How to Write a Good Essay – 1) Analysing or decoding the question.
In order to produce a good essay it is essential that you understand the question. To help you think about how you should approach the essay you should identify the content, the focus and the task.
The content - the subject area you will be writing about.
The focus - is a particular stance or viewpoint you are being asked to consider
The task(s) - what you are being asked to do. There can be more that one task. See Commonly used task words and their meaning.
Example essay question
Question: Assess the extent to which climate change is impacting on the design and construction of domestic buildings.
Highlight the important content words
To what extent is climate change impacting on the design and construction of domestic buildings.
Identify the main area of focus
Climate change
This is often what you use to introduce your essay
Identify the task
Assess the extent...
Make a judgement on whether there has or has not been an impact level, and if so what this has been (you need to give both viewpoints if possible).
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2) Planning and Starting your Essay
The process of analysing the question allows you to start planning your essay. It allows you to think about:
what will be included in your essay - the key topic and areas you need to focus upon
what essential information you will need
identifying areas you already know something about
any terms that will require to be defined
complex theories & discussions that will require specific attention
the questions you should have in mind when you start reading for your essay
This together with supportive reading will lead to a draft outline of your answer.
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3) Reading Your Essay
Having identified the main topic and specific areas, use these to identify and select relevant material. Most importantly you need to master the Library and learn about finding information.
You cannot afford to spend too long on reading for your essay as you need to leave adequate time for writing. However, when reading you should ensure that you:
Use a range of materials, which present different viewpoints and opposing arguments
Have a clear focus and stick to your topic.
Read purposefully. Do not read whole books or articles (look at abstracts/summaries/introductions/conclusions to see if relevant). Focus on what you need to extract from the books and journals.
Take notes, think critically and read with the question in mind.
For example:
What are the author's main findings?
Are they well supported by evidence?
Are there any weaknesses in a theory?
What do other studies have to say about the subject?
Are you convinced by the arguments presented? - why do you think the arguments are sound or why not?
Make notes
For each article or book you read develop the habit of noting the information you will need for your bibliography; i.e. author, title, date, publisher, place of publication. This will help you organise your references.
Write the notes in your own words. This will help you avoid plagiarism. When you are using the Internet also note the date you have accessed the information.
Think about using a scrap book approach where you collect information under different headings. Finally cut and paste it into your essay.
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4) Structuring Your Essay
Having undertaken appropriate research and having worked out a draft outline for your essay, you are now at the point where you are ready to start writing.
The essay should be produced in a particular structure, which has three main parts:
An introduction
A main body
A conclusion
The essay should be in continuous prose. It should not contain lists or bullet points nor (generally) sub-headings.
The Introduction
You might want to start with a general overview statement. That may include a definition of the main terms, a quotation from a leading source or some facts and figures. You could then map out the key stages in your essay outlining what is to be discussed later. The introduction is usually no more than 10% of the overall word count. Do not just repeat the question.
Main body
In this section you will develop your key arguments and discuss different points of view, drawing comparisons between different ideas and pointing to conflicting opinions. These ideas must be supported by evidence so make sure sources are correctly referenced. Use paragraphs to develop ideas. Each paragraph should include an opening statement, which signposts to your reader the topic being addressed. Indicate when you are moving on to a different stage of your argument or new area by providing a 'signpost', e.g. 'Nevertheless...', 'An alternative viewpoint is provided by...', 'However Clark explains...'.
Your aim is to produce a coherent piece of work, that progresses logically and tells a story that ultimately answers the question.
The conclusion is where you draw together the main strands of your arguments and highlight key points. It should be a summary of what has gone before, demonstrating that you have addressed the question and written a relevant answer. No new information should be introduced in your conclusion. It will usually be 10-15% of the word count.
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Features of Academic Writing
The emphasis in academic writing is on facts and interpretation of the facts. These should be presented in a logical way using an academic writing style.
Some Academic Writing Tips:
Use straightforward language.
Take care with grammar and sentence construction. Avoid using a note-style of writing.
Try not to use pompous language. For example: use "find out" rather than "endeavour to ascertain" - try not to use jargon or clichés
Provide definitions.
Include explanations of technical or unusual terms, unless you can reasonably expect your reader to know them.
Use impersonal language.
Essays and reports should be written in the third person singular. Avoid personal terms such as 'I' or 'We'; the word 'It' should be used instead:
For example:
"I decided to interview the Tourism Planning Officer..." should read
"It was decided to interview the Tourism Planning Officer..."
The only exceptions to this convention may be where you are asked to link theory to your own professional practice.
Be precise.
Avoid using terms that lack a precise meaning such as 'nice', 'good' or 'excellent'. One person's idea of what is meant by 'good' is not necessarily another's.
Be concise and to the point. For example: Use 'Now' or "Currently' instead of phrases like 'At the time of writing' or 'At this point in time'.
Try not to make generalizations.
For example: "Everyone agrees that cold calling does not produce results".
While this may be true you can only make such statements if supported with evidence. Instead you should write:
'According to the Mori Report (2000), cold calling does not produce results'.
Use cautious language.
