This Study Guide addresses the topic of essay writing. The essay is used as a form of assessment in many academic disciplines, and is used in both coursework and exams. It is the most common focus for study consultations among students using Learning Development. Other useful guides: What is critical reading?What is critical writing?Thought mapping; Referencing and bibliographies; Avoiding plagiarism; The art of editing. A collection of Question lists is available via the Learning Development website. These lists suggest questions to ask of your writing when you are reviewing it.
This Study Guide addresses the topic of essay writing. The essay is used as a form of assessment in many academic disciplines, and is used in both coursework and exams. It is the most common focus for study consultations among students using Learning Development.
Other useful guides: What is critical reading?What is critical writing?Thought mapping; Referencing and bibliographies; Avoiding plagiarism; The art of editing.
A collection of Question lists is available via the Learning Development website. These lists suggest questions to ask of your writing when you are reviewing it.
To produce a high quality essay you need to demonstrate your ability:
to understand the precise task set by the title;
to identify, appropriate material to read;
to understand and evaluate that material;
to select the most relevant material to refer to in your essay;
to construct an effective argument; and
to arrive at a well-supported conclusion.
The need to use such a wide range of academic skills is probably the main reason why the essay format is so popular with tutors as an assignment.
The word limit adds to the challenge by requiring that all of these skills be demonstrated within a relatively small number of words. Producing incisive and clear written work within a word limit is an important skill in itself, which will be useful in many aspects of life beyond university.
Good, constructively critical feedback can give you excellent guidance on how to improve your essay writing. It is worth attending to all of the suggestions and comments you receive, and trying to act on them.
Common criticism given to students is that their essay:
does not keep to the title that was set;
has a poor structure;
is too descriptive;
does not have enough critical writing.
These criticisms highlight the three basic elements of good essay writing:
attending closely to the title;
establishing a relevant structure that will help you show the development of your argument; and
using critical writing as much as possible; with descriptive writing being used where necessary, but kept to a minimum.
These elements will be used to give a broad overall structure to this Study Guide.
Attending closely to the title
The most important starting point is to listen carefully to what the essay title is telling you.
You need to read every single word of it, and to squeeze out as much guidance you can from the title. Then you need to plan how you will respond to every single element of the title. The guidance given to you by the title is freely available, and is your best clue to what is required in your essay.
As a tutor has said (Creme and Lea, 1997 p41):
‘When my students ask me about essay writing, there are three main pieces of advice that I give them. One, answer the question. Two, answer the question. Three, answer the question.’
This is important at the start, but also throughout your writing, as it can be easy to drift away and waste valuable words from your word limit by writing material that may be interesting, but which is not relevant to the title set.
The Mini Guide: Essay terms explained, and Questions to ask about interpreting essay titles may be useful.
To start you off, and to minimise the likelihood of writer’s block, a useful exercise is to do a ‘brainstorm’ of all your ideas in connection with the essay title. It can be a way of making a lot of progress quite quickly.
It can be stressful and very difficult trying to work out solely in your mind how to tackle an essay title; asking yourself questions such as: What structure should I use? What are my main points? What reading do I need to do? Have I got enough evidence? It can be much less stressful to throw all your thoughts down on paper, before you start trying to find answers to these questions.
In these early stages of your thinking you may not be sure which of your ideas you want to follow up and which you will be discarding. So, don’t feel you have to make that decision in your head before you write anything. Instead, you can catch all of your ideas, in no particular order, on a sheet or two of A4. Once they are down there it will be easier for you to start to review them critically and to see where you need to focus your reading and note taking.
Breaking it down then building it up
Essentially, this is what you are doing within the essay process: breaking ideas down, then building them up again. You need to:
- break down the essay title into its component parts, and consider possible ways of addressing them;
- work with these component parts, as you select your reading and make relevant notes;
- build up the essay using the material you have collected; ordering it;
- presenting and discussing it;
- and forming it into a coherent argument.
Throughout this process, the essay title is the single immovable feature. You begin there; you end there; and everything in between needs to be placed in relation to that title.
All three of the processes described above will inform your decisions about what you need to read for a particular essay. If left unplanned, the reading stage can swallow up huge amounts of time. Fortunately, there is scope for developing efficiency in several ways:
- making intelligent decisions, based on your initial planning, about which sources to target, so you don’t spend time reading less relevant, or even completely irrelevant material;
- reading with a purpose, so that you are looking out for particularly relevant material, rather than paying equal attention to material that is less relevant;
- systematic note taking, so that you record the most relevant material, and that you have full reference details (including page numbers of direct quotes) of all material you may end up using.
