Guide to Essay

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Guide to Essay

Why you are being asked to write an essay 3
What is an essay? 3
Essay planning 3
Good and bad essays 7
Referencing 7
The bibliography 10
Re-reading and re-drafting 11
What happens next? 11
Why you are being asked to write an essay
It may be because you have been out of education for over three years or you are thinking of taking a degree in a subject you have not studied in the past. This piece of work will let us, and you, see that you are able to work at Higher Education level, or it might point out areas where you might need extra support - support that will be available to you when you are studying with us.
What is an essay?
An essay is usually a short piece of writing on a specific subject. You will have been provided with an essay title that is related to the subject you are thinking of studying and given the number of words to write.
As a student, essays will form an integral part of your assessment to:

  • • improve writing style

  • • develop subject knowledge

  • • develop research skills

  • • help remember a subject

  • • develop powers of expression

  • • explore a topic or subject in detail

  • • assist the tutor in assessing how you, the student, are progressing

  • • provide the basis for constructive feedback regarding your progress.

We hope you find the following guidelines useful.

Essay planning
It is important to plan your essay carefully before starting to write. This ensures that you research your essay title and helps you stay on track. You will then be able to write a piece of work which shows you have thought about the topic of the essay.
The essay title and key words
Always read the essay title carefully and make sure you know what it means. Do not start writing until you have done this. It helps to underline key words in the essay title. These are pointers to the approach you should take in your work, the topics you need to research and the information you need to include. They also indicate the tone required in your essay. Finally, thinking about and understanding your essay title helps you stay focused and makes sure you answer the question.
Key words
A university essay rarely asks for a description but asks the student to use descriptions to illustrate points they wish to make. You may be asked to consider both sides of a debate or to give the strengths and weaknesses of a theory/practice.
What to look for in an essay title

  • • Which words give you an indication of what the tutor is looking for and the approach you need to take?

  • • Which words give you an indication of the topic or subject of the essay?

  • • Which words will you need to define so the reader is clear about the topic of the essay?

  • • Have you been asked a question?

  • • Will you need to consider several viewpoints in your essay?

  • • What will you be looking for in your essay?

These are some of the words that you may come across:

Key word/s



Look at important aspects of a topic or theory. You might need to produce a balanced argument for and against.


Identify differences between two or more sides to an argument. Possibly give reasons why one argument may be preferable.


Critically analyse something. You might need to present an argument for and against and then evaluate using the evidence you have found.


Identify similarities. What is the relevance or consequence?


Provide an outline, be factual. You might outline main events or features of something.

Critically evaluate

Look at the arguments for and against something and evaluate them.


Look at a subject in detail. You may need to critically evaluate it.

Account for

Give reasons for. You may need to explain why something has happened.


Look at in close detail. Similar to ‘examine.’


Clarify something using examples or evidence.


Support an argument using evidence.

To what extent

Consider how far something is true or not true. Evaluate and explain reasons for your evaluation.

Comment on

Identify the main issues.


Give the exact meaning. Use examples.


Outline why something happens or what something means.

Essay style and presentation

  • Try to make sure your handwriting is neat or use a computer if you have access to one.

  • If you handwrite your essay, remember to write on lined A4 paper and leave wide margins for the tutor to make notes.

  • Use 1.5 spacing for your text lines

  • It is usual to leave spaces between paragraphs.

  • Quotes should be indented at both sides and if possible emphasised through using single spacing of lines.

  • Write or type on one side of the page only and put page numbers on each one.

  • Put your name and contact details on at least one of the pages, unless the tutor asks you not to. (Anonymous marking may mean that you only provide a number rather than your name.)

Apart from showing evidence of research into your essay topic, and showing how you have put together the findings of your research to construct your essay, you also need to obey certain conventions about essay writing and style. As stated earlier, essays tend to be written in a rather formal style and it is important to remember the following:

  • Do not use slang. If you have to use slang words put them in quotation marks.

  • Do not use colloquial expressions, eg it is as clear as mud, it is hardly likely to happen.

  • Keep your language simple. Do not try to use over elaborate language, use more precise language.

  • Do not use contractions such as ‘didn’t’ and ‘it’s’.

  • Remember the rules of grammar and punctuation. If you find your skills in this area are a bit rusty, buy a guide which will help you improve them. Use the spelling and grammar check on a computer to help you.

