How to Write Better Essays (Updated Edition)
What is this?
This (relatively) brief updated guide is designed to help you navigate the difficult, obscure, occasionally traumatising task of writing good undergraduate essays.
Last year I published a guide that included sections outlining how to read for essays, how to answer questions properly, how to structure your arguments and do analysis well, and how to cite in such a way that you didn’t exacerbate your examiner’s hypertension. This guide will include all of that and more: after a year of teaching in which I must have marked the best part of a thousand essays, I’ve rewritten this guide from scratch in the hope that it might provide some fresh insights, both into the essay-writing process and into how markers think.
In this guide you will find: (1) a 24-hour panic guide for students who’ve made the grave error of leaving it to the last minute and want to know the absolute basics of what they should do to achieve as decent a grade as possible; (2) a discussion of how to pick an essay question when you have the luxury of choice; (3) a guide to reading for the purposes of writing an essay; (4) tips on answering the question properly, including clarification of what on earth it means to “question the question” and why that’s important; (5) a how-to on structure, which is really easy and almost everyone gets wrong; (6) a guide to analysis, and how to PEE on your essay in an effective fashion; (7) tips on referencing properly, including software recommendations that will save you hours; (8) new to this guide, some insights into how essays are marked and how to make sure you don’t end up with a worse grade than you deserve; and (9) some take-home messages.
If you don’t want to read everything, I’d recommend taking a look at sections (1), (5), (8) and (9). Three of them will give you a good idea of the strategy that underpins essay-writing (because it really is a skill that can be mastered with proper practice and strategy, just like any other). I recommend the section on structure primarily because it’s something that almost everyone could improve upon, and the quickest and most marked improvement I’ve seen in students I’ve taught has been in their ability to structure their essays in a clear and thought-out fashion.
It’s worth bearing in mind that I am only one tutor/examiner/PhD student, and there are almost certain to be others out there who will disagree with some of what I say here. This is not a perfect guide for every single person: there are plenty of people out there who are better at writing essays than I am, and don’t need to take tips from me. Similarly, for some people the more individual stylistic tips in this guide won’t jibe with how they want to write, and that’s fine. This guide is designed primarily for undergraduates, specifically those in the arts, humanities and social sciences. It will by necessity be inadequate as a means of covering the idiosyncrasies of your university/school/department/course, and you should absolutely take the things I write here with a pinch of salt and apply them as you see fit.
With that said, I’ve had a remarkable number of people contact me to say that their grades have improved markedly since they read and applied the tips in this guide. Essay writing is often either not taught, or taught quite badly, and hopefully this can serve to compensate for those problems in some small measure.
24-hour panic guide
You should not be reading this. Best practice in essay-writing is to spend a good amount of time reading, before formulating your argument, typing everything out, checking your references and formatting are in good order, and then leaving it a couple of days before going back and making sure you’re happy with everything. If you’re reading this right now and you have less than a day to go until you need to hand in, then you should know that this isn’t ideal. Sometimes essay crises can’t be avoided, but in many instances they can, and you’ll almost certainly produce better work if you don’t leave everything until the last minute (cue someone emailing to tell me about the time that they got an 80 on an essay that they did in three hours - well done, but please go away).
With that said, here’s what you need to do if you only have a day:
Pick your question, and do the essential readings. Then pick a few of the suggested additional readings, and read those too. Ideally, use the reference lists from those readings to find a few extra sources that should allow your essay to stand out from the pack a little. How to do this is detailed in the section on reading for essay writing.
Take targeted notes on those readings. This comprises three things: first, taking notes on the argument an author is making; second, noting down your thoughts on that argument in the context of the essay question; third, writing down a few decent quotes that you can use to illustrate their argument. Good quotes are usually flexible: they could be used in a number of contexts, though ideally you’ll only use them in one.
Generate your argument. This obviously depends on the question, but generally there are three options: either agree with the question, disagree with it, or come down somewhere in the middle. You should have one argument, and it should be substantiated throughout the essay by your body paragraphs. I’d recommend coming down on one side or the other if you’re pressed for time, as it requires less nuance to look like it’s been written by a university student rather than a schoolchild. That doesn’t mean dismissing the other side as having no arguments at all; you should still engage with those arguments, but if you’re taking one position you should do your best to show why your points mitigate them or make them less relevant.
