How good are your essay-writing skills? Check back through your recent essays and evaluate them. Click on any of the areas below to reveal strategies for improvement. If you’re still not sure, ask your supervisor for specific feedback on these different areas. Download a PDF of this checklist here to take to your supervisions if you think that you need further help on any of the topics.
A good essay should...
... have a clear introduction
Have a clear introduction which motivates the question, defines its terms if necessary, introduces your material, indicates your major argument(s) and gives a sense of how you will structure your ideas. Read through the section on Writing Introductions and use the points there as a checklist. Plan to spend extra time on writing the introduction to your next couple of essays. It will become much easier and quicker as you get used to what is required.
... have a well-developed conclusion
Have a well-developed conclusion which points to the significance of your arguments, placing them in broader contexts. Read through the section on Writing Conclusions and ask yourself the questions listed there to help you explore the significance of your arguments. Ask your supervisor for advice on how you might extend your ideas for the conclusion of a specific essay. Swap essays with your supervision partner and try to suggest ideas for each other’s conclusions.
... be written in a formal register
Write in an appropriate formal register, demonstrating knowledge of relevant critical vocabulary. There are no shortcuts to developing the appropriate language for essay-writing. The best advice is to read critical material widely. From this reading, and from lecture notes, write down specialised terms (philosophical concepts, literary terms, political theories, etc.), together with definitions, and try to use these where relevant in your essays. Your supervisor will soon let you know if you are using them wrongly! If you cannot find definitions you understand, ask your supervisor to explain. More generally, think about critics you have enjoyed reading and examine their writing. Underline or note down any elegant use of language or syntactical structures you particularly like and try to use them in your own work. This is different from plagiarism – you are not copying their ideas here, just aspects of style you would like to emulate.
... show clear progression between ideas
More effective planning may help here - can you reduce your essay to one topic sentence per paragraph? Read these aloud and see to what extent they connect and progress your argument. Make sure your paragraphs are in the best order – think about presenting a connected, cumulative argument rather than a list of disconnected points. Read through the section on Writing Paragraphs. For your next essay, check that all your paragraphs are linked together, using the suggestions in that section.
... address the question directly
Read the question carefully, several times over, until you are sure you understand what is being asked. Produce a core statement for your essay – find out how to do this in Using Core Statements – and then split it down into smaller ‘sub-arguments’. Then be ruthless with the material you want to include in your essay. Does it contribute to one of these points and to the overall argument? If not, however much you might like the idea, it needs to go! Remember, irrelevant material doesn’t just pad out an essay, it also detracts from your argument. When you have finished writing your essay, check back through: does every sentence and every paragraph contribute to your argument? Does every textual example really back up the point it relates to? If not, they should be deleted.
... be structured appropriately
Organise ideas into a suitable structure which is appropriate for the kind of question set and for the argument you are constructing. Work through the Focusing on the Question section of this resource and identify which category the question falls into. If it does not already imply an argument, you will need to construct one yourself. Then order your points to show a progression in ideas, thinking about which order would be the most persuasive for your reader.
... demonstrate critical reflection on a range of views
Weigh up different views and reflect critically on them in the light of the evidence before coming to a conclusion. Read critical material widely and try to think about the different approaches critics are taking, even if they are not explicitly disagreeing with each other. There is always another side to the argument, and acknowledging it before you critique it will actually make your essay more persuasive. Don’t be afraid to include material which contradicts the points you are making. Show clearly that you understand the difference, and construct an argument which proceeds along the ‘although..., nevertheless...’ route. Do not simply exclude material which doesn’t fit into your argument – try to take account of it and weigh up all the evidence before coming to a conclusion.
... be carefully crafted and polished
Your writing should be carefully drafted and polished, adhering to the rules of good scholarship in its presentation (punctuation, spelling, grammar, correct citation of sources). Allow extra time to proofread your essay. Use a spellchecker, but do not rely on it to pick up all errors. If you have recurrent difficulties with aspects of grammar and punctuation, you may need to think about how to fill in some gaps in your knowledge here. If you are, or suspect you might be, dyslexic, there are particular strategies that will help; contact the Disability Resource Centre for further information.
Your supervisor or Director of Studies may be able to recommend good guides, or you may find suitable material yourself on the internet. Remember that good presentation will suggest to a reader (or examiner) that you have taken care over your work, and that your ideas are likely to be as accurate as your punctuation. Bad presentation, unfortunately, suggests the opposite...
... avoid plagiarism
If you ensure that you reference your sources appropriately, reflecting critically on the ideas of others rather than presenting them as your own, you will not plagiarise. It helps to familiarise yourself with institutional and departmental policy on the issue. Read the University’s Definition of plagiarism.
... express ideas concisely and precisely
When writing your essay, try to express your points in as few words as possible. Don’t make the mistake of using a few sentences to define the same idea, each in slightly different ways. Try to cover ground as quickly as possible, and don’t try to extend your essay by padding out your ideas. Edit your essays at the end and cut out any waffle.
... show evidence of sufficient reading
This one is straightforward! Allow plenty of time to read for your essay. Follow suggestions on bibliographies given out by lecturers and supervisors. Many articles can now be accessed online – use these to supplement library books. Don’t just read material which seems directly relevant to the essay question: sometimes the most original essays combine ideas from different spheres of thought and areas of study.
... analyse texts/issues
Analyse texts/issues rather than simply describing them.
Adopt a ‘point + evidence’ strategy: make your point, then bring in evidence to back it up, then move on to the next point. Don’t simply narrate events, give plot details, or give context unless this is important evidence and it is made clear how it relates to your argument.
For supervision and examination essays, always assume that your reader is familiar with your material (texts, historical events, etc.) and do not state the obvious. However, never assume that the reader will be able to guess from the material you present a point which seems obvious to you – always make it explicit.