Great essay writing in 5 steps
(Last updated: 26 October 2020)
Can great essay writing really be condensed down into just 5 steps? Whilst it's true that there is a lot that goes into academic writing of any kind, these top takeaways are a great place to start if you want to improve your essay writing.
To some, essay writing comes naturally. But for many, knowing how to answer an essay question in a way that will score high marks is something that must be learnt and practised regularly. You can take comfort in knowing too that once you learn how to write a great essay, you can apply the same techniques and formulas to almost any piece of academic writing, whether it's a standard essay or a dissertation or thesis.
So without further ado, let's dive in and learn the five steps to writing an essay.
Step 1: Understand the question or title
This may, at the face of it, sound like somewhat banal advice – but fact of the matter is that failing to properly understand the question set is one of, if not the most common reason behind a disappointing grade when it comes to essay writing. Are you being asked to critically evaluate something? Compare and contrast? Analyse a critical proposition?
These are some of the common phrases found in essay questions, and each indicates a different set of expectations. Below is a short guide to some of the most common types of essay questions – and what they may be seen to require.
Direct essay questions
e.g. Has devolution in Britain led to a new form of party politics?
This is perhaps the most common type of essay question. With this kind of question, a line of inquiry and a research field has already been clearly established. The challenges are: not to deviate from this line of inquiry; to define the terms and refine the question; to make sure that the essay concludes with some kind of an answer, even if it is one that leaves some questions unresolved.
With a direct question, it is often a good idea to begin the essay by defining the terms. Very often a direct question is broader than it seems – and needs pinning down. For instance, in the example question, a lot of things need to be defined before we can set about answering it: what do we mean by devolution? What period are we talking about here?
By defining the terms you achieve two things: first, you demonstrate that you have a knowledge of the subject area; second, you have an opportunity to take ownership of the question – and frame it as you choose.
Though a direct question defines the essay subject and the line of inquiry, the details are very much still left to you. More often than not, achieving a good grade begins with the student establishing the details and reframing the question.
In the example question above, then, you might begin by defining devolution (e.g. the transfer of power from central government to local government), before deciding that you are going to answer it by reframing the question so as to focus on a specific example (e.g. the Scottish Nationalist Party).
This rule applies if you're writing an essay in a direct question format about any subject: if it is a direct question about the influence of Quattrocento Italian art on Pre-Raphaelite Poets, you could choose to focus on a specific poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti; if it is a direct question about the marketing strategies of Coca-Cola, you could focus on their decision to target the Generation X marketing cohort in their 2011 'Share a Coke' Australian campaign.
The key point is not to be deceived by thinking that with a direct question the terms are set – there is still work to do to define the terms and refine the focus.
"Evaluate" essay titles
e.g. Evaluate the influences of Freud upon the psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lacan.
As with a direct question, an essay question that asks you to evaluate already defines the subject of the essay. Where it differs from a direct question is in the sense that it does not determine a line of inquiry. With an instruction to evaluate – the key task is therefore to determine the research question(s).
The challenges are: to determine the line of inquiry; to clearly define the terms and focus point; to propose a structure that reflects the shape that your evaluation is going to take.
In the given example, then, you would want to define the key areas in which you think Freud has influenced Lacan. You might then want to select a specific example to evaluate (e.g. the influence of Freud’s Oedipus complex theory on Lacan’s Écrits) and to determine a research question (e.g. how does Lacan deviate from Freud when writing about the Oedipus complex theory). You would then want to make sure that you have chosen an essay structure that suits this chosen line of inquiry (see step 4 below).
The central challenge with essay questions that ask you to evaluate is that they imply a broader assessment, but require you to develop specific examples – whatever the subject. You, therefore, have to come up with the overarching evaluative statement (e.g. Lacan defined himself against Freud), while finding the specific line of argument that will illustrate this claim (e.g. how he rewrites the Oedipus complex theory) so as to avoid too general a focus.
"Compare and contrast" essay titles
e.g. Compare and contrast representations of modern life in T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland to Louis MacNeice’s Birmingham.
This is quite a specific form of essay question type – but nonetheless a relatively common one. The key challenges here are: to determine what it is exactly that you are comparing and contrasting; to determine a research question; to develop a structure that suits the compare and contrast format.
In the given example we are asked to compare and contrast representations of modern life in two poems – but, again, we can define and refine this question, for instance by deciding to focus specifically on how these two poets represent city landscapes in their works.