While a certain level of efficiency is desirable, it is also important to remain flexible enough to identify relevant and interesting ideas that you had not anticipated.
Writing as thinking
You can use the writing process to help you think through, clarify and develop your early ideas about how you might respond to the title that has been set:
‘you may not know what you think until you have written it down’ (Creme & Lea, 1997 p115).
As with teaching, it is often not until you try to communicate an argument and its evidence that you find where the gaps are in your knowledge or argument. So don’t be afraid of writing down your ideas before they are fully formed, or in the ‘right’ order.
Writing is an active and constructive process; it is not merely a neutral recording of your thoughts. It is therefore useful to go into the writing process expecting to make revisions. The first words you write do not have to be part of the final version. Editing your writing as you develop your ideas is a positive not a negative process: the more you cross out, re-write, and re-order, the better your essay should become.
Establishing a relevant structure to support your argument
All essays need structure. The structure may be strong and clear, or it may be unobtrusive and minimal but, in a good essay, it will be there.
Underpinning the structure will be the ‘argument’ your essay is making. Again this may be strong and obvious, or it may be almost invisible, but it needs to be there. In different subject areas, and with different styles of writing, the term ‘argument’ may seem more or less relevant. However, even in those essays that appear to be highly creative, unscientific, or personal, an argument of some kind is being made.
It is the argument, and how you decide to present and back up your argument, that will influence your decision on how to structure your essay.
The essay structure is not an end in itself, but a means to an end: the end is the quality of the argument.
By creating a relevant structure, you make it much easier for yourself to present an effective argument. There are several generic structures that can help you start to think about your essay structure e.g.:
- by context;
These can be useful starting points, but you will probably decide to work with a more complicated structure e.g.:
- overall chronological structure; broken down by comparisons according to the elements of the title;
- overall thematic structure; broken down by sub-themes;
- overall comparative structure; broken down by context.
In addition to these macro-structures you will probably need to establish a micro-structure relating to the particular elements you need to focus on e.g.: evidence / policy / theory / practice / case studies / examples / debates.
You may feel that, for your particular essay, structures like these feel too rigid. You may wish to create a more flexible or fluid structure. Perhaps a more suitable word than ‘structure’ in those cases may be ‘pattern’, or ‘impression’, or ‘atmosphere’; although these merge into the field of creative writing rather than essay writing.
An analogy could be that of symphony writing. The composers Haydn and Mozart, working in the 18th century, tended to write symphonies to fit reliably and closely within what was called ‘symphonic form’. This set out a pattern for the numbers of movements within the symphony, and for the general structure of writing within each movement. The continued popularity of their work today shows that they clearly managed to achieve plenty of interest and variety within that basic structure.
Later composers moved away from strict symphonic form. Some retained a loose link to it while others abandoned it completely, in favour of more fluid patterns. It would be rare, however, to find a symphony that was without structure or pattern of any kind; it would probably not be satisfactory either to play or to listen to. Similarly, a structure of some kind is probably essential for every essay, however revolutionary.
Your decisions on structure will be based on a combination of:
- the requirements of your department;
- the potential of the essay title; and
- your own preferences and skills.
An iterative, not necessarily a linear process
The process of essay planning and writing does not need to be a linear process, where each stage is done only once. It is often an iterative process i.e.: a process where earlier stages are repeated when they can be revised in the light of subsequent work. A possible iterative process is:
- analyse the title
- brainstorm relevant ideas
- read around the title, making relevant notes
- prepare a first draft
- analyse the title again
- critically review your first draft in the light of this further analysis
- read further to fill in gaps
- prepare final draft
- critically edit the final draft
- submit the finished essay.
‘Helping your readers’
This section heading is in quotes as it is also the heading of chapter 8, pages 80-92, in Barass (1982). Barass (1982 p80) makes the simple but valid statement, that:
‘By making things easy for your readers, you help yourself to convey information and ideas.’
The tutors reading and marking your essays deserve your consideration. They will be reading and marking many, many student essays. If you make your argument hard to follow, so that they need to re-read a paragraph (or more) to try to make sense of what you have written, you will cause irritation, and make their job slower. Realistically, it is possible that they may even decide not to make that effort. It is your task to present your argument in a way that your audience can follow; it is not your audience’s job to launch an investigation to detect the points you are trying to make.
