Writing Better University Essays Uk
As the government begins its crackdown on essay mill websites, it’s easy to see just how much pressure students are under to get top grades for their coursework these days. But writing a high-scoring paper doesn’t need to be complicated. We spoke to experts to get some simple techniques that will raise your writing game.
Tim Squirrell is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, and is teaching for the first time this year. When he was asked to deliver sessions on the art of essay-writing, he decided to publish a comprehensive (and brilliant) blog on the topic, offering wisdom gleaned from turning out two or three essays a week for his own undergraduate degree.
“There is a knack to it,” he says. “It took me until my second or third year at Cambridge to work it out. No one tells you how to put together an argument and push yourself from a 60 to a 70, but once you to get grips with how you’re meant to construct them, it’s simple.”
'I felt guilty when I got my results': your stories of buying essays | Guardian readers and Sarah Marsh
The goal of writing any essay is to show that you can think critically about the material at hand (whatever it may be). This means going beyond regurgitating what you’ve read; if you’re just repeating other people’s arguments, you’re never going to trouble the upper end of the marking scale.
“You need to be using your higher cognitive abilities,” says Bryan Greetham, author of the bestselling How to Write Better Essays. “You’re not just showing understanding and recall, but analysing and synthesising ideas from different sources, then critically evaluating them. That’s where the marks lie.”
But what does critical evaluation actually look like? According to Squirrell, it’s simple: you need to “poke holes” in the texts you’re exploring and work out the ways in which “the authors aren’t perfect”.
“That can be an intimidating idea,” he says. “You’re reading something that someone has probably spent their career studying, so how can you, as an undergraduate, critique it?
“The answer is that you’re not going to discover some gaping flaw in Foucault’s History of Sexuality Volume 3, but you are going to be able to say: ‘There are issues with these certain accounts, here is how you might resolve those’. That’s the difference between a 60-something essay and a 70-something essay.”
Critique your own arguments
Once you’ve cast a critical eye over the texts, you should turn it back on your own arguments. This may feel like going against the grain of what you’ve learned about writing academic essays, but it’s the key to drawing out developed points.
“We’re taught at an early age to present both sides of the argument,” Squirrell continues. “Then you get to university and you’re told to present one side of the argument and sustain it throughout the piece. But that’s not quite it: you need to figure out what the strongest objections to your own argument would be. Write them and try to respond to them, so you become aware of flaws in your reasoning. Every argument has its limits and if you can try and explore those, the markers will often reward that.”
Applying to university? It's time to narrow your choices down to two
Fine, use Wikipedia then
The use of Wikipedia for research is a controversial topic among academics, with many advising their students to stay away from the site altogether.
“I genuinely disagree,” says Squirrell. “Those on the other side say that you can’t know who has written it, what they had in mind, what their biases are. But if you’re just trying to get a handle on a subject, or you want to find a scattering of secondary sources, it can be quite useful. I would only recommend it as either a primer or a last resort, but it does have its place.”
Focus your reading
Reading lists can be a hindrance as well as a help. They should be your first port of call for guidance, but they aren’t to-do lists. A book may be listed, but that doesn’t mean you need to absorb the whole thing.
Squirrell advises reading the introduction and conclusion and a relevant chapter but no more. “Otherwise you won’t actually get anything out of it because you’re trying to plough your way through a 300-page monograph,” he says.
You also need to store the information you’re gathering in a helpful, systematic way. Bryan Greetham recommends a digital update of his old-school “project box” approach.
“I have a box to catch all of those small things – a figure, a quotation, something interesting someone says – I’ll write them down and put them in the box so I don’t lose them. Then when I come to write, I have all of my material.”
There are a plenty of online offerings to help with this, such as the project management app Scrivener and referencing tool Zotero, and, for the procrastinators, there are productivity programmes like Self Control, which allow users to block certain websites from their computers for a set period.
Essays for sale: the booming online industry in writing academic work to order
Look beyond the reading list
“This is comparatively easy to do,” says Squirrell. “Look at the citations used in the text, put them in Google Scholar, read the abstracts and decide whether they’re worth reading. Then you can look on Google Scholar at other papers that have cited the work you’re writing about – some of those will be useful. But quality matters more than quantity.”
