What is an Essay?
Everyone knows intuitively what an essay is, but if you are hoping for academic success you really need to be on top of them. You need to know what sort of structure an essay should have and also have an idea about what makes a good essay in order to succeed in the competitive academic world. Don’t panic, our helpful guide will put you on the right track.
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If you’re in a muddle about the difference between essays, assignments and other sorts of coursework, remember to check out our other guide “The Difference Between Essays, Assignments, Reports and Coursework” for insights!
Most essays written for post-graduate courses are between 1,000 and 5,000 words long.
The format will vary from subject to subject, but you will generally need an introduction, in which you ‘set the scene’ and explain what you are going to discuss, a main body in which you present your argument, and a conclusion where you sum up the message of the essay and present recommendations and reflections.
A good essay not only shows a thorough understanding of a subject, it presents a well-reasoned argument for a particular point of view. You should discuss alternative viewpoints and give reasons why you disagree with them.
The Essay Journey
It helps to see the process of writing an essay as a journey: see figure 1 below. This sets out the steps you need to take from start to finish:
·Start to plan your essay by paying attention to the title you have been given, and any extra material as well. Use brainstorming techniques to overcome writer’s block and get some ideas onto paper.
·Once you are started, you need to collect information (see ‘researching your essay) then manage and organise the information. Once you have collected enough information you can start writing (see the sections on structure and being critical)
·Finally, add those finishing touches and you are there!
Researching your Essay
Your course notes or tutor should have plenty of information about sources of information for your essay, including reading lists and online databases. Your university library should also be able to give you some guidelines.Use both academic textbooks and journals as well as online sources.
You need a rough plan of the areas you want to consider. Think about what reading you need to do to explore these areas further.
Learn how to read: you don’t need to read everything thoroughly, skimming and scanning for relevant information are very useful. Use the index and table of contents to determine whether content will be useful. Look at abstracts and introductions for an idea of the ideas which will be explored.
Keep asking vital questions: is this relevantHow is it linked to what I’ve discoveredWhat else do I need to know
Be smart about taking notes. Don’t write endless notes you’ll never read. Use ‘maps’ to show how bits information relate to each other. Make brief, not lengthy notes, but don’t forget to record page, author, and other relevant details – you’ll need them for citations and the reference list!
Keep reflecting upon and evaluating what you have discovered as you research
Consider making reading grid or annotated bibliography (see figure 2)
DetailsOverall topic / themeKey ideasRelevant quotationsHow use in essay
Author, Title, Year of publication, PublisherArea of interest of book/paperThe main ideas put forward / theses testedUseful direct quotations (be sparing!)How does what the author say relate to the essay subject?
Structuring your Essay
The typical essay has an introduction, a main body and a conclusion. In the introduction you briefly overview the area, set out your aims and objectives, and perhaps discuss any key terms used. In the main body you put forward your arguments and look at the area in more detail. The body is sometimes, though not always, structured with headings and subheadings. If formal headings are not present this section needs to be logically structured so your essay has ‘flow’. The conclusion summarises what has been said, highlights any issues and makes recommendations.
An adequate essay shows a thorough understanding of the subject area. A good essay takes a critical stance, analysing the evidence and showing why existing arguments are weak or flawed.
Critical writing means assessing whether other writers give appropriate evidence for their conclusions, giving reasons why readers should accept statements, presenting evidence and argument clearly and logically, and considering alternative opinions.
Good critical writing also involves an awareness of the limitations of one’s arguments and evidence.
Overall, criticality means questioning and taking little for granted.
Academic essays need to be written in appropriate language. There isn’t space here to go into details, but the University of Essex have a useful booklet on grammar and style (see bibliography for details) which is full of information on writing essays correctly.
Overall, assume that your reader is intelligent but may not know the field you are discussing in depth. Define key terms if they are unclear.
If your university has style guidelines, follow them
Write in a clear and concise way.
Do not use short forms (contractions like ‘don’t’). Avoid abbreviations and where you use acronyms write them in full the first time they are used.
Write in the third person (avoid ‘I’ and ‘we’, ‘you’ and ‘your’)
Your university or college will specify the format for references and citations. They should give you a detailed guide of how you are to refer to the sources you use. Make sure you follow it consistently for both in-text citations and the reference list.
Make sure every source you use is referenced.
If you use direct quotations, the page number should always be given (sometimes page numbers are also required for all references).
If you are keen to find out more, here are some further sources which might be useful…
Norton, L and Pitt, E (2013) ‘Writing Essays at University’, [online] (cited 13th February 2013) available from
Plymouth University (2013) ‘Writing Essays’ [online] (cited 13th February 2013) available from
Queen Margaret University (2013) ‘Essay Writing’, [online] (cited 12th February 2013) available from
University of Essex (2013) ‘How to Improve your Academic Writing’ [online] (cited 12th February 2013) available from
University of Leicester (2013) ‘Writing Essays Tour’, [online] (cited 13th February 2013) available from
University of Leicester (2013) ‘What is Critical Writing’, [online] (cited 13th February 2013) available from