Your tutors will not necessarily be looking for the perfect, revolutionary, unique, special essay; they would be very happy to read a reasonably well-planned, well-argued and well-written essay. They will not want to pull your essay to pieces. They would much rather enjoy reading it, and be satisfied by the thread of your argument. In the words of a tutor:
‘I’m looking for focus, for a voice that I feel confident with and not bored by – someone who knows the area and is going to take me round the issues in an objective, informed and interesting way.’ Stott (2001 p 37)
A powerful introduction is invaluable. It can engage your readers, and can give them confidence that you have thought carefully about the title, and about how you are going to address it. A useful generic structure is to:
- begin with a general point about the central issue;
- show your understanding of the task that has been set;
- show how you plan to address the title in your essay structure;
- make a link to the first point.
It may be possible to use only one paragraph for your introduction, but it may fall more easily into two or more. You will need to adapt and extend this basic structure to fit with your own discipline and the precise task set. Here is an example of an introduction for an essay entitled:
Examine and compare the nature and development of the tragic figures of Macbeth and Dr Faustus in their respective plays.
- Begin with a general point
Dr Faustus and Macbeth are both plays that show their respective playwrights at the pinnacle of their careers.
- Show your understanding of the task set
When comparing the nature of the two plays’ respective heroes, both parallels and contrasts can be found.
- Show how you plan to address the title
In the first section of this essay, the role of the tragic hero will be considered … The second section of the essay will examine the nature … Finally, a comparison will be made of the development of the two …
- Make a link to the first point
In examining the characters’ tragic qualities, a useful starting point is Aristotle’s definition of tragedy…
Although the introduction appears at the beginning of your essay, you may prefer to write it towards the end of the drafting process:
‘It is only when you have completed a piece of writing that you can introduce it to the reader.’ (Crème & Lea, 1997 p115)
Questions to ask of your introduction and conclusion may be useful.
The heart of the essay
The middle part of the essay must fulfil the promises made in your introduction, and must support your final conclusions. Failure to meet either or both of these requirements will irritate your reader, and will demonstrate a lack of self-critique and of editing.
The central part of your essay is where the structure needs to do its work, however explicit or implicit your chosen structure may be. The structure you choose needs to be one that will be most helpful to you in addressing the essay title.
The content of this central part will probably contain: ideas; explanations; evidence; relevant referencing; and relevant examples. It will be characterised by:
- appropriate academic style;
- interesting and engaging writing;
- clarity of thought and expression,
- sensible ordering of material, to support and the development of ideas and the development of argument.
Questions to ask of your essay content may be useful.
A powerful conclusion is a valuable tool. The aim is to leave your reader feeling that you have done a good job. A generic structure that you may find useful is:
- brief recap of what you have covered in relation to the essay title;
- reference to the larger issue;
- evaluation of the main arguments;
- highlighting the most important aspects.
The example below relates to the essay title used on the previous page.
- Brief recap
The characters of Macbeth and Faustus are very similar in many respects; for example they both willingly follow a path that leads to their damnation. …
- Reference to the larger issue
The differences lie in the development of the characters in what are essentially two different types of plays.
- Evaluation of the main arguments
As has been shown, the character of Macbeth has a nadir from which he ascends at the conclusion of the play. This is in keeping with Aristotle’s definition of tragedy. For Faustus however, there is no such ascension. This fits with the style of the morality play: the erring Faustus must be seen to be humbled at his end for the morality to be effective…
- Highlighting the most important aspects
It is this strong element of morality in Dr Faustus that ultimately divides the two leading characters.
Questions to ask of your introduction and conclusion may be useful.
Being a critical writer
After attending closely to the title; and establishing a useful structure; a third main element in the essay-writing process is the confident use of ‘critical writing’. The study guide What is critical writing? provides more extensive guidance in this area, but it is useful to present one section from that guide below:
The most characteristic features of critical writing are:
- a clear and confident refusal to accept the conclusions of other writers without evaluating the arguments and evidence that they provide;
- a balanced presentation of reasons why the conclusions of other writers may be accepted or may need to be treated with caution;
- a clear presentation of your own evidence and argument, leading to your conclusion; and
- a recognition of the limitations in your own evidence, argument, and conclusion.
With critical writing, you are doing work with the evidence you are using, by adding a level of examination and evaluation. Stott (2001 p37) proposes that, ‘Knowledge-telling is the regurgitation of knowledge in an essay. But knowledge-transfer is what’s crucial: the ability to manipulate that basic, raw material in order to make a convincing argument’. Questions to ask about your level of critical writing may be useful.
