Essay writing: advice for students

Thomas Abbs (CC / Flickr)
Thomas Abbs (CC / Flickr)

The way to think about essay writing is to imagine that you are taking the reader on a journey to a destination. The destination you are aiming for is your conclusion – the thesis you are seeking to defend, the position you are arguing for. The entire purpose of your journey is to reach that destination. The purpose of your essay is to arrive at that conclusion, in the most direct, logical and coherent manner possible. So my first piece of advice for you, traveller, is this: don’t even think about setting off on your journey until you know where you are heading, until you have a clear idea what your destination is going to be. If you set out on a journey without a clear idea where you are trying to get to, you are likely to end up rambling all over the place in an incoherent and haphazard manner. You should not start to write your essay until you have a clear idea in your mind what the destination of this particular journey will be; that is, until you have a clear idea what it is you that are going to argue, what the thesis is that you wish to defend.

So you need to take some time to think about the question you are being asked, and to try to work out what you think about it, what answer to the question you find most convincing. Imagine that I am reading your essay, and I am currently undecided on this issue. I am an educated and interested observer to the debate, but I am currently on the fence about this particular question, and I haven’t yet made up my mind what to think. Your job in the essay is to bring me round to your point of view – to persuade me of the correctness of your position through rational argument. That means that you need to have a clear idea in your own mind what exactly it is you think about the issue. You’re going to struggle to persuade your reader of anything if you’re still sitting on the fence too.

The purpose of the essay is to advance and defend a clear, strong, positive thesis of your own, and to attempt to persuade the reader of it. What you really want to avoid is the bog-standard, mediocre “here are all the arguments on one side of the debate; here are all the arguments on the other side of the debate; and in conclusion, it’s complicated” essay that your teachers read all too frequently. So, be bold! Have the confidence to come down off that fence and argue for a clear and strong position, knowing that we really do care what you think, and want to see how successfully you can defend it.

For some questions you might be asked, it will be quite easy to discern what a clear and decisive position of your own might look like. For example, if you are asked a question like one of these:

  • Which are better, dogs or cats?
  • Is the Jaffa Cake a cake or a biscuit?
  • Is it fair that professional footballers get paid many times more than nurses?

you can easily pick a side that you are going to argue for – dogs or cats, cake or biscuit, yes it’s fair or no it isn’t. But sometimes the question you’re asked is less straightforward than that, which means you need to give a bit more thought to what your thesis is going to be:

  • Evaluate the respective merits of dogs and cats as companion animals.
  • Critically assess the claim that the Jaffa Cake should be defined as a cake, not a biscuit.
  • “Since nurses work very hard at a job that is socially more useful than professional sport, it is unfair that nurses earn so much less than footballers”. Discuss.

These types of question aren’t phrased as a question at all, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to take a clear position or defend a definite thesis. You want to avoid a rambling, incoherent essay that jumps around all over the place without ever arguing anything, and the way to do that is to pick a definite position that you are going to argue for, and be clear about what that position is before you even begin. This is the destination of your journey, and the entire purpose of the essay is to get us to arrive, smoothly and convincingly, at that destination.

So now that you know what your conclusion is – now you know what the destination of our journey is going to be – we are nearly ready to set off. But crucially, before we do, we need a map for our journey. Do not set off without a map. The introduction to your essay is the map of your essay. Just as all successful journeys require a map, so all successful essays require a proper introduction.

When I talk about a proper introduction, I have something very specific in mind. A proper introduction is not just a few flowery, prosaic but ultimately empty sentences wherein you suppose you are setting the scene and providing a bit of background context before you get going. A proper introduction is not simply a couple of banal and trite observations along the lines of “since the dawn of time, humans have pondered the vexed question of whether canines or felines make the best companion animals”, before you launch into the body of your argument. You can add these prosaic but contentless sentences if you really must. But since they convey little meaning and take up valuable words, you might as well omit them. (I still cringe when I remember the first line of my undergraduate dissertation – “Justice is a concept that philosophers have debated for centuries”- mainly because I’ve read that exact sentence as the opening line to so many undergraduate essays since).

Since the introduction of your essay is the map to the essay, there are two essential features that any proper introduction must contain:

  • A clear, definite statement of your thesis – in other words, tell the reader what our destination is, where it is that you are taking me
  • An explicit account of the structure of the essay – that is, tell the reader how we are going to get to that destination, the points we are going to stop at along the way.

