is to help you clarify your own thinking on the subject and to create flow. This is not for keeps so just write as if you were talking or explaining the subject to someone.

  • Try to write one idea per paragraph. Be concise and use logical transitions although you can always reorganise the order at a later date.

  • Remember you are trying to create a coherent argument or approach.

  • Put the draft aside for a day or two and then rewrite.

  1. Revising Your Draft

  • Reread the draft first, preferably out loud.

  • Cut out any unnecessary words or paragraphs that don’t fit the purpose.

  • Rearrange so that the argument flows logically.

  • Let a friend read the paper and critique it.

  • Be critical, looking at words and phrases: use an active not passive voice, check grammar and spelling, avoid vagueness.

  • Once you are sure you have covered your topic and the argument is coherent, then check your presentation: preferably typewritten with proper spacing and margins, quality paper, binder or folder – as if it was a sales job.

  1. Proofread. Make copies. Submit!

  1. Feedback.

  • When you get your paper back read any comments and ask for comments to be explained. Examine how you can improve for your next writing assignment.

Essay Writing Checklist

  1. Does the essay answer the question or deal with the topic that was set?

  1. Does it cover all the main aspects and in sufficient depth?

  1. Is the content accurate and relevant?

  1. Is the material logically arranged?

  1. Is each main point well supported by examples and argument?

  1. Is there a clear distinction between your ideas and those you have brought in from other authors?

  1. Do you acknowledge all sources and references?

  1. Is the length of the essay right for its purpose?

  1. Is it written plainly and simply, without clumsy or obscure phrasing? (Try reading it out loud.)

  1. Are the grammar, punctuation and spelling acceptable?

  1. Is your paper in presentable form? Easy to read and ready to make an impression?

From Moran (1997), Rowntree (1988)


ANALYSE Break an issue down into its component parts; discuss them and show how they interrelate.

ARGUE Make a case, based on appropriate evidence and logically structured, for and/or against some given point of view.
ASSESS Estimate the value or importance of something, paying attention to positive and/or negative aspects.
COMPARE Look for similarities and differences between.
CONTRAST Set in opposition in order to bring out differences.
CRITICISE Give your judgement about the merit of theories or opinions or about the truth of facts, and back your judgement by a discussion of the evidence.
DEFINE Set down the precise meaning of the word or phrase, giving sufficient detail so as to distinguish it.
DESCRIBE Give a detailed or graphic account.
DISCUSS Investigate or examine by argument; sift and debate giving reasons for and against.
EXPLAIN Tell how things work or how they came to be the way they are.
IDENTIFY Pick out what you regard as the key features of something, perhaps making clear the criteria you use in doing so.
ILLUSTRATE Use a figure or diagram to explain or clarify, or make it clear by the use of concrete examples.
JUSTIFY Express valid reasons for accepting a particular interpretation or conclusion.
OUTLINE Indicate the main features of a topic or sequence of events, possibly setting them within a clear structure or framework to show how they interrelate.
PROVE Demonstrate or establish the truth or accuracy, giving evidence or a logical sequence of statements from evidence to conclusion.
RELATE Explain how things are connected to each other and to what extent they are alike or affect each other.
REVIEW To make a survey of, examining the subject critically.
STATE Present in brief, clear form the main points.
SUMMARISE Give a concise account of the chief points or substance of the matter, omitting details and examples.
TRACE Follow the development or history of a topic form some point of origin.

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