This guide will explain how to write a great academic essay, focusing on shorter assignments (see our Dissertation Writing Guide for advice on longer academic documents).
Use the list to the left to select an aspect of essay writing to learn about.
Essays come in many kinds, so the exact requirements will depend on the assignment. Five of the most common types of essay you may be asked to write include:
These essay types overlap in various ways: most essays, for instance, will contain a degree of description, exposition, and persuasion. But each kind of essay has a different focus, requiring a slightly different approach. In this document, we’re focusing on expository and persuasive essays, which typically share a similar style and structure. But we will also look briefly at how to write descriptive, narrative, and reflective essays later in the guide.
The first step in writing an essay is doing your research. This may include several steps.
Make a plan as soon as you receive an assignment or essay topic. To do this, break the research down into steps and set aside time for each task you need to complete. You’ll then know exactly how much work you need to do and how long you will need to do it.
When creating this plan, try to include time for editing after you have a first draft. For more on the importance of redrafting, see the final section of this guide.
Part of efficient research is selecting the best sources for your project, as reading every single book or article on a subject would take far too long. This may involve:
If you are doing research online, make sure you’re using reliable academic sources, too. For instance, a reputable journal or a university website should be trustworthy. But a blog post with no cited sources or author information will not be suitable for academic writing. Likewise, Wikipedia is not an academic source, though you can check the citations to find sources.
Writing your essay will be much simpler if you have good notes to work from. So when you’re in a lecture or reading a book relevant to your essay topic, make sure to:
Other tips for efficient note taking include:
This should leave you with detailed, easy-to-use notes when you come to write your essay.
First of all, we’ll look at how most short essays are structured:
Next, we’ll look in more detail at how to plan and write a great essay.
Before you begin writing, you should plan your essay to help ensure you stay on topic and within the word limit. Planning an essay should involve the following.
Always read the essay question or task description carefully. It should provide some clue as to the kind of essay required, such as whether it is an open or closed question:
If you rush to writing, on the other hand, you could find yourself answering the question you thought you were asked rather than the question you have been asked to write about.
Once you have a strong sense of the question you need to answer, it’s time to brainstorm. This is where you can weigh up different approaches to the essay based on:
Setting this down on the page – or in a mind map – should help you develop your essay. Try to include anything that might be relevant to the essay topic at first, then focus in on the ideas that let you answer the question most effectively.
After doing this, you should have a clear idea of what you will say in your essay.
Once you’ve finished brainstorming, try to outline the structure and content of your essay:
This will then guide the essay writing process, helping you to stay focused.
A good essay introduction should be clear and concise, telling the reader everything they’ll need to know to understand the argument(s) you’re about to make. It should therefore:
Try to avoid clichéd opening lines such as ‘The Oxford English Dictionary defines [ESSAY TOPIC] as…’, as these will rarely add anything useful to your paper.
One good tip is that you don’t have to write the introduction first. In fact, it’s often easier to write the introduction once you have written the rest of the paper.
The exact content of an essay will depend on the topic, but we can offer some advice on constructing an argument in the main body of a paper:
Think of each point/paragraph in your paper as a building block. They need to be strong and well supported (by evidence, in most cases). They need to fit together well. And you need to put them in a logical order. Do this right, and you should have a strong argument.
A good essay conclusion should be clear, concise, and to the point. Typically, this means:
However, make sure not to introduce new arguments or evidence in the conclusion. If you need these to support your point, they should be included in the main body of the essay.
One tip here is to think of the introduction and conclusion as ‘bookends’ for your essay, since both will set out the essay topic, your main argument, and its significance.
In any academic document, you will need to cite sources. The details for this will depend on the referencing style or system you’re using, so remember to check your style guide. However, we will offer some general tips on referencing and quoting sources in an essay.
Referencing involves identifying the sources you’ve used in your research, usually with some kind of in-text citations and full publication information for all sources in a reference list.
There are several reasons to take referencing seriously in an essay:
This last point is the most important as plagiarism is considered academic fraud. And if you’re found to have plagiarised someone else’s work in an essay, you will lose marks. In extreme cases, you may even be kicked off the course you are studying.
You will need to cite a source whenever you:
This should protect you from unfair accusations of plagiarism.
In-text citations come in three main types, each used by different referencing systems:
And while these citation styles differ, there are some tips that apply in all cases:
As above, this will help ensure you don’t accidentally commit plagiarism in your writing.
Quoting sources is a great way of supporting your arguments in an essay. However, if you are going to quote a source in your writing, you need to do it right.
The first step is knowing when to quote a source. Generally, this is most useful when:
If you do quote a source, make sure to place the borrowed text in ‘quotation marks’. This shows the reader that you have taken it from somewhere else. The accompanying citation should then identify the source and the page(s) where the quote can be found.
In many cases, it is better to paraphrase a source than quote it. This means rewriting the passage in your own words, which shows that you have understood it. However, remember that you still need to cite sources when paraphrasing something.
Every academic document that cites sources should include a reference list or bibliography. These terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but the general difference is:
As with citations, this may depend on the system you’re using, and different referencing systems will have different rules for creating a reference list. In all cases, though:
One helpful tip for drawing up your reference list/bibliography is to keep a running list of sources as you work. In other words, whenever you find something useful during research, note down the publication details. You will then have all the information required if you need to reference it later (plus, you’ll be able to find the same source quickly if you need it).
Finally, you may want to look at using reference management software when writing an essay. This refers to programs that store and organise your references, such as:
These are most useful for longer academic documents, such as theses and dissertations, but you can also use them when writing an essay to make referencing simpler.
Whether you use reference management software or not, though, you should always double check citations and the reference list before submitting your work. That way, you can be sure that the referencing in your essay is clear, consistent and error free.
For more information on referencing in different systems, see our blog posts on:
Most of the tips above will apply to any essay type. However, it is worth looking at some less conventional essay types to see how they differ and how you should approach them.
In a reflective essay, you write about your own experiences, a bit like an academic diary entry! Typically, the emphasis of a reflective essay is less on arguing a point and more on thinking about how an experience relates to what you’ve learned in class.
For example, a student nurse might write a reflective essay on a work placement. They would then use this to highlight what happened and what they learned from the experience.
A descriptive essay, as the name suggests, focuses on describing something in great detail. This could be a person, place, object or experience. Rather than building an argument, think about this as painting a picture with vivid, descriptive language. This will include sensory descriptions (e.g. how something looked or sounded). You may also be asked to describe the thoughts or feelings something has inspired, which is similar to a reflective essay.
While the focus here is description, descriptive essays should aim to make a point. In other words, you should describe the subject matter in a way that draws attention to something about it (e.g. something that people may otherwise overlook or take for granted).
Narrative essays are formatted like a story. They will typically be written in the first person (i.e. from your point of view as the writer) and be personal or anecdotal. Like a story, a narrative essay should have a ‘plot’, where the action unfolds and eventually reaches a climax. You may also want to include spoken dialogue if you interact with other ‘characters’.
Like descriptive essays, a narrative essay should make a point. Thus, before you begin writing, think about why you’re telling the story.
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