How to write an academic essay
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Every student, of every discipline, in every institution, will at some point write an essay. Those who major in English will likely write more than a hundred of them throughout their undergraduate degree, alone.
Here's what we'll go over in this guide to writing academic essays:
- What is an essay?
- How is an essay structured?
- How to write an academic essay
- Before you start writing
- Using the internet for your research
- Reading your research
- What to do with your research
- Building your argument
- Perfecting your introduction
- The main body of your essay
- Using Academic English in your essay
- Referencing correctly in your essay
What is an essay?
Since the 16th century, we have been borrowing the word essay from French, where it meant ‘to test, trial, or weigh’, which is a very useful insight. I have written thousands of essays in my life, and assessed tens of thousands more as an educator – and whilst only a handful of those look much like any other, they are all united by that idea of trialling ideas. Essays are missions of exploration.
The American novelist and essayist, Flannery O’Connor, once remarked: "I write to discover what I know".
Conceiving of them as a process like this, more than a product, is the easiest way to demystify essays.
That said, through tradition (more than definition), the essay has come to represent something quite specific and measurable. In an academic essay, our product is the presentation of extensive, logical and well-researched arguments about our given topic. The process, however, remains the same, five hundred years later: exploring ideas on the page.
You may present a robust, apparently authoritative piece as your final draft, but you will get there by investigating your knowledge and trialling your arguments.
How is an essay structured?
All essays will look different (depending on the purpose and your subject), but most essays contain the following five key parts:
1. An introduction: an overview of the essay’s purpose and key contents.
2. A (fully referenced) review of the key topic of the essay: its history and debates.
3. A discussion of the development of the topic and its debates to a resolution.
4. A conclusion, if necessary.
5. A reference list.
How to write an academic essay
The first stage of any academic endeavour is understanding. Most essays prescribed to you will come with a title, often in the form of a question. Your first and most important task is to understand what it is asking of you.
Do not fall at the first hurdle; spend some time dissecting the question and extracting its essence. Find the question within the question,
A useful approach to take to your title is what I call the STOP method.
Essay briefs usually specify these four things, directly or indirectly, and if you STOP to identify them, it will help you to focus your research.
The system is as follows:
Where should the knowledge come from? Is a primary source given? Is a reading list provided?
What is the focus of the essay? Is it general or specific? Is it already well-known or brand new?
What angle should be taken? Should it be one-sided? Should one remain detached?
Is this an argument? Should it persuade? Is it evaluative or just declarative?
Here is an example of the STOP approach in action, for an example academic essay in Linguistics:
Using your knowledge of psycholinguistics, account for the non-standard English evident in the transcript: Annabelle (2½ years) playing with her toys.
The STOP approach:
Sources: own knowledge of psycholinguistics (secondary), provided transcript (primary)
Topic: non-standard English in children’s language acquisition
Orientation: focus on non-standard utterances only
Purpose: analyse, theorise, explain
And there you have it: the question within the question. Now you have direction.
BUT, if any of the features of STOP are omitted from the question, then try the following:
Try to see whether any of it is implied but not stated directly. For example, a question is likely to have links to a certain module.
Peruse any attached material. You may find a reading list or a mark scheme.
ASK someone. Starting is very difficult without knowing exactly what is asked of you, so do not hesitate to seek clarification from the person or organisation who set the question.
Before you start writing
Now you are clear about what the question is asking of you, you may be ready to write your academic essay. If the essay requires nothing more than your own existing knowledge (usually the case in exams), then you’re good to go – or at least to plan!
However, in the vast majority of cases, you will be expected to research your topic heavily before beginning the composition process. In fact, most university-level essays will not even be marked if they are not brimming with evident research.
When I first look at an undergraduate essay, indeed, the first thing I read is the references list at the end. It might sound dismissive, but I can predict the quality of an essay with about 99% accuracy by doing this.
If you are lucky, you will be provided with primary sources (texts) and direction for secondary sources (reading lists). If you are less lucky, then you’ll need to get stuck into some background research of your own.
Can I use the Internet to research my academic essay?
