Our answers to the top 25 essay writing questions
(Last updated: 28 September 2018)
We get asked similar questions about essay writing time and time again. From ‘basic’ questions like “How many types of essay are there?” through to more complex questions on structure and language. So, we thought it was high time we gathered all the answers together into one place, where every curious student can turn to when in need.
Below are the top 25 questions students ask us about essay writing and our answers, plus plenty of links to other useful articles on our blog and on the web. Hopefully, this material will help get your essay writing off to a great start!
1. How do you write an academic essay?
You read widely, take copious notes, and develop a sound knowledge both of the broader field and of the debate into which your essay will intervene. You develop an outline and a plan, both to test the feasibility of your thesis and to structure your arguments optimally. You come up with an argument. You support the hell out of it. You structure it impeccably, with appropriate introduction, body, and conclusion. You use all that reading you’ve done to anticipate counter-arguments to your position, and you rebut them. You use all the academic turns of phrase you’ve learned, and above all else, you answer the question!
Want to know more? We’ve got lots of articles on our website to help you through every step of this process. But reading the tips on this page isn’t a bad start…
2. Can you start an essay with a quote?
This really depends on how well you pull it off. A quotation that perfectly encapsulates the essence of your essay topic can be a very effective way of leading your reader into it. On the other hand, it’s common for students to use quotations as a kind of “cop-out”, or a way of avoiding constructing the kind of well-crafted introduction a top-quality essay demands. If you’re writing about an artistic work – like a literary text or a movie – your title might be the best place for a resonant quote that encapsulates the essay question.
You should avoid starting your essay with a quote from a dictionary definition. If you’re asked to discuss a specific term, it’s very likely that term has a specific meaning in your field of study that extends far beyond what any dictionary definition covers, and falling back to the dictionary may simply make your work look ill-researched.
3. How do you reference an essay?
Whenever you reproduce other people’s work – whether through direct quotation or paraphrase – you need to cite it using a referencing system. Familiarity with the referencing systems used by your department is one of the fundamental skills you need to learn as an undergraduate. There are three basic types:
- Footnotes (e.g. MHRA, Oxford): Citation information for each quote is referenced by a numbered superscript note in the text, and appears in a separate section at the bottom of the page.
- Parenthetical (e.g. Harvard, Chicago, MLA): The author’s name, publication date, and page number of the quotation are given in parentheses in-text.
- Numbered (e.g. Vancouver): Each source is assigned a number the first time it is cited, and thereafter each subsequent citation of this source is referenced using the same number.
Keep reading below for more questions and answers on Oxford and Harvard referencing,
4. What is Oxford referencing?
Oxford referencing is a form of academic referencing that provides citation information for sources you’ve used in your essay in footnote form. Whenever you quote or paraphrase a source in the body of your text, you insert a footnote, which has two parts:
- A superscript number in the body of your essay, indicating the note the reader should seek out.
- A detailed note in a ruled-off section at the bottom of the page, which provides bibliographic details of the work, or works, you’ve referenced.
Footnote referencing systems are used extensively in the arts and humanities, where it’s common not only to provide a reference for the source but also to provide some expanded parenthetical remarks on the context of their arguments, and their relationship to the field as a whole, which are important but would disrupt the flow of the essay if included in the body.
5. What is Harvard referencing?
Harvard referencing is a form of academic referencing that provides brief bibliographic data for citations (author’s name, date, page number if applicable) in parentheses in the body of the essay, allowing your reader to cross-reference to a list of references at the end of your essay. Harvard is a type of parenthetical referencing system, which are most common in social sciences disciplines. They allow you to cite three or four sources at a time with relatively little disruption to the text (since if you’re summarising a particular trend or position in a field your parenthetical reference will look something like “see Smith 1999; Jones 2002; Thomas 2010”) but you’re unlikely to be referencing ten or more sources at a time (as is common in some scientific disciplines, which are therefore better suited to numbered systems).
Want more advice on referencing systems? See How to reference an essay or dissertation using Oxford or Harvard referencing and How to correctly reference a dissertation.
