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How to Write an Academic Essay
How do you go about writing an academic essay in the 'soft' sciences? I wrote the original of this piece as a somewhat extended answer to a friend who had asked me how to write essays that got marks. It does take work to get high marks, there's no short cut, but it's still possible to work smarter. The essay writing style here is that appropriate to psychology, at least in the English framework. Much of it should also apply to the rest of the 'soft' sciences, and a lot of it to any essay of any form.
So - how do you write essays that get good marks? Well, mine have a clear simple structure, with usually five-sections-plus-references, all with some appropriate headings:
Now, the essays don't necessarily end up with those five sections just like that. For example, it may be better to have the arguments for and against the other way round, or combined and interleaved in a point-for-point comparison. That will depend on what the evidence for and against the argument is like. But before we start 'arguing'...
1) I do not start an essay until I know how it is going to end. Then I write the end, first! The end is the most important guide to the essay, it's where I'm going. It's like having a bull's eye/center ring on a target, without one you can't aim at the mark. If I don't know what the end is going to be, it means I haven't decided what I think, so that means I need to read more. If I'm in a hurry (or desperate and stuck and confused), then I might try doing a bit of the introduction or middle just to figure out what the problems in writing the essay are and what the end is going to be. So my rule number 1 is:
Now you might ask, 'but aren't we supposed to use evidence to decide the conclusion?' to which the answer is 'Yes, of course'!
This is what the reading is about! You should try to keep reading around the topic until you develop a gut feeling as to what your answer to the question is. The test of whether you've done enough reading is this: if you haven't got an answer to the question, you haven't read enough!
To actually write the conclusion, I ask myself, 'what do I feel is my answer to this issue?', and then I briefly sum up the arguments that support my position. Also, I always refer back to the question in the conclusion. It doesn't have to be final in form when I write it: I can always polish it up later, but it has to state my answer to the question.
2) Once I know where I am going, then I can select what evidence to put in the essay to best support the conclusion I have reached. There is almost always far too much evidence available, so the second rule is:
So, ignore it. I always try to use three strong arguments for the question, even if I disagree with them all (because in my conclusion I reject them). Then I use three strong arguments against the question, working along the same lines. The stronger the arguments I pick the better (as long as I feel that I can poke holes in them when necessary).
Where possible, I will come at the question from different angles. That is, maybe from (say) a statistical angle and a methodological angle, or from the angles of validity and day-to-day experience. It's even just about valid to use my own or other people's personal experience as a case study against an overly general argument (though not for an argument, of course). This works because it only takes one black swan to prove the error in 'all swans are white'. However, it's much better to quote someone else than use your own experience, except as a final dot on the 'i' or cross on the 't'...
The whole point is, to tell someone how to find a house we give them the address, which usually is (1) the street name and (2) how far along it to go - or we give a grid reference, like 'the junction of W Avenue and X St.' It takes two reference points as a minimum to mark out somewhere or something, and so three reference points, or arguments, really ties it down. But I throw out anything that does not directly support the conclusion I'm trying to make, which usually means nearly everything gets chucked out, leaving just a few strong direct arguments. This solves my problem as to how to select between all the available studies and so on.
3) The next thing to do is discuss the evidence. I have evidence for and evidence against. What is my opinion? I attempt to attack the arguments that I do not agree with by using the arguments that I like. This is not hard, usually, as long as we assume that the work is all done by other humans, who make mistakes, take shortcuts, and all too often are very lazy and in a hurry. So the next rule is...
It doesn't need to be completely demolished, just have enough genuine doubt cast on it to weaken its appeal. I try to look for all the different sorts of flaws, which can include:
All that I need is one valid criticism that I can use against the arguments I disagree with, but it needs to be one that I can find a reference for, or can assemble from two or more bits from different authors. And it's not necessary to be rude or dismissive - research work is hard work, if they've got it wrong just say so simply, and point out why. If you're lucky your errors may be treated the same way...
4) The next task is the introduction. This is easy, now. I start out defining what I mean by any terms I am using, so that the reader knows what I mean when I use them. Then I introduce the issues that surround the question, pointing out that there are questions that need to be answered in the areas that I am going to use in the rest of the essay. That's it. No rule. Oh alright,
(You'd better be your self :-). I try not to be pompous. I try to 'keep it simple, stupid' or KISS. I don't claim knowledge I don't have, or certainties I lack. But there's no need to be excessively modest either - in some areas, no-one knows what's what, so I have as much right to pontificate as anyone else as long as I can support my arguments. Make it interesting! Just think of all those essays your poor tutor has to read - if you can brighten their day by making yours interesting, while still conforming to the requirements for the course, you'll get good marks.
