Writing Better University Essays/Introduction
This small book aims to be a practical guide to essay writing. A generic approach to writing is introduced, enabling you to write in a clear and structured way, while at the same time allowing you to develop your own argument in a creative way. A good essay combines your own content with a clear structure.
I wrote this book because many mistakes in writing essays are unnecessarily repeated time and time again. These mistakes can easily be avoided, and will allow you to get the credit you deserve. Nothing in this document is rocket science, but most students enter university without having been taught how to write effectively. Merely by studying at a university, however, no-one will learn how to write good essays. By following just a few steps, most mediocre essays can be improved. I tried to include many examples taken from my own essays to make this guide a practical one.
A key idea that I wish to convey, is that it really matters why we write an essay. There is no universal approach to writing, and the reason of writing will be the best guide as to how to write. It’ll guide us to whom we write for, what level of details we include, what kind of language we choose, and so on.
The audience is for whom we write. In the situation of a university essay, the audience is often imaginary. That is not to say that your essay will not be read properly, but that the person for whom you write sometimes actually differs slightly from who is marking your essay.
Assuming your essay is being marked by a knowledgeable teaching assistant, why write at all? She might know everything you have to say, or even know it better; on the other hand, you might be writing an essay about an area your marker does not specialize in. Hard to tell? The solution is to pitch your essay towards a reasonably well educated person, but one who lacks the specific expertise. Imagine someone who has done an introductory course in your subject, for example.
By writing for an educated person, you no longer have to explain some of the fundamental aspects of your subject matter. However, it’ll still be necessary to explain some of the more specialized issues—maybe just to remind your reader. Practically speaking, pitching your essay this way means that a non-specialist will not be lost when reading your writing. It’s a useful skill to write difficult things in a relatively easy way. At the same time, if your essay is read by your really knowledgeable teaching assistant, she will immediately see that you have grasped the subject matter: that you know what you’re writing about.
Sometimes, the question you’re set will clearly say what kind of style and level of language is expected. A conventional essay is not the same as a report, nor the same as a press briefing, an entry in an encyclopaedia, or a memo. In each case, you’ll have to think about the particular needs: who is your (imaginary) reader, what will they know, what will they want to know?
When chefs prepare a meal, they often put all the necessary ingredients on the table before starting (mise en place). This is a good way to make sure everything is ready. With essay writing the process is similar. We don’t jump in straight away and start writing, but instead spend a few moments thinking about what we want to achieve in our essay. What do we want to communicate? You may think of these considerations as a plan of attack.
What are the essential ingredients of an essay then? First of all, you should know what you’re going to write. Once you know that, you probably want to consider some examples to illustrate the argument. Illustrations have two functions: firstly, they show that what you write is relevant, and secondly they make your argument more approachable. Having worked out the content—what you’re going to include—you’ll also need to think a little bit about the structure: in what order you’re going to say it. The approach introduced in this book will help you with this task.
What Goes In—What Stays Out?
Planning an essay can be difficult. Sometimes there is just too much that you could write about; at other times there just does not seem to be enough. The following approach may help you to decide what you include in your essay, and equally important, what you don’t.
- Brainstorming: Write down the key concepts of the essay in the centre of a page, and link as many ideas that come to mind. If you’re unsure what the key concepts are, look out for terms you have come across a lot when reading. In many cases, you’re looking for arguments for and against a proposition, so take care to include both sides. If there is no argument against something, make a note of it. Don’t be shy to state what you think of the different points.
- More material: Once you’re reasonably happy with the ideas you have collected, you should go back to your course material. Sometimes the essay question will identify relevant material for you, but most of the time, it’s up to you and your notes. Obviously, if you need more material, this step is important to identify further points to include. It may not strike you as obvious, that you should never skip this extra step, even if you have collected tons of ideas in step one. Going back to your course material will not only ensure you have not missed something important, but also help you decide whether your points are balanced.
- Grouping: By now you should have a reasonably large collection of ideas linked to your key concepts, and it’s time to think about structure. Use coloured pens, numbers, letters of the alphabet, symbols—whatever works for you—and try to group similar ideas together. You might find points for and against a proposition, different theories, or the different components of the concept you’re examining.
- Selection: At this stage, you should be very selective. You might have tons of ideas that are linked to the question, but we are not normally interested in quantity. Go over the different points and ask yourself whether they are relevant to your answer. Does this particular point tell us anything new? Be rigorous, and kick out anything that will not help answering the question.
- Illustrations: Having decided what stays in, try to think of useful examples. An example is useful if it’s apparent how it links with your argument. If you need an extra paragraph just to establish the link, then you might not have picked the most suitable example. It’s often possible to use the same example for different points.