I hate to say it, because it is an amazing resource, but if you quote from Wikipedia, or reference it in your bibliography, you’ll be laughed out of the building.
Mostly because academics are snobs, but also for some more legitimate reasons, secondary sources exist in a hierarchy of prestige. In other words, some sources are considered more worthy and ‘serious’ than others.
The hierarchy looks like this:
Peer-reviewed, published journal articles.
Books and chapters from books (especially those with multiple authors and at least one editor).
Academic video content, personal communications, newspapers, and lecture notes.
Blog posts, public-access websites (like Wikipedia), and unpublished material like conversation.
Did you spot the pattern? There are two things that make a source more prestigious: the academic status of the writer, and the number of academics involved in the writing.
Peer-reviewed, published journal articles come from very academic sources and are severely and repeatedly scrutinised by multiple academics before they can get published. Blog posts, at the other end of the spectrum, can be written and spread by anyone, and face no greater scrutiny than the fire in a comments section!
However (and it’s a big ‘however’), whilst the hierarchy undeniably applies to your references, there is nothing to say that you cannot read those lower down on the hierarchy. Indeed, online encyclopedia entries are incredibly useful for orienting you and providing background for your chosen area.
It is from these pages that you can identify the ‘big names’ in the area – a job that prestigious journal searches won’t do for you.
For example, if you are a student of Literature and you type ‘Literary Theory’ into Wikipedia, the resultant page points you towards names like Leavis, Derrida, Foucault and Fish – some of the most significant names in the area. On the other hand, if you started your search on Google Scholar, you’d be pointed towards Carroll, Ronen, Barry and Scholes – all relatively new and less influential contributors to the field.
So don’t knock Wikipedia. Just acknowledge what it is, and don’t cite it directly! It is a general overview that can serve as a springboard to other reading. (TOP TIP: use the reference list at the bottom of the Wikipedia page to find more prestigious sources.)
How do I read my research?
This is a common concern. Most beginner essayists are stunned when faced with the apparently impossible: a thirty-item reading list and a two-week deadline for three thousand words. Obviously, writing three thousand words in two weeks doesn’t seem beyond the realms of possibility – it’s the insane task of reading thirty books and papers in that time as well that stumps people.
Fortunately, there is an unwritten rule about reading lists that I’m going to make a written rule:
You don't have to read it all.
That may sound like blasphemy, but it is a truth universally acknowledged by academics.
Read the primary material in its entirety, of course – twice, even. But the secondary material, think about being more picky.
The way I see it, there are three different types of secondary source with different approaches to take to reading them:
"Fortunately, there is an unwritten rule about reading lists that I’m going to make a written rule:
You don't have to read it all."
- Overview texts- Read the whole entry (they’re never extensive, by definition), making note of recurring or salient names and ideas.
- Journal articles- Read the abstract first, to see if it’s worth your time; then, read the conclusion, for the gist of it; then, if it seems like gold, then read some more from the middle, to get some quotable material.
- Books- Like with journals, read the contents first, to find a chapter heading that sounds relevant to you; read the first page of that chapter, to confirm that it’s relevant; then read the last paragraph for an executive summary; finally, if it seems worth it, then sift through the chapter for soundbites.
This way, you can get ten times more reference material than if you’d been comprehensive. It may sound dismissive, but when the deadline is tight, then efficiency is everything.
I learnt this during my undergraduate degree at the University of Oxford when I was tasked with writing about seven thousand words a week in academic essays.
Don’t sacrifice sleep for the sake of a more thorough read.
What to do with your research
This question, that logically follows from the question of how to read, is simple to answer… as simple as ABC:
For each text you read, you want to be able to lift out an abstract (a bullet-point summary of the gist, including controversies), several bites (direct quotations lifted from the text, with page numbers), and a citation (the full reference for the text you’re reading).
If you don’t keep a record of all three of those as you go, then your reading was for nothing. Do not make the rookie mistake of ‘doing references at the end’. It always takes longer than it should, probably pushing you past the deadline – and you will almost certainly lose one of your best references forever. It happens every time. (I will return to referencing later.)