And finally, the introduction
The old trick of dealing with your introduction last is common knowledge, but it seems few have really mastered the art of writing an effective opener.
“Introductions are the easiest things in the world to get right and nobody does it properly,” Squirrel says. “It should be ‘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.”
Keep up with the latest on Guardian Students: follow us on Twitter at @GdnStudents – and become a member to receive exclusive benefits and our weekly newsletter.
Having decided what to include in the answer, there is another way to make sure the answer is focused: telling the reader what we are talking about. By defining what the key terms mean, we do two things. Firstly, we show that we know what we are writing about. Secondly, we avoid misunderstandings by settling on a single understanding of the key terms. It might be that your marker understands power in a Marxist way, and you want to approach the essay from a feminist point of view. By providing a brief definition, there will be no misunderstanding. Your marker may not agree with you, but that is not necessary to get good grades. A definition makes sure you and your readers talk about the same things. For example, you can define fruit salad as consisting of bananas, pineapples, and yellow apples (ideally you would have a reason for this, too). Having done so, your reader will not object when you later state that fruit salad lacks the vital bits of red.
In order to define the key terms, you first have to bluntly state what they are. Always include the key words included in the question. These have been identified as central concepts for you, and by excluding them, you’ll be very likely answering a different question from the one set. There are often other key terms you want to include, and it’s usually worth spending some time thinking about which ones are the key concept. This is time worth spending, because you can later use the concepts without giving any further qualifications or comments. For this reason you should also define the terms carefully. Having defined power in a particular way, for example, every time you use the term in the essay, it only means what you want it to be.
Providing the definition of the key terms also works as a signal to your marker that you know what you’re talking about. By defining power in a certain way, you demonstrate that you’re aware of other interpretations. In fact, it’ll often not be necessary to state what the other interpretations are, unless the distinction is a key aspect of the argument. Very often, you’ll use the work of somebody else to help you define the key terms. Make sure that you put references accordingly.
The following three paragraphs define the concepts social disadvantage, social mobility, and siblings. The definitions are taken from a range of sources, and referenced accordingly. In the context of another essay, these definitions may be too long or too short.
Depending on the length of your essay, you’ll have between 2 and maybe 5 key terms. Sometimes it takes a bit of time to think which terms are the central ones. Consider the following phrases as ways to define terms: X is understood as a process by which, X regards Y as, one view is that there is X so that Y, or X is commonly considered as.
When writing your definition, there are a number of sources you can use to help you. Using a common-sense definition is hardly ever suitable. In many cases, a definition as found in a specialist dictionary will do. In other cases, you want something even more specialized, and consult your course material. Many introductory books define key terms, and then discuss them in more detail in the chapter. It’s important not just to simply copy a definition, but choose what is suitable for your needs. Bear in mind that every text, even a specialized dictionary, was written with a specific purpose in mind. What you need for your essay is likely to be a bit different.
Google and other internet search engines may be an easy way, but they are usually not suitable. Apart from the fact that your source may not be reliable, you’re likely to end up with a definition that is either too generic, or from a different area. A definition of power from a physics text may not be what we want in our discipline.
It’s often worth spending some time on the key terms. This is the case, because the way you set out this section will direct the remainder of the essay a great deal. Choosing a certain way to interpret a concept rather than another may be just as important as focusing on certain issues and not others in the main part of the essay. Despite its importance, the section providing the definitions should not be too long: focus on the concepts that are really central. These are usually the concepts that are recurring throughout the essay.
This part constitutes the main part of your essay. Try to use about 60% of your words for this part. You can understand it as delivering what you have promised in the introduction. This part of the essay is often referred to as the main body, or the argument. It’s the part of the essay, where you develop the answer. Whilst doing so, it’s important to be aware of the question at all time. This is the only way to keep to the topic set.
Ideally, every paragraph is geared towards answering the question. It does not suffice, if you are aware of how a particular paragraph is focused on your task: you need to show the relevance to your reader. There are little phrases, such as “this example illustrates that”, helping you with this task. Consider the following example: “The resistance in Harlem insisting to keep an open market in 125th street helped to point out that there are people with different needs in the city (Zukin, 1995).” After outlining resistance in Harlem, these few sentences make it plain what the example showed us: that different people in cities have different needs.
