Essay writing technique

Being able to write well is not only fundamental to passing your exams, it’s a vital life skill. Using good grammar and correct spelling are essential, so if you’re weak on these, try and brush up a little more! Make sure you understand how to use paragraphs correctly. No one wants to read one long stream of consciousness. So take a look at these essay writing technique tips.

General technique

Essays need to have a beginning, a middle and an end. The introduction should outline the problem, explain why it’s important, and briefly outline the main arguments. Don’t start with a dictionary definition – this is clichéd and boring. It should sum up the main arguments in the middle and finish with a conclusions that finally answers the essay question.

Good essay writing technique means having a well-ordered essay. Make sure you plan your essay. Make a bullet point list, table, or spider diagram with the main components of your answer and clearly order them. Poor structure is one of the main reasons students get marked down in essays. Order your thoughts logically and stick to your essay plan. You may want to use subtitles to help you organise your essay.

The main thing that the examiners are looking for is to see that you’ve understood the question. Demonstrate your keen conceptual awareness and understanding of the key issues. Do not be vague. Be specific and illustrate your work with appropriately referenced examples. Use figures or pictures or maps to illustrate your point. Demonstrate that you’ve done the wider reading.

Make sure you answer the question. If it’s a ‘compare and contrast’ kind of question, you’ll need to demonstrate both sides of the argument. If it’s a ‘define and explain’ kind of question, you’ll need to show that you have a deep understanding of the topic. If it has two parts, divide your essay into two parts to answer the question. Read widely around the topic before you even start and you’re halfway there.

In the conclusions, you need to sum up your arguments. Do not introduce anything new at this stage. Highlight the most important points and provide a final conclusion.

Remember to proof read your work! Critically read it through with a red pen. Have you repeated yourself? Be your worst critic and CUT savagely. Use everyone one of your alloted words to good effect. Cut the waffle and stick to justified (and referenced) statements. Keep your writing clear and simple.

Correct spelling and grammar is a must. Some general language tips:

  • Avoid semicolons as they are difficult to use correctly and effectively.
  • Paragraphs should follow a ‘theme’. They generally consist of more than one sentence.
  • It comprises, but is composed of (it never comprises of).
  • Avoid using the same word too frequently or twice in quick succession.
  • Do not use clichés, metaphores or similes.
  • Do not use abbreviations. Stick to formal English (don’t use don’t).
  • Try to avoid using the first person. (“I”).
  • Try to use the active voice rather than the passive voice where possible – it makes for more direct and interesting reading.

If you don’t understand English grammar, read Eats, shoots and leaves by Lynne Truss.

Finally, make sure you read carefully any feedback you are given on your essays. Your tutors will be keen to help you learn and progress.

Referencing and citations

At undergraduate level, more so than at A-Level, you will need to demonstrate evidence of further reading. Lectures are supposed to be a pointer and guide for your further reading. By reading, we mean published, peer-reviewed literature; Wikipedia does not count! Other websites (including this one) should not be cited in essays, but you can use them to further your understanding and get lists of peer-reviewed literature to read.

Make sure you understand the referencing style (copy the syle used in Elsevier journals as a good guide), and if you don’t understand, ask your lecturer and teacher. See the example paragraph below.

Example referencing style

Despite substantial evidence for multiple glaciations in Britain and Scandinavia during the Quaternary, the interaction between these ice masses in eastern England and in the North Sea remains unclear. There is extensive evidence of large Scandinavian and British ice sheets in the North Sea during each of the main glacial stages (Ehlers et al. 1984; Sejrup et al. 2005; Davies et al. 2011). Coalescence of the British-Irish Ice Sheet (BIIS) and Fennoscandian Ice Sheet (FIS) have been suggested during MIS 12, MIS 6 and the Devensian (MIS 5d-2) (Catt and Penny 1966; Catt and Digby 1988; Bowen 1999; Carr et al. 2006; Catt 2007; Davies et al. 2009; 2012), with Scandinavian ice reaching the coast of eastern England during MIS 6 and MIS 12. However, recent research in north Norfolk has challenged this argument, suggesting that the North Sea Drift tills, which were traditionally thought to comprise Scandinavian and Scottish tills, have purely a Scottish provenance, and may in fact be older than MIS 12 (Lee et al. 2002; 2004; 2012).