At this point, it is worth remembering: you have a question to answer. It is easy to get dragged away on tangents and down rabbit holes – especially when the topic is complex and fascinating – but you have a job to do. Every record you make of the texts you are reading needs to feed into an answer to your question.
If I’m compiling my notes on the computer, I embolden the bits that are most relevant to my argument; if I’m note-taking by hand, I use a highlighter. I also draw lines between evidently linked ideas.
The final stage of planning: building your argument
The preliminary stages of writing an academic essay are extensive, I know. You’re nearly ready to write, though. There’s just one final stage of planning necessary: building an argument.
From your primary and secondary material, you should now be forming an argument. Usually, the argument emerges naturally as a result of the good quality practices explained above. Occasionally, though, you need to disentangle your box of snakes and extract a coherent argument.
A useful approach to discursive essays is what I call the Narrative Approach. This approach ends up looking like a diary of all your preliminary work. As I said at the start, an essay is a trial of ideas, and it is here that you trial them. The Narrative Approach lays out the essay’s main body as follows:
- The origin of the issue and any controversy inherent to it.
- The prominent ideas and people involved in the controversy.
- The debates and development of the issue over time and the nuances involved.
- The current state of the issue in present context.
- The position that you take on the issue.
The Narrative Approach not only allows you to find a logical order for all of your content (your academic essay structure), but also ensures that you take a critical perspective at all times – a higher order thinking skill that is fundamental to success in essays according to all major academic institutions.
If you can organise your ideas into this logical structure, you should be able to answer the question posed to you.
Now, to ensure that your argument is logical, an extremely useful thing to do is to explain it aloud to somebody else. This process is always enlightening, and allows for any holes in the argument to become glaringly obvious; open engagement with challenges to the content; and you to practice having your ideas exposed to scrutiny.
All of this takes place in a safe space and allows for revisions to be made before the essay is ever seen by anyone else.
There’s also something incredibly powerful about verbal discussion that helps to crystallise ideas and make them stick.
Perfecting your introduction
It’s finally time to start writing your academic essay. But, irritatingly enough, the first thing that appears on a page is the most difficult part to get right: the introduction.
Unpopular opinion: if your essay is less than a thousand words long, then you don’t need an introduction; you need to answer the question!
Stating that you are going to answer the question above, using the words from the question above, whilst ensuring that you are going to make many points that refer to the question above, and then conclude something about the question above, is an exercise in futility.
All you’re saying is that you’re going to write an essay.
It’s the equivalent to starting a phone call with, “I’m calling you on the phone because I’d like to speak to you and we both have phones.”
The same goes for conclusions in short essays.
Introductions and conclusions for longer essays, on the other hand, are fundamentally important. Instead of generic statements of purpose, these paragraphs should instead function as condensed forms of your overall argument.
Bookending the main body, these sections ensure that the argument is clear. If they don’t sound good, the problem isn’t with the introduction format – it’s with the argument itself. If it sounds flimsy here, it won’t sound much better in the main body. That makes it a useful litmus test.
That said, it is always worth redrafting the introduction last, once everything else is clear in your mind.
The main body of your academic essay
The meat and potatoes of your academic essay comes next. You already have all of your content and you have it all arranged as an argument. Most would call this next part the writing, but it would be just as accurate to call it the formatting. You are adding nothing new, just making it all sound good. That’s why we spend so long on the preliminary stages!
Now, let’s address paragraph structure.
A good paragraph in an academic essay should, of course, contain a coherent point which is soundly evidenced and evaluated.
Additionally, though, it is good to include:
- A topic sentence- A sentence which establishes the point, at the start of the paragraph.
- Signpost language- Adverbs like “similarly” and “conversely” to orient the reader to your purpose and direction.
- Deixis- Repeated reference to the key idea from the topic sentence, often simplified: “this theme” replaces the earlier “The theme of perpetual upgrade culture in Apple products”.
- Progress- The paragraph should move through an argument and its final sentence should pave the way for the next paragraph.