So, if you are going to argue that Jaffa Cakes are cakes, not biscuits, your introduction would hopefully look something like this:

In this essay, I argue that Jaffa Cakes are more accurately defined as cakes than as biscuits. First, I examine and rebut the claim that since they are commonly consumed with one’s fingers, rather than with a fork, they must be biscuits, by noting that many types of cakes are also consumed with one’s fingers, and so this point cannot be decisive. Second, I confront the claim that since they are found in the biscuit aisle of the supermarket they must be biscuits, and show that this argument begs the question against those who would define the Jaffa Cake as a cake, since it is possible that they are currently located in the wrong section, if indeed it turns out that they meet the definitional criteria for a cake. Third, I note that if they were indeed a biscuit we would expect to observe their being dunked in hot beverages, but this rarely happens. Having thus rejected the view that they can be accurately defined as a biscuit, I finally go on to argue that, since like other cakes, they consist of a spongey base, and when stale go hard rather than soft, they therefore ought to be defined as a type of cake.

Here you can see we have our destination clearly spelled out in our first sentence – “In this essay, I argue that…” – as well as an explicit account of how we are going to get there, in terms of a list of the points we are going to be making along the way. Whatever else your introduction has (and I’m not sure it needs anything else, especially when time and space is limited), it must include these features. This is your map.

It can sometimes be difficult to decide how to structure your case, and how best to present the material in order to build your argument in the most clear and powerful manner. There’s no right answer to this, and I certainly don’t want to be too prescriptive – you must find a structure that works for you. But as a general rule, if you can’t figure out how to frame the material, then a structure like the one spelled out above often works quite well. Present the opposing view first, giving it a fair and charitable hearing, before going on to rebut it, and explain why despite its many strengths, it is nonetheless mistaken. Then, having rebutted the opposing view, you are in a strong position to present your own positive view, and can build to your conclusion in a powerful and persuasive manner. So in the example above, I explain that I first examine the reasons why someone might think that a Jaffa Cake is a biscuit, and evaluate and ultimately reject those reasons, before going on to make the positive argument that a Jaffa Cake is a type of cake.

So now that the reader knows where you’re taking her, and knows how you’re going to get there, you then proceed to follow that map, doing all of the things you said you would do in your introduction, in the order you said you were going to do them. Each paragraph (or section, depending on how long the essay is) should make one of the points you stated in your introduction. And crucially, every point you make must be helping us to get one step closer to our destination. For every point you make, every argument you advance, ask yourself the question: does this help to support the thesis I am trying to advance? Does making this point get us a step closer to our eventual conclusion? If it doesn’t, cut it out, especially if space is limited (and space is always limited). We have a destination to reach, and we don’t have time to take the scenic route. So cut out the paragraph where you outline the history and development of the Jaffa Cake (unless of course this helps you to defend your claim that it’s a cake, not a biscuit).

As you proceed through the body of the essay, with each paragraph or section proceeding to get us one step closer to our destination, it’s essential that you make excellent use of signposting. This takes the form of sentences where you explain to the reader the progress we are making in our journey; where you explain how the point you have just made is helping to support your thesis, and thus gets us a step closer to our destination. Sentences like “this demonstrates that…” or “what this illustrates is…” help to point the reader back to the thesis you are trying to defend and to explain why you are telling me the things you are telling me, and how they are helping us in our journey. You should also use signposting to explain how various points are connected to one another through sentences such as “following on from this….”, “having established that, I will now go on to…” It is through these kinds of signposting sentences that you build your case, and make it clear and explicit to the reader exactly what your argument is and how it is progressing. If you omit these, you are making the reader do the hard work of constructing your argument for you. I have to read between the lines, to try to piece together what you are arguing, and why you are telling me what you are telling me. You don’t want to make me have to work this hard to discern your argument – you want to hit me over the head with it so I can’t miss it, and it’s through proper signposting that you will achieve this.

Of course, in making this argument, you will hopefully be defending your view with reference to the literature you have read. While we do want to know what you think, and want you to advance and defend your own point of view, we also want you to demonstrate that your view is well supported, and is grounded in a thorough appreciation of the theoretical debates and the literature. The crucial thing here is to make sure you frame your discussion in the right way. An essay is not simply a review of the literature, with a couple of critical observations of your own thrown in. It is an attempt to advance and defend a clear and strong thesis of your own, making use of the literature and bringing that into your discussion where it helps you to make your case. This is largely a matter of how you frame and signpost your material. Rather than presenting your material as “McVitie (2005) argues that Jaffa Cakes are a cake because they go hard when they are stale. Conversely Kipling (2006) says they are biscuits because they are round and reasonably flat”, you should frame it as your own argument, supported by the literature: “One reason to believe that Jaffa Cakes are a cake is because, like other cakes, they go hard when stale. McVitie (2005) argues that….” In this way, you demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of the literature, but are making use of it to develop an argument that is your own, rather than merely surveying or describing it.

There are many different routes we could take to the same destination, and in many ways it doesn’t matter which one you take, as long as you pick one, and see it through to its conclusion. What I mean by this is that in many cases, there are numerous different arguments we could advance that would support the same conclusion. But not all of these arguments will be consistent with one another. What you are trying to do in the essay is not to provide the reader with a survey of all the possible routes they could have taken to that destination – that is, you’re not trying to provide the reader with an overview of all of the possible arguments that could be offered in support of your conclusion. What you’re aiming to do is to take one path, the path you find most promising, and see that through to its destination – to advance and defend, in a coherent, methodical and systematic manner, the one argument in support of your thesis that you find most persuasive. Don’t take any detours down side routes. Stick to the path, so we can get to our destination as smoothly and seamlessly as possible.