Writing an essay can take a considerable time, but it’s important that you keep to your original plan as much as you can. Of course, new ideas will come up as you write. In this case, you should jot them down, so as not to lose them. Next, think about it: How will this help me answering the question? Is this relevant to the essay? Do I not have another example of this already? What you do is to make sure that what goes into the essay has one purpose only: answering the question. Sometimes it’s difficult to resist the temptation, but don’t explore thoughts by the way. This should not discourage you from having original ideas, or even exploring them, but it should encourage you to use your essay for one purpose only.
Keeping to the plan means keeping to the structure. This is important, because you can lose your reader by jumping around from one topic to the other, even if all you say as such is relevant and useful. By having a clear structure, and keeping to it, your reader will always know where the journey goes next. This makes your essay a pleasant read. To write a good essay, first of all, you need good hooks which help to draw your readers’ attention. A hook is a small element in the introduction of an essay which motivates people to read your work. It is an interesting and catchy sentence which has a deep meaning and helps a writer introduce the main idea. Essay hook Identifies a purpose of writing.
When writing the main part of the essay, it’s important to keep the argument and illustrations in balance. Too few examples make the essay dry and difficult. Too many, on the other hand, make the argument disappear. The trick is to include illustrations to bring the text alive, but link them tightly with the argument. Rather than stating that “this is an example of white-collar crime,” you may say “tax avoidance is a good example of white-collar crime, because…” By so doing, you demonstrate the importance of the example, you highlight how and why it is important, and most importantly, maybe, you avoid that the examples take over. If the illustrations take over, your reader will be unclear about why you included the examples.
Sections are an important tool to structure the answer of an essay. The longer the answer, the more important sections probably are. Some courses and tutors may ask you to include subheadings (as used in this book); some institutions even have explicit recommendations on their use. Subheadings can be a good way to structure an answer into sections. However, the lack of subheadings—or the fact that your tutor discourages you from using them—is no excuse for not having sections.
Sections group paragraphs that elaborate a similar point. Often, within a section, you’ll have a number of paragraphs discussing the same issue from a number of different perspectives. A section can be treated, in some ways, as if it was a mini essay in itself. This is the case, because in each section, a particular point is explored. For example, there might be a section on the arguments for abortion, and then a section on the arguments against.
What is important when writing a section, is that both you and the reader are aware of the purpose of the section. It’s tiring and frustrating for your reader to read half a page before knowing what you’re writing about, or more often why you’re writing this here. For these reasons it’s important to link the sections into a coherent one. By linking the sections, and linking the paragraphs within each section, your essay will be more focused on answering the question.
For example, after a paragraph outlining problems of studying and measuring the transmission of social disadvantage, in one of my essays I discussed how sibling data may be the solution. I opened the paragraph as follows: “The use of sibling data promises a cure to at least some of the problems outlined above.” In one sentence, the new topic (sibling data) is introduced, but it is also indicated why this may be important (because these data help tackling the problems already outlined). The reader should not be puzzled as to what the link is between problems of measuring the transmission of social disadvantage on the one hand, and sibling data on the other.
Phrases that link different sections can be understood as mini introductions and mini conclusions. Particularly when a section is long, or where the link to the next section is not immediately apparent, it might be useful to write one or two sentences to summarize the section. This will indicate to the reader how far we have come in developing the argument, but also remind him or her, why we have bothered to write a section in the first place.
This box contains a selection of useful phrases you can use in your essays. You can use these words and phrases to connect the different bits and pieces of your text into a coherent whole. The following list is intended to give you an idea of all the phrases that are available to you.