As with the example of essays that ask you to evaluate: we also need to determine a research question to sharpen the focus (e.g. how do the different approaches to representing the city reflects the authors’ broader views on modernity?).
Finally we need to think of a structure that best accommodates this specific type of question – more info here in step 4.
e.g. ‘The medium is the message’ - Marshall McLuhan. Discuss in relation to one or more social media platforms.
This type of essay is again quite common – and usually consists of a quote from an academic or writer who is considered an expert in a chosen field. Here the key challenges are: to determine the research question that the critical proposition indicates; to define the terms and refine the question.
For instance, in the chosen example – if we don’t already know, we would have to find out who Marshall McLuhan is and contextualise the quote. If it turns out that he is a philosopher who theorises about media forms – then we know that the essay has to relate his theories to the chosen subject. Once we have worked this out we can begin to define and refine the terms of our essay (e.g. we might choose to focus on Facebook’s invention of the like button to illustrate McLuhan’s theories).
e.g. ‘Democracy is the menopause of Western society, the Grand Climacteric of the body social’ – Jean Baudrillard. Discuss Baudrillardian theory in relation to modern day democracy.
This kind of question is similar to the example of a critical proposition. The key difference is that it requires an understanding of a specific theoretical approach: in this case the critical theory of Jean Baudrillard.
In the case of essay questions that demand the use of theoretical models – the challenge is that these are typically complex and cannot be summed up in their entirety. This type of essay is typically best served by a succinct overview of the theoretical model, before a more detailed account of the specific feature of it that applies to the subject at hand – and then a clearly communicated idea of how it can be applied to a specific example to test or illustrate its claims (e.g. we might offer an overview of Baudrillard’s theories, determine what he has to say specifically about democracy, and then apply this to a chosen example – for instance, the Brexit referendum).
No set essay question
e.g. Write an essay on Peter Drucker and modern business management.
This type of question is deceptively easy, in the sense that it can often seem less intimidating while bringing with it a whole set of challenges. Really what it requires is for you to choose the essay question format yourself – or to reframe the question in order to avoid producing a general reflection on the chosen subject. Thus the challenges are: to refine the subject; to determine a research question; to develop an approach that works in accordance with this.
In the chosen example, if we are writing an essay about business management and Peter Drucker – we might choose to focus on a specific aspect of his writing (e.g. his theory of decentralization) and then choose a specific example (e.g. the supermarket Tesco) before determining a specific line of inquiry (how can Tesco’s business model be seen to reflect Drucker’s theory of decentralization?).
In essence, the wording of the essay question will tell you what you need to research and how the essay should be written. But you should never assume that an essay question is complete. Whatever the question, it is always open, and always requires you to define the terms and refine the focus of your enquiry.
The strongest essays are those that discover a clear and original line of enquiry. Essay questions generally give you a general starting point: the challenge is to determine where to go from there, and thus in a sense to re-write the question in order to enable you to write the most original and informative essay possible.
Step 2: Plan and schedule
Understanding the question is the first step, but it is equally important that you make efficient use of the available time.
Students often underestimate the amount of work required to write a good essay, which can result in late nights at the library and a disappointing grade. If you want to achieve a good mark, you should start planning your essay the moment you receive the essay question. The following table may be a useful aid:
|Understand the question (see step 1)||(Insert date)|
|Develop a reading list (see step 3)||(Insert date)|
|Go through reading list, making notes (see step 3)||(Insert date)|
|Build an essay structure (see step 4)||(Insert date)|
|Start writing (see step 5)||(Insert date)|
|Proofread and check citations (see step 5)||(Insert date)|
|Finish first draft||(Insert date)|
|Hand in||(Insert date)|
By setting deadlines for yourself and committing to them, you are ensuring that you won’t be left with too much work right before your hand-in date.
It is also important that you leave time, ideally a couple of days, between finishing your first draft and proofreading.
Step 3: Research your essay question
Writing may be the core task, but reading is equally important. Before you start writing your essay, you should conduct a broad search for relevant literature.
What you decide to research should then be related to how you have decided to interpret the question (see Step 1 at the top of this article). It is of course possible to decide what you want to focus on having read around the subject – but it is also often the case that this can lead to you getting swamped with information.
A good piece of general advice is to begin by developing a general overview of the subject area – before then refining your research focus. The following three-stage plan is a helpful way to develop this process.
How to develop a general overview
If the subject area that the essay is covering is new to you – a good piece of advice is to start by reading a general primer.
