Essay Writing Guide
  • 17-minute read
  • 11th February 2021

Essay Writing Guide

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.

Types of Essay

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:

  • Expository essays (i.e. essays in which you explain something). The aim is to test how well you can communicate your understanding of a topic.
  • Persuasive essays (i.e. essays in which you try to persuade the reader of something). This involves presenting a thesis and backing it up with arguments.
  • Reflective essays (i.e. essays in which you write about your own experiences). Typically, this involves reflecting on and analysing a personal experience.
  • Descriptive essays (i.e. essays that describe something). These essays are less about arguing a point and more about creating a detailed picture.
  • Narrative essays (i.e. essays that tell a story). Narrative essays are usually personal or anecdotal, drawing on the conventions of storytelling.

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.

Researching an Essay

The first step in writing an essay is doing your research. This may include several steps.

Creating a Research Plan

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.

Selecting Sources

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:

  • Using your course reading list as a starting point for finding relevant sources. Asking your tutors or lecturers for recommendations is another good idea.
  • Checking the reference lists in good sources for similar titles.
  • Developing a strong search strategy to find sources online or in databases. This means testing keywords and using filters to narrow searches.

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.

Taking and Organising Notes

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:

  • Take notes that are neat enough to understand when you read them.
  • Note all publication details for any source you might use in your essay.
  • Organise notes so you can find them when needed (e.g. adding page numbers and the date to lecture notes, or using coloured labels to sort paper notes visually).
  • Highlight important information so that you can find it later.

Other tips for efficient note taking include:

  • Use abbreviations or shorthand to aid note taking (especially in lectures).
  • Summarise key passages and ideas rather than writing them down verbatim. This will make note taking quicker, as well as helping you absorb the information.
  • Focus on the parts of sources most relevant to your essay.
  • Record page numbers and source information for anything you make notes about.
  • Use an audio recording device to record lectures.

This should leave you with detailed, easy-to-use notes when you come to write your essay.

Planning and Writing an Essay

The Structure of an Essay

First of all, we’ll look at how most short essays are structured:

  • Title – If you haven’t been given a title to use, try to come up with one that reflects the topic of the essay and the argument you are going to put forward.
  • Introduction – The introduction should set out the essay topic, the reason for writing it (i.e. the purpose or rationale), and an outline of what you will argue.
  • Main Body – This is the main part of any essay, where you put forward each point, supported by examples, quotations, data, and/or arguments. Each paragraph should cover a single point, but they should also follow logically from one another and work together to support your overall argument. How much you write here will depend on the kind of essay you’re writing. For shorter essays, it might be a few paragraphs. For longer pieces, you might need to break it up into subsections.
  • Conclusion – This section should bring together the ideas discussed in the main body of your essay. This may involve summarising your arguments, but you should also explain how these points work together to support your conclusion. You should not, however, introduce new information at this point.
  • References – This is a list of the sources used to produce your essay. Always check which referencing style your university uses and follow the style guide carefully.

Next, we’ll look in more detail at how to plan and write a great essay.

Planning Your 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.

Studying the Essay Question

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:

  • An open question permits a variety of approaches. For instance, if you were set the question What are the main social themes in the writing of Charles Dickens?, you could discuss a range of concepts (from technology to religion) in response. Planning your essay would therefore require narrowing down your subject matter.
  • A closed question focuses on a specific issue, often asking you to agree or disagree with something. For instance, a closed question could be Is technology a destructive force in the writing of Charles Dickens? In this case, the question dictates the form of the essay, as you would need to look at arguments for and against the idea in the question and, finally, come to a conclusion about it.

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.

Brainstorming Ideas

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:

  • What you have learned from lectures, set reading, etc.
  • Any preliminary research you have done on the topic.

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.

Drafting an Essay Outline

Once you’ve finished brainstorming, try to outline the structure and content of your essay:

  • Introduction – Start by expressing your main argument in a single sentence. You can use this as the basis of your introduction.
  • Main Body – Break down your argument into paragraphs or sections. Note down how each point supports your argument, plus any quotes or examples you will use.
  • Conclusion – Briefly summarise your arguments and evidence.
  • References – Create a list of sources you plan to use in your essay.

This will then guide the essay writing process, helping you to stay focused.

