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Essay writing

Expert guidance from Study Advice at the University of Reading

If you want your essay to get the best marks, you need to make sure everything is right: the way it's written, the use of evidence, and the critical analysis. You will also need to redraft and edit your work, and to make sure there are no minor errors that might make it look as though you have been careless. This page will help you to make sure that your essay gets the mark it deserves.

Good style for academic writing

Academic essays should be written in a formal style. Avoid:

  • clichés ("the flaws in this argument stand out like a sore thumb")
  • contractions ("don't", "aren't", "it's")
  • phrases that sound like speech ("well, this bit is really fascinating")
  • subjective descriptions ("this beautiful sculpture")

Be cautious about using the first person "I". It should be used where the alternative would be inappropriate (e.g. when writing up your own experience or professional case study). In other cases, you might choose to use the third person, for example "It can be argued" instead of "I would argue". It's worth checking with your marker how they feel about you using the first person - for instance, it may be more appropriate in a humanities essay than a science one.

Use plain language - you don't have to search for a more "academic-sounding" word when a simple one will do. Markers are looking for clear and accurate expression of ideas, not jargon or confusing language. Shorter sentences are usually clearer than long complex ones, but make sure it is a whole sentence and not just a clause or phrase.

Integrating evidence and your own ideas

Your argument is your reasoned answer to the essay question, supported by evidence. The books, articles, and other research material that you read for your essay provide this evidence to back up your points. The way in which you select and interpret the evidence, and explain why it answers the question, is where you demonstrate your own thinking.

Important: every time you use an idea which you got from your reading, you MUST include a reference to where you found the material. This is the case whether you quote directly, or write it in your own words.

For each point that you make in your essay, you need to support it with evidence. There are many different kinds of evidence, and the type you use will depend on what is suitable for your subject and what the essay question is asking you to do.

For example, you might back up a point using a theory (one kind of evidence) then show how this theory applies to a specific example in real life (another kind of evidence).

A model for a paragraph that includes evidence and your own ideas:

  1. Introduce your point (your own words)
  2. Add the evidence to support your point (quoted, paraphrased or cited evidence that must be referenced)
  3. Explain how and why this evidence supports your point and what you think of it (your own interpretation and critical thinking)
  4. Explain how the point helps answer the question (your own argument)

As you get more experienced with essay writing, you will want to adapt this model to suit the structure and shape of your ideas.

Critical analysis

Critical analysis is a key skill for writing essays at university. It allows you to assess the various ideas and information that you read, and decide whether you want to use them to support your points.

It is not a mysterious skill that is only available to advanced students; it is something we do everyday when assessing the information around us and making reasoned decisions: for example, whether to believe claims made in TV adverts or by politicians. Nor does it always mean disagreeing with something; you also need to be able to explain why you agree with arguments.

Critical analysis involves:

  1. Carefully considering an idea and weighing up the evidence supporting it to see if it is convincing.
  2. Then being able to explain why you find the evidence convincing or unconvincing.

It helps if you ask yourself a series of questions about the material you are reading. Try using these questions to help you think critically:

  • Who is the author and what is their viewpoint or bias?
  • Who is the audience and how does that influence the way information is presented?
  • What is the main message of the text?
  • What evidence has been used to support this main message?
  • Is the evidence convincing; are there any counter-arguments?
  • Do I agree with the text and why do I agree or disagree?

Some ways to get more critical analysis into your essays include:

Avoid unnecessary description – only include general background details and history when they add to your argument, e.g. to show a crucial cause and effect. Practice distinguishing between description (telling what happened) and analysis (judging why something happened). It can help to highlight each in a different colour to see what the balance looks like.

Interpret your evidence – explain how and why your evidence supports your point. Interpretation is an important part of critical analysis, and you should not just rely on the evidence 'speaking for itself'.

Be specific - avoid making sweeping generalisations or points that are difficult to support with specific evidence. It is better to be more measured and tie your argument to precise examples or case studies.

Use counter-arguments to your advantage – if you find viewpoints that go against your own argument, don't ignore them. It strengthens an argument to include an opposing viewpoint and explain why it is not as convincing as your own line of reasoning.

Editing and proofreading

You might have had enough of your work by now, and be hoping to just hand it in! However, it's worth taking some time to check it over. Markers often comment that more time spent on editing and proofreading could have really made a difference to the final mark.

Editing

Editing includes checking whether all your points are in the right order and that they are all relevant to the question.

Be ruthless at this stage – if the information isn't directly answering the question, cut it out! You will get many more marks for showing you can answer the question in a controlled and focused way than you will for an unordered list of everything you know about a topic.

Put yourself in the reader's position – can they follow the points you are making clearly? You know what you are trying to say, but will your reader? Are there gaps in your reasoning to be explained or filled? Have you provided signposts to show where your argument is going next, and where it's been?

Proofreading

Identifying your own mistakes and correcting them is an important part of academic writing: this is what you do when you proofread.

Ideally leave a day between finishing your essay and proofreading it. You won't be so close to your work, so you will see your errors more easily.

Try reading your essay aloud, as this will slow you down, make you focus on each word, and show you when your sentences are too long.

If you often get comments on your sentences, try working on one paragraph at a time, and putting each sentence on a new line. This will make it much easier to spot common errors, for instance, sentences which depend on another sentence for their meaning, or are missing parts. Once you've checked it, you can join all the sentences back up in the paragraph again and move on to the next.

It can help to have a friend read through your work but developing your own proofreading skills is better. Your friend won't always be available!

While you're proof-reading, also check that all your references are complete, accurate and consistently formatted.