UPDATE 15/4/2017: You can find my newest guide, providing tips on how to prepare for and write essays in exams, here.
This brief guide is intended to provide you with basic tips which will allow you to succeed in undergraduate essay writing. If you follow the advice presented here, your essays will probably be quite good. If you don’t, they might still be alright, but they probably won’t be as good as they could have been. Follow it if you want. It’s your choice. I’m not forcing you or anything. I’m not your dad.
For the terminally lazy:
- Find 10-20 relevant books and articles from the reading list and/or Google Scholar searches. Well referenced Wikipedia or Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy articles are your friends for both understanding and writing about a topic (read and cite the references, not the articles themselves. Obviously.).
- Skim the relevant sections for relevant quotes.
- Write down those relevant quotes.
- Have a think, put the argument and essay together.
- Your essay is done.
Obviously this doesn’t cover everything. That’s what the next 2000 words are for. Stop being so lazy.
Summary: read the reading list, don’t read books cover to cover, find additional articles in bibliographies of reading list articles, skim abstracts for relevance, write down notes with page numbers and quotes. Read critically.
Unless you’re Foucault (and you’re not Foucault), then the foundation of any good essay is a solid set of references. This isn’t just so that you can look good and your tutor thinks you’ve done the reading. It’s because, no matter how clever you are and what percentile of the country you came in your school leaving exams, your ideas still aren’t original. Trust me. You might think that you’re the first person to discover moral relativism, or situationist perspective on human behaviour, or discursive constructions. Spoilers: you’re not. Someone has done it before, and they’ve almost certainly done it better. That’s not to say that you can’t have cool ideas, or express those ideas in interesting ways. You just need to make sure that you cite the people who came up with those ideas originally, and ideally show how you differ from or improve upon them. The only way you can do this (and consequently, the only way to get a decent mark) is to do some reading.
- Look at the reading list. If it’s incredibly long, you probably won’t want to (or be able) to read it all. However, that is not an excuse to not read any of it. Look through the list, identify if there are any readings marked as essential. Read them. If there aren’t any essential readings, pick a few which look interesting and relevant, then read them.
- Read some more. If the reading list is really short, you’ll need to go beyond it. If it’s long, this is still relevant. Look through the reference lists of the papers and books you’ve just read. See where their ideas came from. Mark out a few of the most promising-looking readings. Read them.
- There is a difference between reading to understand the topic, and reading that you plan to reference. It is totally fine to use Wikipedia, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, lecture notes etc to familiarise yourself with the key arguments and concepts. It is considerably less fine to cite them.
- Books. Do not read whole books. It’s a waste of your time. You won’t remember any of it, it will drain all of your energy, and you only get one reference and viewpoint out of it. Read the intro and conclusion so that you get the gist of their argument. Pick a chapter from the contents page which looks like it’s relevant to your essay. Read that. As above, find relevant references and follow them up.
- Articles. Read the abstract first. Does it look like it’s relevant? If not, don’t waste your time. If it does, read it. Check the bibliography as above.
- Read critically. For the sake of all that is holy, read critically. This is absolutely essential. Don’t just stare at the pages and absorb them, bovine-like, for the purposes of regurgitation into your essay. Think about:
- The central claim the author is making. Usually there is only one, perhaps two. Summarise it in one sentence if you can.
- What is the frame of their argument? When in history is it set? Who are the key actors? Are they responding to another author? If so, what is the argument they’re responding to? Try to position their argument in context. This allows you to:
- Critically assess the claims made. This obviously doesn’t just mean ‘say they’re wrong’. They might well be wrong, but you’ll need to find reasons for it. Generate a list of three reasons for each line of attack you want to take. Scrap the weakest two. If you think they’re right, why are they right? Are there other authors who corroborate their claims? Are there logical reasons to prefer their argument?
Make sure you take notes on everything you read. Put page numbers in those notes. In fact, write down a few potentially useful (and ideally flexible) quotes verbatim. Using them makes it look like you’ve actually read the text, rather than just picking a page at random and hoping that it happens to contain the right argument or that your examiner doesn’t know the literature at all well. I still handwrite quotes in my notes, and I’m working on my PhD. There aren’t many ways in which I’d recommend being like me. This is one of them.
You don’t want to get penalised because you didn’t reference your readings properly after you’ve put in all that effort to make sure that your arguments are founded in the literature.
Answering the Question
Summary: identify key terms in the question, define those terms, question the question (what are the assumptions behind it?).
Some questions are straightforward. They might ask you to ‘critically assess’ some claim or concept, or ask you a simple question which you’ll have to answer in a complex way. Other questions aren’t so simple. They’ll make a statement and tell you to discuss it. They might ask you to compare and contrast two different ideas, or say which of two theories is the more accurate. We’ll talk about both types of questions here.