6. How do you structure an essay?
All essays require an introduction, a body, and a conclusion, but good structure requires more than just assembling these basic building blocks. It’s accomplished by establishing a clear sense of purpose in the introduction, and carrying through on your promises. Here are a few quick tips:
- Signpost your essay. Set out each item you’ll discuss in your introduction, and gesture back and forth in your body paragraphs so that your reader gets a sense that your arguments are building towards your conclusion.
- Transition appropriately between arguments. Make sure your reader is aware that your arguments relate to one another; refer back to principles you’ve previously established and indicate ahead to where you’re going next.
- Address counter-arguments. If there are obvious objections a reader might raise to your arguments, address them yourself, and explain why you’re still right! Thinking about possible counter-arguments can help you put your points in the best possible order.
7. What do you include in an introduction?
An introduction to an academic essay should present the context for the argument you’re about to make, clearly outlining the debates in which you’re trying to intervene, and positioning your intervention in relation to the positions of other scholars. You should start out with a broad pitch that captures the wider significance of the argument you’re about to make, before zeroing in on a clear thesis statement (a brief precis of your argument and the evidence you’ll use to support it).
Your broad pitch should be relevant to the topic you’re about to discuss, should base its claims to significance on scholarly/critical debates and conversations. Like all other statements you make in your essay it should be supportable with evidence. Avoid unsupportable generalisations containing phrases like “Throughout history…”. And don’t try to avoid phrases like “in this essay” – your introduction is all about signposting your ideas, and such phrases are perfectly fine for this purpose.
For more on this, see How to craft the perfect introduction to your essay.
8. How many types of essays are there?
There are three broad types of academic essay that you might be asked to write at university:
- Expository essays ask you to explain an idea or issue, and are common in first-year modules. You don’t generally need to do much in the way of argument in these essays; the emphasis is on thorough research, and on demonstrating you have a grasp of the material.
- Persuasive/argumentative essays are common in exams and in intermediate undergraduate modules. They’ll ask you to consider a point of debate between scholars – and ask you to demonstrate knowledge of both sides of the argument by arguing for one side.
- Research essays are common in upper-level undergraduate and postgraduate courses. They require you to synthesise a large amount of existing research and to position an intervention of your own within the context of the research you’ve read.
For more on the different types of essay and what's required for each, see What even is an essay?
9. How do you write an essay plan?
An essay plan is a crucial step on the path to writing a successful essay. It’s where you outline and briefly summarise each of your body paragraphs and arguments, and crucially, the approximate number of words you’ll devote to each argument. It’s more detailed than an essay outline (see question 11 below), and when you draw one up, you need to make sure your essay plan…
- Addresses the question posed through an outline of the introduction and conclusion
- Draws on the relevant reading you have already gathered
- Sets out an argument with different points in each paragraph
What’s particularly useful about drawing up an essay plan before you start writing, is that it acts as a kind of feasibility study for the argument you’re proposing to make. If the various strands of argument you’ll need to prove your thesis add up to 2500 words, you’ll need to seriously refine and narrow your thesis! Similarly, if you’re planning a 4000-word essay but can only think of two or three main arguments, it’s possible you need to broaden out your focus.
A plan is also a great summary document that you can submit to your instructor to ask for feedback and direction whilst working on your essay.
10. How do you write a persuasive essay?
Persuasive essays are most often set as a means of testing that you’ve understood the terms of a particular debate or point of contention in your field, and can argue for one side or the other. The key to writing a persuasive essay is to demonstrate mastery of both sides of the argument, debate, or proposition.
You persuade your audience both by making a convincing case for your side of the argument and by providing convincing rebuttals to counter-arguments from the other side. By giving a fair hearing to both sides of the argument, you demonstrate both the depth of your understanding and an ability to evaluate the merits of both sides of a debate and draw a conclusion based on the weight of evidence.