One way to practise critical writing is to make sure that you don’t leave any description to speak for itself, if it is part of your evidence and argument. If a quote or piece of data is worth including, then it’s also worth explaining why you’ve included it: ‘Do not leave your reader to work out the implications of any statement.’ (Barass 1982 p80).
Another useful tool to support critical writing is the paragraph! Aim to present one idea per paragraph. Within the paragraph you could:
- introduce the idea/piece of evidence/quote/stage of argument;
- present the idea/piece of evidence/quote/stage of argument;
- comment on it – this is where you demonstrate your critical thinking and writing.
A different pattern would be to use a paragraph to present and describe an idea/piece of evidence/quote/stage of argument, then to use the subsequent paragraph to explain its relevance.
Finally, you need to take a break from your essay so that you can return to it with fresh eyes for the final editing.
'Editing and proof reading are not the icing on the cake, as some people think. They are absolutely crucial because it is only at this stage that the student can see that the argument hangs together, has a sequence and is well-expressed. Editing is both difficult and important.’ (Stott, 2001 p39)
Yes, editing is important, but no it does not need to be difficult. You’ve done most of the hard work already in the reading, evaluating, and writing. Also, criticising your writing tends to be easier than creating it in the first place. The study guide: The art of editing and the sheet: Questions to ask when editing may be useful.
A tutor can learn a worrying amount about the quality of your essay simply from how it looks on the page. The lengths of paragraphs; the lengths of sentences; the neatness of the reference list; the balance of length between different sections; all offer insight into the kind of essay they are about to read.
In general, think ‘short and straightforward’. Shorter words are often preferable to longer words, unless there is some specific vocabulary that you need to include to demonstrate your skill. Short to middle length sentences are almost always preferable to longer ones. And over-long paragraphs tend to demonstrate that you are not clear about the specific points you are making. Of course, these are general points, and there may be some occasions, or some subject areas, where long paragraphs are appropriate.
Accurate grammar and spelling are important. Consistently poor grammar or spelling can give the impression of lack of care, and lack of clarity of thought. Careless use of commas can actually change the meaning of a sentence. And inaccurate spelling and poor grammar can make for very irritating reading for the person marking it. The previous sentence began with ‘And’. This practice is now widely accepted where it makes good sense. It is however possible that some tutors may still prefer not to see it.
Summary of key points
The title is the most important guidance you have. The task ahead is nothing more and nothing less than is stated in the title. When in doubt about any aspect of your reading for the essay, or about your writing, the first step is to go back and consult the essay title. This can be surprisingly helpful. It informs directly: the choice of reading; the structure you choose for the essay; which material to include and exclude; what to do with the material you use; and how to introduce and conclude.
A relevant and useful structure to support the presentation of your response to the title is vital.
Expect to undertake an iterative process of planning, reading, drafting, reviewing, planning, reading, re-drafting, and editing.
Editing is a crucial part of the process not an optional extra.
Barass R, (1982) Students must write: a guide to better writing in coursework and examinations. London: Methuen.
Creme P & Lea MR (1997) Writing at university: a guide for students. Buckingham: Open University Press.
Stott R, (2001) The essay writing process. Chapter 3 pp36-58. In Making your case: a practical guide to essay writing. Eds. Stott R, Snaith A, & Rylance R. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.
Questions to ask of your reference list may be useful when reviewing your own reference list.
Guide to Essay Writing
One of the most important skills you will learn and develop during your university years is writing, in particular essay writing. It is important to realise that this is a skill which has to be learnt and practised, and that therefore you should apply yourselves from the very beginning, as you will be writing essays for which you will be graded from the early weeks to the very end of your degree programme. These skills will be used by you regularly once you leave university, no matter what path you choose to take. Essay writing involves presenting an argument and communicating. It can be easily imagined that this covers a vast variety of scenarios in which you need to be clear and persuasive: arguing that you should be given the job you are applying for, selling the outline of a film script you have written, presenting products at various forums, writing articles for publication, persuading your bank manager to extend your loan, preparing reports, beginning and sustaining your career in journalism, and writing lectures and class plans for your future students. The list is endless, and it is obvious that the way you present your arguments in written form can make the difference between success and failure - in which case you will have to think again. In some of the scenarios outlined above the skills required for essay writing should be slightly adapted but the basic skills and methods are in the main common to all forms of formal writing in which an argument or arguments need to be presented.
