Writing an Essay
When writing an essay it is useful to think about who you're writing the essay for:
; Your course tutor(s)
; An imaginary reader (e.g. fellow student on a different course)
As the writer you need to think about what you need to have in your essay that will be relevant and useful to your own learning (obviously within the context of the essay question). Your course tutor wants to find out what you know and whether you can evaluate what you know. She or he also wants to see whether you can represent this in a coherent way demonstrating that you have read and understood the relevant reference materials. The task is not only what you know but what you can do with what you know.
Your imaginary reader needs explanation and a path through what you know. You need to write an essay that would be readable and interesting and without any loose ends.
Dealing with an Essay
Consider each of the following aspects of writing in relation to your own written work. Spend a few minutes thinking about the different questions and what you actually do when you write an essay.
Planning -How do you go about planning an essay?
Reading -How does your essay influence your reading?
Organisation -How do you decide how to organise your essay? What factors affect the organisation?
Drafting -Do you draft your essay? Why/why not? How many drafts do you normally write? Editing -Do you edit your work? How?
Language -Do you have any specific use of language difficulties (e.g. spelling, grammar etc)?
General -What other things do you do or don't do?
For an essay to be successful it must address the issue presented, identify key areas relating to that issue and provide a coherent discussion dealing with the issue.
In order to write a successful essay, apart from the requisite reading, it is essential that you understand what you are being asked to do.
Interpreting Essay Questions
When looking at essay titles it is often not easy to see exactly what is being asked. You need to identify the topic the instruction and the limitation. This is possible without substantial
knowledge of the subject.
You also need to know what the assumptions are, what is significant and what the
issue/problem is. In order to do this you must have knowledge of the subject and of the controversies surrounding your subject.
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For example, consider the following essay title:
"Discuss the use of landscape elements in the decoration of ceramics from north China in the Song and Yuan periods."
Discuss is the instruction, landscape elements is the topic and the limitation is ceramics,
and Song & Yuan periods.
It is essential to identify all the elements surrounding an essay question to ensure that you deal with it appropriately.
Essay questions are a way of asking you to do something specific with the things you have been studying on your course. However, they are not always presented in ways that state explicitly how you’re supposed to tackle the question.
Below is a list of some 'key tasks' which may or may not appear explicitly in an essay question but which will be represented by other means. These are often referred to in essay feedback and it is useful to consider what they might mean.
For instance, look at the following piece of feedback on an essay written in response to the
‘Assess the respective weight of reasons for the Emancipation Edict of 1861’
What you have written is good and clearly expressed for the most part. You succeed in listing many of the factors that are often cited for the Emancipation of the serfs in 1861, and in presenting a good selection of information. However, your paper lacks a clearly stated thesis and argument. You need to provide an introductory paragraph where you introduce and set out your argument – i.e. why you think serfs were emancipated. You should then present information and evidence supporting and
developing your argument, as well as consider and rebut opposing arguments. The paper should then end with a concluding paragraph where you summarise why you think serfs were emancipated in
1861. Your first and last paragraphs are good paragraphs in themselves but they do not introduce or conclude the paper. The topic of the paper was ‘Assess the respective weight of reasons…’ Your paper ‘lists… reasons’.
Account for Give reasons for; explain how something happened
Analyse Examine and explain why.
Assess Evaluate and give reasons.
Compare Write about (usually) two things which have certain similarities but with
some crucial differences. There may be an element of evaluation here
Examine Look at carefully; consider the details surrounding the topic. In what way Explain how and say why.
To what extent How far do you agree with... / How 'true' is
Justify Give good reasons for; explain satisfactorily.
Outline Give a short description of the main points.
State Express carefully, fully and clearly.
Discuss Identify the ‘problem’ and analyse and explain how and why it came into
being and what it might imply.
Define Give a description of (possibly a particular description for a particular
You will also get questions that ask 'Why', ‘How’, 'What' or ‘In what way...’ often in the context
of e.g. How do you account for?
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Once you've identified the various components of the question, you must begin to interrogate them. This is done by breaking the question down into sub-questions.
Look at the following question:
‘What can we learn from Chinese ceramics about other aspects of Chinese culture?’
Significance, assumptions and issues
– why have they asked this question? What do they want me to explore?
- what is meant by 'Chinese ceramics'? (Objects? Decoration? Function. –examples, etc)
- what specific examples can I use?
- what is meant by other aspects of Chinese culture here? Not art?
- and so on…
In this way, you begin to make the question your own and start to write the ‘answer’ to it. You
will also provide yourself with a focus for your reading. In other words, you read to find the answers to your many sub-questions.
Opening Paragraph (Introduction)
This should be the most general paragraph of the essay. It should contain the whole idea of the essay, including some notion of your own interpretation. It should also contain some kind of problematisation of the topic -where you
indicate that there is something significant or interesting about it. There could be a kind of internal essay 'map' in the introduction and some kind of reformulation of the question. Closing Paragraph(s) (Conclusion)
The concluding paragraph should complete the circle with a reference back to the beginning (question). It too should be general in the sense that it completes or provides some kind of resolution to the discussion. It should indicate conclusions drawn from consideration of the main issues/points discussed.
It is useful to organise your answer into sections (not necessarily with subheadings) each one dealing with a particular aspect of the discussion. Each section should contain an opening paragraph generalising the content and direction of the section. The subsequent paragraphs will then develop the central idea.
Each paragraph should have a general statement of some kind identifying the role/relevance of the paragraph. The rest of the paragraph should be unified around its topic and its theme. Unrelated themes and/or topics will appear out of place, possibly irrelevant and ultimately disorganised and unfocused.
Each sentence should be unified around one particular point or aspect of the point. If you include too many ideas in a sentence, it loses focus. Make sure each sentence is actually a complete sentence with a clear 'subject' and a clear 'main verb'. it is very easy to write unfinished sentenc
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Whenever you've finished a piece of writing you need to read it again with a critical eye. These
categories should help to focus your attention on relevant points. Organisation
; Is there a relevant opening section?
; Do the topic sentences adequately match their paragraphs? .
; Are the paragraphs unified?
; How are the paragraphs developed? .
; How are the paragraphs linked?
; Is there a concluding section to the essay? Coherence
; Does each point follow on logically from the previous one? .
; Is it confusing to read at all?
How does the text hang together?
; Connectors (too many/too few?) (right choice/wrong choice?) .
; Clauses (incomplete sentences?)
; Sentences (too full? too complex?)
Is the discussion?
Word Process your essay if possible and use 1.5 line spacing. Do not cut words in half at the
end of a line (e.g. compre- hensive).
Read through your first draft.
Re-draft with amendments as necessary
Check for: spelling mistakes
Make sure you've referenced your sources correctly.
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