This means that statements cannot easily be challenged:
'Cold calling may not produce results'.
Use appropriate verb tenses.
Reports often use the present tense in the Introduction and the past tense when discussing findings.For example: Introduction: 'This report examines..' Findings: 'Results showed that..'
Be careful when using Acronyms.
The use of acronyms is allowed provided that the first time you write the letters you also write the words out in full.
For example: Curriculum Vitae (C.V.)
Ensure you are linking points together. When using a lead sentence make sure that the points that follow on link to this:
Incorrect Example:
This style of CV creates the opportunity to:
Can highlight skills and achievements
Identifies personal attributes
Correct Example:
This style of CV creates the opportunity to:
Highlight skills and achievements
Identify personal attributes
Other writing pitfalls to avoid:
Do not address the reader directly or use questions For example: 'Does this mean that some strategies are better than others?'
Be careful not to use redundant phrases. For example: 'various differences'.
Various implies different so both words are not required.
Do not start sentences with linking words. Such as: but, and, or yet.
Avoid using contractions. For example:'they're' for 'they are'.'etc' and 'ie' should also be avoided.
Avoid making negative statements. For example:'Calling firms directly should not be discouraged'. This can obscure the meaning. Instead write positive statements.
'Calling firms directly should be encouraged'.
Try to avoid making sentences overlong and complicated.
Wordiness and padding can obscure meaning.
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What is plagiarism?
Plagiarism is defined in the Assessment Regulations as 'the deliberate and substantial unacknowledged incorporation in a student’s work of material derived from the work (published or unpublished) of another'.
In other words it means passing someone else’s work off as you own. This includes material from books, journals and the web, as well as from your friends or others.
The University regards plagiarism as a very serious offence and you’re strongly advised to study the Assessment Regulations in full. The regulations are summarised in the plagiarism guide.
Examples of plagiarism include:
the extensive use of another person's material without reference or acknowledgement,
the summarising of another person's work by simply changing a few words or altering the order or presentation without acknowledgement,
the substantial and unauthorised use of the ideas of another person without acknowledgement of the source,
copying the work of another student with or without that student's knowledge or agreement,
deliberate use of commissioned material and presented as the student's own work.
How is plagiarism detected?
The most common trigger is a change in the student's writing style and syntactic (word arrangement) structure.
How can I be sure what plagiarism is?
Try this exercise. Adapted from A Guide for Writing Research Papers Based on Modern Language Association (MLA) Documentation (Capital Community College)
Four students read the following text and used it in their essays in slightly different ways. Which would count as plagiarism?
Elaine Tyler May's (1997, ‘Barren in the Promised Land : Childless Americans and the Pursuit of Happiness’ Harvard University Press
‘Because women's wages often continue to reflect the fiction that men earn the family wage, single mothers rarely earn enough to support themselves and their children adequately. And because work is still organized around the assumption that mothers stay home with children, even though few mothers can afford to do so, child-care facilities in the United States remain woefully inadequate’
Student A wrote:
Since women's wages often continue to reflect the mistaken notion that men are the main wage earners in the family, single mothers rarely make enough to support themselves and their children very well. Also, because work is still based on the assumption that mothers stay home with children, facilities for child care remain woefully inadequate in the United States.
Verdict: Plagiarism.
There is too much direct borrowing in sentence structure and wording. The writer changes some words, drops one phrase, and adds some new language, but the overall text closely resembles May's. There is no acknowledgment (citation) of it being May’s work.
However, even if May were acknowledged this is still plagiarising because the lack of quotation marks indicates that it is paraphrased and in the students's own words.
Student B wrote:
By and large, our economy still operates on the mistaken notion that men are the main breadwinners in the family. Thus, women continue to earn lower wages than men. This means, in effect, that many single mothers cannot earn a decent living. Furthermore, adequate day care is not available in the USA because of the mistaken assumption that mothers remain at home with their children.
Verdict: Plagiarism.
It shows good paraphrasing of wording and sentence structure, but May's original ideas are not acknowledged. Some of May's points are common knowledge (women earn less than men, many single mothers live in poverty), but May uses this common knowledge to make a specific and original point and her original conception of this idea is not acknowledged.
Student C wrote:
As Elaine Tyler May (1997, p.588) points out, ‘women's wages often continue to reflect the fiction that men earn the family wage’. Thus many single mothers cannot support themselves and their children adequately. Furthermore, since work is based on the assumption that mothers stay home with children, facilities for day care in this country are still ‘woefully inadequate.’
Verdict: Borderline plagiarism.
Although the writer now cites May and so it is closer to telling the truth about the text's relationship to the source, it continues to borrow too much language.
Student D wrote:
Women today still earn less than men — so much less that many single mothers and their children live near or below the poverty line. Elaine Tyler May (1997, p.588) argues that this situation stems in part from ‘the fiction that men earn the family wage’ May further suggests that the American workplace still operates on the assumption that mothers with children stay home to care for them.
Verdict: No plagiarism.
The writer makes use of the common knowledge in May's work, but acknowledges May's original conclusion and does not try to pass it off as his or her own. The quotation is properly cited, as is a later paraphrase of another of May's ideas.