Academic Writing – Part 1: The Essay

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You will encounter a variety of different kinds of assessment at university. Particular kinds of assessment are favoured by different courses and subjects and these include essays, reports, case studies, oral presentations and exams. Each type of assessment will almost certainly require you to research a topic and present an argument based on evidence, showing that you can use ideas. You will have to produce the work to a deadline.

An essay is a piece of writing which is written to a set of writing conventions. There may be some particular conventions in your own subject area but the following advice will generally apply. Try and follow the stages below when writing assignments.
Approaching the Question Read the question very carefully, underlining the key words. Be clear about what is being asked. What are the implications of the title? What ideas lie behind the title? What are you being invited to explore? These are commonly used terms:

● Analyse – consider all views, and describe their inter- relationship.
● Compare – examine points in question showing similarities or differences.
● Define – give a definition.
● Discuss – describe different aspects of the subject, and give a reasoned conclusion.
● Evaluate – examine different sides of the question and try to reach a conclusion.

Avoid the temptation to plunge straight into the reading list, and instead devote time to thinking hard about what the question is really asking of you. Consider all the aspects of the topic at hand, and decide what reading will be necessary in order to answer the question, making use of the reading list and other relevant course material. Remember: the task of the writer is to respond to the question asked, and you will need to demonstrate your ability to select material relevant to the subject.

Essay Planning

There are 5 main steps which you need to take in order to plan the information for your essay.

A nalyse the question and the keywords. Note the main topics that you are going to cover.

Divide any notes and ideas you already have into separate topics – using a separate sheet for each topic relevant to your question. These separate notes will form the separate main paragraphs of your essay once you have added to them with further research.

Rearrange your notes. Look at what you have and group related information, perhaps by colour coding with a felt pen, and arrange them in a logical order.

Write an outline plan using the topics you have arranged. Write your first plan before you have done any research and that will help you to be more selective and constructive in taking notes. It will focus your reading and you can adapt your plan as you go along.

Organise your information. With your colour-coded pile of notes divide them into paragraphs of different colours, underlining the main points. Having grouped the information in this way you can start writing your first draft. Each paragraph should have one main idea, with supporting evidence and elaboration from the same colour group of notes. In other words, each paragraph should relate to one set of notes.

The Structure and Organisation of the Essay
Essays normally have 4 main parts:

The most difficult part of writing an essay is often the building of a clear and logical structure. Tutors
frequently comment on essays which are well researched but fail to establish any logical or coherent progression of ideas. Weakness here inevitably damages the overall effect of the essay, but this can be remedied by devoting sufficient time to planning before putting pen to paper. This may seem like a chore, but in fact will save you time in the long run. Think of all the time wasted waiting for inspiration, wondering what to write after the first paragraph, then the second.
Once you have a clear idea of the material you intend to cover, this can be broken down into sections and sub-sections. This should help to guide your reading, aid notetaking, and will be invaluable preparation when you come to write your essay.

The Final Stage
By now you couldn’t be blamed for wanting to call it a day, but research shows that time spent on a
final review can reap notable rewards in terms of both content and presentation. This also forms an
important part of the learning process: reviewing and reflecting on your own work are important
habits to develop. Again the benefits will be noticeable in the long-term, as reviewing at this
stage will help commit the subject matter to memory and make it easier to remember in exams.
Check that the content is organised and presented in a logical and coherent manner to provide an
adequate response to the question, looking out for gaps in the content, inaccurate information and
incomplete analysis. This is also an opportunity to proofread for spelling mistakes and grammatical
errors. (See below for tips on punctuation.)

If using a word-processor, use spell-checker. Check your grammar and punctuation. Make sure you
read it through and that you understand it. Make a copy – if using a computer be sure to save on to a
floppy disk and keep it safe.

Academic writing style is more careful and considered than everyday writing (as, for example,
in letters) and, obviously, more considered than everyday speech. Academic language tends to:
● Use formal English.
● Be precise and accurate – not chatty!

● Be cautious rather than very direct or bold (use terms such as ‘appears to’,‘may’, ‘seems to’ etc.)
● Be careful and clear in establishing links between ideas, evidence and judgements.
● Be concise, edit out unnecessary words: [A book called] Study Skills.
● Take care to distinguish facts from opinions.
● Be objective rather than emotional or rhetorical (avoid terms such as ‘nice’, ‘natural’,
● Avoid sweeping claims or statements.
● Avoid using colloquialisms.
● Avoid all abbreviations such as ‘dept’ for department or ‘didn’t’ for ‘did not’, ‘they’re’ for
‘they are’, ‘e.g.’ for ‘example’.
● Avoid personal pronouns such as ‘I’/’we’ and ‘you’. Instead use ‘It can be seen that’,‘There
are a number of’ etc.

Making a good impression on your reader through careful proofreading and attention to accuracy and style is very important. The reader who feels that care has been taken with the work is more likely to be sympathetic to the content. They will not be irritated and distracted by errors in presentation and can give their attention to the argument being presented. Never skimp or compromise on proofreading and editing and always allow time for this.

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