Structure your essay properly. Your introduction should be simple: maybe one or two sentences of framing (why is this question important? Are there any vital pieces of context we need to know before we read your essay?), then one sentence summarising your whole argument, followed by a description of each of the points you’re going to bring to substantiate that argument (your body paragraphs). Each one should be a sentence, and it should say something like, “First, I will draw on [author] to argue that [thing], showing that [summary of paragraph’s point]”. Finally, you should have a sentence that describes your conclusions.
Your body paragraphs should each be in a PEE structure. They should have a topic sentence that summarises what’s about to come, before giving the argument you’re making there, followed by the evidence that supports it, and then an explanation of why that evidence supports your argument. If you’re feeling fancy, try to bring in a plausible (strong) response to your argument, and then see if you can rebuild your argument in the face of that response.
Conclusions are simple: just recapitulate your arguments and then synthesise them to show why they prove your overarching point. Don’t bring in new material.
Make sure everything is formatted correctly. Check the word count, making sure you haven’t accidentally missed out words by using footnote references. Ensure that your referencing is done in the way approved by your department, and that it’s formatted correctly all the way through and in the bibliography. Don’t lose marks on this; it’s so easy to avoid.
Finally, sit back, proof-read it once more, and then send it off. Consider the choices that led you to this juncture.
Picking a question
This is just a short section, but it’s worth bearing it in mind. In many instances, you won’t have any choice over the question that you have to answer. However, if you do have a choice, you should be careful with how you use it.
Examiners will usually have a short window in which to mark a very large number of essays. It’s worth bearing in mind that there will usually be one or two questions that are answered a lot more than others. This is usually because they appear to be easier, or have readings that are more accessible (as in, they’re easier to read or don’t require you to go to a library to get them), or they’re on a topic that feels “sexier”.
The upshot of this is that it can be harder to achieve a higher mark when answering these questions. This is because an examiner will likely have seen a dozen of those essays before, and so the readings that you’ve done or argument you’ve made - that might appear to be interesting and new if you’re answering a question that few others have done - are likely to be very similar to others’. This can make it easier to get an average mark, but if you’re aiming for above average (or even excellent), it can be worthwhile to take the road less travelled.
Reading to answer an essay
There are, of course, a lot of different ways to read. The way that you read fiction is different to the way you read non-fiction, and the way you read a poem is different to the way you read a reference book. Reading for essays is a specific skill, and it can be practised and mastered just like any other kind of reading.
1. Pick your readings
First, look at the reading list. There are probably some readings that have been marked as “essential” or “key”. You must read these, as they’ll give you valuable insight into the context in which your essay is taking place. From there, though, you have more flexibility. You can go with the recommended further readings in your reading list, in which case you’re likely to be reading things that are relevant but which other people are also likely to be using. Alternatively, you can use the reference lists from the primary readings as a starting point to find more things to read. What’s crucial is that you do a decent amount of reading. The thing that often distinguishes a fine essay from a good essay is the level of reading the author has done. This is reflected not just in the references they make and the quotes they use, but also in the way that their writing displays a command over the literature that can’t be achieved without a good working knowledge of it.
2. Finding more readings
There are a few ways to do this. First, you can use the reference lists of other readings. This means looking for titles that seem like they’re interesting, or going off of citations in the reading that refer to things that might be relevant to your essay. From here, use Google Scholar or another academic search engine to find the paper or book you’re looking for. Read the abstract. If it seems like it might be good, then read it, take notes on it and use it. If it doesn’t, leave it.
Second, you can use Google Scholar itself to look for newer literature. By using the reference lists from the readings you’ve already got, you’re necessarily going backwards in time. The way to look forwards is to put the name of your reading into Scholar, and then look at the “Cited by” button to get the names of other works that have cited them.
Third, you can ask your lecturer or tutor. If you’ve got a particular angle that you’d like to take on an essay, it’s often a good idea to consult someone who might be more experienced than you on where to look. They might not be able to give you a huge amount, but they’ll usually be happy to at least provide you with a few references to look for.
