In writing an essay you are being asked to do three things:
- demonstrate your understanding of unit material;
- respond to the issues and themes that define an academic discipline; and
- produce a clearly written and analytic argument in response to a specific issue.
Writing an essay thus provides you with the chance to analyse a social or cultural practice in the light of what you have learnt, or to work out what you think about an important question or text. Working on the essay will provide you with the opportunity to reflect on and clarify your thinking, and to develop, strengthen and express your own opinions. It also provides you with the opportunity to learn about and critique the views of thinkers and writers who have become influential in specific academic disciplines. Thus, writing an essay provides you with the opportunity to present your views in a form appropriate for public discussion. It requires you to provide reasons why others should accept your views; it also means that your views are subject to critical scrutiny. Lectures provide you with examples of the critical concepts and methods that are used in a specific academic discipline. Your essay should draw on this methodology to present an argument which will convince your reader of the logic of your views.
You will soon discover that much work in the humanities and social sciences consists of arguments about how things are to be defined and interpreted. Understanding often advances through disagreement between contrary viewpoints. This structured argument gives academic work much of its vitality and interest. Few issues in the humanities and social sciences have been resolved in any simple sense. You won’t find many generally accepted ‘answers’, and there are no single authorities who can tell you all you need to know. This means that we expect your essays to demonstrate not just factual knowledge but also some ability to present and assess arguments and counter-arguments about particular problems.
Here are some useful hints to help you with your research:
- Read the question carefully: Before you start reading, you should think carefully about the topic. Make sure you know what you are being asked. A dictionary definition of key terms is usually not enough. You must interpret the question as a whole. If the question uses terms that have been introduced in the lectures (or even a familiar word used in a new or specific way) go back over lecture material and make sure you know what a word means in the discipline you are studying.
- Work out the reading you will have to do: For 100 and 200 level units, the major research required is reading—carefully and critically—the books, articles, etc., on the reading lists provided. You may, if you wish, seek other relevant material in the library, but use it very cautiously. If in doubt about its relevance, consult your tutor. In later undergraduate units, you will be encouraged to undertake independent research and will be given advice as to how to go about it.
- Read closely and carefully: It is very important to read with care and attention. Try to work out what the author is saying and what his/her reasons are. Take special care to read and consider authors with whom you disagree. Think about how you might criticise their arguments, and how they might respond to your criticisms. But also ask yourself whether an author’s arguments give you reason to reconsider your own position. Think of reading as a way of entering into a dialogue with the author.
- Make notes: Always make notes on your reading. Even scrappy and inadequate notes are useful reminders when you want to recall what you have read. If you are going to quote passages in your essay, make sure you make an exact copy. Also keep accurate details of exactly where a particular quote is found, as you will need to put this in your essay (see “Referencing”).
Always plan your writing: Before you start writing, draw up a plan of your projected essay, covering all the relevant issues, and working out how the parts of your essay will fit together. The easiest way to confuse a reader is to be confused yourself. A plan makes sure you always know what you are trying to say, and when you are going to say it.
Organise your essay clearly: Remember that paragraphs are the organisational ‘building blocks’ of an essay and that each paragraph should have a main idea or theme. Good organisation can only be achieved by careful planning and frequent re-reading and revision of your writing as you proceed. Authors who haven’t taken the trouble to review and revise their essays before submitting seldom succeed.
(a) Begin with an introduction that foreshadows your argument.
(b) Develop your discussion progressively and coherently. Ensure that sentences and paragraphs follow logically from one another.
(c) Your conclusion should draw together the threads of your argument and present a final answer to or assessment of the problem.
Leave time to change your mind, and change your plan: As you write, you will find that issues which seemed easy are more difficult than you had thought, and sometimes you will find that you want to change direction, or even your mind, as you write. It is not uncommon to discover that you need to do more reading. So it is very important to leave yourself enough time to do this.
Always write more than one draught: When you have completed a draught of your essay, you need to make sure that you have covered all the issues, and that it develops in a coherent fashion from beginning to end. Often you will find that you have changed course half way through and that the early material is no longer relevant to your conclusion. It is important to give yourself enough time to spend a day or two thinking about your first draft, and then to rewrite it for submission. It is very clear to a reader which essays have been draughted and re-drafted: the improvement in quality is very noticeable, and is reflected in improved marks.
Make sure your writing is clear: Your final aim must be to present your views in a way that makes them comprehensible and plausible to your reader. By and large, your marker will be less concerned about the positions you adopt than with your ability to provide reasons for them, although there are some views and positions which are more difficult to support than others. So, whatever view you argue for, make sure that you have provided reasons why your reader should take it seriously and that you have taken into account possible objections to it (especially those canvassed in the reading list). That you believe it is not a reason for your reader to believe it. Use argument rather than assertion, and reason rather than rhetoric.
Things to bear in mind:
- Make sure that you have covered all the required aspects of the essay topic. If there are specific questions asked, make sure that you have answered them all.
- Avoid pretentiousness. Try to write as simply as is compatible with what you are trying to say. Do not try to impress your reader with inflated language and terminology.
- Most academic disciplines have their own technical terms (‘jargon’). Before you use these terms, make sure that you understand them.
- If possible, do not sit on the fence. Try to argue for a position, though taking into account its problems and the criticisms that have been made of it.
- Do not assume that your reader already knows what you are talking about. If you are talking about an author or an example, provide enough detail for someone who does not know your source to understand what you are talking about (and incidentally, to show that you know what you are talking about).
- Quote sparingly. Use quotation to illustrate your argument, not to replace it.
- Do not simply reproduce your lecture notes. Where you make use of lecture notes, provide a reference. If you use lecture material without acknowledgement, you will be guilty of Plagiarism (see below).
- Make sure that you footnote and reference your work correctly (see ‘Referencing’ below); this is a professional academic exercise
- Make sure that every essay has a Bibliography which lists the references you used, even if they include only the readings and texts set for the unit
- If you read materials outside the prescribed unit readings, keep detailed bibliographical notes so that you don’t have to find them again later
- If you use materials from the internet, be very aware that much of the material published there is unedited and self-published—and so may be of little intellectual value
The Criteria by which we assess are:
1.Relevance: The content of your essay should be relevant to the question or problem you’ve selected. Don’t include material not directly related to it.
2.Well-informed: Your essay should be well-informed. Different tasks and different disciplines require different amounts of reading. Make sure you know how much and what type is required, and that the reading you do is thorough and careful.
3.Your own thinking and your own words: Familiarity with the literature is essential but not sufficient. Your essay must be based on your own thinking. We don’t expect you to come up with original insights at this stage of your studies, but we do expect a serious effort to evaluate how the readings bear on the problem. Think for yourself and say what you think. By this we don’t mean to encourage rash, unconsidered statements.
4.Organisation: Your essay should be constructed in a way that shows the logical steps in your argument, with data from various sources being brought in as appropriate.
5.Expression: Take special care to express your ideas as clearly and concisely as possible. Write complete sentences and keep them as short and succinct as possible. The best way to find out whether your essay is well-written is to have someone read it. An alternative is to read it aloud to yourself. This can help you to recognise the syntactically awkward bits, and it may help you to see the misspellings and other errors. The Vice-Chancellor has asked that writing skills be taken into account in the overall assessment of work, and particularly that ‘Markers should insist that ideas and facts should be expressed accurately and adequately, and should penalise the sort of writing which calls on them to provide a charitable interpretation of notions which have been vaguely or misleadingly expressed’.