Writing Essays

An essay is a scholarly piece of writing that has a consistent structure, but can serve several purposes. Essays may be used in your course as a means for you to write a reflection about a topic or your own experiences, a literature review, an argument for or against a point of view, or to describe a task that you engaged in. The format of the essay will consist of a title page followed by the essay itself. The essay contains an introduction, body, and conclusion.

You can read here for further information about a title page. For further information about writing the essay itself, read below.

The basics
Firstly, the presentation of your essay begins with a title page and an abstract. Your essay will also requires a structure that includes an introduction, body, and a conclusion (although headings are not used). In a good essay, each section flows logically from the section before, and links together to establish a coherent composition. Many authors advocate the use of topic sentences to introduce each new paragraph. The topic sentence is then followed by several related supporting statements, and a concluding statement that links to the next paragraph. For example, the first sentence of this section ‘introduces’ the paragraph content that you have just read.
The introduction provides the framework for your essay, and may consist of two to three paragraphs. In the introduction you orient your reader to the essay topic and provide a summary of what you will discuss. You need to tell the reader what you are going to argue, outline any limits to your approach to the topic, define any important words from the question, and tell the reader what general conclusions you will arrive at. Not surprisingly, this section can immediately influence a reader, and determine how well he or she grasps your argument later. As a result, the importance of this section should not be underestimated.
The body of the essay is where you answer the question by developing your argument or analysis in a logical manner. You may choose to use relevant definitions, quotes, examples, theory, and research, to support your argument or analysis. Your choice of material will largely depend on the topic, and whether you are required to ‘critically analyse’ the topic, or develop an argument – these approaches are discussed in more detail below.
Your conclusion should refer back to your introduction and show that you have answered the question. Summarise your main points and indicate what the essay has succeeded in demonstrating. This will give the reader a sense of completeness or closure. Make sure not to introduce any new material at this stage, and do not include references in your conclusion.
Sample Essay
What is ‘critical analysis’?
Critical analysis has very little to do with being critical in your writing. In fact, being critical can bring you completely undone! What you need to do for academic papers is read widely, compare theories with theories, and theorists with theorists. Different writers may – and often do – have quite different ways of looking at the same problem. The nature versus nurture debate is an excellent example. If one theorist proposed that biology was the only, or determining factor in human development, then a large part of the picture would be missing – that is, environmental, or learned, influences.

Your job, as a writer, is to identify the different theories pertinent to your question, and to evaluate these in light of research evidence. For example, there may be a number of prominent theorists who hold to a particular viewpoint. Their view may differ markedly from other theorists who have developed their own models to explain the question or concept under review. In addition, each ‘side’ of the argument may be supported OR discounted by research evidence. You will need to explore the literature, and weigh up the research evidence, from which you draw informed conclusions. Essentially, the process is an “… objective assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the theories and research findings involved” (Germov, 1996, p. 33).

While you come to terms with learning how to critically analyse your research material – not simply describe it – there are some questions worth asking as you proceed. Bear in mind that a theory is nothing more than one person’s explanation of a particular phenomenon. Ask yourself:

  • How much confidence do I have in the study I have just read?

  • What aspects impressed me?

  • What aspects bothered me?

  • Do other studies come to different conclusions?

  • How does the theory/study/concept fit with what I already know? (Germov, 1996)

If you can address these questions to yourself during the writing process, you will be well on the way to developing and, most importantly, demonstrating your skill at critical analysis.

If apart of your critically analysis requires you to evaluate a journal article see how to critically evaluating research.
Developing an argument
Your choice of words when constructing a sentence can add a great deal to how your work is presented. For example, if your task is to develop an argument, then you will be looking at two or more perspectives on your subject matter. Making the different elements of your argument clear (more difficult than it sounds) to your reader can be as simple as starting a topic sentence or a supporting sentence thus:

  • In contrast…

  • On the other hand…

  • Joe Bloggs disagrees, stating that…

  • Notwithstanding the above…

Building your essay further – using ‘connectives’
If your task is to ‘discuss’ or ‘explain’ a particular topic (as sometimes occurs in an exam), you may feel unsure of exactly how to link meaningfully related supporting statements. One way to attack this is to use opening phrases like:

  • Further to the above…

  • In addition, …

  • Nonetheless, it can be seen that…

  • Following from Blogg’s ideas about blah blah, …

‘Connectives’ are used to give logical order to your work. They are usually used at the beginning of a paragraph to help the flow of the report/essay.

What Does This Essay Question Mean?
Before you start researching your essay you need to ask yourself “what does this topic mean?” It can be very useful to identify key words and clarify what is expected of you. Essay questions are generally made up of three important elements:

  1. DIRECTIVE word/s, that tell you what to do,

  2. TOPIC word/s, that tell you about your subject, and –

  3. LIMITING word/s, that defines the task boundaries.

(Germov, 1996)

For example, the following essay question –

“Discuss the effects of colonisation on Indigenous Australians since 1788”.

- can be understood (dissected) in the following manner….

  • DIRECTIVE WORD > Discuss

  • TOPIC WORD/S > colonisation, Indigenous Australians

  • LIMITING WORD/S > since 1788

See this page for a full list of directive words words and their meanings.