So, if you do this successfully, making one point in each paragraph or section, and signposting along the way to explain to the reader how we are progressing in our journey and how each point we are stopping at along the way is getting us closer to our destination, then your argument should build clearly, logically and systematically. The thesis you are defending then becomes the narrative thread that runs all the way through the essay, bringing all the points together into one coherent whole. And though opinions on this will vary, in my view, if you’ve built your argument systematically and signposted well, by the time we reach our destination you should barely need an official concluding paragraph at all – just a sentence or two wrapping up should suffice. There should be no surprises at this stage. If you are only just getting round to telling the reader what your opinion is by the time you get to your concluding paragraph, you’ve left it too late. Your argument should have been clear from the introduction, and you should remind the reader of it all the way through. So if you’ve done this properly, you don’t need much in the way of a concluding paragraph to tell your reader that you’ve arrived at your destination, because it will be obvious, from everything that’s gone before. You’ve built your case point by point, logically and systematically. If all has gone well, you’ll have persuaded your reader, and she will agree with you now! Of course, for your essay to be successful, you don’t actually have to have persuaded your reader. If you are misguided enough to think that cats are better than dogs, I will still give your essay a first class grade, as long as you make your case persuasively enough, and develop a strong, coherent and well reasoned argument in support of your conclusion.

Finally, a couple of stylistic pointers:

  • Students sometimes tell me that they have heard either from schoolteachers or other university tutors that you must never use the word “I” in your essays, and that it’s always preferable to write “this essay argues that” or “this paper advances the thesis that”, rather than to write “in this essay, I argue that”. Opinions vary on this, so you should check with whoever will be assessing your work. But personally, I have no problem at all with essays written in the first person. If anything, I like it. I use it often in my own writing, and I appreciate it because I think it’s more honest and open, and involves taking ownership of your writing and your arguments. If you don’t feel comfortable with it, it’s fine to avoid it. But one thing that does make me bristle is the use of the first person plural in an essay written by just one person, such as in sentences like “we have demonstrated that…” This irritates me, because it feels as though the writer is trying to trick me into taking some responsibility for their argument, and is assuming my agreement before I have given it. Again, opinions will vary on all of this, and you can check with your tutors. But don’t be afraid to say “I argue that…”, if your tutors have no objection.
  • If you have to choose between writing beautifully and writing clearly, you should always, always choose the latter. I am not a pretty writer. My prose is rarely moving or evocative. I will never be a great novelist, or a poet. But I used to perform well in my undergraduate essays, because one thing I can do is write clearly. If you are blessed with the talent to produce writing that is both elegant and accurate, you are incredibly lucky, and I envy you greatly. But for the rest of us, the general rule should be: don’t try to sound poetic, don’t try to sound erudite, and don’t try to sound clever. Instead, aim for clarity, precision and accuracy.
  • Keep your use of direct quotations of other people’s words to a minimum. Direct quotations can be very valuable where you use them to illustrate a point that you have made in your own words. But you should avoid constructing the body of your argument using direct quotations from other people’s words. Every year I receive a couple of essays that are almost entirely constructed using other people’s words, albeit in quotation marks, joined together with a few linking phrases of the author’s own. Clearly, this is not what we are looking for in an essay. We want to know that you have understood the literature you have read and are able to critically analyse and apply it. You should explain other people’s ideas in your own prose where possible, using the occasional direct quotation to support your interpretation. (NB: obviously this will vary depending on the type of essay you’re writing and the subject you’re studying. If it’s a course in close reading and examination of texts, more direct quotation might be required. But use your judgment here. The point is to construct the essay in your own words, and use quotations to illuminate or support that; don’t use the direct quotations to build the essay itself).

So that’s it! The TL;DR version is this:

  • You’re taking the reader on a journey to a destination. Don’t survey all the possible routes you could take there. Pick the route you think most promising, and see it through
  • Don’t set out without a map. Every essay needs a proper introduction where you tell the reader what you’re going to argue, and how you are going to argue it (i.e. spell out the structure of the essay – what you are going to do, in what order)
  • Make sure you keep signposting as you go. Make it explicit to the reader how your argument is progressing, and how each point you make is helping to support the thesis you’re trying to defend
  • And finally: be bold. Be confident. Don’t be afraid to take a strong, clear position and argue it forcefully. Nobody is going to hold you to the view you endorse! You’re allowed to change your mind later, and nobody will ever know. If you construct your argument well and defend it with a good knowledge of the literature, you will receive a good grade even if your marker completely disagrees with your conclusion. So leap down off that fence!

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