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Essay Writing Guide

By catmission May 28, 2014 2263 Words
Essay Writing
The Basics
The Learning Centre •

What does a good essay need?
An academic essay aims to persuade readers of an idea based on evidence. An academic essay should answer a question or task.
It should have a thesis statement (answer to the question) and an argument.
It should try to present or discuss something: to develop a thesis via a set of closely related points by reasoning and evidence. • An academic essay should include relevant examples, supporting evidence and information from academic texts or credible


1. Starting the essay
Although there are some basic steps to writing an
assignment, essay writing is not a linear process. You might work through the different stages a number of times in the
course of writing an essay.
Start work early
You can’t write a successful essay unless you give yourself enough time to read, research, think and write. Don’t procrastinate or leave it until the last minute; start as early as possible.

Define the question and analyse the task
Writing down everything you know about a topic is not enough to make a good academic essay. Analysing, then answering the essay’s question or task is central.

Basic steps in writing an essay

In no strict order . . .
Analyse the question and define key terms
Establish a possible thesis/ point of view
Research the topic. Use credible academic
sources for support and evidence.
Take notes from your readings.
Write an essay plan and organise your
Write your first draft to include your
introduction, body and conclusion
Set the draft aside for a day or two, then
read it through and make changes
Edit and redraft your essay
Have a friend/parent/colleague read it
Complete or check your
references and bibliography
Final draft completed - hand it in

Be sure that you understand exactly what the question requires you to do. • Identify the key words (like discuss or analyse) and clarify the approach you are required to take. See The Learning Centre guide ‘Answering Assignment Questions’

Construct an initial plan
Your starting point for an essay is your initial response to the topic or question. This response is based on what you already know. However, this is only the starting point. You then need to research, question your response and find some answers. Draw up an initial essay plan:

Work out your initial thoughts and ideas about the topic and write a preliminary essay plan to help guide your research. • An essay plan can help you work out how you will answer the question and which information you will use. Essay plans also help with structuring an essay.

As you begin to write and research your plan will probably change. See The Learning Centre guide Essay & Assignment Planning

2. Researching the topic
A feature of most academic writing is that it draws on the work of other writers and researchers. Therefore, reading and researching are vital to essay writing. Researching provides the knowledge and evidence that allows you to develop a thesis and argument to answer the essay question.

Reading for the essay
Start reading early so you have plenty of time to familiarise yourself with the topic and develop your ideas. When you look at your readings more closely, remember to read with a purpose. Ask yourself:

What do I already know about the topic? Start with what you know. If a topic is unfamiliar, do some introductory reading. See your lecture notes and course readings for help.
What do I need to read to be able to answer the essay question? • Is this material useful to my topic/argument?
Can I use this material to support my answer?

Make notes from the readings
It’s important to take/ make notes from what you read. Your notes will be the basis of your essay.
Don’t take notes during your first reading. If you are reading photocopies, underline or highlight relevant information. You can return to it when you re-read and take notes.
Always make notes with the question clearly in mind. You must use evidence to support your argument, so look carefully for relevant information. This can include summaries or direct quotes from texts, useful examples, case studies or statistics.

Make a note of any sources of information. Copy down the bibliographic details of everything you read. Include author, date, title, publisher and place of publication. For journal articles, include volume and issue numbers. This will help with referencing.

See The Learning Centre guide Effective Note-making from Written Text

3. Organising your ideas
Begin organising your research and ideas into an answer.

Essay plans
After you’ve researched and your ideas are more developed, write a second essay plan. It will help you work out how to answer the question and how the essay will be structured. After you do some research and notemaking, draw up a second plan:

Decide on a possible answer to the question (in terms of the research you have done)
Decide on the information you will use to answer the question. • Look through your notes and choose examples to provide evidence to support your answer
Decide which points you will discuss, and in which order • Write all this down in point form and this will be your essay plan

Reading lists
If you are given a list of suggested
readings, consult as many as
possible. Otherwise, locate relevant
material in the library. Use the
catalogue to perform topic and
subject searches. Once you have
your readings:
use the table of contents and the
index to find relevant material
skim through the text to locate
specific information
when you find something you
need to read closely, flag the
pages with a post-it note so you
can return for a close reading
photocopy useful sections of
texts so you can underline and
make notes.

Thinking it through
Essay writing requires both creative
and critical thinking.
Creative thinking encourages
you to broaden your ideas. Try
techniques like brainstorming or
mind mapping.
Critical thinking encourages you
to narrow the focus or scope of
your ideas (for example, asking
why an example is important to
your argument).
Your essay should be balanced:
that is, it should include a range
of information and viewpoints from
different authors that explore the
key arguments and relevant aspects
of a particular topic.
Don’t only include evidence that
agrees with what you are arguing; if
there are different or opposing views,
then they need to be examined.
You need to evaluate differing
arguments - explain why one
argument is more convincing than
another and how they relate to the
conclusion your essay arrives at.

4. Writing the essay
Write a first draft to try out the structure and framework of your essay. A draft essay will help you work out how you will answer the question and which evidence and examples you will use; and how your argument will be structured.

Once you have a draft, you can work on writing well. Your first draft will not be your final essay; think of it as raw material you will refine through editing and redrafting.

