Great essay writing in 8 steps
(Last updated: 12 May 2021)
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Can great essay writing really be condensed down into just 8 steps? Well, 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, a reflective essay, a dissertation or thesis, a course assignment, coursework or something else.
So without further ado, let's dive in and learn the eight steps to writing an essay.
1. Understand the question
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 particular circumstance? Evaluate the usefulness of a particular concept?
These are some of the common phrases found in essay questions, and each indicates a different set of expectations. If you are asked to critically evaluate a particular theoretical approach, for instance, you have to gain an understanding not only of said theory, but also other common approaches. They must all be weighed against each other, highlighting the relative strengths and weaknesses of each theory and, importantly, you must come to a well-justified and confident conclusion. Is the theory good? What are its flaws? How can it be improved?
If you are asked to evaluate the usefulness of something, however, you don’t necessarily need to go into as much critical depth. Yes, you should still acknowledge alternative approaches, and yes, you should still note some strengths and weaknesses – but the bulk of the work must emphasise the concepts practical usefulness. Perhaps the best approach is to find one, or a few, case studies where the theory has been used – what was the outcome of this? Does the application of the theory reveal any particular shortcomings, or strengths?
“Compare and contrast” essays, meanwhile, are essentially a hybrid of the above – you need to take a critical approach and evaluate the literature, but your focus has to remain solidly on the theories that you have been asked to compare and contrast. It is important to show that you understand both (or all) core theories in great depth, both on a theoretical and applied level.
In essence, the wording of the essay question will tell you how the essay should be written. It will indicate where the focus of your essay should lie as you research and write.
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 results in two things: (1) late nights at the library, and (2) 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||(Insert date)|
|Map the essay chapters||(Insert date)|
|Collect articles||(Insert date)|
|Read and take notes||(Insert date)|
|Start writing||(Insert date)|
|Finish first draft||(Insert date)|
|Hand in||(Insert date)|
By setting deadlines for yourself and committing to stick 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.
3. Read widely
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. Learning how to sift through a large amount of data is an important academic skill. You should start by searching through databases – Google Scholar is a great tool for this – using key words related to your research topic. 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. You don’t want to waste time reading through and endless number of articles simply to find that they aren’t actually relevant. Once you have identified a few solid articles, you should (a) go through their bibliographies and take note of who they are citing, as these articles will likely be of value for your own research; and (b) check on Google Scholar to see who has cited them. 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.
It’s important that you don’t rely too heavily on one or a couple of texts, as this indicates to the marker that you haven’t engaged with the wider literature. You should be particularly careful in using course books (i.e. “introduction to management” and the like), as these are essentially summaries of other people’s work.
4. Be critical
Perfect theories and academic approaches are rare – the clear majority of theories, arguments, and studies have flaws. 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 in your dealing with academic materials. 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 you 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.
5. Structure, flow and focus
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.
You should also make sure that all the different parts of your essay fit together as a cohesive and logical whole, and that the transition from one argument to the next is fluid. Students often treat essays as lists of arguments, presenting one after the other with little consideration for how they fit together, which inevitably leads to a lower grade. Make sure to tell your reader why you are transitioning from one argument to the next, why they are in this particular order, and how each argument helps shed light on a particular aspect of what you are discussing.
6. Quoting, paraphrasing and plagiarism
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 inherit 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!
7. 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 goes 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.
8. Write academically
Another common issue – particularly amongst first and second-year undergraduates – is that they tend to use rather 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 the above are unfortunately rather 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 expressions.
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.