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Tips for essay writing

The following resource provides some suggestions for effective essay writing.

You can also bring your essays to an SLS tutor for guidance at any stage of the writing process. Please note, however, that the SLS does not offer a proofreading service. A tutor will be happy to look over your essay with you and suggest strategies for you to become a more effective proofreader.

Allow enough time.
The process of academic writing involves

  • defining a topic by analyzing the essay question, thinking it through, researching and planning (prewriting);
  • drafting (writing); and
  • revising, editing and proofreading (rewriting).

Each stage of the process is important, so divide the time to deadline into three roughly equal parts. (Avoid the temptation to over-research and under-write by not beginning to write until close to the deadline.) Begin as soon as possible: you will achieve a better result if you do a small amount every day over two weeks, rather than trying to cram the whole process into a couple of days.

Answer the question directly.
Spend some time defining and thinking about your topic before you begin researching. Carefully read the essay question, analyzing the key instruction word(s), the topic and focus words, and the parts of the question. Break the essay topic down into a series of research questions to make the research process easier and more effective.

Use research materials effectively.
You need to show that you can find materials pertinent to the topic, and that you have read and understood them.

Use your research questions to direct your reading and organise your note-taking. The information you gather - ideas and data - fleshes out the bones of your argument: it backs up your points and connects your essay to current research and data. Explain and reference clearly the ideas and data you borrow from other writers.

Organise your answer clearly.
Generally, academic essays are structured in the following way:

  • Introduction: a paragraph or two that introduces the topic and outlines your argument (your thesis, encapsulated in a thesis-statement made up of a main point and 2-3 subpoints or reasons why the reader should accept your thesis)
  • Body: a series of paragraphs that develop the argument of the essay with topic sentences (each addressing one subpoint), explanations and examples (T - E - E).
  • Conclusion: a paragraph that sums up the argument and offers a closing reflection on the essay question.
  • Reference List: a list of all the works cited in the body of the essay that conforms to departmental guidelines on style and presentation.

Planning before you write is essential.

  • Begin by brainstorming or mindmapping all the ideas your research has generated.
  • Then, work out a logical order for the points you want to present.
  • Next, create an outline of subheadings and plan each section in detail, including evidence from your research.

Always keep the essay question in mind.

Write well-structured paragraphs.
Each paragraph should develop one point, which is expressed as clearly and simply as possible and backed up with explanations and evidence. Work to achieve a sense of flow by providing logical transitions that move the reader from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph. Make clear your train of thought and the connections between your points (don't assume the reader can or will follow).

Never submit a first draft!
Print out the essay (double-spaced to make it easier to read) and allow plenty of time to reflect and revise. If possible, give it to someone else to read and give feedback on.

When editing your work, check first that you have structured the essay effectively (revise):

  • Have you answered (all parts of) the question?
  • Have you clearly explained all your points and the connections between them?
  • Have you overlooked or omitted (without explanation) any important points?
  • Does the essay present a logical train of thought?
  • Does the introduction clearly outline or 'map' the essay?
  • Does the conclusion adequately sum up the argument (without just cutting and pasting your thesis-statement from your introduction)?
  • Is all the evidence you have borrowed from other writers accurately referenced?

Second, consider the finer details (edit and proofread):

  • Check the sentence structure (try reading each sentence aloud to spot errors).
  • Eliminate wordiness and repetition.
  • Proofread for punctuation and spelling errors.

When the essay is returned, reflect on any feedback from your marker and review your essay. Think about what did and didn't work. Make a checklist of grammar errors for next time.