Essay Writing

Sometimes I work with university students to help them improve their essay writing skills. Just to make one thing clear – I help them improve their skills, I don’t write essays for them. Good communication is my thing, not providing bogus scripts for lazy students. In any case, I wrote quite enough essays when I was a student myself, thanks

The thing is, an academic essay is a specialised kind of written communication. Students who are otherwise very bright and knowledgeable can lose marks needlessly if they fail to follow the rules of format, structure, tone of voice expected by their university tutor. Busy tutors marking papers are not going to wade through a badly-structured essay to figure out exactly what you are trying to say. Also they expect a good standard of grammar, spelling and punctuation – falling short of that standard makes an essay difficult to read and that means poor marks.

The following is a collection of notes that I have found useful with clients. None is particularly original, but that doesn’t matter. Quality, not originality, is the key thing here.

What makes a good essay?

  • The ideas and information are presented in a well structured, coherent way.
  • It flows logically from the introduction to the conclusion.
  • There is evidence to support the ideas or arguments presented.
  • It is properly referenced.
  • It is presented in an appropriate style, in well written English.


  • Look carefully at the question. What does it mean? What exactly does the setter of the essay want from you? Are you required to prove something? What will you need to back up what you say?
  • Start to plan, roughly, the structure of your essay.
  • When you do start to write it, think of that as a first draft. First drafts are never good enough
  • Do your reading. Make notes. Identify themes.
  • Allow yourself enough time to do all of the above, remembering that actually writing the essay is the last thing you do at the end of the process. Remember to give yourself enough time to finalise the Reference list and edit the essay.


  • Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you have to write the essay in the order in which it will be read
  • You don’t have to write the Introduction first – would it be more sensible to write it last, once you know what you’re introducing?
  • Although the Reference list goes at the end, you can be compiling it as you go along.
  • From the very beginning, before you even begin writing, have in mind what your Conclusions will be (although these may change as you do more research). When written, your essay should then work logically towards your conclusions. Before you set out, you should have a clear idea where you’re going!

Check your guidelines

  • University departments, and sometimes individual tutors, will have their own rules and guidelines about the word count, format, structure etc of essays.
  • Make sure you are clear about these and stick to them. Markers take a dim view of essays that flout the rules. It makes the essays harder work for them to read and is disrespectful.
  • Sometimes the guidelines can give you a clue about what is important about the essay question (and therefore attracts more marks) and what can be left out.


  • Remember – it is important that the final version of your essay is in well written English, with correct spelling and grammar, and properly punctuated. It should also be laid out in a businesslike, straightforward way (obeying any guidelines on format). If you know you have problem with spelling, grammar or style, try and get some help.
  • Insisting on good English is not just being picky – the point is that badly written or punctuated work is much more difficult to read. A marker will not have time to wade through it trying to work out what you’re trying to say.

After you have written your essay

  • Your essay will contain a number of spelling mistakes, grammatical errors and unnecessary repetitions – all first drafts do.
  • Put it aside for a little while – if possible for at least 24 hours – and then check it thoroughly.
  • If you can, get someone else to read it to see if they understand it as well as you do.
  • Print it out and check it again – mistakes you miss on a monitor screen sometimes become obvious on paper.
  • Make sure that the Conclusions follow logically from the main body of the essay and don’t just seem tacked on at the end.

Seven Deadly Sins of Essay Writing

  1. Not making sure you understand what is required by the question
  2. Not allowing enough time
  3. No flow of argument through paragraphs
  4. High ‘So What’ Factor (ie stating the bleedin’ obvious)
  5. Conclusion is not a conclusion (ie it doesn’t flow from your argument)
  6. Bad English
  7. Inconsistent referencing


Curiosity is the key

I have always believed that curiosity was a sign of intelligence. This has struck me over and over again: the people I have met whom I consider to be clever and successful in their field all share the characteristic of an enquiring mind – not just about their own chosen subject but about the world in general. They never stop learning and they are fascinated by new avenues of research. They find other people interesting. On the other hand, those who lack curiosity seem to me to be dull by comparison. Somehow they have decided they already know enough. They lack that spark of ingenuity that makes them want to find out more about what’s around them.

I had suspected this was a personal prejudice of mine, but a recent article seems to show that it now has some scientific backing. Psychologists have found that curiosity and diligence are as important as intelligence for a student’s success. The leader of the research team, based at Edinburgh University, says that “Teachers have a great opportunity to inspire curiosity in their students, to make them engaged and independent learners.”

You could say I was lucky. My parents, although they had no academic qualifications, instilled in their children a love of learning and a sense of wonder about the world. They thought that for any situation in which you find yourself, however mundane, there is something new to be learned to increase your personal intellectual storehouse. At school, the good teachers encouraged this mindset (I think I managed to ignore the poor teachers, although now I am an occasional tutor myself I find I can learn a lot even from their bad example!).

When I was working in the civil service I attended countless compulsory training sessions and workshops of widely variable relevance and originality, sometimes delivered by staff who – let us say – were not gifted trainers. I always tried to approach these with and open, enquiring mind and I usually found that, no matter how tedious the session itself was, I could take something new from it to enrich my experience. Sometimes I’m afraid it was how not to organise a training session, but even that can be helpful! The point I am making is that if we approach these potential learning opportunities thinking that we will get nothing out of them, then that is exactly what we will get – nothing.

I think that the greatest gift a student can be given by their teachers is what the Edinburgh psychologists call a “hunger for exploration”. This is true no matter what subject is being taught. Education is not something that should just be “delivered” like a big heavy box slammed down on the desk, job done. We want our students to be asking their teachers, and themselves, what? why? how? when? who? Where can they find out more?

Curiosity is the key.