But there’s more to academic writing than content and structure. Style is the missing part of this equation.
English for Academic Purposes (EAP) is a discipline that exists for the sole purpose of achieving that style.
For many students, it is like learning a foreign language; for others, it is like unearthing a treasure chest that lay at their feet all their lives. Whatever the case, it is not like the language we use every day.
Using Academic English in your essay
"Academic English is something that you refine throughout an academic career, as you read more academic pieces, receive more feedback, and get more practice."
Academic English is a vast, irreducible field, which cannot be given due consideration here. However, the following five areas are a useful starting point as they are all things you can do straight away:
1.Technical vocabulary. You are writing as an expert in your field, for other experts in that field. Use the specific jargon of that field. Students of nutrition should refer to “macronutrients” not ‘food groups’, for example.
2. Nominalisation of forms. For whatever reason, we don’t use many verbs in academic prose. So we refer to a “debate” instead of ‘debating’; we speak of an “analysis” rather than ‘analysing’; and instead of ‘challenging’ things, we pose “challenges”.
3. Formality and detachedness. Formal English is characterised by the professional tone, which means that colloquialisms like ‘isn’t’, ‘stuff’ and ‘crappy’ are replaced by “is not”, “features” and “ineffective”, respectively. The grammar is also more complex, with longer sentences and embedded clauses being common.
4. Hedges and tentativeness. You are not yet a world-renowned academic. Sorry. Until that day comes, your language should include regular ‘hedges’ – showing that you don’t think your points are undeniable and immutable truth. Use phrases like “seem to suggest” and “might be perceived” in place of the declarative ‘is’.
5. Clarity and accuracy. Academic writing should avoid flouting Standard English expression. Proofreading will be crucial, in all cases. Equally, attempts to sound too clever inevitably end up sounding convoluted and confusing; “using clear English” is clearer than ‘eschewing grandiose phraseology in the interest of comprehension’. Right?
Academic English is something that you refine throughout an academic career, as you read more academic pieces, receive more feedback, and get more practice.
Do not expect to hit the nail on the head on your first try; just do your best to emulate the academic discourse you read in your subject area. One day, it’ll be second nature to you!
How to reference correctly in your essay
Referencing. The word still jars with me, even after all these years. I don’t quite break out in a cold sweat, but there’s certainly a bit of repressed trauma in there.
It sounds daunting, but can be made simple. Most elegantly put, referencing refers to the synthesis of other voices in your work. All the theorists whose ideas you’ve engaged with; every critical voice you’ve quoted; each book you’ve paraphrased: these constitute your references.
But in their current form, they are not references. In their current form, they are just ideas that you have stolen and put across as your own ideas. The process of referencing is one of acknowledgement.
In the real world, where, if you steal something, you are branded a criminal. In the world of academia, you can steal ideas and are encouraged to do so – as long as you acknowledge where it came from.
It’s like stealing Sarah’s car and then pleading innocence in court because you told everybody it belonged to Sarah. That would pass in the court of academia. If you failed to acknowledge Sarah’s ownership, you’d be found guilty… of plagiarism.
Plagiarism (the failure to acknowledge the source of ideas in an academic setting) is a serious charge, one whose maximum sentence includes blanket disqualification from all examination boards and academic institutions, for life.
So, let’s avoid that.
To ensure you don’t fall foul of accidental plagiarism, use my method to EQUIP yourself:
Breaking them down, we EQUIP ourselves as follows:
EndNote is a piece of software that tracks your academic essay’s references and is amazing, but when I say endnote more generally, I’m referring to the references list at the end of your piece. Writing them out in full, as per the academic conventions of your institution and faculty, is crucial, and should be done during your note-taking process.
A reference in a final references list, formatted to the common APA standard, might look like this: Voss, J. F., & Wiley, J. (1997). Developing understanding while writing essays in history. International Journal of Educational Research, 27(3), 255-265.
It includes, as standard for most referencing formats, the authors’ names, the date of publication, the title of the article, the name of the journal it’s from, the issue and number of that journal, and the page range. Other referencing styles differ slightly, so check which one you’re expected to use before you start.