3. Don’t read whole books
This is a mistake that people commonly make. When you read an entire book, you’ll often spend a large chunk of your research time on it. You’re unlikely to absorb everything, and you’re still only really getting one view. A more efficient way of approaching books is to read their introduction and conclusion, then pick one chapter that looks relevant and read that. Then, raid the bibliography to see if there’s anything else relevant to you.
Essays are an exercise in using the time available to you in the most efficient way possible, and being an effective reader is a big part of that.
4. How to read and take notes
When you’re reading anything for your essay, whether it’s an article, book or paper, you need to be reading it through the lens of someone who’s trying to answer the essay question. To begin with, you might be reading the essential sources as a way of familiarising yourself with the topic, but once you’ve done that you need to be reading actively. That means you need to have an idea in your head of what you’re looking for, and constantly be revising your conception of the question as you read. When you’re reading to understand, it’s fine to use Spark Notes or Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or whatever makes it easy for you to grasp, but you should never use those as references in the essay itself.
You should be taking notes as you go, in whatever format you like (just make sure it’s accessible for referencing afterwards). Those notes should do three things: first, encapsulating your understanding of the author’s argument (with reference to the question you’re answering). Second, giving your thoughts on that argument: are there weaknesses? Do you like it? Could it be improved with reference to another author’s work? Third, get down some quotes. These are useful not just as a means of showing you’ve done some reading, but also as a way of anchoring yourself in the literature and showing how your work is relevant and grounded. (NB. you don’t necessarily need to use the whole quote in your work. Small chunks, or even paraphrasing, can work just as well. Block quotes take up a lot of words and often don’t get the point across as well as you could by paraphrasing. Exceptions include instances where the wording is important, such as when you’re quoting a person talking, or in original research).
Make sure you note the page numbers with your quotes. Some markers are lenient on this, but others aren’t. It’s better to be on the safe side. It’s not fun to be scrabbling around looking for a book you read a week ago when you’ve got an hour to go until the deadline. Don’t be that person.
5. How to read critically
I’ve said above that you need to make critical notes about the author’s argument. This is one of the things that students are often not great at is criticising the work they’re reading. They tend to either swallow it whole or dismiss it out of hand. Both of these approaches are as bad as each other.
Instead, what you want to do is to first understand the argument, then to appreciate it - what are its merits? From there, you want to be more critical: what’s wrong with it? What’s the evidence for its truth? Does it make assumptions you think are unwarranted? Are there other authors who disagree with it? Does it leave out something you think is important? These questions are obviously incredibly general, but the point should be clear: you need to find the holes, and pick them apart. That means not only criticising, but also recognising the reach of your criticism: if you’ve found a problem in the methodology someone’s used, what does that undermine and what does it leave intact? Try not to jump to the conclusion that because something is wrong, the whole argument must fall.
All of this should come out in your notes. It’ll get easier as you go along, I promise.
Answering the question
There are conventions that govern essay writing and marking which might at first seem odd. Back in Year 9, it might have seemed strange that you were expected to answer something like “Was the Treaty of Versailles responsible for the rise of Hitler?” with more than just “yes”, “no”, or “sort of”. But now you’re older, wiser and more full of existential dread than ever before, and you need to learn how to grapple with the nuances of answering essay questions. This section will cover questioning the question, answering descriptive and evaluative questions, and how to decide which position to take.
1. Question the Question
When you approach a question, the first thing you want to ask yourself is “what are the assumptions that lie behind this?” For example, if I ask you the aforementioned question about the rise of Nazism, you might notice that the question assumes that we can account for major political events primarily by reference to previous events, and that one event might be considered decisive in setting the world on course for another. These are quite large assumptions, and you should point them out in your essay. This is called questioning the question. It’s not always necessary to try and cleverly subvert the question itself, but you should be thinking about the premises on which that question is based, every time.
2. Description and evaluation are different
Some questions might have multiple components. For example, you might be asked, “What does Kuhn mean by the term ‘paradigm shift’? Evaluate the value of this concept in explaining scientific progress.” The first part of this question is descriptive: it’s asking you to demonstrate that you are aware of an author’s argument, and that you can encapsulate it in concise terms. The second part is evaluative: you’re being asked to make a critical assessment of the concept’s usefulness for a particular purpose. This might sound simple, but students fail to grasp it surprisingly often.