Writing Your Essay

Writing an Introduction

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:

  • Set out the topic of the essay and the question you will answer.
  • Explain why the topic is important (i.e. what it helps us understand).
  • Provide a thesis (i.e. a short statement of what you will argue).
  • Outline the structure of your paper (i.e. each point you will cover).

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.

Constructing an Argument

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:

  • Address each point of your argument in a separate paragraph.
  • Treat each point like a mini-essay, with an introductory topic sentence (i.e. what you will address in the paragraph), a series of sub-points with evidence, and a short concluding sentence. Ideally, someone should be able to get a decent idea of what each paragraph is about by reading just the first and last lines.
  • Make sure to explain what each point contributes to your overall argument.
  • Use linking words and phrases to make sure your writing flows smoothly and to show how different points are connected. The term ‘However’, for instance, will signal that you’re about to introduce a point or comparison or contrast. The word ‘moreover’, on the other hand, signifies that you’re adding to or building upon the previous point.
  • Think about counterarguments to the points you’re making. If you can acknowledge and respond to different points of view, your argument will be stronger.

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.

Writing a Conclusion

A good essay conclusion should be clear, concise, and to the point. Typically, this means:

  • Starting by briefly recapping the essay topic and why it is important.
  • Summarising the main points of your argument.
  • Drawing a conclusion based on these points (i.e. your thesis).
  • Explaining how your arguments support this conclusion.
  • Considering the implications of your conclusion (e.g. its significance for how we read the author you’re writing about or real-life applications of your study results).

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.

Referencing and Quoting Sources

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.

Why Cite Sources?

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:

  • It shows that you’ve done research and found relevant information.
  • It is good practice to credit other thinkers for their ideas.
  • Failing to cite sources will be treated as plagiarism (i.e. using someone else’s words or ideas without crediting them).

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:

  • Quote or paraphrase another person’s words.
  • Refer to facts or figures that aren’t common public knowledge.
  • Refer to an idea or theory you found published somewhere.
  • Use an image or illustration that you did not create yourself.

This should protect you from unfair accusations of plagiarism.

In-Text Citations

In-text citations come in three main types, each used by different referencing systems:

  • Parenthetical Citations – This involves giving citations in brackets in the main body of your essay. Often, this will be the author’s surname, the year of publication, and page numbers (e.g. Harvard, APA). However, some systems differ, such as MLA, which only gives the author’s surname and page number(s).
  • Number–Footnote Citations – Some referencing systems indicate citations with a number in the text, then give source information in footnotes (e.g. Oxford, MHRA).
  • Number–Endnote Citations – Similar to the above, number–endnote systems use numbered citations in the main text (e.g. Vancouver, IEEE). However, in this case the numbers point to an entry in a reference list at the end of the document.

And while these citation styles differ, there are some tips that apply in all cases:

  • Always check your university’s style guide to find their preferred citation style.
  • Make sure every source used in the main text is cited.
  • Make sure that all cited sources are included in a reference list.
  • Apply a consistent citation style throughout each essay.

As above, this will help ensure you don’t accidentally commit plagiarism in your writing.

Quoting Sources

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:

  • Your point depends on the exact wording (e.g. if you are discussing why an author used a specific term in their work).
  • The original text is especially well expressed and rephrasing it would detract from this.

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.

Reference Lists and Bibliographies

Every academic document that cites sources should include a reference list or bibliography. These terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but the general difference is:

  • A reference list is a list of every source cited in your essay.
  • A bibliography should include any source you used while researching your essay (even the ones that you did not cite directly in your work).

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:

  • Make sure to check your university’s style guide for advice on whether to create a reference list or a bibliography (and what to include in it).
  • Check that you know the reference formats for every source type you have used (e.g. a print book will have a different format to an online journal article).
  • Make sure all references are clear and consistent.

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).

Reference Management Software

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:

  • EndNote – EndNote works with all major referencing systems, source types and word processors. The full version is paid, but there is a limited free version.
  • Mendeley – This is a free tool for managing and citing PDF documents. It is therefore most useful when the majority of your sources are in this format.
  • Zotero – This package has an internet browser plugin that can automatically import source information from websites and add citations to your work.
  • RefWorks – This web-based system provides a simple way of collating sources that can be accessed from any computer with an internet connection.

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.

Additional Resources

For more information on referencing in different systems, see our blog posts on:

Other Essay Types

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.

Reflective Essays

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.

Descriptive Essays

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

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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