- Ordering: Now that you know what goes into your essay, think about the order. The way you grouped the ideas will determine much, and should you have time to spare, you even might want to consider alternative approaches: and then pick the best one. Realistically, we never have that much time, and you should focus on a coherent line of thought. Sometimes it’s reasonable to first look at the arguments for, then those against, and finally mitigate. At other times, it makes sense to look at what different theories say in turn, or work from one example to the other. What is important is that there is a clear line of thought, where one bit builds on the other. Make a note of this ordering, and you have just written most of your outline.
Why do we bother going through this procedure? It helps to work like chefs do: having all the necessary ingredients at hand before starting with the actual writing. Imagine a chef starting to bake a lemon tart, finding out half way though that he only has strawberries in the fridge. Surely he can cobble something together, maybe even produce very nice strawberry tartlets. This is no problem for our chef preparing a meal for the family at the weekend, but what about if he entered a competition for the best lemon tart in town?
I use a special essay organizer to make sure everything is in place before I start writing. You can use this template, or create your own. At the top I collect the course the essay is for. Normally I use the abbreviations the university uses, or make up my own where there are no such given abbreviations. I also record the number, such as 3 for the third essay in that particular course. The deadline comes in big letters at the top. The essay question is central, so I copy this onto my planner. To make sure that I have understood the question, I rephrase it. Ticking the format needed (essay, report) and word limit makes me aware of these. Similarly, I collect the process and content word separately, making sure that I really identified them. The relevant material is also collected. I usually use the name of the author, or simply chapter 3. The key concepts and theories have their separate place at the centre. Sometimes your tutor or the written instructions will tell you that a particular skill is focused on: I make a note of these, too. Under Approach I take a note of some key points or illustrations that just have to go in. I also write down any hints or considerations regarding the structure.
In the bottom half of the organizer, I work these hints into a proper outline with an introduction, definitions, a main body (with sections), and a conclusion. I usually assign a certain number of words to each section, and write them down, too. There is also space for notes and references. At the very bottom I include what essay skills I want to pay particular attention to. If my tutor mentioned that I should use more examples, that’s what comes here. This way I make sure that I at least try to improve on the previous essay. See the section on using feedback.
Using some time to prepare your essay will make sure that you answer the question, and thus you maintain your chances of winning that competition for the best lemon tart in town… None of this work preparing the essay will be wasted. On the one hand you have made sure you have everything ready to write this essay: no more running out of ideas half way through. On the other hand, your marker will appreciate an essay which is both relevant and coherent.
Before you can start writing, you have to make sure you understand the question. Some questions are difficult to understand, but usually there are lots of clues as to what is expected. Look out for content and process words. Content words tell you what you’re going to write about. Process words, on the other hand, tell you how to do it.
It’s a good idea to spend a few moments identifying the content and process words. You may want to underline them in different colours. Once you really know what your task is, you’re ready to go. There is a simple way to check yourself whether you have understood the question set: rephrase it. If you’re able to write down the question again, using your own words, then you can be sure you know what the question is about. Make sure, though, that you really use your own words, and not just reshuffle the different bits in the question.
For example, take the following question: “Distinguishing between conformity, deviance and crime aids our understanding of British society. Discuss.” First of all, you want to identify the process word, which tells you what kind of answer is required. In this case, the process word is discuss. What are the content words? The question tells you to focus on British society. This does not mean that you can’t bring in an example from the US, for instance, but that you should focus on Britain. Maybe the examples in your course were from the US, and the examiners are keen to see how you apply this to the British case? The question gives you further clues: conformity, deviance, and crime are the key concepts you should use in your answer. It’s these words that I would brainstorm before writing.
To make sure you have understood the question, try to rephrase it. Use your own words, and write it down. One way to rephrase the question is: “If you want to understand British society, it helps to distinguish between conformity, deviance, and crime.” In this case I have not bothered to rephrase the key concepts. This is OK, because I will need to define the key concepts anyway. In most cases, however, try not to use any of the words from the original.
Unfortunately, identifying the content and process words is not always a straightforward task. Sometimes you have to read a bit between the lines, identifying the implicit tasks. Every essay question has some implications that are not immediately apparent. Look out for assumptions, schools of thoughts, or particular theories. Often, essay questions include a statement to be discussed. Such statements in many cases make quite strong assumptions about the world, or follow a certain school of thought. Although these links are not physically written in the question, they too are content words. If you’re trying to get very good grades, it’s important that you identify such assumptions and work with them.
Here you find a list of process words.
Why should we bother with process and content words? You might consider this all a waste of time. Unfortunately, most essays that fail or get a poor grade are essays that don’t answer the question. Sometimes, the markers get essays that are brilliantly written, but they can’t give a good mark, because the question set is just not addressed. You’re not primarily assessed in your ability to write eloquently, or for showing off how much you have read or learnt this term: what you’re assessed on is how well you answer the question.
This book introduces a simple yet powerful approach that is flexible enough to allow creativity in what you write. Bearing in mind the reason why you write, following this simple approach your essays will come with the necessary structure and be focused on the question set. You still have to write it yourself though…
Next: The structure