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Undergraduate Handbook: Essay writing

The following broad advice should be read in conjunction with more specific guidelines on the various types of exercise that may be given in Module booklets.

ALWAYS keep a copy of your essay on file lest any issues should arise with it or in the unlikely event that it should be mislaid.

You will be asked to submit your essay online via MMS. Many tutors will also request a hard copy of your essay, to be submitted via the School Office. In the case of a discrepancy between the two versions, the version submitted online will be considered definitive.

Word Limits: Please note you will be penalised by one point if you exceed a given word limit by more than 10%, and by a further point per additional 10% over. The title and footnotes are included in the word count, whereas the bibliography and appendices are excluded from the word count.

NB If your work falls significantly short of a word limit it will likewise be penalised by one point if more than 10% short of the limit and by a further point per additional 10% under.

A good essay will display most or all of the following characteristics:

1. Clear presentation

The essay should be word-processed, using 1.5 line spacing and a size 12 font, preferably Times New Roman. Make sure you leave enough space in the margin for your tutor's comments. The pages should be numbered using the automatic facility, and a final word count provided.

2. Relevance to the question or essay subject.

Many students fail to answer the question set (be it in coursework essays or in examinations). Read the title/question thoroughly, and be sure in your own mind what it is asking you to do. It is usually a good idea to define your understanding of the key terms from the outset eg if the essay is about “love”, exactly what types of love are you going to look at? Romantic love? Filial love? Fraternal love? Sexual love? A love of nature? Something else? You may also want to define what you will not be considering. Don’t try to fit in everything that has been mentioned in your lectures and tutorials. This will be superficial and much of it will be irrelevant to the question you have chosen to answer. Instead, make a strict selection, from all that you know about the broad subject, of those aspects which are relevant to this essay in particular, and ask yourself constantly, in both the planning and drafting stages: Am I addressing the precise subject?

3. A good analytical understanding of the material being addressed

The reader should be left in no doubt that the student, before writing the final draft of the essay, has carefully read the material on which it is based - literary text, corpus of linguistic or historical material, appropriate critical reading and background material, whether indicated by the tutor or discovered through the student's own initiative - and has reached a clear overview of how the different elements of this material come together.

4. A clear and carefully planned structure

Making a plan before writing the essay itself is essential. Students may have their own methods of making a plan, but a good way to start is by making a list of the main ideas you wish to incorporate in the essay, and then see in what order you might address them so as to produce a clear and logical argument. Look for a "hook" between the various points, i.e. a way of leading on naturally and persuasively from one point to another, so that points will not appear to be isolated or unconnected to what precedes or follows. The introduction and conclusion of an essay are often the hardest parts to write - the final draft of the introduction may in fact be the last thing you write.

The introduction should grasp the subject in its essentials, and make clear, explicitly or implicitly, what your essay is going to be about and how you are going to approach it. The conclusion should summarise the main points you have made, bringing them together into a final overview, but without repetition of the details in the main body of the essay.  Do not be surprised, when you move from the plan to the essay itself, if the logic of what you write leads you to rearrange the originally planned order of points: this is a common experience of everyone who has to translate brief jottings into a more continuous form of writing. The exact shape of the original plan may not survive, but making one is still an essential preliminary step in order to clarify your ideas.

5. Good use of textual reference and quotations.

To support your argument and avoid generalisation, refer to selected details in the material you have read. This may include quotations from a literary text; if so, make sure they are pertinent to the point you are making. Use quotation marks and page references, and make sure that quotations fit into the grammatical structure of the sentence in which they are inserted - this can often be difficult when inserting a phrase in a foreign language into the middle of an English sentence.

For example, you should not say: "La Mamèche is an old woman who has led a hard life: 'un visage maigre et rouillé comme un vieux fer de hache'."

but rather: "La Mamèche's great age, and the hard life she has led, can be read in her face, which is 'maigre et rouillé comme un vieux fer de hache'."

When discussing films make sure that you use concrete examples from films, and do not make vague generalisations about them. Stills can be incorporated into essays: if so, please identify them, e.g.: Figure 1: Cyrano's battlefields. From Cyrano de Bergerac (Jean-Paul Rappeneau, 1990).

