A Guide to Essay Writing for University Students – Part One: Reading and Preparation

Part two

[This is based on a workshop I delivered this summer to sixth formers, while I was working at a summer camp based in Oxford.]

When I first came to Oxford, adjusting to having to produce an essay every week was a big challenge. It was not like anything I ever had done in school, so the transition was hard initially. What follows is a “rough guide”, based on my experience, of how to produce a good undergraduate essay. This advice is based on my own experience writing essays as part of a classics degree, which covered history, literature, philosophy, archaeology and art history. I have tried to keep my comments as general as possible in order to fit with most humanities subjects, but you may find that you need to tweak some of this a bit.

1. Approaching your reading list

First of all, how much time do you have to get your reading done? How much is on your list? Try to get a sense of how long it takes you to work read an academic article or book chapter. A big mistake, in my experience, is trying to cover everything on the reading list: in the short amount of time you have to produce an essay at Oxford, this is generally setting yourself up for failure. My advice would be to select 5-10 items, and aim to read all of those before starting your essay.

The next step is to find out where the books and articles are. For this you can use your university’s library catalogues and JSTOR. This varies too much by institution to be more specific, but it makes getting the work done a lot smoother and less stressful if you go to the library knowing the books you want are there and knowing where to find them.

2. Taking effective notes

If you have been set a lengthy article or book, use the index and contents pages to find sections relevant to your essay title. Don’t try to read everything – you are likely to be wasting your time. Don’t write down everything you see – try to make sense of the author’s overarching argument and the point they are making before making notes. When you think you have a grasp of what is going on, at this point go back and write a summary of the key points. A major trap that students fall into in taking notes is that they take note of too much, with the result that it takes them forever to read anything. When noting a point or quotation, make sure to write down the page number and the book it is from: this will make producing your footnotes and bibliography much easier later on.

3. Thinking critically about the evidence

This is a difficult one, and gets easier the wider your knowledge base and familiarity with academic literature and major debates in your field. This is something which comes with wider reading, attending lectures, classes, seminars, and if you can, conferences. It takes time, and often depends on you knowing what your interests are within your field. It’s not something to worry too much about in first year, but something to bear in mind if you are thinking about the possibility of postgraduate study. Nevertheless, even for a fresher producing their first essay, I believe it’s an important step in producing a good one, and, in the long run, leads to greater intellectual development.

When you have understood an author’s argument, the key task is to evaluate it. Here are some questions you can use to approach this:

    • Is the argument logical?
    • What is their methodology? Is it sound?
      • How does the author make use of the evidence (statistics, literary/textual evidence, other categories of evidence particular to your field)? Is it sound, or are there any problems there?
    • Does it fail to take account of any important considerations or evidence?
    • Are there any implicit assumptions?
    • Have you read anything else which calls what they say into question, directly or indirectly?

I find it is often useful to write down my thoughts and observations about academic reading in a journal. You can do this with pen and paper (my personal preference), or use software such as Microsoft office or Evernote.

4. Answering the question

This is another important step, and something university tutors and lecturers often complain about: students regurgitating information without an attempt to address the question directly. In general, when approaching a question, you should think about:

  • What key concepts or events is the question referring to? (Identify them!)
  • Is the question drawing on a wider academic debate? (If so, identify it and the key literature associated with it.)
  • What assumptions are implicit in the question? (Does it take any particular concepts for granted? Is there an implicit argument in the question? What is the doxa it operates within? This is particularly relevant to questions consisting of a statement and “discuss”.)
  • Can the question be problematized? 

NB: not all of these considerations will be relevant to every essay question, and they shouldn’t be applied as a formulaic checklist, but rather as a starting point for critical engagement

Having thought about our essay question and the ideas that might be caught up in it, we still need to work out a way forward. The first step in putting down your response is to define your terms.

Let’s have a look at an example:

Example: “What, if anything, is wrong with risk?” (All Souls, 2015)

I have emboldened here two key concepts which have to be addressed before going any further.

  • What does “risk” mean?
  • What does it mean for something to be “wrong”? “Wrong” in what respects?

Once we have defined these terms, we have a starting point for planning our essay. I will cover planning in part two.

I’d love to hear any feedback on this, or any other tips you have about writing essays!


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