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What is an essay?

An essay is a classic form of academic writing that uses reasoning and evidence to present a case or standpoint on a given subject. Usually, an essay will be written in response to a specific question or brief that dictates the topic of the essay and provides instruction on how the writer should approach the subject matter. Even when the essay title is phrased more as a statement, your writing should present an argument that makes your standpoint or interpretation of the topic clear to your reader.

In terms of style, essays are written in a formal tone as with other academic assignments and tend to be written in the third person. However, essays are discursive with points of discussion linked together to create a logical flow of ideas towards the conclusion. 

 

  • Understanding the question

    The essay title or brief is an obvious starting point as it outlines the essay's subject matter and what will be done with that subject matter. This therefore frames the content and purpose of the essay. 

    An essay question or title can be broken down into:

    • Instruction: What you must do 
    • Subject: The topic of the essay 
    • Aspect: Defines the facet of the topic you must consider 
    • Focus: Context in which you must consider the topic

    Understanding the essay question, Understanding the essay question

    The instruction or the verb used in an essay title gives you an indication of how you will be expected to handle your subject matter in your writing. Some examples are given in the table below. 

    InstructionWhat it means
    Analyse Examine in very close detail; identify important points and key features.
    Compare Show how two or more things are similar. Indicate relevance or consequences of these similarities.
    Contrast Set two or more items of arguments in opposition so as to draw out differences. Indicate significance of differences.
    Critically evaluate Weigh arguments for and against something, assessing the strength of the evidence on both sides.
    Describe Give the main characteristics or features of something, or outline the main events.
    Discuss Give arguments for and against; consider the implications of.
    Evaluate Assess the worth, importance or usefulness of something, using evidence. Will probably be cases to be made both for and against.
    Explain Make clear why something happens, or why something is the way it is.
  • Essay planning

    Taking time to consider the different elements of your essay and how best to present them is an important stage in the essay writing process. This is just as valuable for a short essay of only 500 words, as it is for a much longer piece of work.  When answering your question, you will need to bring together lots of ideas and information that relate to your topic. You should also show the complexity of the subject matter. The purpose of an essay plan is to organise your ideas in the most logical way to answer the question and justify the conclusion you will reach. This is best done once your research is complete, and you have collected together your notes.

    Our making your notes count tutorial will guide you through the stages from notetaking and organising your literature to planning. You should then consider what type of essay plan would be most appropriate for your question. 

    Type of essayPossible structure
    An essay that develops an argument or position on a topic Here you should consider which is your strongest or weakest evidence and use that to structure your argument. By identifying the strength of the evidence from your literature, you will address different ideas and viewpoints. Here you have two options:
    1. Present the strongest evidence first and work towards the weaker ideas. This will give a confident start to your work. 
    2. Start with the weakest evidence and build to the stronger evidence. This will allow you to build your argument. 
    An essay that shows a procedure or development of something This kind of essay often follows a linear progression. Be careful to avoid descriptive writing that 'tells the story' and offer critical analysis
    1. Outline each element of a procedure or process and the evidence to justify that workflow, you should also introduce alternatives and pros or cons to the different topics. 
    2. Chronologically discuss a topic. Outline the different evidence from the literature for each stage. This may be useful to demonstrate cause and effect. 
    Compare and contrast essays These essays need to show different groups of ideas and use literature to examine the similarities and differences. 
    1. Identify the different topics and discuss the alternative positions. 
    2. Examine the similarities and group that information. Then consider the differences.  
    Essays that show a balanced discussion showing different perspectives Useful for essays with the instruction word discuss, this type of essay shows your depth of research and knowledge of the different literature and ideas relating to your topic. 
    1. Introduce each topic and give both argument and counterarguments. 
    2. Present all supporting literature for a topic and then follow with alternative viewpoints. 

    Use our template to consider which topics should be addressed in your answer. Everything in the plan should link to your question. At this stage it is useful to allocate your word count across the different paragraphs and some to your introduction (5%) and conclusion (15%). Each topic should form a single paragraph. 

    Essay plan template (Word)
    Essay plan template (PDF)

    Reverse outline

    If you find it difficult to plan your essay in advance and want to start by writing your words directly onto your page, you can apply a reverse outline. That just means reviewing your work once you have finished and considering if you are presenting your information in the best way for your reader. It is a good editing strategy for everyone before submitting. 

    Reverse outline video, Skills@Cumbria introduce the reverse outline technique

     

  • Structure

    Essay structure video, Video title page: Essay structure

    Watch our essay structure video about to find out about the features of each element of your essay. 

    All essays follow the basic structure of a clear introduction (5% of the word count), a main body (80% of the word count) and a conclusion (15% of the word count). This standard essay structure is illustrated in our EssayStructureDiagram.pdf.

    Within each of these sections, you need to include specific information for your reader:

    Introductions

    In your introduction, you need to introduce the topic briefly and identify the key points that you will address in the main body of the essay. When presenting the key points, it is useful to list them in the order that you will discuss them in; using this technique shows the reader what to expect in the main body and gives a sense of structure to your piece of writing. Our guide about How to write introductions outlines the key elements you should include.

    Main body

    In the main body of the essay, use paragraphs to separate your key ideas and group related paragraphs together. This will avoid your essay jumping around and make it flow. Try to make links between your paragraphs by using linking words and phrases. Access our Paragraph structure guide to find out more.

    You want to ensure a logical sequence of information building from one big idea to another. An essay plan will help you to organise your ideas. For an overview of how a chain of paragraphs can be constructed, view our guide to EssayWritingMainBody.  

    Conclusions

    In your conclusion, you are required to reiterate the main points or revisit the key themes that you have discussed in the main part of your essay. A good conclusion should not contain any new material as it is likely to leave your reader wanting more and you will not have the space to discuss additional points in detail. Therefore, all the points you mention in your conclusion should have already been discussed in the main body of your essay. See our guide to Structuring a conclusion for more information.

  • Developing an argument

    Writing an essay requires more than demonstrating your knowledge or the amount of reading you have done on a topic. You will usually be required to convey that understanding in the form of an argument that communicates your interpretation of the subject matter or your response to the essay question to your reader. 

    Crucially, your argument must be supported by evidence from your reading in order to avoid presenting an unsubstantiated opinion and you also need to make clear why this evidence supports your reasoning. Evidence in the form of literature, research findings, statistics or even your own experience doesn't support your argument in its own right; it needs your contextualisation and commentary to demonstrate how that evidence lends weight to your claims.

    The video below deconstructs the steps in developing an argument:

    Developing an argument video thumbnail,

    Consider the order in which you present the order of your claims in your argument and at which point you will bring in any counter-arguments early in the planning stage. For instance, you may wish to present the claims that support your won argument first and then move on to discuss opposing viewpoints. Alternatively,  A successful argument also makes use of signposting phrases to direct your reader through the steps in your argument and achieve a coherent flow. 

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