Express improbability: is improbable, is unlikely, it is uncertain in spite of, despite, in spite of the fact that, despite the fact that, nevertheless, nonetheless, instead, conversely, on the contrary, by contrast, whereas, while, whilst, although, even though, on the one hand, on the other hand, in contrast, in comparison with, but, yet, alternatively, the former, the latter, respectively, all the same
Giving alternatives: there are two possibilities, alternatively, the one, the other, either, or, neither, nor, in addition, no only, but also, worse still, better still, equally, likewise, similarly, correspondingly, in the same way, another possibility, in a similar vein, as well as, furthermore, moreover, also, although, again, what is more, besides, too, as well as
Giving examples or introducing illustrations: for example, for instance, to name an example, to give an example, is well illustrated by, a case point is, such as, such, one of which, illustrates, is an example of this, is shown by, is exemplified by, is illustrated by
Stating sequence: first of all, first, firstly, second, secondly, thirdly, fourthly, now, then, next, finally, to complete, after that, 1, 2, 3, last, lastly, furthermore, to begin with, moreover, in addition, to conclude, afterwards
Reformulate the same point: in other words, to put it more simply, to put it differently, it would be better to say
Stating consequences: so, therefore, as a consequence, as a result, now, consequently, because of, thus, for this reason, then, this is why, accordingly, hence, given this, with reference to, given, on this basis, is caused by, causes, due to, has the effect, affects, the reason for, because of this, if, then, results in, leads to, produces, owing to, through, as, since, because
Stating purpose: in order to, so that, so as to, to
Giving the method by which something happened: by …ing, by (noun), by using
Stating surprise about something unexpected: besides, however, nevertheless, surprisingly, nonetheless, notwithstanding, only, still, while, in any case, at any rate, for all that, after all, at the same time, all the same
Summarizing: to sum up, in summary, to summarize, in brief, altogether, overall
Reaching a conclusion: I conclude, I therefore conclude, reached the conclusion that, it is concluded, therefore, for this reason, then, thus, in conclusion, to bring it all together
Listing components: distinct factors, comprises, consists of, constitutes, is composed of, may be classified, may be divided, can be distinguished
Giving definitions: (something) is, means, describes, is defined as, is used, is concerned with, deals with, relates to, involves, signifies, consist of
Approximating results: is just over, is just under, a little over, a little under, about, approximately, nearly
Qualifying comparisons: considerably, a great deal, much, very much, rather, somewhat, significantly, slightly, scarcely, hardly, only just (bigger than); exactly, precisely, just, virtually, practically, more or less, almost, nearly, approximately, almost, not quite, not entirely (the same as); totally, very, completely, entirely, quite, considerably (different from); is similar, is dissimilar, is different
Qualifying frequency: never, rarely, sometimes, usually, often, always, generally, on the whole, frequently, occasionally, hardly ever, seldom
Qualifying results: under no circumstances, mainly, generally, predominantly, usually, the majority, most of, almost all, a number of, may be, some, a few, a little, fairly, very, quite, rather, almost
Qualifying change: no, minimal, slight, small, slow, gradual, steady, marked, large, dramatic, complete, steep, sharp, rapid, sudden (rise, increase, fluctuation, decrease, decline, reduction, fall, drop, upwards trend, downward trend, peak, plateau, level off)
Just like sections are structured into paragraphs, each paragraph should have some internal logic. You can usually use the first sentence of a paragraph to introduce what the paragraph is about. This is particularly useful at the beginning of a new section. Consider these phrases as bridges. For example, in one of my essays, I opened a paragraph with “It will now be necessary to consider the argument that local cultures are dominated by transnational corporations.” My readers will immediately know what the paragraph is about.
Ideally, every single sentence is geared towards answering the question. Practically, this is hard to achieve, given the lack of infinite time resources available to most of us. However, by your trying to link similar paragraphs into sections, and by linking sections into a wider argument, every essay will benefit. The result is an essay that is easier and more pleasant to read.
Each paragraph, and definitely each section, should be geared towards the essay question you’re answering. It’s therefore a good idea to evaluate each section in terms of how far this helped to answer the essay question. You do a number of things with this: demonstrate that you’re still on track; you’re working towards a conclusion; you demonstrate the relevance of what you wrote in the section. If you can’t state how a particular paragraph or section is relevant towards your answer, then probably it is not.
