ESSAY-WRITING THE ESSENTIAL GUID

ESSAY-WRITING THE ESSENTIAL GUID
In a subject like Communications Studies, much of your university work will be assessed by
essay – whether that’s an essay you prepare in your own time over a period of days or weeks,
or one you concoct in an examination hall in the space of an hour. It therefore follows that if
you learn how to prepare, organise and present essays, you will do much better in your degree
overall. So this document might also be called:
HOW TO GET BETTER MARKS WITHOUT (NECESSARILY) DOING MORE WORK
We’ll assume that you’ve read widely about the particular subject of your essay, and have a
good understanding of the broader area within which that topic is located. Broad and deep
research is the essential basis of an essay. You will have lots of notes on the subject – see the
ICS Study Skills Guide to Note-Making for tips on how to do this.
So now it’s time to write the essay. You sit down in front of the keyboard and start typing: you
put the title, you try to group some similar bits of information or argument together, and then
you put a conclusion on the end saying that there are many interesting points of view on this
subject, right?
No, of course you don’t. You’ve got to start off with an essay plan. By designing this you’ll
come up with the structure. A well thought-out structure is at the heart of every good essay.
What is a good structure?
It isn’t enough to make sure that you have an
introduction at the start, a conclusion at the end, and
the other stuff in between. So what do you need?
1. You do need a solid introduction. It will probably
contain something about how you have interpreted the
question, and it is often a good idea to state a thesis
(an argument) which you are going to illustrate or
explore in the body of the essay – although you may
prefer to save the ‘findings’ of your exploration to the
end, in which case you have to introduce the question
carefully at the start.
2. And you need a tight, powerful conclusion which is
the logical consequence of everything that has gone before.
The good essay has developed a number of related
strands which the conclusion ties together. It may also
contain an extra, surprising thing which you saved to
throw in at the end with a flourish.
3. So what happens in between? Well…
Six really awful ways to begin the
essay ‘Why have baked beans
become so popular in twentieth
century Britain?’:
“The question of why baked beans
have become so popular in twentieth
century Britain is an interesting…”
“The Oxford English Dictionary
defines ‘baked beans’ as…”
“In this essay I will explore the
question of why baked beans have
become so popular in twentieth…”
“The Penguin English Dictionary
defines ‘popular’ as…”
“The twentieth century has been going
for quite a while now and…”
“The Collins English Dictionary
defines ‘twentieth century’ as…”
! Why are these awful? Because
they are so predictable, uninspiring
and limp. What should you do
instead? Something else.2
You need to organise your material so that it flows from one area, sub-section or argument to
the next in a logical order. Each part should build upon, or at least reasonably follow on from,
the previous parts, and the whole thing should be
pulling the reader, clearly and inescapably, to your
triumphant conclusion.
The box on the right shows unimaginative kinds of
essay structure, which are likely to get low marks.
But what can you do instead?
One good approach is to look through your notes
and identify a handful of themes within the
discussion, and to structure your essay around
consideration of those. You should order the
analysis of each theme so that the essay builds up
towards the conclusion.
DON’T KNOW HOW TO START?
If you’ve got some notes but you don’t know how to start the next stage, get a nice big clean
sheet of paper and write down phrases which summarise all of your thoughts about the
subject, the different questions and ideas you’ve had in your mind, and the areas and problems
that have been covered in your reading. Then look for similarities, and related concerns, and
group them together in whatever way makes sense to you. After that, see if you can number
these areas into an order – the order in which you will weave your way through the material.
And voila! You’ve accidentally created an essay structure. Now just check it, tweak it a bit to
make it more coherent, and you’re ready to go.
More analysis = more marks
You will often need to describe something before you give an analysis of it. But the more
analysis the better. Only include as much description as is needed for the analysis to make
sense. The analysis is what you will get the marks for. Of course, a muddled, illogical and
unsubstantiated analysis can still leave you with no marks. We’ll be looking for a clear,
coherent and consistent analysis, supported by evidence.
Don’t just repeat what some books (or your lecture notes) say – we want your analysis.
However, you should also show your awareness of other people’s analyses!
Don’t wander off the subject
Answer the question, and only the question. And keep checking that you are remaining on
track throughout the essay. If there’s something interesting that you want to include, but
which is of dubious relevance to the main argument or theme of the essay, put it in a footnote.
Don’t rush
You might remember that you ‘did all right’ last time you stayed up all night on
pharmaceuticals, the day before the deadline, to research and write an essay. But this most
likely means that you would have done much better if you had started reading and researching,
and then writing, days or weeks before that. It is always obvious to your tutors when an essay
is rushed.
Don’t cheat
Plagiarism – using other people’s words and ideas without acknowledging where you got them
from – is regarded as an enormous sin, the penalties for which are actually worse than just
getting zero for the essay. Just say no. Or more specifically, make sure that you have got
perfect references: see pages 4–5.
Two dull kinds of essay structure:
The one that’s not well enough organised:
1. Definition of the thing
2. Some stuff about the thing
3. Summary
The one that’s too formulaic:
1. Introduction, saying that we will
discuss the thing
2. Three arguments in favour of the
thing
3. Three arguments against the thing
4. Summary of the above3
Style as well as substance
Whilst it would seem ‘nice’ if the ideas of a genius would be appreciated even when written in
horrible prose, you should not bank on this. The good student not only has good ideas to write
about, but can write about them well. And it seems particularly wasteful to be losing marks
just because you didn’t spend a little bit of time learning a few style tips.
WAFFLE AND PADDING: NOT THE KEYS TO SUCCESS
Don’t use superfluous words, phrases or sentences. If a sentence means the same thing with a
word taken out, take it out. The same applies to whole phrases and sentences within the wider
context of a paragraph. Using words and phrases which don’t add anything to what you’re
saying will mean that your examiners will conclude that (a) you don’t have enough to say to
meet the required essay length, and that (b) you are trying to hide this by means of a slow,
repetitive and boring writing style. Which is not clever.

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