Essay writing, just like other aspects of academic student life, can be learned and you can develop the skills, techniques and knowledge to produce high quality work.
As a student you will be asked to produce a range of different pieces of work, providing your answers using essays, reports, presentations and possibly also blogs, videos, posters etc. You will need to ensure that you are using the correct format for each different assignment task. Today, we’re going to look specifically at essays.
An essay is a short piece of writing to show your understanding of a topic or concept or, depending on level, you may be asked to analyse literature and present your own interpretation of the current thinking. Although I’m saying “short” this will vary depending on the level you’re studying at.
Its important that you have a clear and logical structure to your essay so it flows well and is easy to read. As a minimum, your essay should have a beginning (the introduction) a middle and an end (conclusion).
As it suggests, your introduction should open your essay, outlining the main focus of your work and will lead into the main body of your work where you will answer the essay question.
The main body of your work (never use this as a topic heading if you are providing headings and sub-headings – use the themes of your work instead). You should keep each point you are making separate and only have one idea per paragraph so you are able to make your points clearly.
Finally when you have written your essay, you will need to pull everything together and write your conclusions section. This should pull your ideas together, highlighting the key points. Conclusions are not a summary. You may be familiar with the mantra that you write an essay in 3 parts – tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell them it; tell them what you told them. We can see that the introduction still tells the reader what you’re going to do in the essay; the main body is the development of the answer – ‘telling them it’; but the conclusion is not a summary of what you’ve said in the essay but really focusing on making conclusions about the key points from your work.
Once you’ve got your assignment brief from your lecturer its important to ensure you really understand the question(s) so you have the correct focus for your work and you don’t end up writing everything you know about the topic or go off at a tangent which would negatively impact on your eventual grade.
Despite the fact that the Introduction comes at the beginning of your essay, it is the last thing you should write as, until you have finished developing your arguments, you won’t know what you will be doing in your introduction. The most effective introduction will have a clear focus of what you’re going to do in your report rather than a more general overview. You also wish your introduction to grab the attention of the reader, so they want to continue reading.
When getting started on your essay, you need to plan out what you want to say. Look at your question and decide what information you need; what questions do you need to find the answers to so you can write your essay. When I start working on a new article, I always start with a plan – what do I need to find out; what questions will I be answering etc. Those headings form the basis of my work. On occasion I’ll write them on post-its so I can organise and structure my plan before I start writing; trying to ensure it runs well. But even as I write, I continue to restructure and have moved some of my sections about and have even deleted some headings as the content has been integrated elsewhere. Don’t feel that by having a plan, that you are stuck with it – its a starting point to help give you direction, but use it to work with you and help you produce a better structured essay.
Once you know the topic you’re going to be doing your essay about, you should start researching, When I’ve got a task to complete – such as an article, I would start of by identifying the questions I want to ask and then doing my research to find out the answers. When researching you need to make sure you read enough to gain a good understanding of the topic, but not so much that you feel overwhelmed. When I was a student I would start with about 4 sources (articles, books etc) and then see what I can answer. The benefit of that is I can see more clearly where I’m happy that I’ve answered the question and where any gaps are in my knowledge and understanding. It then means I can be more focused when I carry out additional research.
You should always ensure you are using up-to-date literature and that if you’re reading about a topical issue (current affairs for example) make sure that your reading is relevant – no point in reading something discussing economics during a time of growth when your country is living through a recession.
Sometimes you may be drawing information from case studies or examples of what has happened elsewhere. In these situations its really important that you make sure the examples you’re using are directly relevant for your essay. Again, looking at my own situation, my students sometimes need to talk about their own employing organisations, so when they are looking at case studies they need to make sure that the examples in the case study will work for their own organisations. For example, if you work in a small family run organisation with 10 employees, you can’t necessarily use examples of what Google or Amazon does to manage the company – it would need to be another comparable organisation to the family run one.
When working on course work you need to make sure you give yourself sufficient time to work on your essay. I find students regularly under-estimate how much time they will need for research – finding resources, reading etc. You will also need time for drafting and editing your essay. Just as I’m doing with this article, I expect to rewrite and edit this article at least 3 times before I will finally hit publish.
Combined with the writing, editing and sometimes scrapping and rewriting; you should also give yourself thinking time. There are two benefits I can think of immediately from taking time to think and reflect on your work.
- After spending a lot of time reading and writing for your essay (or other writing) you need to give your brain a chance to process all the new information and ideas. While we sleep our brains process everything to try to make sense of it all and in the morning you can sometimes have some inspiration – so you need to give your mind time to mull over and reflect on what you’ve been doing. Ideally sleep on your work, but even a few hours allows your brain to catch up
- Having had a break from your writing means that when you do return to review and edit your work you will find that you are more objective and will be more effective with your editing. You will more easily see how to improve your work. A bit of distance will allow you to develop your arguments.
There are a few rules that you should follow in terms of academic writing. You should avoid writing in the first person (I/me) unless you’ve specifically been told otherwise – the only time I can think of where my students would be writing in the first person would be reflective writing about their own professional development. So as a general rule of thumb, write in the third person.
You should also avoid using contractions (isn’t, doesn’t) and colloquialisms and don’t abbreviate unless its recognised terms (BBC for example). If you’re going to abbreviate words, names etc you should use the word(s) in full the first time with the abbreviation in brackets afterwards, then you can use the abbreviation afterwards. This is a good way to help reduce your word count – for example Human Resource Management (HRM).
Writing up your Work
When presenting your work it will be important that you draw on your reading to support your ideas with references. You certainly want to avoid any risk of plagiarism.
These two posts should help you in this area.
You should also be careful to stay within the word count. Different institutions will take different approaches to marking and grading work which exceeds the word count. For some, it may be that you have marks deducted; others, including some of the courses I teach on, once you have passed the word allowance (1,000 words +/- 10% for example) anything over 1,100 words does not get marked.
This article should give you some more guidance about managing word counts.
Think about flow
As I’ve said above, the structure of your work is important. It needs to flow well when its being read, so you need to think about how you organise and structure your work. Another aspect to consider is that you want to ensure your sections connect with each other so that your work flows well rather than being disjointed.
Factors shaping what your work looks like
When considering your essays or other academic writings, there are some things to be careful about. While some writing expectations are universal, I am writing this from the perspective of a UK academic working in the field of business and management. Other disciplines (science for example) may have different writing protocols and there may also be some variation between universities and across different nationalities. You should always check with your own institution – I studied languages as an undergraduate at University and the protocols across the different language sub-departments were different, so you should always check what is expected by your own programme.
Essay Writing Services
I want to write a brief comment about the growing availability and apparent popularity of essay writing services. From my perspective, even though you may be paying for an essay that won’t contain any plagiarised work, this is not you own work and therefore would fall foul of any academic honesty/academic dishonesty policy in place in your Institution. If you pay for someone else to write your essay, its still not your work and if discovered, you would still be guilty of passing off someone else’s work as your own – therefore this is plagiarism.
From personal experience, I had a student about 5 years ago submitted a piece of work which failed to make the grade to pass. When I returned his work for correction (in my institution students have 2 attempts with their coursework) he questioned how I could fail him because he had “paid good money for that report”. Regrettably he then found himself failed and disciplined for academic dishonesty and requiring to do a new assessment.
I hope the above guidance has given you food for thought with your own work, but please use the comments section to ask any questions.
Good luck with your essays