At university level, it's more important than ever to approach your work in the right way. Discover how to plan, write and evaluate your essay in order to achieve top marks
Taking the time to properly plan an essay can lead to higher grades, with examiners welcoming a logical structure that clearly communicates your understanding of the subject. However, knowing where to begin and how to go about completing the assignment is not always easy - especially if you've not had to write at undergraduate level before and are still adjusting to university life.
Learning how to write an essay early on will help you prepare for writing your dissertation in your final year.
We've asked two academic experts how they would recommend planning and writing a first-class essay.
Planning your essay will make the writing process quicker and easier
Adopt a strategy
Planning your essay will make the writing process quicker and easier. You'll be able to focus on expressing your ideas while remaining within the word count, rather than having to organise your thoughts as you write.
Michael Shields, academic skills tutor at Leeds Beckett University, argues that there are numerous different planning strategies - though key stages generally include evaluating the topic, doing your research around it and formulating an argument.
'Many successful essay writers plan consciously and deliberately, and commit to extensive notes, lists or mind maps,' he says. 'Some - those who work less consciously - may have a very sketchy plan.
'Others, however, will have no tangible plan at all and begin by writing a draft. They then do their planning in reverse by altering the order of ideas, adding examples and expanding on their original draft.'
Address the topic
First and foremost, you must fully understand what you're being asked and in how much depth you're required to answer the question. Michael says that one of the biggest problems students face when it comes to essays is squarely addressing the topic.
'Your fellow students can sometimes help you analyse what's required,' adds Michael. 'However, you may have to approach the lecturer who devised the essay to understand what precisely is being asked and the complexity of the response expected from you.'
Breaking up the title is the first step to analysing exactly what you should be exploring in the essay. For example, the question, 'Compare and contrast the representation of masculinity in two James Bond films from the 1960s and 2000s', can be classified like this:
- instruction (i.e. compare and contrast)
- topic (i.e. the representation of masculinity)
- focus (i.e. in two James Bond films)
- further information (i.e. from the 1960s and 2000s).
Place the question and these individual components in the context of your subject's key issues, then create a list, diagram or mind map collating your ideas and thoughts on the essay topic. Ask yourself:
- What is significant about the question and its topic?
- What existing knowledge do you have that will help you answer this question?
- What do you need to find out?
- How are you going to successfully address this question?
- What logical sequence will your ideas appear in?
With so much information available, it's vital that you only look for directly relevant material when researching
With so much information available, it's vital that you only look for directly relevant material when researching. 'Decide where the gaps in your knowledge and understanding are, and identify the areas where you need more supporting evidence,' Michael recommends. 'Make a list of keywords that describe the topic and use them to search with.'
Useful resources include:
- course material
- lecture notes
- library books
- journal articles
Once you've done your research, create another mind map. Carefully note the key theories, information and quotes that will help you to answer all components of the question. Consider grouping these into three or four main themes, including only the most significant points. You must be ruthless and exclude ideas that don't fit in seamlessly with your essay's focus.
Create an essay plan
When you have a good idea of what points you're going to address in your discussion, and a rough idea of the order in which these will appear, you're ready to start planning. There are two main ways to do this:
- Linear plans are useful for essays requiring a rigid structure. They provide a chronological breakdown of the key points you're going to address. This means that, when writing your essay, you can progress through these points.
- Tabular plans are best for comparative assignments. You'll be able to better visualise how the points you're contrasting differ across several aspects. This should hopefully give you a clearer picture of how your discussion will progress.
Scrutinise the notes that you've already made - including those from your evaluation of relevant materials from your literature search - and ensure that they're placed into a logical order.
The key themes that you've identified should begin to form into clear sections, while the individual points within these sections should also develop a structure. 'Aim for a clear, objective and logical presentation of material,' Michael suggests.
Tackle the introduction and conclusion
Michael recommends that you begin writing your essay by expanding your plan. 'You may find it helpful to write the conclusion first, especially if you know exactly what it is you want to argue,' he adds. 'This can help you to clarify your ideas and also give you something to work towards.
'If you're unsure what shape your argument may take, you're best to leave both your introduction and conclusion until last.'
Plans should have the flexibility to change as your work develops, but remember to ensure that any adjustments are consistent across the essay. Dr Michelle Reid, study adviser at the University of Reading, suggests that noting new ideas in a separate document before incorporating them will give you thinking space to judge whether they're relevant.
'The success of a plan is not whether you stick to it rigidly, but how well it helps you to generate, sort and group your ideas to make the writing process more efficient and your structure more coherent,' she says. 'Deviating from your plan is natural, as your ideas will refine as you work out what you really think.'
