Essays are a piece of writing that most people are pretty familiar with, right? You probably had to write them at school and in most topics they make up the bulk of assessment. But do you actually feel confident that you know what an essay is, or what’s expected of you?
Why do we write essays?
Writing essays, particularly in an academic context, is all about transmitting your knowledge and ideas to others. Usually, we do this in the form of an argument. By putting forward a claim and using evidence to support that claim, we not only show our understanding of a topic, but we also demonstrate our critical thinking skills, our ability to communicate effectively, and are able to process our learning.
This is why they are one of the most favoured types of assessments of our lecturers and tutors.
But they are also complex pieces of writing, and they can take a while to get good at. The good news is that once you’ve got the formula down you’re probably set up to do well. They can – depending on your discipline – be a really creative exercise as well. While essays can seem quite structured, you might be surprised at how much freedom you can often have with them once you know the rules. They’re the perfect outlet to articulate your ideas.
But they don’t necessarily seem this simple or approachable on the surface.
What are some common problems?
Because academic arguments are not merely about agreement or disagreement, you may not necessarily recognise what you’re doing when responding to an essay question as presenting an argument. Plus, a lot of the time, your essay instructions may not even mention the word ‘argument’.
This is made more difficult because we’re often told at university that we must remain objective and cannot express our own opinions. The thing about arguments, though, is that they essentially are an opinion. You are being asked to take a position on an issue, and that necessarily requires you to take sides. The difference is that an academic argument takes that opinion as a starting point and then develops it logically, persuasively and with reference to strong supporting evidence.
You also may feel uncomfortable making an argument because you think your instructor wants to see a specific ‘correct’ answer. Sometimes there are straightforward answers, particularly in more straightforward essays where they’re looking to see you address specific criteria (which will be outlined). But sometimes there simply isn’t a single ‘correct’ answer, and your response could approach a subject from a potentially huge spectrum of positions. What is more important is that regardless of whatever position you take, you use your critical thinking and analytical skills to present a convincing, logical and well-developed argument (even if you think your tutor might disagree with your position!)
Where to from here?
So, in this essay writing series I’m going to try to address some of these main concerns.
We’ll begin with analysing the question. It seems like a pretty obvious thing to do, but so many students don’t do this properly. It’s really important to understand how we analyse the task so that we can ensure we fully answer the question.
Then we’ll discuss planning and outlining an essay. Doing this properly ensures that you have a coherent and logically developed argument that draws on relevant and specific key points. Planning is a super important step for managing how we’ll write our essays: it allows us to manage time effectively, it breaks down complex tasks into manageable chunks, and it makes the research and writing phases of the essay much, much easier!
Next, we’re going to break down what an argument actually is. What is it made up of, and how you can write one effectively? Understanding arguments will help you structure your essays and understand how to bring evidence and ideas together.
That then leads up to discussing essay structure. What do you actually need in an introduction, body paragraphs and a conclusion? How do they connect together, and why? A good essay must be structured well, and so understanding where to put everything is key!
After that, I’ll tell you what to avoid when writing an essay. What argument techniques are bad? How can you ensure your essay is as strong as possible?
Soon, I’ll be releasing a series on academic writing to help you get the language of essays right.