If you want to push your mark higher, you can do two easy things. First, incorporate the views of other authors into both sections. In the first section, you can paraphrase or quote others in order to inform your summary of the concept. This displays that you’ve done the reading. Second, it’s often the case that a concept has multiple meanings or is contested. “Paradigm shift” certainly is, as the word “paradigm” has a number of different meanings in Kuhn’s writing. You should display an awareness of these multiple interpretations, and then go on to pick the one that’s most suitable for the evaluative part of the question. Give a reason as to why it’s the best interpretation to use.
3. How to strike a balance
When we teach younger students, we ask them to prioritise balance in essays. They’re made to answer a question by giving a set of “for” arguments and a set of “against” arguments, and then their conclusion might come down on one side or, more commonly, it might just say “well it’s a really tricky question and there are some great arguments on both sides”. At university, you’re generally expected to take a position in your essays. That means that having opinions on the topic is encouraged, so long as those opinions can be backed up by the literature.
In the past, I’ve found that students have taken this advice a bit too much to heart and ended up over-valuing the arguments for their position and dismissing - or ignoring altogether - those of the opposite position. This is just as unproductive as artificially seeking a “balanced” position. If you’re taking one position in your answer, you should be thinking all the time about how your arguments might interact with the strongest responses from the other side. Consider those responses, put them in, and then try to show why your arguments are still true or more relevant than the opposing points.
If there’s one thing that nearly everyone could do better, it’s structure. There’s nothing worse than struggling to read a piece because it’s a jumbled stream of thought, finding yourself questioning whether you’re unintelligent because you don’t understand what they’re talking about or whether they’ve just written something that’s deeply unclear. A well-structured essay is an essay that’s easy to read, that flows from one point to the next, that has an overarching narrative and argument, and has signposting all the way along. In this section I’ll pick apart how to achieve these things.
1. Introductions aren’t hard
Introductions are very simple, yet very easy to get wrong. Your introduction needs to do two things: give some context as to why you’re talking about this thing, and then summarise the argument you’re going to give. That means you need, at max, a couple of sentences of framing that give the most pertinent background information that you need in order to understand what’s to come.
After that, you’re going to summarise your entire argument in one sentence. That’s your thesis. Following on from that, you’re going to write a sentence for each of your body paragraphs. Each of these should be a point that substantiates your broader argument. If it doesn’t serve that function in some way, question why it’s in your essay. These sentences can look something like this: “First, I will draw on [author] to explain [point], arguing that [contention]”. That means that you’re not just saying, “First, I’m going to talk about democracy”. Instead, you’re explaining the whole point, summarising it for the reader.
At the end of the intro, you’re going to summarise your conclusions. This can be something simple like, “I conclude that [argument I gave earlier is true because reasons] and [give implications of this for the broader field]”. This might sound contentious, and there are likely some academics and departments who disagree with me because they want your essay to “develop” as you go along, not revealing the whole sweep of your argument until the very end. Respectfully, I think that this is a bizarre method of writing. Time is valuable, and if you’re reading an essay and want to get the gist of the argument without having to read 10,000 words, I think you should be able to do that. Similarly, proper signposting makes it far easier to digest the essay as you go, especially if the author lacks clarity at other points.
2. Body Paragraphs
Most of what’s required to structure your body paragraphs properly comes in the next section, on analysis. There are a couple of bits that are worth mentioning here.
First, you want to make sure that each body paragraph has a topic sentence. That’s a sentence at the start of the paragraph that summarises what you’re going to say. You might notice that I have an approach to structure that involves constantly summarising, and that’s no accident: if you want readers to comprehend and enjoy your work, the best way to do that is to nest your structure at every level, constantly signposting and summarising what’s about to come and what’s been said already. That allows you to maintain a coherence and flow to your work that’s otherwise really hard to achieve.
Second, subheadings. This is a bit of a “your mileage may vary” point, as some departments (or even individual examiners) will find subheadings an incredibly useful way of telling the reader where you’re going next and delineating between different sections, whilst others will think that they’re an unnecessary and infantile embellishment. I come down on the side of the former pretty strongly, but it’s worth checking with the person marking your essay before you include them, because you don’t want to be penalised based on their weird preferences.