- Identify the key terms in the question. If the question is “what is the best solution to the demarcation problem?”, you’re going to want to identify what you think the examiner means by the terms ‘solution’ and ‘demarcation problem’. How are you going to define and operationalise those terms in your essay? This is essential, because your argument has to have a clear definition of the terms you’re using in order for it to be coherent and responsive. This doesn’t mean you should use lazy constructions like “I am going to define ‘demarcation problem’ as ‘the question of how we can define ‘science””. That’s a perfectly reasonable definition (if you can defend it, and you should give a reason you’ve chosen a certain definition), but you need to be a little less clunky. Something like “When we talk about the problem of demarcation, we refer to the question of how exactly we can define ‘science’ as a sphere of human activity which is somehow special”, will do just fine.
- Question the question. You’ll hear this quite a lot, and you’ll probably wonder what on earth it means. It’s important to understand it, because it can be the key to getting a high mark. Every term in a question is ambiguous. Every question has hidden assumptions behind it. You can question these assumptions. For example, in the question about ‘the demarcation problem’ above, there are assumptions that there is a single problem of demarcation, as well as a single best solution to that problem. Sometimes it’s enough to point out that these assumptions exist, and then to proceed with the essay by clarifying the definitions you’re using and the assumptions you’re working with. Sometimes you might think that the assumptions are fundamentally mistaken, or disguise a more important question. In that case, you’ll need to point this out, and then proceed to explain why, and to make your arguments within the essay using your revised understanding of the question.
- If the question is “X statement. Discuss.” then you have, broadly, four options on how to answer it – see below. Try not to hedge your bets: this isn’t AS Level Critical Thinking, you don’t need to give both sides equal weighting and say “ooh, it’s a really tricky question and there are great arguments on both sides”. Have opinions.
- This is true, and that’s great
- This is true, and that’s awful
- This isn’t true, and it should be true
- This isn’t true, and that’s fine.
- How are you going to relate your argument to the existing literature? Who are the key authors you plan to draw on? Make sure you know their arguments reasonably well and have armed yourself with flexible quotes from their work. If you can, familiarise yourself with the people who think they’re wrong and awful. Figure out if there are arguments which are unresolved and see if you can make a contribution towards resolving them.
Once you’ve clarified all the terms, you can start to put together your arguments and write the essay.
Summary: tell me everything you’re going to say in your introduction, structure your points like you’re in primary school, don’t bring new material into the conclusion.
Ninety nine percent of the structure of your essay is exactly the same as you learned in secondary school. You might think you’re too good for Point, Evidence, Explain. You’re not. Especially if you think you are.
- Introductions: start your intro with the central claim of your essay. If I’m reading it, I want to know within literally five seconds what you’re trying to convince me of.
- Next, think about what you need to prove in order to make that claim. What might be the immediate negative reaction of someone reading your central claim? How can you defend yourself against that response? Ideally you want to be able to split your burdens of proof (the things you need to prove in order for your argument to be true) into a few different points. These will be your paragraphs.
- From here, write down what you’re going to argue, and in what order. It is genuinely fine (indeed, good) to say “First, I will prove x. Next, I will go on to show that y. Finally, drawing on Bloggs (1999) I will argue that z.”
- The final part of your introduction should tell me what conclusions you’re going to draw, or at the very least say “I conclude by examining the implications of my argument for theory/author/other-argument”.
- This is to say, if you’ve been taught that your essay should unravel as you go, and I shouldn’t understand your whole argument until the very end, then you’ve been taught wrong. Don’t do that. I should know exactly what you’re going to argue by the time I’ve finished your introduction. This isn’t an Agatha Christie novel, it’s an argument. Save the twists and turns.
- When thinking about your argument in the introduction, consider the tips above regarding questioning the question and defining terms. You can either do this within the confines of the introduction, or you can say something to the effect of “First, I will define what it would mean to be able to solve the problem of demarcation, querying the definitions of these terms and showing how their intrinsic ambiguities may create difficulties in argument.”
- Body: PEE on your essay. It sounds infantile. It is infantile. Do it anyway.
- Point: what are you claiming? This is also known as the topic sentence. At the end of the first sentence of each paragraph, I should know what to expect from that paragraph. Don’t tantalise the examiner. It’s an essay, not a terrible surprise birthday party.
- Evidence: who has said this thing before you said it? How are you corroborating the point you’re trying to make? Please don’t say ‘I just thought of it’. Find someone who’s said it before. Are there statistics which back up your argument? If so, where are they from? If there’s more than one piece of evidence, all the better.
- Explain: why does the evidence you’ve presented prove the point you’re trying to make? I’ll go into this part of arguing more in the next section.
- One final thing: in most essays, there should be a development of thought from one paragraph to the next. In some instances your arguments may genuinely be discrete units, but in most instances they should flow in some way. Try and play around with your structure such that your body paragraphs are in the order that best allows the essay to feel fluent and smooth.
- Conclusion: do not put new things in your conclusion. It’s not big and it’s not clever. We’re not just saying this for our health. If you’re adding new arguments in your conclusion, it’s not a conclusion.
- Recapitulate your argument. Readers are stupid and have terrible memories. What did you prove in your essay? How did you prove it? This is like doing your introduction all over again, but with slightly nicer words.