Evaluate what you've written
Once you've written your first draft, leave it aside for a couple of days if possible. When you return, edit its ideas and how you've organised your thoughts if you need to. Michael adds that, while rereading the draft, you should ask yourself:
- Is your thesis or argument clear?
- Have your organised your proof in a logical and easy-to-follow way?
- Should you add more examples to prove your case?
- Do you need to make your argument more cohesive?
- Have you summed up appropriately?
Once you've completed your second edit, you should proofread it for any spelling or grammar errors, check your citations and references, and ensure that you've not inadvertently plagiarised.
Find out more
Written by Emma Knowles, Editorial assistant
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Tim Squirrell is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, and is teaching for the first time this year. When he was asked to deliver sessions on the art of essay-writing, he decided to publish a comprehensive (and brilliant) blog on the topic, offering wisdom gleaned from turning out two or three essays a week for his own undergraduate degree.
“There is a knack to it,” he says. “It took me until my second or third year at Cambridge to work it out. No one tells you how to put together an argument and push yourself from a 60 to a 70, but once you to get grips with how you’re meant to construct them, it’s simple.”
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The goal of writing any essay is to show that you can think critically about the material at hand (whatever it may be). This means going beyond regurgitating what you’ve read; if you’re just repeating other people’s arguments, you’re never going to trouble the upper end of the marking scale.
“You need to be using your higher cognitive abilities,” says Bryan Greetham, author of the bestselling How to Write Better Essays. “You’re not just showing understanding and recall, but analysing and synthesising ideas from different sources, then critically evaluating them. That’s where the marks lie.”
But what does critical evaluation actually look like? According to Squirrell, it’s simple: you need to “poke holes” in the texts you’re exploring and work out the ways in which “the authors aren’t perfect”.
“That can be an intimidating idea,” he says. “You’re reading something that someone has probably spent their career studying, so how can you, as an undergraduate, critique it?
“The answer is that you’re not going to discover some gaping flaw in Foucault’s History of Sexuality Volume 3, but you are going to be able to say: ‘There are issues with these certain accounts, here is how you might resolve those’. That’s the difference between a 60-something essay and a 70-something essay.”
Critique your own arguments
Once you’ve cast a critical eye over the texts, you should turn it back on your own arguments. This may feel like going against the grain of what you’ve learned about writing academic essays, but it’s the key to drawing out developed points.
“We’re taught at an early age to present both sides of the argument,” Squirrell continues. “Then you get to university and you’re told to present one side of the argument and sustain it throughout the piece. But that’s not quite it: you need to figure out what the strongest objections to your own argument would be. Write them and try to respond to them, so you become aware of flaws in your reasoning. Every argument has its limits and if you can try and explore those, the markers will often reward that.”
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Fine, use Wikipedia then
The use of Wikipedia for research is a controversial topic among academics, with many advising their students to stay away from the site altogether.
“I genuinely disagree,” says Squirrell. “Those on the other side say that you can’t know who has written it, what they had in mind, what their biases are. But if you’re just trying to get a handle on a subject, or you want to find a scattering of secondary sources, it can be quite useful. I would only recommend it as either a primer or a last resort, but it does have its place.”
Focus your reading
Reading lists can be a hindrance as well as a help. They should be your first port of call for guidance, but they aren’t to-do lists. A book may be listed, but that doesn’t mean you need to absorb the whole thing.
Squirrell advises reading the introduction and conclusion and a relevant chapter but no more. “Otherwise you won’t actually get anything out of it because you’re trying to plough your way through a 300-page monograph,” he says.
You also need to store the information you’re gathering in a helpful, systematic way. Bryan Greetham recommends a digital update of his old-school “project box” approach.
“I have a box to catch all of those small things – a figure, a quotation, something interesting someone says – I’ll write them down and put them in the box so I don’t lose them. Then when I come to write, I have all of my material.”
There are a plenty of online offerings to help with this, such as the project management app Scrivener and referencing tool Zotero, and, for the procrastinators, there are productivity programmes like Self Control, which allow users to block certain websites from their computers for a set period.
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Look beyond the reading list
“This is comparatively easy to do,” says Squirrell. “Look at the citations used in the text, put them in Google Scholar, read the abstracts and decide whether they’re worth reading. Then you can look on Google Scholar at other papers that have cited the work you’re writing about – some of those will be useful. But quality matters more than quantity.”
And finally, the introduction
The old trick of dealing with your introduction last is common knowledge, but it seems few have really mastered the art of writing an effective opener.
“Introductions are the easiest things in the world to get right and nobody does it properly,” Squirrel says. “It should be ‘Here is the argument I am going to make, I am going to substantiate this with three or four strands of argumentation, drawing upon these theorists, who say these things, and I will conclude with some thoughts on this area and how it might clarify our understanding of this phenomenon.’ You should be able to encapsulate it in 100 words or so. That’s literally it.”
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