The first time you quote from a book you must give its full reference in a footnote, as in this case of a text from SP1001:  Mario Benedetti, "Los novios", in Seven Stories from Spanish America, edited by Gordon Brotherston & Mario Vargas Llosa (London: Bristol Classical Press, 1999), p. xx.

Any further page references to the same source should then follow in brackets after the quotation eg: "We are told that they greeted each other 'con un ademán nervioso e instantáneo'" (p. 98). (Notice that if you ever have to quote within a quotation, you use single inverted commas for the embedded words). 

Note also that the title of a story, poem or article in an edited volume or anthology should appear in inverted commas (" "), but that for the title of a book we use italics; see the example given above from SP1001, where "Los novios" is the story, and Seven Stories from Spanish America is the book. The first time a film appears in an essay, it must be followed by the director's name (first name then last name), and the year of release, both in brackets, e.g.: Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968).

Footnotes should be used mainly for references to texts, and only rarely for brief comments related to the content of the essay. If the information cannot be integrated in the text of your essay, it is usually a digression and better left out.

You should always include a bibliography at the end of the essay even if it includes only a small number of items. Works should be listed in alphabetical order, as in the following examples:


Chambers, Helen, The Changing Image of Theodor Fontane (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1997)

Articles in a journal:

Anipa, Kormi, ‘TOMAD and TOMA, etc.: change and continuity in a morphological feature’, Modern Language Review, 95 (2000), 389–98

Chapters in a book:

Bentley, Bernard, ‘The Eroteticism of “Nadie hablará de nosotras cuando hayamos muerto” (1995)’, in Spanish Cinema: The Auteurist Tradition, ed. Peter W. Evans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 325–46

Students who are unsure about how to present references, or who need further details, should refer to the standard publication used by most scholars in the Humanities, the MHRA Style Guide, available for download online at:

N.B: Quotations and ideas from a critical source MUST ALWAYS be acknowledged in order to avoid any suggestion of plagiarism (see advice in the Good Academic Practice Policy).

When you take notes from a secondary source you should take care to distinguish clearly between your own commentary and the text that you copy, which should always be in inverted commas with the precise bibliographical reference provided. If you are paraphrasing the ideas from a published source you should also declare this in a reference. It is a good idea to head the piece of paper that you are writing on when you begin your reading and note-taking with the full details of the book (author, title, place of publication, publisher, date of publication), and then add the page numbers in bracket after each quotation (in inverted commas) or paraphrase from the book.

References to critical reading are important: they demonstrate the range of your reading and ability to respond to others' opinions, but avoid long quotations: summarise in your own words where you can (but still with a clear acknowledgement). Also, always try to show what you think of the critic's view - you do not have to agree with what the "expert" source says, or leave its author with the last word. Experts often disagree with each other, so you may find yourself agreeing with one but not the other, or agreeing in part with one and in part with another. Whatever the case, make sure that your own voice comes through, and is not drowned by that of others. To put it another way, what your tutor is most interested in reading is your opinion or interpretation.

6. Internet resources

Internet resources must also be referenced properly, as per the guidelines found in the MHRA handbook. All the same information that is given for printed sources should be included plus the web address of the document and the date you accessed it. Unless particular websites have been recommended by your tutor, you should always be wary about the reliability of internet material. Online resources accessed via a university library are likely to be trustworthy, but those found using a standard google search should be treated with extreme caution.

7. Good English, appropriate paragraphing, accurate spelling, and an interesting style

Be your own most severe judge. Imagine that you are handing in a piece of work for publication. Learn from the presentation of the critical books and articles that you read in the course of your studies. Seek to interest the reader. While it is good practice to learn to write impersonally, on occasion a personal tone can enhance an essay, but avoid unsubstantiated assertions and excesses of subjective comment . Be concise. ALWAYS remain within any word-limit that may be indicated by the tutor (more is not better). Make sure that you copy quotations correctly, checking carefully for spelling mistakes and missed accents.

Please note that we ask all students to adopt standard British English in their formal writing insofar as possible. However, we realise that the English language is constantly evolving and that sometimes it is not always clear what constitutes British or other (usually American) English. Students will not therefore be penalized for standard deviations. We do, however, expect all students to write grammatically, spell correctly and to adopt an appropriate register at all times.

Finally: ALWAYS proof read your work: you are checking not just for typographical errors, but also to make sure that what you have written makes sense. Many people find this works best from hard copy.

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