11. How do you write an essay outline?
An essay outline gives a sense not only of what your main arguments are, but how they fit together. You can move around items in your outline, and nest one beneath the other, until you’re confident you’ve planned the optimal structure. The outline itself is essentially a set of headings and subheadings under which you categorise the main ideas and arguments you want to explore in an essay. It’s best to use a numbered list in your word processing program to create your outline, and use the tab key to indent items appropriately (the application will automatically number first-level points 1, 2, 3…, second-level points a, b, c…, and so on). Once you’ve formulated your initial thesis, you should attempt to distil each argument and sub-argument into a short heading (maximum five words) and assign it a place in the structure.
For further advice, we like this useful guide to creating essay outlines.
12. How do you create a research proposal?
A research proposal serves two main functions: it provides your supervisors/funders/stakeholders with a concise summary of what you plan to do, so that they can evaluate its merits and feasibility, and it provides you with a plan that you can regularly refer back to and, if necessary, modify. Your proposal isn’t set in stone; your research questions and the precise means you use to explore them can and will change as you write, but your research proposal should give a good overview of the following:
- Your main research question, and preliminary thesis/ hypothesis
- An outline literature review, noting the major influences on your thinking and the major debates with which your project engages
- An outline methodology, indicating the theoretical or experimental frameworks and protocols you’ll follow in discussing your thesis
- A discussion of the project’s limitations and ethical considerations.
For more on dissertation proposals, this in-depth guide is packed full of advice and information.
13. Can I publish my essay in a journal?
You should discuss this question with your instructor or supervisor. They will often, through the feedback they give you on your essay(s), be the first person to suggest publishing your work if it’s of a high enough quality.
You’ll probably be a Master’s student by the time this suggestion happens, though there are undergraduate student journals – run within universities exclusively for their students, and some that are open – that may be suitable for outstanding undergraduate work.
If you’re a postgraduate student, you’ll be submitting your work to journals that don’t just cater to students but to seasoned academics as well, and it can be a daunting experience to submit work for publication for the first time. But again, ask your instructor or supervisor for suggestions of journals to submit to, and be prepared to take reviewer feedback constructively, and to revise your paper numerous times before it ends up in print.
Find out more about getting your work published in our article Dissertation writing: publishing a dissertation.
14. How do you write a paragraph?
A paragraph should contain one single idea or strand of your argument, and function as a self-contained “building block” within your essay. The structure of a body paragraph should mirror the structure of your essay as a whole. The first sentence or two should introduce the topic you’re going to discuss, the bulk of the paragraph should be given over to the detailed discussion of the topic, and the final sentence or two should work as a mini-conclusion, summing up the ideas you’ve been discussing.
It’s important to use your “mini-introduction” and “mini-conclusion” sentences to effectively transition between ideas – that is, to refer back to your previous paragraph(s) and signpost where your essay is going next, respectively. A well-constructed essay transitions almost seamlessly between paragraphs, with transition sentences used as a rhetorical device to help convince your reader that your arguments relate strongly and coherently to each other.
15. How do you write a five-paragraph essay?
The five-paragraph essay is a standard format of essay often required of first-year undergraduate students. It’s designed to get you accustomed to the rudiments of the introduction-body-conclusion structure, and requires an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion, to prove a single thesis statement.
Because it’s so formulaic, the biggest danger with a five-paragraph essay is that you focus too much on the need for your thesis to contain three main body parts, and not enough on ensuring that these three elements cohere into a single thesis statement.
But know this: the principles on introductions, body paragraphs, and conclusions discussed in this post and elsewhere on our blog apply just as well to five-paragraph essays as to longer-form pieces. Don’t scrimp on the quality of your structure, or the flow of your argument, because you are focused too much on achieving five paragraphs. The general rules of good essay writing still apply.
16. Introductions and conclusions: how are they different?
Introductions and conclusions are the two most difficult parts of your essay to write, and they fulfil related but distinct functions: your introduction states your thesis and establishes the context for your argument; your conclusion is your last opportunity to make the case that you’ve proved your argument, and also to gesture towards the broader significance of that argument, and as such it fulfils a powerful rhetorical function.