The focus here is primarily on writing essays concerning literature. You may have many great ideas and be a very intuitive and fine reader of literature, but no-one will ever know if you cannot express your ideas properly and your communicative skills are not developed. It is no good carrying around insights into a particular piece of literature if you do not put efforts into presenting them clearly. Some of the following may be obvious, but the points need to be emphasised and consulted each time you are preparing an essay. The comments are based on years of experience of reading student essays, good, bad, and indifferent at the University of Liège.
An essay should not be merely a list. Too many in the past have been a list of notes, or a series of sub-headings followed by a list of dashes (-) or stars (*) accompanied by one or two words and/or quotations from the literary text with no explanation of what they are doing there. Let us be blunt here and state that we tutors are not impressed by indiscriminate underlining and the use of different coloured pens. Sub-headings written in magenta, underlined in ochre, followed by a list of quotations in vermilion are pointless. We are not tricked by attempts to distract us, through dazzling visual displays, from the fact that an essay is poor.
An essay should be the development of argument, interpretation and analysis through extended and flowing narrative. To do this you need to work at the level of the sentence, of course, but also, very importantly, you need to work at the level of the paragraph. The paragraph is a coherent passage of logically connected sentences usually concentrating on no more than one or two ideas relevant to your argument. Do not use very short and unconnected staccato sentences. It takes experience and practice to develop a sense of when a new paragraph is needed and when it has been finished. Examine the introduction to this booklet and this guide to get some sense of how paragraphs, or 'idea units' as they have also been called, can be developed and constructed, and how their 'natural' beginnings and ends appear. The first sentence of the paragraph should generally be a 'strong' one, used to signal or indicate the idea to be discussed within the paragraph. Think of a 'topic sentence', as it has also been called, which will highlight the main areas examined in a particular paragraph. Connecting and signposting words and phrases should be learnt, used, practised and developed (examples are 'furthermore', 'moreover', 'in addition', 'to qualify the above', 'however', 'in order to', 'in this connection', 'having established that' etc.). The argument should develop through the language you use and therefore in a short essay sub-headings are unnecessary.
Several stages are involved in essay preparation, choosing which points are to be considered, deciding how you will deal with them, and the actual writing. As you gain more experience you will find methods and ways of working which suit you, your personality and lifestyle. Generally, however, the process will involve the following. You should examine carefully the statements made in the essay question, making sure you understand each word and what is being asked, as misreading and misunderstanding at this stage can be fatal. Essay questions can be very general, very specific and sometimes deliberately provocative, and an understanding of them is essential. Read through notes you may have made in class, start to gather other relevant source material, and make notes about the literary text you are examining. Ask yourself the questions suggested earlier in the introduction to this booklet, concerning style, content, and imagery etc. Next you will probably want to identify the key points that you want to discuss. There may be many points you find generally interesting, but ask yourself if they are relevant to the essay in question. To do this it can be useful to try to think of a title for your essay. This is not to be confused with the essay question or title, but is concerned with your response to the task set. What title would best give the reader an overview of your approach and analysis, and highlight the main points you examine and the conclusions you reach? (Suggestions concerning conclusions will be given later). You should not assume that an essay has to include and cover all the possible points an interpretation may offer up. A short, well organised and structured essay focusing on some of the main points is far better than an over-long and unwieldy attempt to say a little about everything. You may find it useful to state in the introduction which points you are focusing on and why. Keep your reader informed of the development of your argument. Let her or him know which direction is being taken and the reasons why. Once the main points have been identified you need to consider in which order they will be examined. Students often do not make the most of the good ideas they have because they get lost if the argument does not develop coherently. Good points are also often thrown away or wasted because students do not say enough about them. Make sure the relevance of each point to the main argument is clearly stated and demonstrated. You should dwell and linger on the points: often this requires no more than two or three extra sentences, particularly if your writing is concise and focused.