- Synthesise your claims. What are the implications of what you’ve proved? Do the strands of your argument come together to prove that Immanuel Kant was full of nonsense when he wrote the Critique of Pure Reason? Do they leave the field open for a new line of enquiry into the semiotics of phallic imagery in male-female initiation messages on contemporary dating applications? Why should we care about the things you’ve written? Repeat your central claim, tell me why you’ve proven it. Synthesis often involves thinking about the state of your field or of a society at that moment, and trying to show how your argument might apply or be useful elsewhere. It means bringing together all of the things you’ve proved to make more far-reaching points (but don’t overreach – this isn’t going to change the face of your subject forever. You look silly if you say that.)
Summary: why is it true? Why is it important? Structure: claim, counter-claim, rebut counter-claim. Don’t be mean to your opponents.
This is the stuff that actually makes up your argument. If you perform poorly at this, you might as well pack up and go home. Luckily, it’s really not that hard.
- Why is it true? If you’re making a claim, you need to tell me why that claim is correct. Think of a potential response to your argument, perhaps from an author you’re arguing against. Write out that response, then tell me why it doesn’t defeat your argument, or at least why it only mitigates it.
- Why is it important? In the context of the question you’re answering, and the frame you’ve provided for your argument, why should I care about the point you’re making at this point in the essay? Once you’ve proven (using PEE) that your argument stands, I want to know the significance of it.
- Structuring arguments: to create a really decent paragraph, you ideally want to follow one of two structures. Remember that at each step within each structure you need to use PEE.
- Claim -> Counter-claim -> Rebuild Claim.
- Foil (the claim you’re arguing against) -> Refutation (your reasoning as to why they’re mistaken) -> Rebuttal (their plausible response to your argument) -> Re-refutation (finally putting their argument to bed).
- Finally, make sure you formulate every claim in the strongest possible terms. Don’t make your opponent look like they have no arguments, or take the weakest version of their argument. Think about the strongest possible response to the claim you’ve put forward, then beat that. It will make your argument stronger. If you can’t beat it, find another argument.
Summary: get Zotero. Reference properly. Cite the originator of an idea. Go beyond the reading list.
Okay, so you’ve written an incredible essay. You’re ready to hand it in. You’re going to get an 80.
Not so fast, hot shot. Your reference list is a mess, you haven’t cited half your sources and half of your bibliography is Wikipedia pages.
- How to reference: this is totally dependent on your department and university. They will likely have provided a style guide. Read it. Follow it. Don’t lose marks.
- Make sure that when you’re citing, you cite the original person who came up with the idea, not some random who’s also citing them. This is a classic error. Don’t make it.
- Get Zotero, or Mendeley, or Endnote. You will save yourself literally days over the course of your university career. They allow you to reference as you write, and you can create and reformat your bibliography and citations at the touch of a button. If you don’t do this then you have only yourself to blame when you’re spending the last days of your undergraduate degree desperately trying to find books on Google so that you can write down their details by hand.
- Go beyond the reading list. This is the single easiest way to get more marks. If I see an argument citing an author whom nobody else has mentioned, and it’s a decent argument, it will make my day. Genuinely. I have a sad life.
- Critically engage. Be aware whilst you’re reading that all arguments and authors are fallible. Think about the text you’re reading and think how you might respond to it.
- Litmus test for whether your argument is pernicious nonsense: see if you can summarise it to a friend who’s in a different subject area. If you can’t, it’s probably not because they’re stupid. It’s probably because it’s a bad argument.
- Read over your introduction when you’re done. Does it still make sense? Often your argument will change over the course of the essay, and you’ll need to alter your intro accordingly. Have you supported every single one of them? If not, sort it out.
- Once you’ve written the whole essay, read over it again. Look at every premise you’ve used and claim you’ve made.
- Life tips (these are ideal habits, do as I say not as I do):
- Don’t do all nighters. They’ll mess up your sleep pattern, you’ll ruin your entire next day, and you’ll likely produce work that a 5-year old would be quick to disown. Do your essays on time, or early.
- Once you’ve done your essay early, leave it a day or two. Come back to it. Proof-read it. Don’t just look for typographical errors. Are you still sure your argument makes sense? If not, rewrite relevant parts.
- Lots of people say that you should write in chunks of 500 words as you’re reading. This is one way of doing things, and it works for some people. I prefer a different method. If you have a week to write an essay, spend the first 3 days or so reading and making notes, then spend a bit of time thinking over your argument, write it all in a day or so (you’ll likely find this easiest because you can get into the rhythm of it), then take a day off, come back and proof-read it before you hand it in.
One final thing: it bears repeating that your ideas are not new. Unless you’re working on a Masters thesis or, at the very least your final undergraduate dissertation, it is vanishingly unlikely that you are the first person to think a particular thought and publish it. What you can do is synthesise old ideas into interesting arguments. Do that. Get good marks. Be (briefly) happy.