Third, try to maintain flow between your body paragraphs. What that means is that there might be some specific order in which you need to prove the key premises of your argument, and in that case should be ordered accordingly. Alternatively, your flow might be chronological, or theme-based. Just make sure that you’re not skipping without warning from one thing to the next. If you can build in a segue sentence between one section and the next, all the better, but careful not to make it too contrived.
It’s worth bearing in mind that the overarching structure of your essay should be one in which you’re using your body paragraphs to substantiate your main argument. Often that means you’ll need to prove your premises in some particular order, or you’ll have to provide some vital context before you can give some other analysis. Try to think about what kind of order suits best for your essay specifically.
3. Conclusions - don’t bring in new material
One of the most common mistakes in essay-writing is the practice of bringing new material in to the conclusion. Don’t do it. Your conclusion is for recapitulation and synthesis. All of the arguments and analysis should already be laid out, and you don’t need to bring in any new evidence.
What you should do instead is to first summarise your main argument, going through the things that you’ve talked about and showing how they substantiate that argument. Then, synthesise this into some conclusions. This doesn’t mean that you need to argue that you’ve revolutionised your field, or that your essay has just dismantled an entire school of thought. All it means is that you can show some of the implications of your argument for the field you’re talking about. What further research needs to be done? Does this open up some other avenues for exploration? Does it call some other research into question? Do we need to rethink how we talk about a certain subject? Any of these are valid approaches, but the exact way you tackle this (in my opinion quite tricky) task is going to be contingent on the exact specifications of your essay.
If you were to ask me what we’re doing wrong in teaching right now, I would have a fairly simple answer. We’re not teaching students how to perform critical analysis. I think that’s actually a systemic and devastating problem, but that’s a discussion for another time. What matters here is that you don’t become a victim to that problem. We’re going to walk through the different parts of analysis - the meat of your essay - and address some of the common pitfalls you need to avoid and practical techniques you can use.
1. PEE on your essay
I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. The basis of good analysis is clarity. You were probably taught Point, Evidence, Explain back in secondary school, and you might well think you’re past it now. You’re not. Especially if you think you are. I cannot emphasise enough how much you are likely to be able to improve your essays if you stick to this simple structure whenever you’re making an argument.
What does it look like?
(i) Point - what is the statement you’re making here?
(ii) Evidence - how are you substantiating that statement? Who agrees with you? Which authors are you drawing on? Is this something anecdotal, or is there data to back it up?
(iii) Explain - how does the evidence you’ve just presented prove the statement you made at the beginning?
You can also add an “I” for “Impact”. The “Explain” component is about proving that your argument is true; the “Impact” component illustrates the implications of its truth. What aspect of your overarching argument does it bolster? Does this show that one of your opponents is incorrect?
Always ask yourself, “why is this true? Why is it important?” If you’re answering those questions at every point within your essay, you’re likely to be on the right track.
3. Nesting your PEE
Harking back to the section on Structure for a moment, we can incorporate PEE into that framework. You can imagine your entire essay as one big PEE: you have an argument, you’re going to present evidence that substantiates that argument, and then you’re going to explain why it does that and show the implications of it. Within that overarching PEE, you’ve got little individual PEEs - your body paragraphs - and within those you might even have more. PEE is a heuristic you can use to make sure you’re explaining yourself properly: always state what you’re contending, before showing what evidence backs it up and why it does so.
4. Getting higher marks - building in responses
One of the key mistakes students tend to make when they’re building up an argument is that they think that argument can stand on its own, without reference to any objections. It seems odd that this is such a common misstep, because in real life you would never think to have an argument and only expose one side. Instead, you would spend quite a lot of time trying to justify why one side was more correct or more important than the other. The same should be true of your essay. You could go back to secondary school and do a “one paragraph for, one paragraph against” model of essay writing, but that would erode your ability to present a coherent argument and position.
Instead, a good way of ensuring that you’re engaging adequately with opposing views (and ideally showing why your argument is better) is to build responses into your analysis. What this looks like is essentially adding another two steps to your PEE: response, and rebuild.
