Writing Essays: A Guide for Students in English

In this post, I share a few tips to help you write more polished, coherent and authoritative essays, whether you’re a fresher or a seasoned postgraduate. This is intended as a guide only. If just one or two tips work for you and you have alternative ways of doing things, that’s fine. Everyone has their own approach to assignments! Whether it's an undergraduate assignment or a master's dissertation that's due for submission very soon, you definitely want to read on.

First up..

Question the Question

This might sound puzzling, but bear with me. In order to achieve higher marks, tutors want you to demonstrate originality of thought. For example, if faced with a question like ‘How do writers on this module present readers with distinctively modern literary forms?’, recognise the value judgements embedded within the question. It’s a given that these writers do use modern literary forms. Would you agree from your knowledge of the texts? What counts as ‘modern’ literary forms? I’d say this is a very relative term. This was a question from a Victorian Literature module. Perhaps some writers use older forms of storytelling or poetry, experiment with newer forms (free indirect discourse, free verse etc.) or use a hybrid of the two.

If you propose an alternative view to that implied by the question, be sure to support it with evidence. Remember, your tutor is going to be inundated with essay papers, so make yours stand out!

Tackle the S word, I.e. Structure

Word Counts

Ideally have this planned before you start writing, even if it’s a skeleton structure with just a few key points in each paragraph. You also need to consider how many words you have to play with, and set some rough estimates for each paragraph. I was advised that an introduction should be 10% of your overall word count. Say you have a 2,500 word essay to write - 250, or possibly even less, of that will be your introduction. Another 250 should be reserved for your conclusion, so that leaves you with 2,000 words for the core of your essay. Break that down into three or four key sections, each dealing with an aspect of your argument, and that leaves 500-800 words per section.


Note that paragraphs shouldn’t be more than a page long. Think about how to order your paragraphs to help structure your argument. One paragraph should seamlessly lead to the next.

Introductions and Conclusions

Conclusions can often be the trickiest part to write. Don’t repeat what’s been said in your main paragraphs and don’t introduce new material. Instead, draw your key points together and synthesise the ideas that you have introduced. Going back to introductions, it might be an idea to write the introduction last. Your argument can change as you get into writing your assignment and do further reading. Speaking of which…

Read Widely

The Wider Context

Think of your essay as a dinner party conversation. Invite other people to the discussion, but don’t let your voice be drowned out. You have to steer the conversation. Think about any theoretical frameworks that might be relevant to your topic, or add a fresh take on it. Draw from other disciplines if you can. Linguistics and Literature can sometimes cross-pollinate, such as applying politeness theory to medieval texts or applying corpus linguistics to the study of literature. It’s also important to think about the wider historical context in which your texts sit.

Secondary Reading

Consult reading lists for any books or journal articles that might help you to form your argument, but don’t be afraid to find your own sources. However, resist the temptation to name drop critics. Relate what they say to your argument. Don’t be afraid to interrogate the work of other academics and contrast your opinion with theirs, as long as you can explain why you disagree with them. Ask yourself how convincing the author’s argument is (in the case of Linguistics, consider their justification for selecting their dataset(s)) and why the author is writing this. You should always consider how relevant a source is to your topic, no matter how interesting you might find it.

Read your text closely

Close reading should form the core of your argument. Get to know your primary text(s) well. Read it once to get an overall feel for it, then read it another couple of times, armed with a sharper lens. Consider elements such as point of view, imagery, and sentence structure. Question an author’s choice of words and whether a word might have alternative meanings (when studying older texts, consult the Oxford English Dictionary Online to see if a word has acquired new layers of meaning over time). No matter how much secondary reading you do, you should always return to your primary text. If your argument isn’t supported by the text itself, then you will have to form an alternative argument.

Close reading requires a degree of detachment. Leave your personal feelings about the story, poem or article aside. Your essay should not read like a review, but an in-depth analysis of how the text is put together and how it can be interpreted. Do not give a sweeping description of the text as a whole, but pick up on key elements within the text that relate to your argument.

Get into the habit of 'Grammar policing'

Watch out for common mistakes such as comma splices, where two independent clauses are joined by a comma (‘It was close to autumn, the trees were losing their leaves’), and lack of subject-verb concord, (e.g. ‘It were’ instead of ‘It was’). Everybody has their own little ‘ticks’.

One of my biggest repeat offences was using ‘which’ in the place of ‘that’ in a restrictive clause. A restrictive clause is a type of finite dependent clause used to modify a noun phrase. In other words, it’s a type of clause that defines something, and is always signalled by that, e.g. ‘this is the book that I was talking about’. A non-restrictive clause is a type of clause that does not restrict the reference of the head noun, but rather adds descriptive information about the noun. This type of clause describes something, and is always signalled by which, e.g. ‘this book which is in its third edition’.

Invest in a grammar book. I often referred to my copy of the Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English throughout my time at university.

Edit, Edit, Edit

Tightening your prose not only makes for better reading, but trims a few words from your word count. Get rid of padding words. For example, ‘I would argue’ becomes ‘I argue’, or ‘the following chapter shall discuss’ becomes ‘This chapter discusses’. Try cutting ‘also’ and see if it’s really needed. If you find that you are massively over the word count, try to cut sizeable chunks, rather than pinch at the odd word or two. Ask yourself what each sentence contributes to your argument.

Try reading your work aloud to yourself. This will help you spot typos and other mistakes. You’ll hear where the pauses are, if you’re in doubt where commas should be placed. Make sure that you allow yourself time for a final read through (or two) before you submit.

Take Breaks!

It’s easy to become bogged down in an assignment and start to lose focus. Step away from whatever you’re doing and return to it later with fresh eyes. Allowing yourself some down time is especially important during the current Covid-19 lockdown, when it’s more important than ever to think about good mental health. Watch a daft video, go for a walk (but no more than one!), or have a quick chat to a friend (probably via Skype). Even though your tutors are not available for face-to-face meetings, it’s likely that you can still drop them an email if you have questions about your assignment.

Good luck, stay safe and happy writing!

Written by Emily Owen, author of The Mechanical Maestro. See full bio here: https://www.e-owen.uk/about/

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