Writing academic essays: a few tips
22 September 2020
Here are a few basic tips to help you with your academic writing. These may be particularly of use if you have limited experience of writing essays.
On this page you will find:
- Read the assignment
- Plan - your writing as well as your answer
- Take notes
- Read the assignment (yes, again)
- Support your claim – explicitly
- Academic styles
These are generic tips and you will need to adapt to the style and conventions specific to your discipline and department. Always check the handbook and any recommended style guide.
Yes, it looks obvious, and yet is perhaps the most overlooked aspect of writing academic essays. Essay questions are not necessarily straightforward, and it is all too easy to miss an aspect of the question, misinterpret what is asked, or even go off topic. Look in particular at the verbs used in the question: are you asked to analyse? Discuss? Compare? Evaluate?
An essay requires time: to read, take notes, process, evaluate, organise ideas, draft, and actually write. In addition, you will need extra time to edit and cut if your draft is too long. It is easy to underestimate the time needed, particularly if you are not used to writing essays, and it is all too tempting to leave it to the last minute.
Breaking the assignment down can prevent feeling overwhelmed. Try this early: what will you need to read? Are these sources easily accessible? Are there any aspects of the question that will require more research or preparation?
Similarly, plan your answer carefully: create an outline for the whole answer, with all the sections and paragraphs. Think about the order of information you need to include, how the different sections connect. This needs to be clear before you draft your essay.
Do not start writing your introduction before you have a strong sense of what will go into your essay: the introduction is often too vague as a result.
This is important in many ways: it helps you to support your answer with clear references, to avoid plagiarism, but also to make it clear what your evidence / sources are saying and what your position is. Once you have accumulated a lot of notes, it may be difficult to remember where a particularly useful fact or idea is from. Is that from you? From a text? Which one? Is that a paraphrase or a quotation? Keeping a record of where your notes come from will help you to find the right support and reference it clearly. For instance, you can use colour coding to indicate when an idea is yours (just stick to the same colour).
As you gather notes, start drafting your essay, it is easy to go off track. You may have discovered interesting things, maybe they are related to the theme of the question, but does that help to actually address the question asked? As you take notes and draft the essay, go back to the assignment: are there any parts you are not addressing? Are you off on a tangent? Be strict: better to realise you are off on a tangent early and correct this than to submit an off-topic essay…
You may be asked to take a position on a given question. This is not asking about your beliefs or personal opinions. Such questions are testing your ability to evaluate the facts and evidence at hand so as to reach an informed position.
Evidence from primary and secondary sources are what you must use to support your position.
- Primary sources include original documents, photographs, interviews, etc.
- Secondary sources present information that has already been processed or interpreted by someone else.
For example, if you are writing a paper about a museum exhibition, then the items displayed, interviews of visitors or the curator, and exhibition photos could serve as primary sources of evidence. A review from a magazine or a collection of essays about the exhibition would be secondary sources.
Using evidence – explicitly
You may find the evidence compelling, but it does not speak for itself: you have to make the case. You must say why / how this evidence supports your position.
As an academic writer, do not assume that your readers can read your mind: although they may be familiar with the ideas you are discussing, they do not know what you are trying to do with those ideas unless you indicate it through explanations, organisation of ideas, transitions, etc.
Check and check again: is the evidence you are presenting relevant to the question? If so, how? Does it make sense? Is your chain of thought clear enough that a friend could follow?
Writing academically generally implies a rather impersonal tone as well as following certain editorial conventions. Again, such conventions will differ depending on disciplines, so always check your handbook, and, if in doubt, check with your department.
Here are a few general guidelines:
Avoid being personal
It is often the case that your department will want you to avoid saying “I” in an academic essay. Similarly, avoid using “we” or “you”, as if you were talking directly to the reader of your essay. “We all know that…”, “as you know” are generally frowned upon. Try using the passive or “this paper” / “this essay” instead of “I”.
Please note that this “rule” is contested and largely depends on your discipline. If you are asked to write a reflective piece or a fieldtrip report, you may need to use the first person.
Check your department’s style guide
Word count (and what this includes) and referencing conventions have less to do with your ideas and how you express yourself and can be overlooked. However, abiding by these rules demonstrates professionalism and ignoring them will negatively impact on your marks.
Avoid informal styles
- In general, academic writing avoids contraction: they don’t (do not), they aren’t (are not).
- Avoid grand generalisation (e.g. “everyone knows that…”, “no one wants war”, etc.): academic writing and thinking requires nuance and subtleties.
- Avoid using an overly emotional language (“it is sad that…”): you need to show an ability to build rational and logical arguments.
- Be specific. The following terms tend to lead to vague statements:
- People / some people / many people / most people – who exactly?
- Some time ago / since the beginning / for a long time / throughout history / over time / as time passes / through the passing of time – when?
- Throughout the world / the whole world – where?
- Similarly avoid any informal language such as cool, stuff, coz, besides, etc.
Be careful with the word “obviously,” particularly in an introduction when you have not yet made a demonstration. And if you need to make a demonstration, it means that things are not obvious.
As a general rule a good essay needs to be: clear, concise, to the point, addressing the question fully, logically organised, coherent. It also needs to show critical thinking and analysis. These qualities are not always discussed or explained. Think carefully about what they mean in your discipline and how you can integrate them in your own writing.
Ask for help
If you are struggling, know this is normal, but know also that there is help out there. Talk to your tutors and reach out: the ACC offers support to help you.
Here is where you can find academic communication support and resources at UCL, and this is the ACC page.