Essay Writing Tips!

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Hi all, hope you had a good Christmas. Over the past few days our student-staff liaison officer has been in touch with many of the department to collect some tips for you all. Hope this is helpful!

Dr Polly Stoker:

  • Set yourself realistic/achievable targets i.e., ones that you know you can/will achieve – and perhaps even exceed – each day you are working.
  • Long essays can seem overwhelming, so break them down into less intimidating chunks of 500 or so words. This approach will also help you to structure your work and you can piece the chunks together in the editing process.
  • My biggest tip is to try to factor in enough time to edit your work properly. Write a sentence that sets out what each paragraph in your essay is *for* (you may well already have a sentence like this at the start of your paragraphs). And then check that i) each paragraph contributes something to your response to the essay question ii) each new idea (or development of an idea) is given a new paragraph iii) this new idea is signposted at the start of the paragraph iv) there is some progression/development across the paragraphs (i.e., it makes sense that paragraph 4 comes before paragraph 5).
  • If you are stuck, sometimes the best thing you can do is to take a break, do something else, and come back to it later. A bit of distance can work wonders on even the tangly-ist of essay knots.
  • Keep in touch with each other – and not just to discuss work!
  • Remember that staff office hours will continue into week 12 and start up again in January in week 13 (w/c 11th January).


Dr Gideon Nisbet:

  1. Get rid of weasel modifiers. Don’t say ‘arguably’ – either use the evidence to argue it, or drop it entirely. Don’t tell us ‘somewhat’  — make a definite call, yes or no.
  2. We want to know what you think, but you don’t need to tell us ‘I think…’. Instead you can just argue from the evidence and state your view as a fact.
  3. Shorten your sentences, and let the order of your sentences build the argument. You don’t need connecting words such as ‘therefore’ and ‘moreover’. “The moon is made of cheese. therefore We should go there and eat it.”
  4. You can pretty much do without adverbs if you have the right verbs. Don’t be ‘extremely angry’ when you can be ‘furious’. The same often goes for nouns and adjectives, but adverbs are especially good to cut because you will also be making your argument look stronger and more definite.


And, Dr Hannah Cornwell:

  • Ideas:

What are your ideas in relation to the topic and more specifically the question you are being asked? Think about what you have covered over the course of your module and how this might relate to the question.

Perhaps start by writing down your thoughts or talking through with someone what you think the main points are – this will help you to focus on what ideas are central to the question and what reading you will need to do.

Collect a selection of evidence that help support a particular idea/argument which you can discuss and analysis within your essay.

Always argument FROM the EVIDENCE (using scholarship to help support your own interpretations)

  • Argument

An essay is not just one long string of thoughts. It argues a position in relation to a question, or it considers different aspects of a subject, evaluating which are the most important factors in a given set of circumstances.

Your essay needs to have a definite structure:

  • An introduction, which tells your reader what you are going to argue or discuss and why; perhaps indicating what you will conclude
  • there follow paragraph which follow from one another in an ordered sequence working through the evidence
  • there must always be a conclusion in which you draw your thoughts together.

But getting from Ideas to Argument can be tricky. Planning a structure is key.

I personally find mind-mapping tools really useful for getting my ideas out of my head and to help me articulate the connections I have been making.

You might like to make a list of major topics to want to cover and then number them in different orders to see how they most naturally  progress one to another. You can always talk to family and friends to try and explain your ideas as well.

Having a definite structure helps guide your reader through your ideas and arguments – remember they are not inside your head. What might seem obvious to you needs to be explicitly clear to your reader (they haven’t necessarily spent the time thinking about the material in the way you have been!).

  • Communication

You need to communicate with clarity and coherence.

It can be difficult starting to write an essay, even if you have a plan because you want to find the right tone or the right way into the discussion.

I personally find it helpful to start from the evidence (once again!) perhaps using a particular piece of evidence or anecdote which I can start talking about, working through a specific passage or a particular object to draw out and highlight a key point or a number of key points. This helps me to start writing because I have something concrete to write about.

Or you could talk through your ideas with someone (or just yourself) maybe recording yourself and transcribing what you’ve said or using auto-caption – then you’ll have a start point from which to develop your ideas and argument in writing.

Remember to communicate your OWN IDEAS. Quotations from scholarship are useful if used judiciously to illustrate a point which you are making. They should normally be quite short. Do not give a long quotation because you think that the author of a book can express something better than you could. It is best to make your point BEFORE you give the quotation to illustrate it. Make clear what it is about the quotation to which you want to draw your reader’s attention.

BUT avoid the temptation of using lots of quotations to construct your argument. Use specific piece of ancient evidence to structure your argument  – always what from the evidence first and foremost.

Don’t show off through your writing style. Try to think what preceisely it is you want to say and then say it in good straight=-forward English.

READING you essay out load to yourself and see whether it makes sense -this will also help you catch any typos and mistakes MUCH better than reading something in your head.


And finally…

give yourself time to develop your ideas and to write.

If you are not having a productive time at your computer, take a break and do something else. Go for a walk or run/ or do something to enjoy (drawing, music, listening to a podcast) – take yourself away from the essay and let your mind stop worrying about it. Then come back to your essay hopefully refreshed and hopefully having let your ideas and thoughts settle.

You’ll be amazed at what your mind can be working through which you are doing something else non-academic!



Thank you to all of the staff who helped us out, I hope any students reading this also find it extremely helpful!

We’ll see you all in the new year.



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