Structure your essay to communicate your ideas and answer the question. All essays should include the following structure:

1. Introduction
The introduction moves from general to specific. This is where you:
open with a short orientation (introduce the topic area(s) with a general, broad opening sentence (or two);
answer the question with a thesis statement; and
provide a summary or ‘road map’ of your essay (keep it brief, but mention all the main ideas).

2. Body
The body of your essay consists of paragraphs. Each is a
building block in the construction of your argument. The body is where you:
answer the question by developing a discussion.
show your knowledge and grasp of material you have read. • offer exposition and evidence to develop your argument.

Essay paragraphs
Each paragraph in the body of the essay
should deal with one main point/ aspect
of your answer.
Each paragraph should contain:
1. a topic sentence that states the main
or controlling idea;
2. supporting sentences to explain and
develop the point you’re making;
3. evidence. Most of the time, your point
should be supported by some form
of evidence from your reading, or by
an example drawn from the subject
4. analysis. Don’t just leave the evidence
hanging there - analyse and interpret
it! Comment on the implication/
Finish off the paragraph with a critical
conclusion you have drawn from the

Tips for effective writing
Start writing early - the earlier the better.
Starting cuts down on anxiety, beats
procrastination, and gives you time to
develop your ideas.
Don’t try to write an essay from beginning
to end (especially not in a single study
session). Begin with what you are ready
to write - a plan, a sentence. Start with the
body and work paragraph by paragraph.

If your question has more than one part, structure the body into sections that deal with each part of the question.

Write the introduction and conclusion
after the body. Once you know what your
essay is about, then write the introduction
and conclusion.

3. Conclusion

Keep the essay’ question in mind. Don’t
lose track of the question or task. Keep
it in mind as you draft and edit and work
out your argument.

use relevant examples and authoritative quotes.

The conclusion moves from specific to general. It should:
restate your answer to the question;
re-summarise the main points and;

Revise your first draft extensively. Make
sure the entire essay flows and that the
paragraphs are in a logical order.

include a final, broad statement (about
possible implications, future directions for
research, to qualify the conclusion etc).

Put the essay aside for a few days. This
allows you to consider your essay with a
fresh eye.

However, NEVER introduce new information or ideas in the
conclusion - its purpose is to round off your essay by summing up.

Proof-read your final draft carefully.
Check spelling and punctuation.

5. Referencing the essay
All academic essays MUST contain references. Referencing guards against plagiarism, a serious academic offence. Make sure you are familiar with the referencing style your Faculty or School requires; many will have guides specifying the system they prefer. Often Schools/Faculties don’t mind which system you use as long as it is consistent. If this is the case, use the system you are most comfortable with.

See The Learning Centre guides on plagiarism and on various citation styles

6. Editing the essay
Most essays are dramatically improved by careful editing.
If possible, put your essay aside for a few days before you
begin to edit. This gives you time to think further about your answer and arguments and return to your work with a fresh
Don’t panic if/ when you find faults in your essay - this is part of the process. If you find that you need more information, or your argument has holes in it, keep calm and concentrate on fixing the problem. Once you have a well-organised and fairly complete draft:

Check the overall structure of your essay; does it have a clear introduction, body and conclusion?
Make sure that each paragraph has a clear main point that relates to the argument. Make sure that the paragraphs are arranged in logical sequence.
Revise sentences. Make sure the words you use mean what you think they mean. Check punctuation and spelling. A good
dictionary is a useful tool.
Check transition signals. Be sure that a reader can follow the sequence of ideas from sentence to sentence, and from paragraph to paragraph.

Questions to ask yourself


I answered the question as directly and comprehensively
as possible?


the argument make sense? Is it balanced and well

‰‰Is the evidence relevant to and supportive of my argument?

7. Handing the essay in
You haven’t completed your assignment
until you’ve handed it in.
It’s important to READ the assignment
guidelines in your course outlines and to follow
them. find out how your lecturer/tutor would like
assignments presented. and make sure you
comply with their requirements.

In general:
Make sure you know the date the
assignment is due. Submitting late
work usually incurs a late penalty.
Make sure you know where and to whom
your assignment should be submitted.
Most assignments require a cover sheet
(available from your school office).
Don’t submit your essay in a plastic folder
or sleeve (unless you are asked to do so).
Ensure your essay is formatted
correctly. Use double-line spacing
and a readable font (size 12 at least).
Number pages and set wide margins.
Print on one side of the page only.
Staple your essay in the
top left-hand corner.
Keep an extra copy for yourself.

‰‰Have I used a consistent citation style? Have I referenced all my quotes and paraphrases?

‰‰If there were any special instructions or guidelines for this assignment, have I followed them? ‰‰Have I remained within the set word limit?
Cuba, I 1998, A Short Guide to Writing About Social Science, Harper Collins. Emmerson, L (ed.) 2005, Writing Guidelines for Social Science Students, 2nd edn, Dunmore Press, Southbank, Victoria. Oshima, A & Hogue, A 1991, Writing Academic English, Addison-Wesley. University of Toronto Writing Centre, Some General Advice on Academic Essay Writing, Online resource accessed 1999. Prepared by The Learning Centre, The University of New South Wales © 2012. This guide may be distributed for educational purposes, and the content may be adapted with proper acknowledgement. The document itself must not be digitally altered or rebranded. Email:

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