Structuring the Main Part
There are different ways to structure the main part of the essay. One key difference is between essays structured along the lines of analytic dimensions, and those structured along the lines of argumentative dimensions. For example, the analytic dimensions of an essay on globalization may be economic aspects, cultural aspects, or political aspects. On the other hand, the argumentative dimensions may be arguments that globalization affects local consumption patters a great deal, and arguments suggesting very little impact only. The analytic approach would examine the different views in terms of economic aspects first, before moving on to cultural aspects. The argumentative approach would first explore the views in favour of strong impacts in all the different dimensions: economic, cultural, political, and then move on to do the same for arguments against.
There is no fast rule which of these approaches is better. In fact, both approaches can be very successful. You should consider the extent to which your structure helps you avoid saying the same thing twice. Whatever approach you choose, a clear indication in the introduction as to how you approach the essay will make sure your reader knows where you’re going.
Dealing with Repetition
An essay where the same word or sentence structure is repeated time and time again is often boring. Many writers consider repetitions bad writing. There are a few things you can do to avoid repetition. Where you should be careful, however, is the use of specialist terms. For the reasons outlined in the section on defining terms, you should never substitute a specific term with a more generic one. If you talk about power, then say so, even if this means using the same word over and over again. By no means use a thesaurus and pick a random suggestion offered there. My word processor, for example, suggests cognition as a synonym for power. This may be the case in some contexts, but as a key term, this is hardly ever the case.
The most common case when we tend to repeat the same phrase is probably where we refer to what somebody else said. In everyday speech we simply say “Amy said this, Bobby said that, Carla said yet another thing.” In the more formal style required in essay writing, this is commonly written in the following way: “Adams (2006) states that…, Bird (1999) suggests that.”
In order to make your essay less repetitive, consider the following options in addition to the common states and suggests. Always use your own judgement, when a phrase feels overused. By suggesting that repetition may leave a less than ideal impression, it’s not argued that this is an area of essay writing worth spending hours on. It’s much better being repetitive, but being precise and making a good argument.
- Crouch (1977) argues that …
- Daniels (2004) sees the problem as resulting from …
- Elton (1848) identifies the problem as consisting of …
- Ferro (1997) is of the opinion that …
- Gallagher (2003) defends the view that …
- Hall (1998) notes that the problem originates from …
- Inglehart (2000) considers that …
- Jackson (1984) views the issue as caused by …
- Kanter (1970) maintains that …
- Lewis (2002) concurs with Mann (2000) that …
- Nixon (1955) supports the view that …
- Orwell (1999) holds the view that …
- Perry (2005) agrees that …
- Quart (2001) denies that …
These alternative ways to put the ever same idea may be particularly useful when reviewing what different authors had to say on an issue—the parts of the essay where you simply restate what has been said before. Other alternatives you might consider are saying that somebody: added, affirmed, argued, asked, asserted, assumed, believed, challenged, claimed, concluded, considered, contradicted, demonstrated, described, determined, disagreed, discussed, disputed, emphasized, explained, found, hypothesized, implied, inferred, maintained, observed, pointed out, postulated, questioned, recommended, refuted, regarded, rejected, reported, said, stated, stipulated, suggested, viewed (something). This list should illustrate that there need be no conflict between variation in writing and writing clearly. If in doubt, however, you should always prioritize clarity.
When writing for academic purposes, there are a number of conventions that you should follow. A key difference to most other forms of writing is that we give references to the sources of our argument. Ambiguity is something most academics dislike, and you’re more credible, too, if you avoid it. Academic writing tends to be rather formal, and many will advise you to avoid writing in the first person (that is, not write using I). This makes academic writing both formal and impersonal.
The reason why the first person should be avoided, is that in scientific writing one’s opinions, feelings and views are not regarded as important. Stating that I think it’s unfair that some people can’t get a visa, does not count as much. However, urging you not to use I in essays can fail in two ways. Firstly, you could still write about your own feelings and opinions using different phrases, and secondly, not all uses of the first person are bad. It’s a good idea to stay clear of phrases such as “I think,” or “in my opinion,” unless you’re evaluating a claim. However, there is no apparent reason for not saying “I will first define the key terms.” Using the first person in this way will make a text more approachable. Moreover, using phrases starting with I, you avoid using the passive voice which many find more difficult to read.