  • Make sure your sentences are not too long. Long sentences become difficult to understand and make less sense. Read your work out loud to see if it sounds right or ask a friend to read it.

  • Make sure your essay is fluent and that your reader knows where they are going.

Your evidence
As you researched your essay you will have found evidence (in books, journals, newspapers, the Internet) which help substantiates the points in your essay. It is important to use your reading and evidence in your essay. This will help you avoid generalisations and assumptions such as:
• ‘It’s true to say that all disabled people are discriminated against.’
• ‘There is no such thing as Community.’
• ‘Most people, at some time, will break the rules of confidentiality.’
• ‘Communities are affected by young people who on the whole do not want to go out to work.’
The essay conclusion
This is where you summarise the evidence in the main body of your essay and show how you have dealt with the essay title. Your conclusion should show the reader you have come to the end of the essay, so needs a sense of ending.
If you have presented an argument, your conclusion may provide an opinion as to which side is right, although you may conclude on the evidence that there is no right or definitive answer. There may be a need for further research.
In the conclusion try and bring all your points together. Do not introduce new points - these should be in the main body of the essay.
Use words such as ‘therefore’, ‘in short’, ‘to summarise’, ‘it can therefore be seen’, ‘to conclude’.
Your conclusion will probably amount to 10% of the word total of your essay.

Good and bad essays
A good essay:

  • Has a clear structure

  • The content is relevant to the title.

  • Shows wide and relevant reading.

  • Demonstrates a good understanding of the subject through effective critical analysis.

  • Shows the development of the argument.

  • Gives clear references using an appropriate system.

  • Is well-presented.

  • Shows good grammar and spelling.

  • Shows some originality of thought (one of the marks of a first-class essay).

A bad essay:
Just sets out all you know about the topic. That is, it describes rather than analyses information. At this level, facts themselves are not enough, what needs to be discussed are their implications.

  • Gives no evidence of your own thoughts on the subject.

  • Is padded with irrelevant information.

  • Gives unsubstantiated assertions or generalisations: eg Nobody today has a job for life.

  • Doesn’t give references.

  • Is illegible.

  • Is poorly written.

  • Is personal rather than objective. Because objectivity is required in an academic essay, it is usually inappropriate to use “I” and “we”.

When you write an essay you are, in a way, engaging in a debate with people who have written about the subject before you. Unlike writing a poem or a novel, an essay is not expected to be wholly original. You are encouraged to engage with the ideas of other people who have thought about the subject. But it is important that you distinguish between your contribution and ideas or

information from other people. This is why referencing is so important.

Giving references, then, is a way of acknowledging the presence of other people in the debate.
Not giving references is a serious offence. It is equivalent to passing off other people’s ideas as one’s own - plagiarism.
Plagiarize, or plagiarise (verb). To appropriate ideas, passages etc from another work or author. (From Latin plagiarus- to plunder.) Collins English Dictionary.
Just as you wouldn’t take someone else’s work and put your own name on it, you should not take someone else’s ideas without acknowledging the fact. Plagiarism is taken very seriously. Students found guilty of deliberate plagiarism can be denied a degree.
Also, someone researching a particular field might need to know where to find the information you are using. Clear references make it easy to trace information.
Therefore, systems have been devised to indicate when we are drawing upon other people’s work. There are several referencing system; the most common these days is the Harvard system of referencing.
The Harvard System
If using a quotation, put the reference in the main body of your text by writing:

  • The author’s surname.

  • Year of publication.

  • Page(s) referred to.

People are being put out of work by robots, particularly in industries like car manufacturing. This often only adds to problems:
“With the millions of citizens of the erstwhile Soviet Union looking for work, robots are the last thing that is needed.” (Rifkin 1996:90)
In this example, Rifkin is the author, 1996 identifies the work; and 90 is the page number. Note that the page number follows a colon.
If you refer to this book again, give the source in the same way. Harvard doesn’t use Latin expressions like “op.cit.”.
In the bibliography at the end of the essay, you then give the full reference. (See below.)
Mentioning the author in the text
If you have mentioned the author in the text, but have not given a quotation, you need only put the year of publication in brackets.

The bibliography
A full bibliography should be given at the end of the essay.