If you wish to use specific language from a source, then you need to put it in “quotation marks” and provide an in-text citation (see below: In-text), including the page or paragraph number. These quotations should be embedded into your paragraphs.
E.g. Critics James Voss and Jennifer Wiley claim that referencing is a “fundamental aspect of essay success” (Voss & Wiley, 1997, p. 264).
EXCEPTION: if your quotation exceeds four lines, it gets granted its own isolated paragraph and doesn’t usually need quotation marks.
Unchanged language is crucial. If you are quoting from the source directly, it must of course remain unchanged, or it’s no longer a quotation (with the exception being anything within [square brackets] inside a quotation).
Do not fall into the trap of just changing a few words from the original source so that it becomes ‘your own work’ – this will be spotted by sophisticated plagiarism-detection software (like Turnitin) and be perceived as deliberate attempts to plagiarise the work of others. If you aren’t quoting directly, then you need to paraphrase (see below), rather than just emending slightly.
Your in-text citation is how you signal to your reader that the specific thing you’re writing at this time comes from an extraneous source. Harvard referencing would require a bracketed in-text reference after the quoted or paraphrased section, such as “(Voss & Wiley, 1997)” and a relevant page number; whereas the Chicago referencing style would call for a footnote: a superscript number above your quoted or paraphrased section that corresponds with a reference at the foot of your page.
Always check the referencing guidelines of your given piece, as mentioned above. All academic institutions and faculties have dedicated guidelines for referencing that are almost always provided online. As maddening as it can be, some examiners are obsessed with ‘correct referencing’ and will deduct marks for inappropriate referencing procedures – so play by the rules as closely as possible.
It might not be a plagiarism issue, but it’s still a pain!
If you wish to refer to the whole argument of a text, or a section too long for quoting, or just think that you can express the argument more coherently and concisely than the original, then paraphrasing is useful. Once you have put the idea into your own words, ensure you bookend it with an allusion to the author (at the start) and an in-text reference (at the end, sometimes including a page number) for what you’ve referred to.
For example: Critics James Voss and Jennifer Wiley insist on correct referencing procedures (Voss & Wiley, 1997, p. 264).
If you can do all of the above, then you have protected yourself against accidental plagiarism.
Still, nobody likes to be caught out, it’s worth running your entire essay through an online plagiarism checker – for your own peace of mind.
When it comes to plagiarism, my philosophy is the same as my old Maths teacher’s: “Show your working”. As brilliant as you may be, as a young academic who’s brimming with ideas, you should not be reluctant to reference. Nine times out of ten, how erudite and well-referenced an essay is predicts how good it is.
Oh, and as a final note on plagiarism, please be aware that it is possible to self-plagiarise… so don’t recycle content from old essays that were submitted for grading!
Is that everything?
So, we’ve covered how to STOP and EQUIP ourselves for planning and referencing, respectively; we’ve learned the ABCs of note-taking and the Narrative Approach to academic essay structure; and much more. Is that everything there is to know about writing an excellent academic essay?
Not quite, but it’s a good place to start.
Academic essay-writing is an artform, pure and simple. Just like any other artform, it is refined through diligence and practice until it is excellent.
But, even an excellent essayist can fail to impress a moderator, and that’s because there’s no such thing as a perfect essay. Redrafting will almost always be necessary, because we are subject to both the whims and tastes of our moderators, and the specific success criteria of our institutions and faculties.
To that end, my final piece of advice to you, essay writers, is to play the game.
At school, you have teachers. At university, it’s tutors. At postgraduate level, supervisors. Even when you’re a professor publishing your own research, you’ve got peer-reviewers. At every step of the way, you are playing to the tastes and demands of different individuals and criteria, so play their game. Tick their boxes. Figure out how to modulate.
Listen to feedback. Amend your style. Take the advice, even if it seems wrong. Do not be disheartened, because all of this game-playing constitutes growth. The more you do it, appealing to different individuals and different criteria, the better an essayist you become.
Because, at the end of the day, a good essayist is a versatile essayist.