Spending a good amount of time on planning your essay is well worth it; if you don't know where you are going, why should the reader follow you?
- Don’t waffle - state your argument clearly and back it up with supporting evidence. You are not telling a story, but arguing a case.
- Articulate your own views clearly and explicitly - your supervisor or examiner needs to know what you think.
- Don’t just walk around the question prodding it from time to time; engage with it directly from the start.
- For longer pieces of work consider getting a friend to read a draft; being deeply engaged with your essay, you are less likely than they are to spot areas where you haven't been explicit enough or have missed a stage in your argument (easy to do when you know what you mean). They may also spot errors in spelling, grammar and language.
Balancing knowledge and argument
You also need to balance knowledge and argument – what facts you know and what argument you are trying to build on top of them.
Move beyond just demonstrating what you know to deploying this knowledge effectively in pursuit of a convincing argument. Whereas previously you are likely to have been credited for including everything you know on a topic, at university level this suggests that you were not able to select what will advance your argument from extraneous material. You are now expected to take greater control of the material and present a more authoritative argument.
The information you gather will give you possible lines of approach to the question as well as the supporting evidence. The more of both that you can gather, the better, but do choose and refine the most effective material for your purpose. The evidence should underpin your argument not overwhelm it, so you should introduce your points before referring to other material.
How much evidence do I need to refer to?
It is up to you to decide how much supporting evidence to use. One really good example might be enough, or you could use two or three examples from slightly different perspectives (if you can find them and they are all strong). In the latter case, that difference - and its implications - can provide an elegant springboard to your next point.
How much knowledge can I assume of my reader?
Students often ask how much they need to tell the reader (who could be assumed to know all this already). This question rests on a misunderstanding. Your essay is not about imparting facts but answering a question in your own voice with your own interpretation of the facts. Factual information earns its place (or not) by the contribution it makes to that process.
An extreme form of fact-driven structure is narrative. It is difficult to stop once you have started and the argument can then only emerge from the story piecemeal. This is especially problematic when you are under pressure of time in an examination. Drawing attention to change across time should be done within its own paragraph/ section of an unfolding argument.