Department of Lifelong Learning: Study Skills Series

A brief guide to writing essays

Folders of PapersEssays are not some fiendish mechanism by which tutors torture students. They are an opportunity for you to deepen your understanding of a subject and to show  you are able to research a topic, weigh arguments and organise your thoughts. These thoughts then need to be expressed in a logical coherent manner. They need to arrive at a conclusion which follows naturally from the evidence and/ or arguments you put forward.   Most essays have a word limit so you will need to be selective in the material you choose to include.  To do this well requires that you think through the topic and spend sufficient time considering your essay structure.

Start early so that you have plenty of time;

Where do you start?

Analyse the question; you need to thoroughly understand what is being asked. This will give you the clues you need.

Highlight the key words. "Demonstrate", "Critically analyse", "Describe"  Take note of any of its key terms and  instructions. Think about the question, and each of the words used. Discuss it with other students or a friend. If still in doubt, ask your tutor to explain what is required. Don’t forget the little words like "and" and "or". Ask questions of the question particularly any terms or phrases specific to the topic. Make a note of word limits and hand in dates.

Think about the main themes

Write out the question underlining key words. Make a brief note of topics which might be relevant. These can be ideas, observations, or information from reading or lecture notes. You can use these to make an essay plan. Keep it simple, use brief notes or even single words to create a framework but be imaginative and wide ranging - you can discard later.

Think of the structure

An essay requires an introduction, a body and a conclusion.

the introduction - is just that, you lead the reader into the subject by identifying the major issues to be raised and give some indication of how you intend to deal with the material (i.e. evidence, arguments etc.) in the main body. You may want to summarise the context (i.e. personal. historical and/or theoretical) which supports your answer. Do not be tempted to summarise your main points or conclusions here but leave those to the conclusion

the body - identifies the message of your essay. Each of the main topics will require a separate paragraph and some points may need several paragraphs.  You will probably need to limit yourself to no more than four or five topics.

the conclusion - draws together the main points of your argument as you summarise them.  Some lecturers read introductions and conclusions first: so time spent getting the conclusion right will help reflect your  argument. You must not introduce new information at this stage. You can look ahead to implications for the future and/or make recommendations based on your conclusions.

Think about what to include

Now choose the topics you want to concentrate on. Limit them.

Extract from your list all those topics and points of argument which are of greatest relevance to the question and its central issue. Then focus in on the most important. You are simply picking out the best material. If it is possible, link ideas into any logical groups or categories. If anything strikes you as irrelevant to the subject, discard it. Then you can prioritise what you have left into "vital", "essential" and "key".

Think of where to glean your information

Make a list of information you need to collect. Read around the topics you have selected. Don't forget journals they are a good source of up to date material.  Writing essays normally requires reading or research. This provides the information for your answer. Your reading will be more carefully directed if you have narrowed down the topics you need to cover. This is one important purpose of the preliminary work when you are thinking about the issue.

Pile of PapersDecide what to leave in and what to leave out

Choose those items based on their relevance to the question. This may not always be  easy. Ask yourself - "Is this directly related to the subject? Does it help to answer the question?" Those items you reject keep to one side.  Keep a record of the sources of your material at this stage whilst you have them to hand so that you can include it in your bibliography or references. Most of the major points in your argument will need to be supported by evidence. One purpose of the essay is to show that you have read widely in your subject and considered the opinions of others.

Arrange your material

Arrange your chosen topics and material in some sort of order. Have each topic on a separate sheet. By now you should have some sense as to how you want to respond to the question. Organise the points so that they form a persuasive and logical pattern or argument. Some subjects will lend themselves more easily to the creation of this order than others. 

Make a start

Use your notes. Work them into a logical order - as you get deeper into the essay don't be too easily satisfied with the first sequence you wrote down. One approach is to start at the end! This may sound strange, but once you know where your argument has to lead you will be better able to shape the rest of it (you can even use this system in exams by leaving a large gap then starting with your conclusion and going back to complete the main body).

Another approach is to start writing on one particular topic area with which you feel confident.

The main thing is to get started with the writing.


At all stages you should keep the question in mind. Keep asking yourself "Is this evidence directly relevant to the topic I have been asked to discuss?" If necessary, be prepared to scrap a point and work on alternatives.   This may hurt, but  it is better than having to rewrite the essay later.

A good tip on relevance is to check that the opening of each major paragraph is directly related to the question. The first sentence should be a direct response to what you have been asked.

First draft

The purpose of this stage is to sort out the structure. construct and develop your argument. At this stage you would be wise to clear a good length of time to work and keep at it. Get it all down. Write up all the sections for the main body and ensure that it substantiates your conclusion.

Now you can do the beginning! Write the introduction to guide the reader through it. The purpose of your first draft is to test the developing structure and framework of your essay.

Then leave it alone for a day or two.

When you return, re-read the question, then your draft. Check that what you are writing is actually answering the question.  Then start on your second draft.

Second draft

The purpose of your second draft is to improve the presentation and comprehension etc.

Do your editing on paper (i.e. on a printout if word processing). Is the word length about right.

Don't be afraid to cut it into sections and shuffle it around to get an improved sequence. Be prepared to revise it in whatever way is necessary. If it is too short, generate more arguments. If it is too long, cut out the less relevant parts. If it doesn't seem convincing, consider putting its arguments in a different order. You should start to tidy up the grammar and style at this stage.

Read the redraft.

Again leave it, or better still give a copy to an honest friend for comment. It doesn't  matter if your friend is familiar with your subject; (s)he can still give you useful feedback.


Hand WritingBefore submitting the piece of work, you should rigorously edit it. At this point you are checking on the smaller details of your text - checking names, spelling, and grammar. And that it reads. Try reading it aloud. Does it make sense? Read it to someone else! Don’t rely on spell checks! Have you referenced other peoples work correctly?


Developing good page layout and taking care with the presentation of your work will greatly add to the overall impression. Create a neat, legible text; double-space your paragraphs, and leave wide margins to 'frame' what you have written. Write on one side only of each page. (There will be additional notes on essay layouts in the next unit)

Make sure you keep a copy for yourself.

Take on board any feedback your tutor gives you, if you are not sure what a comment refers to then ask.