A good essay takes time to prepare and write, so start to think about it and do the groundwork well ahead of the essay deadline (even in timed conditions, such as exams, it is important to take the time to organise and structure the essay before starting to write). You will probably find that you need to work out your ideas on paper before writing the essay, and are encouraged to prepare an outline of the essay: a point by point series of key words, phrases and ideas. This will help you to organise the structure and to recognise what is relevant and irrelevant to the essay as a whole. Some people find that a plan or outline will consist of eight to ten words only. Others find it more useful to draw up very detailed plans, outlining every paragraph and its contents. Again you will discover which method works for you as you go along. Some students find it easier to think and plan the essay point by point before beginning to write, whilst others find that after some initial preparation, reading, organisation and thinking they can only develop their ideas through writing. Both these approaches take time, if the essays are to be done well. It should be stressed here that the first plan does not have to be binding and may change as the work begins and develops. The main point here is that essays involve a certain amount of planning and preparation even before the actual writing begins. Having emphasised that essays are hard work and take time it should also be stressed that it can be very stimulating and rewarding to work through a number of ideas in depth and detail. Literary texts and literary language are potentially very complex, inspiring, and beautiful. The ideas and images often demand careful thought and attention.
Computers are essential in terms of using the time you spend on an essay efficiently and productively. As stated earlier, good essay writing demands time spent on every stage of the process: reading and research, making an outline, ordering and structuring your ideas, writing and changing various drafts, and final editing and presentation. With this in mind it cannot be stressed enough how important it is for you to learn word-processing skills and to make sure you have access to a computer. Use the university resources. Admittedly the space available is limited at times but this is no excuse not to learn the skills, if you do not already possess them, and to find out where there are available computer terminals. Of course if you use university resources it is even more important to start your essay early in order to avoid the last minute rush as most students, not only from this department, search for terminals in a panic on the Friday before a Monday deadline. It is appreciated that students are very busy and do have a lot of work, but it is a mistake to claim, as some students have been heard, that they are too busy to learn word-processing skills. Ultimately word-processing will save you a lot of time. It is far easier to add and delete material, and to restructure and reorganise essays by moving material around, on a computer than if you are writing by hand. Software has become really user-friendly; 'Word', for instance, will tell you what to do in explicit English or French, and typing skills can be learned whilst typing.
Your essay will be the representation of an argument on a given subject or subjects. It will include only points which are relevant to the subject, so be careful to get rid of material that is not directly relevant. Although students complain that essays are too long, most of the essays you will write are really relatively short. Part of the skill of writing is to write concisely and economically, without wasting material or 'padding' the work with irrelevant diversions and repetition. Once the points have been chosen they should be presented logically and coherently, so do not leap about from point to point. Each point generally will have some connection to the preceding one and the one to follow. If you do leave one area of the essay to move into another, but intend later to go back to the point you have left and show, for example, how the points may be connected or related, then it can be useful to say so by 'signposting', e.g. 'this point will be picked up later', 'this point will be returned to later, after taking into consideration ...'. After each draft of the essay check that each point is presented in a logical and coherent order. Read each draft carefully and critically. Is there a significant idea you have not included in the essay? Do you need to expand some of the points you have chosen to write about? Are some of the points, after due consideration, not really relevant? Have you been too long-winded or repetitive? If so, cut out and/or reduce some of the text. Does your argument need to be clearer, and do the links between some of the main points need more emphasis? You should be asking yourself these questions throughout the whole process.
A particularly distressing weakness in the past, but hopefully not the future, has been the absence of serious discussion of imagery and literary language. Some students have merely stated that the author uses imagery, illustrated this with an example, and then moved on to the next point on the list. If you discuss images, metaphors and other literary devices, then say how and why they are being used in the piece of fiction, and maybe if you think the imagery works or not. If you do not say how and why an image is being used then don't mention it. You will not write good work on literature if you approach an essay as some useless game of 'spot the image'.
Throughout your years at the University of Liège you will be writing essays on literature which will inevitably include numerous quotations, either from the literature you are working on or from secondary sources, be they books or articles on historical context, literary criticism or other relevant areas. These quotations can obviously add much to the texture and quality of your work, but they are often handled very badly by students. Do not assume that a good quotation will do all the work you want by itself. Poor essays are often merely a patchwork of quotations stitched together by the briefest of comments, and it is a mistake to leave quotations hanging in mid-air, as it were, without comment or explanation. Quotations need to be framed. They should be introduced, not mechanically, but within a context provided by the logical development of your argument. (See Example 1 at the end of this guide). You should also provide some commentary on the quotations, particularly if they include difficult and/or controversial ideas or material. This is often likely to be the case as there is really little point in including 'bland' quotations in your essay. You may want to gloss, explain, qualify or modify the quoted words, or you may have included quotations whose assumptions or arguments you strongly disagree with. The latter case can be useful, if handled well. Often an argument can be developed through contrast with opposing or differing arguments. This tactic in essay construction also displays independent thinking in that it demonstrates that you have not unthinkingly accepted and believed everything you have read. One final point on quotations: do not plagiarise. Using other people's work without saying so is a serious crime. Tutors have read widely on the subjects you will be writing on and are very likely to recognise when you are plagiarising. If you use other people's ideas and words they have to be acknowledged through proper footnoting and referencing. (See Example 2 at the end of this guide).
