Sunday 13 May 2012

How to write an essay

I was constructing something earlier today for a few of my students, and those notes became this blog posting – aimed at a much wider audience.

What is an introduction?

My initial concern was that I notice many students were mixing description with analysis with critique right at the beginning of their essay – making evaluative and critical comments and opinion before they have so much as described their area of enquiry or ‘laid out their stall’.  I advise that such rich critical points are reserved for later discussion where comparisons can be drawn between theory and practice.  An introduction should concentrate on describing the area of interest including context, theoretical models, expert contributions (literature) and policy (government?).

What is a ‘good’ structure?

What you are aiming for is a nicely ordered journey, from description and background to evaluation and critical analysis.   Here’s a general outline that should be suitable for most requirements:

Introduction: This should be very descriptive and objective, with the exception of your hypothesis – avoid comparisons or opinion.  Perhaps state what the essay is about, clarify what you intend to cover.  Things to include are contemporary incidents that are raising the subject's profile at the moment (if any) and any current debate or policy around the issues.  You can state others opinions (that MUST be referenced), but reserve yours until the discussion or critique later in the piece where you will have opportunity to bring in your own experience and how that compares to the expert literature / policy.

Background: This sets the scene and allows you to evidence that you are au-fait with both contemporary and historical debates and literature around the subject.  You could also include what steps you took to find out about the topic and, perhaps of more importance, any limitations your approach or your context may have on your essay. Perhaps there is a lack of literature in your area, and stating how you tried to find material would inform the reader.

Discussion (aka critique, where you should offer a synthesis of a variety of perspectives):  This is where the ‘real’ marks are – where students can move from a ‘pass’ on a typical marking grid through to distinction.  At this point in the essay (and you can sub-title this section discussion or even ‘Critical Analysis’) - you should be drawing together the variety of perspectives presented earlier – some may be mutually supportive, some may be contradictory.  Here are some points I suggest you think about that may prompt your critical discussion:

  • Evaluate the relative merits of existing literature and/or policy.  What are the authors’ viewpoints? What bias might be present? Was any evidence presented; how reliable is the evidence?  Perhaps no evidence was presented – was the literature just people opinions / belief / thoughts / rhetoric / dogma? Where is the material published – is it a reliable source?  What was driving (funding?) the publication?
  • Are there any perspectives that compare or contrast radically with your experience – why might they contrast?
  • Offer an interpretation of the existing literature/policy that is a synthesis of a number of perspectives.  It may be valuable to add your own experience at this point.  This is where you can make your perspective, your synthesis of a variety of viewpoints, clear – and if bringing in your own context and experience it seems relevant, perhaps ‘authentic’ to begin your thoughts with ‘I suggest ...’ or ‘I consider ...’.
Re-iterating synthesis: In the discussion you need to demonstrate to the reader that you have understood a variety of perspectives and at this point begin to offer a synthesis of opinions that is your own unique perspective on the subject.

Conclusions (and recommendations): Perhaps allowing you to re-contextualise the discussion to your area of practice?

Further support and advice

Students at my university can book a 1-2-1 session with academic advisors that can offer general essay writing advice, help and guidance – I strongly advise you to see if this service is available to you, and USE IT if you have read this far in my blog post!

Final word:  An ‘easy hit’ to impress the examiner is good referencing.  Here’s an excellent guide to Harvard Referencing that I strongly recommend (it's the one I use and understand!?).

Comments on the above are welcomed – anything you want to add – just comment.  I especially would like to invite comments pointing to resources that may have helped you in your essay writing – and if I get enough comments I’ll make another posting summarising those links.

Kindest regards to all



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