How to Write an Essay
When the essays start piling up, you know it’s going to be a difficult few months ahead. We get it! Essays require a lot of preparation, and all that prep can feel overwhelming.
So, what’s the simplest way to prepare for an essay? Well, it’s best to take your time. Begin by decoding the essay question and decide where to focus your research. Once you have enough research, use an essay plan to arrange your ideas into an argument. You’re then ready to write the essay, but don’t forget to proof-read it to perfection!
If you’re still feeling overwhelmed, then don’t worry! We’ll guide you through the 10 stages of writing an essay.
1. Understand what you are being asked to do
You’ll struggle to pass if you haven’t understood the essay question. That said, make certain you know exactly what is being asked of you. Here are some of the most common essay instructions:
|Explain||This is asking you to precisely describe a theory or phenomenon. Imagine you are teaching the theory or phenomenon to the reader.|
|Illustrate / demonstrate||You are being asked to show the reader what evidence exists in support of a particular statement. You might refer to empirical data, case studies, policy reports, graphs/charts etc.|
|Compare and/or contrast||As suggested, you are being asked to consider the similarities (compare) and/or differences (contrast) between two or more texts, theories, or phenomena.|
|Examine||This requires you to analyse a particular topic or statement in very close detail.|
You will probably provide some critical analysis, but you should stay focused on the topic at hand.
|Critically evaluate||Essentially, you are being asked to provide your own ‘argument’ in relation to the essay topic. Your tone should be assertive and authoritative.|
Once you know what approach you should be taking, make sure you understand the full essay title. Are there are any difficult words or phrases that you need to look up?
The best way to confirm your understanding of the title is to re-write it in your own words. For example,
Essay title: Illustrate the benefits of a plant-based diet for adults with type-2 diabetes.
Paraphrased title: With reference to scientific studies, this essay will demonstrate how a plant-based diet can benefit adults with type 2 diabetes.
2. Do your research and make notes
Your lecturer will be expecting you to refer to some of the materials from their lectures. But they’ll expect you to do some of your own reading, too. After all, degree-level study requires you to be an independent learner. That said, you should spend a couple of weeks reading books, journal articles, or policy documents that relate to your essay title.
But don’t just read aimlessly. Take notes when you come across something relevant and interesting. These notes will be invaluable when it comes to writing your essay plan.
When looking for sources, use your university’s online database. You can filter the search results to a specific period (i.e. the last 10 years) or a particular journal. Use synonyms when searching for key terms so that you don’t overlook relevant search results. So, if you are searching for ‘exercise’ try ‘physical activity’, too.
3. Decide upon your argument
If you need to write a critical essay (e.g. Analyse, Evaluate, Assess, etc.) you should decide what your argument is going to be.
Clearly enunciating your argument helps to keep the reader engaged. This is because it challenges the reader to consider whether they agree with you or not.
Remember, a convincing argument is one that’s backed up by evidence and sound reasoning. So, use the material from your lectures and seminars, as well as your independent research, to decide what you are going to argue. For example,
It is argued that ethical leadership often enhances organisational performance.
Above all, I argue that social constructionism is the most convincing theory of knowledge.
4. Arrange your ideas into an essay plan
Once you’ve done your research and decided on your argument, it’s time to write your essay plan. The essay plan is essentially a fleshed-out version of your argument; it should include a short summary of each paragraph. Think carefully about how each paragraph will link back to the overall argument.
If you can arrange your ideas into a cohesive essay plan, you’ll see your grades improve! But don’t just take our word for it.
A study revealed that Chinese students who were taught how to fill in an essay plan/outline achieved better grades in their essays. Filing in the essay plan helped them to appreciate how essay requirements differed at UK universities compared to Chinese universities.
Need some help with writing an essay plan? Check out our detailed guide.
5. Ask for feedback
Most tutors are willing to offer feedback on drafts, so take advantage of this. However, sometimes, it’s more effective to send your tutor a detailed essay plan rather than a couple of paragraphs of an essay draft. This is because it’ll give your tutor a sense of your overall argument, and they can provide their critique accordingly.
6. Write the main body of the essay
You’re now ready to start writing up the essay, but don’t start with the introduction! Instead, begin by writing the first paragraph of the main body of your essay.
The main body of the essay must be clear and easy to follow. You must consider (1) how you will structure your paragraphs, and (2) how you will link the paragraphs together.
When it comes to writing in paragraphs, the golden rule is to only include one theme per paragraph. In addition, you should use ‘signposts’ to connect the paragraphs together, and link them to the higher argument.
If you want to find out more, check out our guide on how to structure an essay.
7. Write a clear introduction
Once the body of the essay is complete, you can start on the introduction. Your introduction is your chance to make a good first impression, so it’s worth spending some time on. Briefly, an introduction should:
- Convince the reader you’ve understood the topic and the question
- Outline the basic structure of the essay
- Highlight the main argument
All these points have been mentioned above, so you just need to clearly communicate them in your essay introduction.
8. Craft a compelling conclusion
Now’s the time to draft the ending to your essay. The conclusion summarises the key points, ties up any loose ends, and leaves the reader with something to think about!
Conclusions are tricky because you have to summarise the key points without repeating yourself. This is a bit on an art, but it can be leaned. Essentially, you need to try and draw links between the points made in each of the paragraphs. This should enable to you share a ‘higher level’ insight with the reader.
Also, to leave a lasting impression on your reader, try referring to feelings or emotions in this final paragraph. Or, use idioms to bring your words to life (though use them sparingly as they can be quite informal). For example:
“It is evident that workers from import-competing industries have suffered at the hands of free trade agreements.”
‘Suffered’ evokes human feeling and emotion, thereby inviting the reader to empathise with the people being discussed.
‘At the hands of’ is an idiom, and it helps to awaken the reader’s senses.
For more advice, check out our guide on how to write a conclusion for an essay.
9. Proof-read and edit your work
Once you have drafted the entire essay, set it aside for at least a day. That way, you can return to it with fresh eyes and give it a thorough proof-read. Grammarly is a great tool for proof-reading as it can highlight issues with grammar, spelling and word choice. However, it can’t appraise the content of your essay.
If you want someone to check the quality of your work from an academic perspective, our Academic Editing Specialists can assist!
10. Check your references
Last but not least, pay close attention to your references. This includes both your in-text references (or footnotes) and your reference list.
It pays to get the references right because shoddy referencing may result in plagiarism!
So, remember, direct quotes should be placed in quotation marks and you should cite the author’s details according to your referencing style. Paraphrased information doesn’t need to go inside quotation marks, but you must cite the author’s details.
Building your confidence is key
When it comes to improving your essay writing, it’s as much about confidence as anything else. This study found that the more confident students felt about (1) reading and (2) writing, the higher they scored on their essays.
That’s all well and good, but what if you have low confidence when it comes to reading and writing? Well, consider the following tips:
- Read something you enjoy at least once a week – it doesn’t have to be related to your Uni course
- Write for enjoyment – journaling can be very relaxing
- Try not to compare your grades to others – We all grow at different rates so focus on your own development
- Ask for guidance, feedback, and support – there is no shame in it! Asking for help can be empowering because it’s a way of telling yourself ‘I know I need support, and I am going to get it’.
Essay writing is tricky, but like most things in life, you’ll improve with practice. So, next time an essay is due, try following our 10 step approach. And if your confidence is low, try to read and write for enjoyment whenever you can. This will help you to feel more confident about your reading and writing skills, and confidence is the key to success!