Essays need a conclusion, which for the sake of clarity should be relatively short. It is generally best not to include new ideas or new material in your concluding comments, particularly since many people think that a conclusion should be a summary of the prior arguments. You may, however, point to alternative conclusions or arguments, or briefly suggest areas of interest that have not been dealt with directly by the essay. People often get the wrong idea about conclusions and believe that this is the place to state firm convictions, and that a conclusion has to make a stand and come down on the side of one argument or another. This can be the case but it is not necessarily so. If an essay title comes in the form of a question, for example 'Is James Joyce seeking to distance himself from traditional forms of Irish culture?', and you cannot decide, do not think that this is a problem. It is as much a sign of intelligence to state that you cannot decide as it is to sift through the evidence and decide one way or the other. Think about why you cannot decide. Perhaps the evidence is conflicting. Perhaps the literary text and its use of imagery is ambiguous, or even contradictory; as is often the case. If you cannot decide, then say so, outlining why you cannot decide. Alternatively, you may partly agree or partly disagree with the statements or questions raised by the title, or by questions raised directly in responding to the title. If so, say so. A forced conclusion to an essay can be as bad as the essay having no concluding remarks at all.
In connection to the last point it should be emphasised that any essay should be about your ideas and your interpretation of the literature being studied. Of course your ideas may, and indeed should, develop through discussions with friends, fellow students, tutors and through the consultation of books and articles, but it is your ideas which should form the basis of the essay. Whilst you will use material that is not your own, it is the way that you use, add to, adapt and modify this material that makes the argument your own and original. Your own voice should be heard. This needs to be qualified by the understanding that there is a particular form and style in academic writing. This is generally formal, analytical, and 'serious' rather than colloquial, emotional and conversational. Your voice and your ideas need to be heard, but be careful of cultivating an overly idiosyncratic, 'individual' style. Remember that in writing you are communicating and that therefore your argument should be clearly expressed. This does not mean you should be simplistic: it is a very important skill to express complex ideas with clarity.
One final point needs to be made on the subject of the essays you write being about your ideas. Some of you may find this an extraordinary statement but it is a bad idea to tailor and construct your essay around what you believe your tutor or the head of the course thinks about the text, and what you think she or he wants to hear. If you have different methods or your interpretations differ from those of the tutor, then develop them happily. Remember that essay writing is all about presenting an argument and using evidence from the text and elsewhere to back up your statements, and if you do this well you will be given credit for it whether or not the tutor agrees with the overall argument. It is not particularly interesting for tutors to read in essays only what they have said in class, particularly if this is reproduced in a flat, unconvincing, and unconvinced manner. Of course you may agree and be persuaded by arguments and interpretations outlined in class but if you do not believe the arguments you reproduce in the essay it will be obvious and the tutor will wonder why you bothered to include them. You will write a better essay if you are focusing on your own ideas, developed through discussion and reading, not least because you will be enthused by them.
Eventually your ideas will be thought through, outlines planned and re-planned, main points developed, written down on paper, then rewritten, and finally given to your tutor. Nevertheless your work on the essay has not yet finished. Once the essay has been graded and returned it is very important that you do not merely look at the grade you have received before putting it at the bottom of your files. Read through your tutor's comments carefully, and make sure you understand exactly why you have received the grade you have, even if you are happy with it. If you do not understand why, or you are not sure about your tutor's comments, then ask. If it is not possible to ask during class or you would prefer to talk privately go to your tutor during office hours, or make an appointment if these clash with other classes. Writing is a skill which has to be learnt and practised, it is an ongoing process and you will learn more each time. Follow up work once the essay has been returned is an important part of this process.
Example 1: Using Quotations
The extract below, from a paper on Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, shows how quotations can be used. Because the paper quotes from the novel extensively, page numbers are found within the main body of the text, in parentheses, after complete bibliographical details have been provided in a footnote to the first quotation. Quotations from secondary sources are referenced by footnotes. Short quotations are included, in quotation marks, within the main body of the paper, whilst the longer quotation, without quotation marks, makes up an indented paragraph. Note that even when the writing by the author of the paper is combined with quotations from the novel and secondary sources the sentences are still grammatically correct and coherent.