When you’ve made your point, and provided evidence to substantiate it, then you analyse why that evidence supports the point. After this, you can give a plausible response to your analysis that might try to undercut it. Finally, you rebuild your argument, showing why even when that response is given, it still stands.
The best way of formulating this kind of structure is to ensure that you’re giving a fair hearing to opposing arguments. Think of it as a test: if I’m looking to hire someone for a job and I give them an incredibly easy test, it doesn’t tell me much that they passed. If I give them a very difficult test, and they still pass, then that’s far more impressive.
5. A note on clarity
When you read an academic paper, it’s very easy to get the impression that academics use long, technical, fancy words just for the sake of it. This is true of a minority of writers, and they’re usually not particularly good writers. Most academics who use this kind of language do so from a broad base of experience and a thorough grounding in the precise meaning of what they’re saying. Do not try to emulate this style without understanding all of the terms that you’re trying to use. If you needlessly replace perfectly clear, decent language with flowery esotericism, it doesn’t look impressive. It looks like you’ve swallowed a thesaurus, and it’s also likely that your meaning will be lost.
Clarity should be extremely high on your priorities list when it comes to writing an essay. If you can use simple language to convey a complex idea, that’s ideal. Try to write an essay as if you were having a (relatively formal) conversation. If you can make the reader feel as though you’re talking to them, that’s often a really good way of getting your point across.
Using Evidence and Referencing
No matter what I say here, I can guarantee that some readers will go away and write an essay that uses footnote references and forget to include them in the word count, or make a bibliography that consists entirely of hyperlinks. Please don’t be one of them.
Referencing, contrary to what you might have heard, can be incredibly easy. There’s no real reason to spend days of your time painstakingly entering every single reference into your essay by hand, only to have to do it all over again when you realise you’ve formatted in the wrong style.
1. Get a reference manager
There’s software that can make keeping and using citations very easy. Zotero, Mendeley, Endnote, and even Microsoft Word’s own reference manager are all good choices. I use Zotero, and it’s great. It’s free, it easily connects to most web browsers, and it allows me to add a full citation to my library in seconds. Sometimes you’ll need to add a few details to it, but it’s still far better than doing it by hand. You can then connect it to Word, and it will automatically format both the references and the bibliography in whatever style you want.
2. Standardisation is key
It’s entirely possible you’ll end up using a citation style that isn’t the “right” one. What’s seen as best practice varies by department, university, and even individual supervisors. You should look up what style your course prefers. If you can’t find any information, then the way to handle it is to use a good, standard style like Elsevier Harvard, Chicago Manual of Style, or MLA. Whatever you do, make sure all of your references look the same, both in the text and in your bibliography.
3. Careful of the word count
Some people forget that footnotes and citations tend to be included in word count (though they aren’t always). Make sure you take them into account. To minimise the words you waste, use an author-date citation style, rather than one that gives the full details of the reference. Save those for the bibliography.
If you’re using a text, cite it at the first point that you’ve used it. Don’t wait until the end of the paragraph to bring in the citation - it’s confusing for examiners. On a similar note, if you’re quoting the same text multiple times without any other references in between, the way to cite it is (ibid.) with the page number afterwards if necessary.
5. Less is more
Try to minimise the use of block quotes. If you’re writing a short essay, you should really be avoiding their use altogether. Obviously if you’re writing a dissertation and you need to expose a particular thesis, or author’s view, block quotes can be a great choice. Just bear in mind that the gist of an idea can almost always be conveyed in fewer words than were used in a cited text, and therefore if you’re strapped for words you should try to cut down on big quotes.
In addition, paraphrasing an author’s ideas can be really helpful to show that you’ve comprehended what they’ve said. If you’re throwing quotes out all over your essay, it can be a nice way of showing you’ve done the reading, but ultimately it tends to mean that your own voice gets lost a bit. I would strongly advise mixing your in-line quotes with paraphrased references. Obviously, don’t misquote or misinterpret an author (though if you’re doing the latter, you might not be aware of it).