This may also help you if you are struggling to decide how to interpret the question (see step 1). The following list includes short general guides into specific areas by reputable publishers:
- Oxford University Press: Very Short Introductions
- Granta: How to Read
- Cambridge: Introduction to…
- Introducing Books: Graphic Guide
- Routledge: Introduction to…
Of course, if you have lecture or seminar notes then these will also be helpful at this stage.
How to develop a more specific reading list
Once you have surveyed the subject area and have developed a clear idea of what you want to focus on, you now want to develop a more specific reading list for the line of inquiry you are interested in.
The following is a list of research resources that might be of use:
- Google Scholar. Perhaps the best available research tool to enable you to key word search scholarly texts (from journal articles to monographs to PhD theses). Google Scholar enables you to establish which academic texts have covered your chosen area – before pointing you in the right direction to find the text.
- Google Books. This resource is helpful for searching key words in Google’s digitised book archive. Not all books have been digitised and not all texts are fully accessible, but a lot is – and if not, Google Books can help you to build a reading list.
- Jstor. Jstor is the best available digital library of academic journals, books, and primary sources. It will enable you to access the texts yourself, and you can also use the keyword function to find additional scholarly texts. You will need university (or equivalent institution) log in details to access it.
- Your university or school library. There is nothing wrong with some good old fashioned library research. Books in libraries are organised by theme, and there is no better way of finding the books that cover the area you are interested in all in one place.
- Subject-specific annotated bibliographies. For many academic subjects you will be able to find an annotated bibliography. Use the index to search specific themes / authors associated with your subject – and the bibliography will give you short summaries of texts that cover these areas.
You don’t want to waste time reading through an endless number of articles only to find that they aren’t actually relevant. Once you find an article that sounds promising, read through the abstract to ensure that it’s relevant. If you are still not a hundred percent sure, it is usually a good idea to skip to the conclusion – this usually contains a detailed summary of the study, which will help determine whether you should read the article as a whole.
If you find an article, book, or essay that feels like it covers your area of interest especially well – use this as a launching pad to build your reading list. You can do this by (a) going through its bibliography and taking note of who it cites; and (b) checking on Google Scholar to see who has cited this text. To do this, simply input the name of the article in the search bar and hit enter. In the results, click “cited by” – this will return a list of all of the articles that have cited the publication you searched for.
Once you have narrowed down the key texts – read through them and take notes. A good piece of advice is to organise your notes by theme. If you are transcribing, marking, or annotating useful bits of text (either manually or digitally) colour coding by theme, or finding some way of organising your notes so that you can decipher them when you come to write your essay will make your life a lot easier.
Step 4: Structure
How you present your argument is nearly as important as the argument itself, which is why it is imperative that your essay follows a logical structure. A classic piece of advice is to "tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them, and tell them what you told them". This, in essence, summarises the core introduction, main body, and conclusion structure of your essay.
Having a clear and logical structure will help ensure that your essay stays focused, and doesn’t stray from the question being answered. Each section, paragraph, and sentence should add value to the argument you are presenting. As you are writing, it’s good to take a step back and ask yourself: what value does this sentence/section add? How does it link to my overarching argument? If you find that you can’t answer those questions, there is a high risk that you have strayed from your core argument, and you may want to reconsider the path you are taking.
Different essay formats and structures
The following is a list of possible essay formats that might be helpful in thinking about how to structure your essay.
- Three part structure. If you have organised your notes by theme (as suggested in step 3) then organising your essay around a set number of themes (three is a good number, but there’s no fixed rule) to illustrate different aspects of an issue or ways of answering a question can be a good idea.
- Argument and counterargument. Sometimes if having researched a specific area your response feels divided, an argument/counterargument structure can be the best solution.
- Thesis, antithesis and synthesis. This three-part structure consists of in one section supporting a claim with evidence (thesis), in another section making a contrary claim and supporting this with evidence (antithesis), and in a final and third section attempting to resolve the conflict between the two (synthesis).
- Hypothesis and a set number of case studies. This is another classic essay structure – in which you start with a claim (hypothesis) and then develop a set number of case studies in order to test that claim.
- Compare and contrast. This is a specific essay format for comparing different components. The challenge here is to work out a structure that suits the theme: do you establish subheadings and then alternate between A and B; divide the essay in half between A and B; or integrate your analysis between A and B? The answer is dependent upon what your research findings suggest – but it is important to be clear about the choice you are making.
Step 5: Writing your essay
Now you have worked out your essay question, researched the topic, and developed a structure, it is time to start writing! Writing a text that conforms with stylistic requirements can be daunting – the following essay writing tips should help you on the path to essay writing success.