Jean Brodie is convinced of the rightness of her own power, and uses it in a frightening manner: 'Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life'.1 This is Miss Brodie's adoption of the Jesuit formula, but, whereas they claim the child for God, she moulds the child for her own ends. 'You are mine,' she says, '... of my stamp and cut ...' (129). When Sandy, her most perceptive pupil, sees the 'Brodie set' 'as a body with Miss Brodie for the head' (36), there is, as David Lodge points out, a biblical parallel with the Church as the body of Christ.2 God is Miss Jean Brodie's rival, and this is demonstrated in a literal way when one of her girls, Eunice, grows religious and is preparing herself for confirmation. She becomes increasingly independent of Miss Brodie's influence and decides to go on the Modern side in the Senior school although Jean Brodie makes clear her own preference for the Classical. Eunice refuses to continue her role as the group's jester, or to go with them to the ballet. Cunningly, her tutor tries to regain control by playing on her religious convictions:
All that term she tried to inspire Eunice to become at least a pioneer missionary in some deadly and dangerous zone of the earth, for it was intolerable to Miss Brodie that any of her girls should grow up not largely dedicated to some vocation. 'You will end up as a Girl Guide leader in a suburb like Corstorphine', she said warningly to Eunice, who was in fact secretly attracted to this idea and who lived in Corstorphine. (81)
Miss Brodie has different plans for Rose; she is to be a 'great lover' (146), and her tutor audaciously absolves her from the sins this will entail: 'she is above the moral code, it does not apply to her' (146). This dismissal of possible retribution distorts the girls' judgement of Miss Brodie's actions.
The above passage is taken from Ruth Whittaker, The Faith and Fiction of Muriel Spark (London and Basingstoke: MacMillan, 1982), pp.106-7.
Example 2: Laying out a bibliography
The bibliography will usually include the relevant sources consulted in producing your essay, even if you have not referred to or quoted from them directly. The order is alphabetical and determined by the authors' names. Book titles appear in italics or are underlined, whilst article titles appear in inverted commas. When referring to books you should include the author's name, place of publication, the publisher, and the date when the book was published. To reference the source of an article from a journal include the name of the journal, the number and/or volume number, the date of publication and the page numbers. There are several styles for laying out a bibliography, but the same elements appear in each, and you must be consistent. Consult the handbooks to be found in the libraries for further details.
This is a model used by many British universities and publishers.
Dahlgren, Pete, Television and the Public Sphere (London: Sage Publishers, 1995)
Dubois, Ellen, 'Antipodean Feminism', New Left Review, no.206, July/August 1994, 127-33
Fussel, Paul, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975)
Gledhill, Christine, 'Melodrama', in The Cinema Book, ed. Pam Cook (London: BFI, 1985), pp.73-84
Lodge, David, 'The Uses and Abuses of Omniscience: Method and Meaning in Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' in David Lodge, The Novelist at the Crossroads and Other Essays on Fiction and Criticism (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971), pp.119-44
Pettifer, James, The Greeks (London: Penguin, 1993)
This is the model recommended by the Modern Languages Association (MLA) and is used by most American universities and publishers.
Dahlgren, Pete. Television and the Public Sphere. London: Sage Publishers, 1995.
Dubois, Ellen. "Antipodean Feminism." New Left Review 206 (July/August 1994): 127-33
Fussel, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975.
Gledhill, Christine. "Melodrama" in The Cinema Book. Ed. Pam Cook. London: BFI, 1985. 73-84
Lodge, David. "The Uses and Abuses of Omniscience: Method and Meaning in Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" in David Lodge The Novelist at the Crossroads and Other Essays on Fiction and Criticism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971. 119-44
Pettifer, James. The Greeks. London: Penguin, 1993.
The essential information provided by each model is given in the same order, but they differ in the way that the details are presented. Whichever model you choose or are instructed to use ensure that you stay consistent to it.
Consult reference works for further advice. These books are on the open shelves:
· John Clanchy and Brigid Ballard, How to Write Essays (Melbourne: Longman Cheshire, 1992)
· Joseph Gibaldi, MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (New York: MLA, 1995)
Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (London: Macmillan, 1961), p.7. All further references are to this edition and given in the text.
David Lodge, 'The Uses and Abuses of Omniscience: Method and Meaning in Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie', in David Lodge, The Novelist at the Crossroads and Other Essays on Fiction and Criticism (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971), pp.119-44.