Having said this, some markers still consider it preferable not to use the first person. Should your tutor or marker be one of them, you may want to play it safe. Don’t use we when you mean I. If you are the sole author, the use of a plural is technically not correct. However, even a tutor who hates such phrases will not mark you down: It’s the argument and general structure of your essay that count for much more.
One area where there is no room for argument is the use of colloquialisms, slang, or street language. Academic writing is formal writing, and you might be penalized for using the wrong register. A little bit of informality here or there will not normally matter much. Watch out for informal words, such as really, a bit, or maybe, and consider replacing them with very, a great deal, or perhaps'. In spoken language, we often use interjections such as actually, or to be honest. These, too, don’t belong into an academic essay.
Consider the following example: “To be honest, I don’t think much of this theory” is something we might say to a colleague of ours. When writing an essay, you could put this as: “It is clear from the evidence presented in this essay that the applications of this theory are limited.” The following list further illustrates what is meant by formal and informal English. The formal words are included in brackets in each case: Ask for (request), carry out (conduct), chance (opportunity), find out (discover), get better (improve), get worse (deteriorate), guess (estimate), look into (investigate), OK (satisfactory), tell (inform), worried (concerned).
Euphemisms, such as passed away for die, are another aspect of language you should not use in your essays: if you write about and mean die, then say so. Clarity and accuracy are paramount. For these reasons academic writing can be rather tentative and cautious. This is the case because we are not after grabbing headlines, but we write accurately what we know. If our data suggest that X possibly leads to Y, we say just that. In this case we should never say that X leads to Y. In academia we are often unsure what really goes on, and we should be upfront about this.
Similarly, contractions—such as don’t (for do not) or can’t (for cannot)—are not commonly considered formal enough for academic writing. Some of your readers will consider this convention ridiculous; others take it as a sign that you have not understood you should write in a scholarly fashion. To play it safe, use the full forms at any time. This particular academic convention seems to ease more and more.
Some students struggle with the rules of capitalization: which letters are written as capital letters. The easiest one is that every sentence starts with a capital letter. Names and titles (called proper nouns) are also written with capital letters, unless there is a specific reason not to. So, we write the name of Mark Granovetter with capital letters, but the special case of the iPod is written with a small one. Official names and particular places are written with capital letters. It’s thus the Department of Health, and Oxford University. However, when we write about general places, we don’t use capital letters. We study at university in general. Official titles are often capitalized, such as Value Added Tax. Furthermore, many abbreviations come with capital letters. It’s an MBA your friend may be studying for. The days of the week are capitalized, such as in Monday and Wednesday, as are the names of the months. The names of countries, nationalities, languages, and people from places are written with capital letters: the Swiss live in Switzerland, and Norway is a country. Apart from this, about every other word is written with small letters.
Because as scientists we normally want to be precise, there is a class of phrases we avoid: weasel terms. Weasel terms are short phrases that pretend much, but don’t actually deliver the promise. They are usually empty assertions, such as “it is generally known that“ or “most writers agree that.”
This box contains a list of weasel terms. In an essay, you should never use these phrases without a reference to substantiate what is said.
- as opposed to most
- considered by many
- contrary to many
- critics say that
- experts say that
- it could be argued that
- it has been noticed
- it has been said
- it has been stated
- it has been suggested
- it is generally claimed
- it is widely believed that
- mainstream scholars say that
- mainstream scientists say that
- many people say
- many scientists argue that
- research has shown
- researchers argue that
- serious scholars say that
- social science says
- sociologists believe that
- some argue
- some feel that
- some historians argue
- the scientific community
- this is widely considered to be
- this is widely regarded as
- widely considered as
It is possible to use weasel terms, as long as they are backed up with a reference or two. So, saying that something is “widely considered the foremost example of” something is possible, if you either provide a reference to someone who demonstrates this, or provide a group of references to back up your claim. However, in most cases we want to be more precise. Rather than saying that “many social scientists argue that class is important”—which is probably true—and giving a couple of references to back this up, it’s better to put it as follows: “Goldthorpe (2000) argues that class remains important.” Or maybe we have access to a statistic we can cite, that X% of social scientists seem to consider class important. In either case, the solution is more precise and thus more satisfactory.
