How to Write An Academic Essay
An introduction to writing brilliant Essays
So, you’ve been set an academic essay to write. An essay writing task is an exciting chance to highlight your academic flair, your exceptional written English skills and your ability to think originally, but, for many students, being asked to write an academic essay can be a daunting task, especially when it is for a scholarship or to help along your university application (don’t forget to choose the right university subject for you!).
But never fear, as a graduate in English (learn more about university English at our English Literature summer school) from two different universities, I have used my experience writing countless essays over the years and have compiled a list of handy tips to ensure that you take your essay from good to brilliant, no matter what your subject of interest.
Put in the background work – and make sure it’s interesting to you too!
This may be controversial, but personally, I don’t like reading essays that the student has no interest in writing about as it really comes across in the writing. So, if you can, find an angle on your essay topic which you find interesting and do extra background reading beyond the reading list. Wider reading will give you deeper knowledge and help you to write really insightful and interesting essays.
If you need guidance about where to find your extra reading, just ask your teachers, and remember, you don’t have to read whole books: you can read relevant chapters, and even just the introduction and conclusion of an essay to get what the author is getting at. You can then use this additional information to strengthen your essay and make it stand out from the crowd.
Plan your essay, please!
Make your life a million times easier by planning your essay beforehand. Everyone has their own way of approaching this, and it doesn’t need to be a big stress, just make sure you lay out the ideas you want to cover in a logical order and have an introduction and conclusion which explains to your reader what you’ve argued. You need to connect all of these ideas into an argument by using connecting words such as ‘Similarly…’ ‘In addition’, ‘Developing this further…’, or even by simply numbering your sections with ‘Firstly,’, ’Secondly’, ‘Finally’ and so on.
You need to make your essay as readable and easy to navigate for the reader as possible. You want your ideas to shine through above all, and this will be best done through a clear and straightforward structure. As my lecturers have explained to me countless times over the years, you are aiming to take your reader by the hand and guide them through your essay, not leaving them in a maze full of twists and turns where they can’t follow your line of thinking!
Make sure you answer the essay question that has been set
I know, this one might sound a bit patronising but you’d be amazed how many students make this mistake at the undergraduate level of university and beyond. It can be easy to write about what you want to write about, not the actual question, so make sure you really make sure you focus on all of the keywords in the essay question. This will stop you losing silly marks!
Give both sides of the argument: but your opinion matters too!
You should definitely put across your opinion and interpretation of a topic in an essay – they don’t call it an ‘argument’ in an essay for nothing! – but make sure you consider multiple points of view by evaluating the evidence, and, if you want to really impress, point out potential issues others could have with your argument (but ensure you don’t emphasise these too strongly!).
Explain your argument to a friend
This is a really sure-fire way of making sure your essay is clear enough, as, in my view, clarity is more important than a very sophisticated and elegant style of writing. If you can explain your essay argument to a friend studying a different subject in one sentence, you’re good to go. If not, rework your introduction and essay structure. It’s as simple as that.
Don’t write at the last minute
Save yourself the stress of an all-nighter and write it in advance of the deadline, if at all possible. This will give you time to leave it for a few days and come back to it with fresh eyes (which will help make the essay 10,000% times better, I promise you), and make you feel so much calmer about the work.
Don’t fret about the introduction!
This is one element of an essay that can really wind students up. They spend hours and hours staring at a blank white screen or page because they just can’t summon up the perfect words to start their essay off with. Well, here’s a newsflash for you: you don’t have to find the perfect words!
You’re not writing the next War and Peace and you can just write your introduction using the following, foolproof formula for the introduction which the PhD student, Tim Squirrel, from the University of Edinburgh explained to the Guardian: ”Here is the argument I am going to make, I am going to substantiate this with three or four strands of argumentation, drawing upon these theorists, who say these things, and I will conclude with some thoughts on this area and how it might clarify our understanding of this phenomenon.’ You should be able to encapsulate it in 100 words or so. That’s literally it.”
…Or the conclusion
Yes, the same applies to the conclusion. Once you’ve got to the conclusion, you’re home and dry. Do not, under any circumstances, add new information to your conclusion. It’s not big and it’s not clever. Assume your reader is a bit stupid and use the conclusion as an opportunity to tell them what you have already told them in the essay. It’s basically a rehash of your introduction, telling them what you have shown throughout the essay and using nice words to do this.
Finally, proofread, proofread, proofread
No, a spell checker is not enough. Make sure you got through your essay a few times and ask a friend or willing family member to help you with the proofreading too, as they will be able to look at the essay from a different perspective. After all, you’ve put in all this effort into the essay, and you don’t want to lose marks over something as silly as a typo or a grammatical error.
Go forth and write!
With these tips in your arsenal, you should be writing brilliant essays in no time!