6. Be aware of source quality
Generally speaking, the gold standard for academic essay references is the peer-reviewed journal article, closely followed by academic books. If the idea you’re trying to cite isn’t located in one of those, there’s nothing wrong with using, say, a newspaper article. Just be aware that it looks a little less polished, and that you’ll certainly be judged a bit by your examiner if 50% of your bibliography is Guardian articles. Don’t cite Wikipedia. If you’re using Sparknotes or similar, citing them is also a bit of a risky move. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a bit of an exception here because it’s peer-reviewed. Use your common sense when it comes to source quality. Some website from 1999 that you found that uses a lot of Word Art and claims to have solved every problem in philosophy is unlikely to be reliable.
How are you marked?
I think one of the most common concerns expressed by students is that their marks feel arbitrary. You put in a lot of effort and you get a C. You do it the night before and think you’ve just done some discursive vomit on a page, and your examiner loves it and gives you a high A. Sometimes there’s a dearth of feedback that means you don’t know where you went wrong, only that something must have caused you to lose those 10 extra marks you thought you had in the bag.
This concern sometimes stems from poor marking practice. Unfortunately, that’s not something that I can fix for you. I would encourage all students to go to their tutors (or whoever marks their work) for extra feedback. No matter how high your grade, you can always do better, and they’ll usually be glad to have someone coming to them for extra support and will give generously of their time.
I also can’t tell you how your examiner thinks. How marking happens depends on your university, your school, your department, your course, and your individual marker. There is no one-size-fits-all with respect to how your essays are marked. What I can provide are some general rules of thumb for improving the mark you’re likely to get, based on avoiding common pitfalls and understanding how marking generally takes place.
1. Your examiner is pressed for time
The people who mark your work are not paid enough. That’s not because your work is bad and therefore they should be remunerated for their exposition to it; rather, it’s because they’re expected to be able to mark a very large volume of work (thoroughly) in a very short period of time. Some examiners aren’t paid at all (a terrible abuse of labour, in my opinion). Others are paid for, say, 20 minutes for a 1500 word essay. That means they have to read, mark, and provide feedback for the whole thing in that time, or else they’re doing it off their own back (which they shouldn’t have to do). This means two things: they often mark by heuristic, and clarity is paramount.
2. Examiners mark heuristically
Whether we like it or not, the overall impression we get of an essay is not just coloured by its analytical cogency. Spelling and grammar might not be in the mark scheme, but you can bet that the numerous typos you left in your essay are likely to bring down your marker’s estimation of the overall quality of your work (even if it shouldn’t!). The same goes for things like your bibliography: make sure that you’ve cited the key texts, because sometimes examiners look for them; ensure that you don’t have any glaring referencing errors; and so on.
3. Clarity is king
If you have to prioritise one thing in your essay, it should be getting your argument across in a clear and concise manner. Always be as clear as possible. This is important not just because clarity is a virtue in an of itself, but because it means that examiners are likely to understand and process your argument more easily, and so are less likely to get confused and more likely to be able to give you the mark you deserve. If they don’t understand your argument, it’s not always their fault: maybe you just didn’t communicate it very well.
4. First impressions matter
Make sure that your introduction is tightly structured, clear, and well-argued. It will pay dividends further down the road, because it gives your examiner a good impression of the quality of your work, as well as clueing them in to your overarching argument. A poor introduction is likely to make them feel significantly worse whilst reading the rest of the essay, and that can only end badly for your grade.
5. Don’t mess up your conclusion
I’ve said this before, but be careful not to bring new material into your conclusion. Regardless of your view on whether this ought to be a rule or not, most examiners will treat it as one. That means that if you break that rule, you’ll be penalised for it. Don’t break the rule.
What are the top things you need to remember from this guide? Good question. Well done.
Structure your essay clearly. Signpost your arguments.
PEE on your essay. Better yet, PEERR on it.
Be as clear as you possibly can, prioritising clarity over flowery language.
Be consistent in your referencing. If in doubt, refer to your course’s style guide.
Do the basics well, and the rest should fall into place.
Proofread your essay. Better yet, read it aloud to see if it flows well.
Get some referencing software and save yourself some days.
Question the question.
Make sure you’re answering the question.
Enjoy it. This is probably something you’ve chosen to do. Make the most of it.
Go and get more feedback from your tutor/supervisor/examiner whenever you can.
Good luck, have fun, don’t panic, enjoy.