A Guide to Essay Writing for University Students – Part Two: Planning and Writing

[Part One can be found here]

Planning

The next stage of writing a good essay is to think about how you are going to structure it. As a general rule, I think the following principle works well:

1. Tell them what you’re going to tell them
2. Tell them
3. Tell them what you told them

Here is an example of how a humanities essay could possibly be structured:

1. Introduction
Outline the major academic debates invoked by the question and state clearly and briefly what you are going to argue. An introduction should be short, to the point and summarize the key points.

2. First paragraph
In this paragraph I find it useful to give an overview of your take on what the question means, deconstructing the terms used and stating what definitions you are going to use. If we go back to the example I gave in the last part, this would mean stating what it means for something “to be wrong”, and to discuss what “risk” means.

3. Subsequent paragraphs
Each paragraph should make a clear argument and have a clear link to the previous paragraph.

4. Conclusion
Sum up the points you made and state your answer to the original question. It can be useful to signpost your conclusion with phrases like “to conclude” or “in conclusion”.

Writing

1. Using evidence

“Evidence” means anything you use to back up your argument. This can include statistics, references to a primary text, references to secondary literature, references to a historical artefact, a dictionary, a map or plan….

There is a simple formula you can use to structure your use of evidence:
Point: state clearly the point you want to make
Evidence: refer to the evidence which supports your point (make sure to reference!)
Explain: elaborate on the evidence you have presented and how you interpret it

(Note: if you are presenting the opinion of an academic, it is important to state clearly whether you agree with his or her view, and why. )

2. Referencing

Plagiarism, that is, the presentation of the views of others as your own, is considered a form of cheating in most institutions and can be severely punished. If you make use of the opinions of others in your essay, it is important to give credit by referencing their work carefully.

There are a number of different systems of referencing in use in academia, such as MHRA or the author-date system. At Oxford, I have found that in practice tutors do not mind too much which system you use, as long as it is used consistently. If  you are unsure about system you should use, consult your student handbook or your tutor/lecturer.

3. Style

Unfortunately, there is no singular secret or tip which will turn you into a better writer. The only way to become a better writer is to read lots, and to write lots. You will also definitely get better at writing as you progress through the years at university, so don’t worry if your first few essays aren’t great!

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3 thoughts on “A Guide to Essay Writing for University Students – Part Two: Planning and Writing

  1. Jess Wen

    I hate writing essays (reading your blog whilst procrastinating one haha) so this is really helpful! I really like Aristotle’s rhetoric – tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them – I use it when presenting all the time 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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