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Guide to essay writing

An academic essay should be a compact, lucid, structured argument which answers a question or addresses a prescribed topic and shows that the student has done appropriate work for the course. The following points are therefore fundamental:

  1. An essay should focus clearly and consistently on the question/topic; it should not simply use the question as the launching-pad for reflections on a related, let alone a different, subject. Persistent irrelevance is a serious failing, and an essay should never ramble.
  2. An essay should contain a sequence of arguments, with clear reasons and supporting evidence for the main claims you want to make.
  3. An essay should have a beginning, middle and end: it should explain its approach concisely at the start, should then execute its approach (i.e., do what it said it would) in the main body of the work, and should summarise its conclusions (or, at least, bring the argument to a neat close) at the end.
  4. An essay should be presented in (a) good English (written in clear, grammatical sentences), and (b) paragraphs whose relationship to one another is obvious (making use of clear sign-posts to the direction of the argument).
  5. An essay should be based on pertinent reading, primary and/or secondary (depending on the subject and level of study): this reading should be undertaken systematically, with careful note-taking, and should then be used in the planning of the essay. (But note point 7 below.)
  6. An essay should only be written after it has been planned: planning should involve (a) careful preliminary thought about the nature of the question/topic, (b) decisions about how you intend to tackle the question (e.g. which authors/texts to discuss), (c) appropriate reading (see point 4 above) and checking of any lecture-notes, and (d) a scheme for the organisation of the work (especially the sequence of points and arguments).
  7. An essay should be written entirely in your own words, except where other people’s work is explicitly quoted (i.e. with quotation marks and references). To use other people’s words without proper acknowledgement constitutes plagiarism, which is a serious form of cheating (see the General School Booklet).
  8. An essay should normally have a bibliography which gives full details of all the primary and/or secondary sources (including web-sites) used and cited. These sources can then be referred to in abbreviated form in your text and footnotes.
  9. An essay should be checked carefully (for poor English, typing mistakes, and errors of fact) before it is submitted.

In addition to these guidelines, please view the marking criteria in the Undergraduate Handbook or Postgraduate Taught Handbook (login required).

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