There are no fixed rules on essay writing, but it’s useful to follow a few general principles until you’ve had more practice at writing an academic essay. The purpose of an academic essay is to demonstrate your knowledge of a particular subject, your ability to work critically with a text and with other critics’ opinions about a text, and above all your ability to construct a clear, coherent argument to answer a question. Your purpose should be to get to the stage where you know instinctively what is a good essay and have developed your own personal style, and can throw away these guidance notes.
The most common way of constructing an essay is to divide it into three parts, each with specific functions.
The introduction should indicate how you intend to approach the question and should set out the sequence in which you will deal with the main points. This is to help you to structure your thoughts and to help the reader of your essay judge how well you have completed the task you have set yourself. Use the introduction to clarify how you understand the title of the essay and any technical terms it may use. (This is especially useful when answering exam questions.) It can be a good idea to say at the start what conclusion you will reach; this helps you to keep a structure in your head while writing. It’s sometimes tempting just to start writing and see what conclusion you come to at the end; if this is how you work, re-read your essay thoroughly, in order to make sure that it doesn’t start out trying to do one thing and then end up doing something else. The introduction should point forwards and help your reader to follow the train of argument through in the rest of the essay.
An elegant way to begin is a relevant quotation, from the text you are discussing or from a critic; then use the quotation to lead into the statement of your approach.
Remember you DO NOT have to present a potted biography of the author; biographical information is only admissible in an introductory paragraph if it is of direct relevance to the subject of your essay; e.g. if you are writing an essay about poems by Rilke concerning animals, the fact that he was born in Prague in 1875 will probably not be relevant, whereas the fact that he was in the habit of going to the zoo when he lived in Paris might be relevant to an understanding of his artistic methods. (He set a number of famous poems in the zoo in Paris).
Try also to avoid sweeping generalisations about the writer or the period in which (s)he lived. On the other hand, you will often need to acquire background information, especially regarding historical and/or social conditions, before you can adequately understand the details of a text. (See below: ‘Contexts’).
This section should follow through your argument, indicating as you go along why you are moving from the point you have just dealt with to the next point.
It is a good idea to think about a paragraph as dealing with one particular issue or question in the course of your argument. Try to avoid paragraphs that stand alone though; paragraphs should link together, moving progressively through the points of your argument rather than jumping from one idea to the next.
Try not to write in scrappy, short paragraphs of one or two sentences, but bind your argument together into decent-sized chunks: good paragraphing has a role to play in organising your argument and helping the reader through it.
State your conclusion clearly, relating it to the title. Pay attention to the form of the title. If it says, e.g., ‘To what extent can Molière be accused of …?’ be sure to respond to the invitation to establish Molière’s ‘guilt’ or ‘innocence’. (This, again, is particularly useful in exam answers.) A common type of conclusion might be to sum up the argument for one view, then for a different view, then state why you have decided for the one, or the other, or why no one-sided decision is possible.
Depending on the question, you may need to place the text(s) you are writing about in historical, political or literary contexts. For example, an essay on one of the Austrian or German national anthems will require discussion of relevant aspects of the historical context.
Do not give very generalised background information (avoid potted biographies). Background material and comparisons should serve the topic you are discussing, providing context for your following argument; it is usually obvious when background material is used simply to pad out the word count.
Critics and commentators
You will often use ideas from critics, historians or other sources. If you quote sources, always give a reference (see the DELC Writing Style Guide for advice on this). The essay is essentially about your own response to the question, but reading critics can be an important part of developing your own view, and referring to contrasting critical opinions is a useful way of helping to structure an essay. Remember that you will get credit for showing that you have read some secondary literature on the author or background works, and that you can refer to such reading properly (especially if you go on to say why you agree or disagree). At the same time, you should be careful not to become dependent on secondary literature to the point where the essay ceases to be your own work. An essay packed with other people’s views and insights (however impressive) will not help you to extend your ability to focus your thoughts clearly and communicate them effectively, which is, after all, the main point of the exercise.
Quotations should be used to support a point being made and to illustrate your argument. Never quote merely for the sake of quotation.
Always comment on a quotation; your reader needs to know why this quotation is important and how it fits in with and illustrates your argument
• Start with a general overview or plan of the shape your essay will take. Your ideas will evolve and develop as you write.
• Always read through your essay carefully once it is finished, checking that your argument is clearly expressed.
• Try to develop an appropriate writing style: clear and concise without sacrificing your own personality. Avoid mixed metaphors, clichés, hackneyed phrases and journalese.
• Always use the ‘narrative present tense’ when writing about literature. The characters and action of a literary work exist not in the ordinary time of everyday experience but in a kind of crystallised, arrested time, like the time in a picture. From one reader to the next, they never change, so we use the present tense when referring to them: ‘In Flaubert’s novel, Charles Bovary falls in love with Emma’.
However, when writing about the author or about actual historical events, we would normally use the past tense. Thus we say: ‘Dante’s journey through the Inferno takes place in Easter week 1300’, BUT: ‘The French Revolution lasted from 1789-99’.
• Assume that your reader knows the text. You are not writing a book review, so you will be penalised for wasting time re-telling the story. Essay titles are always formulated so as NOT to require you to re-capitulate the plot.
• Try to see your lecturers and tutors, as well as the critics you read, as resources rather than as authorities. Use them as a guide to deepening your knowledge and sharpening the range of skills which successful essay-writing requires. There is rarely, if ever, a final, authoritative opinion about a literary work (though there can of course be many incorrect opinions, based on inadequate evidence or misunderstanding), and learning to distinguish between factual knowledge and informed opinion is a key aspect of university education.