Bowen, D.Q., 1999. On the correlation and classification of Quaternary deposits and land-sea correlations, A Revised Correlation of Quaternary Deposits in the British Isles. Geological Society Special Report, Special Report 23. Geological Society of London, London, pp. 1-10.

Carr, S.J., Holmes, R., van der Meer, J.J.M. and Rose, J., 2006. The Last Glacial Maximum in the North Sea: Micromorphological evidence of extensive glaciation. Journal of Quaternary Science, 21(2): 131-153.

Catt, J.A., 2007. The Pleistocene glaciations of eastern Yorkshire: a review. Proceedings of the Yorkshire Geological Society, 56(3): 177-207.

Catt, J.A. and Digby, P.G.N., 1988. Boreholes in the Wolstonian Basement Till at Easington, Holderness, July 1985. Proceedings of the Yorkshire Geological Society, 47(1): 21-27.

Catt, J.A. and Penny, L.F., 1966. The Pleistocene deposits of Holderness, East Yorkshire. Proceedings of the Yorkshire Geological Society, 35: 375-420.

Davies, B.J., Roberts, D.H., Bridgland, D.R., Ó Cofaigh, C. and Riding, J.B., 2011. Provenance and depositional environments of Quaternary sedimentary formations of the western North Sea Basin. Journal of Quaternary Science, 26(1): 59-75.

Davies, B.J., Roberts, D.H., Bridgland, D.R., Ó Cofaigh, C., Riding, J.B., Demarchi, B., Penkman, K. and Pawley, S.M., 2012. Timing and depositional environments of a Middle Pleistocene glaciation of northeast England: New evidence from Warren House Gill, County Durham. Quaternary Science Reviews, 44: 180-212.

Davies, B.J., Roberts, D.H., Bridgland, D.R., Ó Cofaigh, C., Riding, J.B., Phillips, E.R. and Teasdale, D.A., 2009. Interlobate ice sheet dynamics during the Last Glacial Maximum at Whitburn Bay, County Durham, England. Boreas, 38: 555-575.

Ehlers, J., Meyer, K.-D. and Stephan, H.-J., 1984. The Pre-Weichselian glaciations of North-West Europe. Quaternary Science Reviews, 3(1): 1-40.

Lee, J.R., Busschers, F.S. and Sejrup, H.P., 2012. Pre-Weichselian Quaternary glaciations of the British Isles, The Netherlands, Norway and adjacent marine areas south of 68°N: implications for long-term ice sheet development in northern Europe. Quaternary Science Reviews, 44: 213-228.

Lee, J.R., Rose, J., Hamblin, R.J.O. and Moorlock, B.S.P., 2004. Dating the earliest lowland glaciation of eastern England: a pre-MIS 12 early Middle Pleistocene Happisburgh glaciation. Quaternary Science Reviews, 23(14-15): 1551-1566.

Lee, J.R., Rose, J., Riding, J.B., Moorlock, B.S.P. and Hamblin, R.J.O., 2002. Testing the case for a Middle Pleistocene Scandinavian glaciation in Eastern England: evidence for a Scottish ice source for tills within the Corton Formation of East Anglia, UK. Boreas, 31(4): 345-355.

Sejrup, H.P., Hjelstuen, B.O., Torbjorn Dahlgren, K.I., Haflidason, H., Kuijpers, A., Nygard, A., Praeg, D., Stoker, M.S. and Vorren, T.O., 2005. Pleistocene glacial history of the NW European continental margin. Marine and Petroleum Geology, 22(9-10): 1111-1129.

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10 thoughts on “Essay writing technique

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