It can be helpful to think of the “shape” of introductions and conclusions as the two halves of an egg timer. Your introduction starts out with broad statements about the field before narrowing its focus to your specific argument. Your conclusion starts narrow, recapping the arguments you’ve made and how they prove your thesis, but then broadens out, considering what your intervention might mean to the study of your specific topic and even to the field as a whole.
Our guide How to structure an essay has lots more advice and information on introductions and conclusions.
17. What does 'to what extent' mean?
Whenever you see this phrase, you should approach it as if it’s written in red, flashing, neon lights! It catches a lot of people out, and for good reason.
Simply put, “to what extent” means, how much do you agree with the idea being posed in the essay question. You must always agree – at least a little bit – with the idea and have reasons for it, and be able to say why you disagree with it too (if you do). “To what extent…” questions always involve a statement that offers a partial explanation for a phenomenon, or that is partially true, or is a simplification of some kind. Your answer should therefore always be balanced, exploring both the strengths and weaknesses of the proposition you’re asked to discuss.
“To what extent…” questions test many of the same skills as persuasive essays: you need to show breadth of understanding, balance, and a mastery of exploring competing viewpoints.
If you want to learn more, our article Focus on directive essay words: “to what extent…” offers a deeper insight into how to answer “to what extent” essay questions.
18. Does punctuation really matter?
Yes. Absolutely. The correct use of punctuation demonstrates a mastery of grammar in English (or whatever language you happen to be writing in) and to anyone who cares about language and is invested in its proper use (spoiler alert: this includes anyone who is likely to be grading your essays!), poorly implemented apostrophes, commas, semicolons and full-stops (periods) are likely to be jarring in the extreme. Good grammar – including the appropriate use of punctuation – is about more than just getting the “technical stuff” right: punctuation gives us important cues about how we should read long or complex sentences and, especially if we’re reading quite quickly (which – spoiler alert #2 – the instructors marking your essay are very likely to be doing) give us the information we need to parse out the logic of a sentence.
19. What's a reflective essay?
A reflective essay is a tricky feat to pull off. It requires that you synthesise academic research and personal experience, usually by asking you to comment on how one has impacted the other – and sometimes both at once! Reflective essays deploy many of the formal conventions of normal academic writing, but emphasise use of the first-person (“I”) voice.
Reflective writing is very common in practice-based disciplines like nursing or teacher training, where you’ll be asked to reflect on how theory has informed your practice, and how practice has modified or enhanced your understanding of theory.
The trickiest aspect of reflective writing is managing a balance between the formal academic register and the personal narrative voice; it’s easy to become too personal and informal, and forget the need for scholarly rigour in your essay.
Want to know more? See The complete guide to writing a reflective essay.
20. How can I make my writing better?
One goal you should be aiming towards in higher education is to make your writing move beyond reading like that of a new and inexperienced student, and towards that of a seasoned academic. One way you can do this is through better use of vocabulary.
But how does one improve their academic vocab? In a word: read. The best way to learn the phrases, habits and devices that are common in academic writing is to read widely and deeply, but also with discipline. However tempting it may be to gloss over words you don’t understand, you’ll do your writing a big favour if you actively look up any unfamiliar words, either in a general dictionary or (preferably) in a dictionary of terms dedicated to your own discipline. And do pay close attention to turns of phrase and ways of positioning arguments that regularly crop up in academic writing. Chances are that adopting some of these will help you sound like a “real” scholar in no time.
This guide: Essay writing skills: how to build your vocabulary has some great advice if you would like to learn more.
21. How can I avoid plagiarising?
Plagiarism is a cause of great anxiety among undergraduate students, largely because university instructors and departments are much better at issuing threats and dire warnings than they are at actually defining what plagiarism is.
Simply, plagiarism is the act of presenting others’ ideas as your own, whether or not that’s intentional. You should scrupulously cite others when you incorporate their words and ideas into your work, whether that’s through direct quotation or paraphrase.