5) Then an important part. This gets a rule:
That is, I can get 5-10 marks or per cent just for making it look nice. This means I follow the guidelines in the student handbook or wherever, whatever they are. These may include:
Now, your college/department may have different rules to those I've adopted here. Well, find out what they are and stick to them! I use extra good quality paper just for the final printout. I make it look like a chapter from a book, and I use the 'report styles' of (in my case) Word to do the layout.
And SPILL-CHECKING SPIEL-CHECKING SPELL-CHICKING.
Just in case that's not clear, check the spelling. And the grammar - the grammar checker in most word processors is useless but you can at least check it's wrong. By the way, a spell-checker typically will only find one of the three 'errors' in the text in capitals above...
6) Then the references. This doesn't gain me points, but it stops me losing them. Lots and lots of references from different sources, including some of the reading list for the module, and a few that are not on the reading list. This shows that I have done the set reading, and done some more of my own. How many references? I'd say 12 or 15 per 1000 words.
So, let's summarise. The essay consists of:
and I write (most of the text of) these in this order:
and I add the references every time I stop to think or reread it.
7) The Last Rule. This is simple:
Now, this includes me, and you, of course. But it also includes all the experts. I always feel it is worth remembering all those various theories that once were accepted as gospel truth and are now merely the source of much innocent (or cynical) amusement. If I feel someone is wrong, then I look for arguments to show that they are wrong, based on my gut feeling about it. They probably are wrong!
On the other hand, since I'm no better than they are, this also means I check the essay at least ten times. If I have time, I put it away for a week and then reread it. I know it is critical to read it OUT LOUD and also to LISTEN to what I'm saying. I check, check and recheck - if I have time. I often get the computer to read it out to me, using the text-to-speech software that comes with the soundcard. The advantage of doing this is that the computer reads what I've written, not what it's logical or reasonable to say, as a human reader would. I've corrected many ridiculous errors in this way.
And that's it - one way to write academic essays. There are probably lots of other ways of doing it, but that's pretty much what I do. I hope this is some use to you, even if you only choose to disagree!
To get a clear idea of how the different problems of essay writing can be dealt with in practice, there's a selection of different academic essays available on this website, written pretty much along these lines. You'll find them mostly in the psychology section. They vary considerably in style and approach, within the same broad guidelines. Some are better than others -- I'll leave you to decide which :)
The reasons for the different forms of the essays are unique for each essay. For example, in the more social-science oriented areas, lecturers and tutors seemed to much prefer a standard 'written' style of essay, with NO illustrations, tables, and so on. Indeed, the presence of these non-literary items would cause a lower mark to be given.
In the more cognitive areas of psychology, and in pharmacology and bio-psychology, a 'report' style essay with tables, illustrations and so on was apparently preferred by many markers. I must emphasize - your mileage may vary. Find out how your tutors, lecturers and markers want the material presented and do it that way. Simple, no?
Other reasons for the variations in the style of the essay were to do with the subject matter and also the tutor who was going to read them. If you know what they like, then give it to them. This is not sneaky or manipulative, the aim of an academic essay is to show what you know and to argue a position. Anything that gets in the way of the demonstration is unproductive, so if your tutor indicates a preference, go for it.
There's also a different style of essay available in the philosophy section. Here the referencing is done in a quite different way to the psychology essays, to match the conventions in philosophy writing. Moreover, the 'reverse pyramid' is used -- that is, the essay starts out with the conclusion and argues back to it via the discussion. This is the conventional way that newspaper reporting is done - first headlines, then details, finally trivia, and it can be a powerful way to write as long as it suits the topic and the tutors - many won't like it.
An important note on formatting: the academic essays here were, of course, originally written for presentation on paper. Some colleges around the world apparently permit on-line submissions, but mine didn't. For presentation here in on-line form these essays have been reformatted with an essay outline at the opening, which permits 'jumping' around the essay in the same sort of way that you can leaf through pages (well, as close as I can get to it!). You will know how this works, because this essay adopts the same approach. Moreover, if the essay had illustrations they have been removed from where they were originally placed in the text and put in a separate document, accessible by link or pop-up window. This is because of the various difficulties with graphics on the Internet. The original paper essays start with the 'Introduction' and did not have the outline section or the Summary box that introduces the essay; I have also added extra 'signposting' in some cases (headings, subdivisions). All essays that were submitted and marked have a note stating that they have been reformatted for on-line presentation. More recent essays that weren't submitted and marked do not have this note.
Now, there is other material on-line that aims to help with essay-writing -- but there's a lot less of it than I thought there would be. After spending some time looking, I realised why I'd been asked about essay writing. I did however find some good links
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