Being descriptive is fine if you are looking to scrape a pass, but for a higher grade you need to show that you are able to leverage critical reasoning. What are the limitations of the theories you are drawing on? How have these been dealt with in the literature? How do they impact the quality of arguments presented, and to what extent do they limit our understanding of what we are studying? What alternate explanations might offer additional depth?
Critical thinking is what will make your essay stand out. It shows the marker that you are not simply repeating the arguments that have been fed to you throughout your studies but actually engaging with theories in an academic manner. A good way to practice this is to pay careful attention when reading literature reviews in published articles – you will see that authors don’t simply summarise previous studies, but offer a critique leading to a gap for their own research.
Another common issue – particularly amongst first and second-year undergraduates – is that they tend to use non-academic language:
In this essay I will look at how people who buy art use cultural capital. My theory is that having more cultural capital will change their taste in art, as they are able to understand the pieces differently to other people.
Examples such as this are unfortunately all too common and should give you a good idea of what to avoid. The sentiment behind the text is good, but it reads more like a second-rate blog post than an academic essay. Academic writing should be more formal, concise, unbiased, and include good use of rhetoric. As for the above example, an academic might instead write:
This essay explores the role of cultural capital in the consumption of art and the impact of cultural capital on consumers’ perception of artistic expression.
You will note that this second example is far more concise yet none of the meaning is lost. It also uses present (rather than future) tense, and avoids informal terms. Clear, concise, and precise language is a hallmark of academic writing.
Academic writing requires a careful balance between novel argument and drawing on arguments presented by others. Writing a completely 'novel' essay, without drawing on a single source, indicates that you haven’t made yourself familiar with what has already been published. Conversely, citing someone for every point made suggests that you haven’t produced a novel argument.
As such, it is important that you provide evidence (a credible citation) when you are making a statement of fact, or drawing on arguments, frameworks, and theories presented by other academics. These, in turn, should support the overarching novel argument that you yourself are making.
When drawing on other authors it is important to understand the distinction between quoting and paraphrasing. The general rule of thumb is that you should paraphrase wherever possible, and quote only when necessary or if it clarifies the point you are making. That said, paraphrasing can be difficult without losing the inherent value of the argument presented.
In case you are unsure about the difference between quoting and paraphrasing, we’ve included an example below:
Quote: "Cultural capital can be acquired, to a varying extent, depending on the period, the society, and the social class, in the absence of any deliberate inculcation, and therefore quite unconsciously" (Bourdieu, 1986: 18).
Paraphrase: Unlike economic capital, the amassing of which requires some conscious effort, cultural capital can be built simply by existing and consuming (Bourdieu, 1986).
Both the quoted and the paraphrased versions carry essentially the same meaning, with the exception that paraphrasing shows slightly wider knowledge of Bourdieu (through mentioning another form of capital), and presents an argument that, while true to the writings of Bourdieu, better fits the overall argument.
Properly citing the sources upon which you draw also ensures that you will not be accused of plagiarism, which is a serious offence in academia. In fact, repeated and grievous plagiarism can lead to the suspension of your studies at the majority of academic institutions!
Format references correctly
When referencing, be aware that there are multiple different referencing formats that are subject-specific – from Chicago, to Harvard, to MLA, to APA – and within these, multiple variations (most notably with some essays requiring in-text citation and others requiring footnotes or endnotes).
The important thing is to identify the referencing style that your specific subject (or course guide) requires and then to be consistent in using it. A resource that should prove extremely useful here is EndNote – which will format your bibliography and citations for you, once you have worked out which format you need to use.
To sum all of this essay writing advice into a single sentence: the key to great essay writing is to define and refine your research question, carefully determine the key critical texts, structure your essay appropriately, think critically and to write in a clear and concise way.
TOP TIP: find a study buddy. Having a similarly ambitious 'study buddy' is often undervalued by students, but the synergy achieved by working together can help both of you achieve considerably higher grades. It is important to note that you shouldn’t write your essays together, nor necessarily agree on the approach to be taken beforehand, as this leads to the risk of submitting two papers that are too similar – again linking back to the issue of plagiarism.
Instead, you should exchange essays with each other once you are both done with the first draft. It is immensely difficult to proofread your own work – one becomes blind to minor grammatical issues in a text after reading it repeatedly for days on end. It is similarly easy to overlook gaps in flow and logic of argument. Having a friend read through the work will address both of these issues, assuming that they, too, are high achieving.