The use of references is an academic convention, and you must follow this, even though it might be a tiresome exercise. Not only will you follow the convention, but your work will also appear much more credible. You can find more on the use of references in a separate section.
Footnotes are often associated with academic writing. Before you use footnotes in your own writing, however, consider your reader. Footnotes interrupt the flow of reading: you force your audience to stop for a while, moving down to the bottom of the page, before they can read on. From the reader’s point of view you should avoid footnotes if you can. The only general exception is if you use footnotes for referencing. Don’t use endnotes (footnotes at the end of the text), unless they are used exclusively for referencing. Asking your reader to flick forth and back through your essay is even more of an interruption. Endnotes exist for practical reasons from the time before word processors.
Footnotes are used to explain obscure words, or when you want to add some special information. In the case of obscure words, if it’s a key term, define it in the main text. There are cases, where you’ll want to use an obscure word, but it is not central to the argument. Consider the following example: “The Deputy must, with every word he speaks in the Diet1, […] anticipate himself under the scrutiny of his constituents” (Rousseau, 1762, cited in Putterman, 2003, p.465). Here I talk about the name of an assembly. The word is probably obscure to most readers, but not central to my argument: I write about parliaments in general, not the Diet in particular. Adding this footnote will help the readers to understand the quote. In terms of special information, if you make an important point, then make in the main text. If it’s an unimportant remark, then very often you don’t want to make it at all. The guiding principle is whether the note is relevant to your answer.
Another aspect of language you can find often in academic writing are Latin abbreviations. Never use these unless you’re sure what they mean. Normally, you should not use abbreviations in the main text. Instead, use plain English. Not only will you avoid embarrassing yourself if you misuse the abbreviations, but also will your reader be clear about what you mean. It’s much clearer to write for example, rather than mistakenly putting i.e. instead of e.g. (a common mistake). Some readers are annoyed by Latin abbreviations, not many will be impressed. Others will simply struggle to understand without a look in the dictionary. The same is true for a number of English abbreviations.
Another area of academic writing where there are many bad examples out there is the use of jargon and specialist terms. Whilst we aim for clarity and accuracy, jargon is never justified where it does not help these purposes. Specialist terms can be very useful to summarize complex issues into a few letters. Nonetheless, all technical terms need to be defined in simpler language somewhere in your essay. Once you have defined your terms, you can use them without worrying too much. This is where the define section comes in. Bear in mind what your audience is likely to know.
Other aspects of writing that may make your essay easier to read, and thus more approachable are: the use of shorter words where possible, cutting out words where they are redundant, using the active voice (I do, she says, rather than it is understood, it is achieved), and using English words where they are not different from the Latin or Greek ones. We want to write as clearly as we can, because when the writing is not clear, very often this is an indication that the argument is not very clear, either.
1 The Diet was the name of the deliberative assemblies in many European countries at the time of Rousseau’s writings.
After presenting the main argument, it’s usually necessary to discuss what this all means. The argument of the essay may have implications on policy, implications on the use of certain theories, or implications on how we (should) understand the world. Not always are these implications novel or big. Nevertheless, you should always discuss the implications of what you have just said. If you don’t do so, you risk leaving your reader with the feeling of so what?
Obviously, this is something we want to avoid. The discussion of what it all means can often be incorporated inside the main section of the essay. This is often a good idea, too, because the repetition of the same points can be avoided. However, even where the implications of the argument are discussed as part of the main argument, it’s a good idea to use at least one paragraph to make explicit that you have invested time into this section.
Rather than summarizing the argument, this section is here to draw the different sections together. Depending on the essay question, the discussion can be rather large (such as in an evaluate question), or very short (for example if you’re asked to describe something).
A number of essay questions directly or indirectly ask you to evaluate the persuasiveness of an argument or theory. There are a number of points you can look out for when making such an evaluation: coherence, empirical adequacy, and comprehensiveness.