One of the most important ways to avoid plagiarism is to be a disciplined note-taker. If you’ve noted down someone else’s words and ideas, and failed to attribute them properly or at least clearly note that they don’t belong to you, these could easily find their way into your essays later. And remember: just because it was accidental doesn’t mean it’s not plagiarism!
Take a look at our guide, Playing by the rules: avoiding plagiarism in essay writing, if you want to ensure you steer clear of plagiarism in your work.
22. How do you create a strong argument?
Essays live and die by the strengths of their arguments. The perfect argument is one that is original enough to sustain interest, but robust enough to be supported by evidence. Ask these questions about your argument:
- Is it supportable? Be honest with yourself: do the facts actually support the argument you’re trying to make? It doesn’t matter how original or clever your idea; if you can’t support it you’re in trouble.
- Is it original? Are you offering a genuinely new take on the topic, or just synthesising what’s gone before?
- Can you rebut the counter-arguments? Even if you can find a couple of bits of evidence that support your thesis, that’s still likely to be insufficient if there are several obvious counter-arguments that sweep your interpretation away entirely! If you’re going out on a limb, make sure you can and do address the obvious objections to your stance.
Want to know more? See Essay writing tips: a strong argument.
23. Masters and undergraduate essays – what's the difference?
If you pursue postgraduate studies after you’ve completed your first degree, it can be quite a culture shock. The leap in expectations is quite considerable, as you go from demonstrating you have a good grasp of the core concepts of your discipline to being expected to produce writing of a standard matching that of seasoned academics, or not too far below. Distinction-level Master’s writing is very often publishable in academic journals, and requires you to show mastery of all academic conventions – from referencing to stylistics – and to demonstrate depth of reading, sophisticated understanding of current issues in your field, and original, independent thought.
A more in-depth and insightful answer can be read in our guide: How to write a Masters essay: Masters essay writing tips.
24. How formal does my writing need to be?
“Formal” writing is a highly subjective construct, and everybody you ask has a different idea what it looks like. For example, there are some people – especially in the sciences – who think you should never refer to yourself in an essay (using I, me or my, etc.) or that you should exclusively use the passive voice when reporting the methodology of a study or experiment. For others, navigating around these rules is wholly unnecessary and produces awkward, cumbersome prose.
To some extent, therefore, the correct answer to “what does formal academic writing look like?” is: whatever your instructor thinks formal academic writing looks like. There are some pretty solid dos and don’ts, though. You should avoid using abbreviations and colloquialisms unless they’re in quotations. Examples of this are, “my results were totally unexpected” (the word “totally” is too colloquial and not quantifiable enough) and, “the battle took place on 1st Feb 1892” (“February” should not be abbreviated).
You should do your best to master academic diction: a set of transitional and framing phrases that allow you to, for want of a better expression, sound like a “proper” academic.
Want to know more? For extra guidance, see 10 academic phrases to use in your essay.
25. How do you write a conclusion for an essay?
The conclusion is where you both recap succinctly on the arguments you’ve made and gesture towards the broader significance of your argument, with the rhetorical goal of convincing your reader of both the importance of the question you’ve been answering and the validity of your particular approach to this question! By briefly recapping on your body paragraph arguments and highlighting the ways they support your thesis, you can help to convince a sceptical reader of the validity of your position.
Avoid simply repeating phrases you’ve used elsewhere in your body paragraphs; instead generalise about how the common threads between your points lead unavoidably to your interpretation. You should also discuss the broader implications of the argument you’ve made. Don’t make any unsupportable statements, but if your argument has implications for the field as a whole, don’t shy away from them.
For more helpful advice on writing a great conclusion for your essay, read Your essay conclusion: how to conclude an essay well.
It is always beneficial to have a second set of eyes assess your work for any errors or omissions and many students choose to contact editors to help with the final editing and proofreading of their work. Professional editors hold the relevant expertise to guide you on the correct path to creating a discussion section that is perfectly structured, formatted and ready for submission, helping you to achieve a high result.