  • Give (in this order):

  • author

  • date of publication

  • title (italics – if you’re word-processing, otherwise underlined)

  • publisher

  • location of publisher (if not London)

Rifkin, J. (1996) Technology, Jobs and Your Future. G.P Putnam’s Sons. New York.

Holywell, S. (2001) Modernism, Penguin.
In the bibliography, list sources in alphabetical order according to author.
Literature students may sometimes want to acknowledge the date of the original

publication of the work as well as that of the current edition they are using. A

suggested way of doing this is as follows:
Bronte, Emily (1998, 1847) Wuthering Heights, Methuen.
Citing journals
You will have to give extra information, eg issue numbers eg

Croft, F. (2001) ‘Bauhaus Revisited’, Journal of Art and Design (3): (87-92)


Ed = editor

‘Bauhaus Revisited’ is the title of the article

Journal of Art and Design is the title of the journal

(3) is the issue number

87-92 are the page numbers.

Citing web sources
For electronic journal articles follow the usual system, with additions:

  • author

  • year

  • title of article

  • type of medium

  • date of publication

  • volume number or issue number, pages or online equivalent.

eg Bloggs,F. (2001) Home care in practice. Healthcare Journal [Internet] 31

January, (2), pp4-7. Available from http:///

The rapid growth of the so-called ‘tiger economies’ in the 80s was widely promoted as a model for the developed nations. However some commentators, for example, Schumacher (1986) argued that their growth was caused by short-term factors and that their ‘boom’ would shortly be followed by an equally spectacular ‘bust’.
Acknowledging without mentioning the author in the text
If the author’s name is not in the main flow of the essay, give both the author’s name and year of publication in brackets, separated by a comma.
It has even been asserted (Bloggs,87) that the policy of privatisation was the

single biggest boost to the British economy in the 1980s.

Or if you want to give the page number(s):
It has even been asserted (Bloggs,87:42-3) that the policy of privatisation was

the single biggest boost to the British economy in the 1980s.

Multiple authors
If two people have co-written a book, give both names:

eg (Summers and Powder, 1999)

If three or more have written it, write “et al” (which means “and others”):

eg (Howard et al, 1976).

Quoting multiple sources

Several historians (Smith, 1970; Frobisher, 1980; Hopkins, 2000) have argued that the Wars of the Roses began earlier than the Battle of St Albans.

Note the semi-colons separating each writer.

If an author wrote more than one work in a year.

If an author wrote more than one work in a year distinguish between them by writing ‘a’, ‘b’ after the year of publication.

Eg (Martineau,1990a)

Remember to identify these texts as a, b etc in your bibliography.
Footnotes and end-notes
Try not to use them.

Re-reading and re-drafting
You may now have written the conclusion to your essay, but you haven’t finished

your piece of work yet. It is important to read your essay through and then think

about ways in which you might improve it.

  • Keep your essay to the stated length. If you have planned your essay in advance it is easier to keep to the length requested. If your essay is far too long it must be cut down.

  • Check that your essay has a logical sequence, organisation of information and flow from beginning to end.

  • Read your essay aloud to ensure it makes sense. Ask someone else to read it for you. They might spot errors you haven’t spotted.

  • Do a spell check if you have word processed your essay, but do not rely on the spell check only. Remember that your spell check won’t pick up incorrect usage of ‘their’ and ‘there’ or ‘hire’ and ‘higher.’

  • Make sure you have referenced your evidence correctly, both in the main body of the essay and in the references and bibliography.

  • Be consistent in the presentation of your essay.

  • Make sure you have dealt with the title of your essay.

What happens next?
Once you have returned your essay to Admissions, you should get the result

within three weeks. If it is going to take longer you will be told.

The letter you receive will tell you whether you have passed or failed with a copy

of the tutor’s notes. This will highlight areas where you might need to do some

extra work – punctuation for example.
Although we do not want to talk about failing……. If your essay isn’t quite up to

the necessary standard we may be able to recommend study skills courses or

advise that you take an Access Course before reapplying to university.
With the help of this guide and, if necessary, one of our writing support tutors,

this won’t happen and you will be accepted on to the course of your choice.

We hope you enjoy writing your first piece of work for us and we look forward to

welcoming you to York St John University as an undergraduate student.

Good luck and happy writing!

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