A good approach is to think about the coherence of the argument, the empirical adequacy, and the comprehensiveness. By coherence I refer to the reasoning and the argument. Does it make sense? Is the argument elaborate enough? Are there gaps in the line of reasoning? Is the argument clear? Does one point follow the other? Is it a logical argument?
Empirical adequacy is about the extent to which there is support for the argument. Does the evidence support the argument? Does A always lead to B? Are there alternative explanations?
Comprehensiveness, finally, is about the limits of the argument. Is it true in other places? Was it true in the past? Will it be the same in the future? Do other cultures do things the same way? Is the argument explicit about its limits? Does the argument attempt to cover everything (universal)?
Thinking about these three aspects alone will help evaluate arguments and claims. You’ll find that sometimes the answers to the questions here are difficult to answer. Sometimes, the answers lie in the assumptions, or in what is not said.
Where you’re asked to evaluate the usefulness of models or terms, consider the following criteria. You should not just state that X is being used, but always try to establish criteria for the usefulness of the model.
For definitions, look out how clearly something can be defined. Can we recognize an X if we see one? Are all X the same? Is X a neutral term? Is X value-laden? Does the definition of X depend on something else? Is X the same in every context? How can X be measured?
You may also want to consider the analytic dimensions of concepts. Is X as a concept more useful than Y? Does X contradict Y? Is X complimentary to Y? In which cases is using X rather than Y more useful? What does X capture better than other terms? What does X capture that other terms don’t? But also, what does X not capture?
There is often also a normative dimension to terms (what should be). A full evaluation will include such normative aspects, too. What does X suggest about policies? Given X, how should society be organized? How should the world be seen?
Having written the essay, you state that you have done so. This section is often separated visually, or singled out with a subheading such as conclusion or concluding remarks. What this section does, is summarizing what you have done, and providing a conclusion to the argument. Never should you bring in new material—be it examples or arguments—at this stage.
In fact, your aim is to make the conclusion as short as you can. If there is much to discuss, if there are many loose ends, you should use the previous section (discussion) to do so. In a similar way as the introduction includes an outline, the conclusion recaps the argument. What you do is to revisit the highlights of the argument. Just like the discussion leads to a conclusion, your final section will close with a concluding remark.
The following is an example of a concluding paragraph. Depending on the length of your essay, it might be reasonable to have a longer conclusion, but try to keep it as short as you can.
- This paper has critically looked at an article by Katz-Gerro on cultural consumption (2002). The article was outlined, and particular attention was given to the research design, data analysis, and the persuasiveness of the argument. It was found that the article provides a coherent and plausible argument, but one which is marred by issues around the comparability of the data used, as well as the omission of some compelling alternative explanatory variables, such as status. Because of these weak points, the findings of the article may not be as generalizable as the author presents them. The article uses a good approach, but the study could have been executed in a more rigorous way, a point that would have improved the power of the argument.
This example illustrates the two functions: summarizing, and concluding. The first bit reminds the reader how we got where we are. Then the key points of the argument are briefly revisited. Finally, the paragraph and the essay are brought to a conclusion. Nothing new is added, and no time and space is wasted reiterating what was said before. Obviously, without a substantial section discussing the different strengths and weaknesses of the article, as well as the significance of those, the conclusion could never be so short.
Writing a long conclusion means that—for the last time—you run the risk of losing your reader. Reading the same thing again, albeit put in different words, is not usually very interesting to read. By keeping the discussion separate, the final paragraph can be short and to the point.
It’s important to note that you can take sides in an essay, and indeed you should. It’s unlikely that you’ll ever conclude that something is utterly useless or the golden bullet for that, but if your argument suggests that the statement you were given, for example, does not hold, then do say so. A good idea to conclude an essay is by referring back to the original question. This can be done in a subtle way, but often there is nothing lost from doing it head on. By so doing, you demonstrate that even after all the work, you’re still focused.
When to Write the Conclusion
Just as there is disagreement on when it is best to write the introduction, there is no clear consensus when to write the conclusion. On the one hand, you can write it at the end, after you know where the essay leads. On the other hand, you can write it first, and thus commit yourself to the conclusion. The idea is to force yourself to stay focused.