How to Write an Essay – A Guide for University Level


How to Write an Essay – A Guide for University Level

Details: 3916 words (15 pages) Study Guide

Published: 20th May 2021

This is a free essay writing guide that has the content necessary to guide you through your first essay. We have kept things easy, clear, and concise for better understanding. In case you are still stuck, reach out to us and we can offer more precise help, links to helpful content, and one-on-one coaching.

Table of contents;  

 1. How to start your essay

        1.1. Ready to write? Here’s the process of getting started

        1.2. Can’t seem to find the topic? Here’s the researching process

        1.3. You need to plan the essay. Planning is essential.

    2. Now onto writing your essay

        2.1. How do you write the introduction? Here is the writing guide

        2.2. How do you write the main body? Here is the writing process

        2.3. How do you write the conclusion? Here is the writing process

        2.4. Referencing your essay

        2.5. The difference between essay writing styles

    3. Mandatory final checks on your essay

1. How to start your essay.

In academia, essays are the irreducible minimums of excelling. In other words, if you can write a good academic essay then you are set for success for the most part. It sounds cliche’ saying this but essay writing is the one skill that most students need to develop. No one starts off great at writing essays but it just happens that some of us work harder in cultivating the skills around essay writing. The overarching goal is to write an essay that addresses a topic effectively and gives enough supporting evidence. 

Just like any other skill, essay writing is possible to learn. This writing guide offers the major skills that are needed to write a great essay. The article covers nooks and crannies of essays whether you are writing them from your own topic or that assigned to you by a tutor.

The specific type of essay that you write will be dependent on the particular field in which you are studying but there are generally shared building blocks that hold true or all subject areas.

1.1. Ready to write? Here’s the process of getting started.

Right off the bat, the importance of understanding the essay question cannot be overestimated. It is important to understand the direction towards which the question is pointing you. The pitfall you will be avoiding here is simply unloading all the information you have on the subject in an attempt to answer the essay question. Once you get what the essay is about it becomes easier to sieve through pieces of information for relevance.

One way to understand an essay question is to look at the key words. It does not matter if you have chosen the topic yourself or it has been assigned to you. Key words generally create a framework for you to think under. Some of these key words could include ‘examine’. ‘Analyse’, ‘assess’ among others. Students often make the mistake of ignoring these words and completely fail to capture the essence of the question.

An example could be a question asking you to compare paintings from the same historic period. Since the aim is to compare, the reader would expect you to actually offer some side-by-side information on each painting based on themes around the paintings. Such an essay would be different from say one where the equation is to examine the impact of COVID-19 on global markets. When asked to examine, the goal would be to state facts and overlay them with opinions. A deeper understanding of the essay and the question would help you determine whether it is asking for your personal opinion, a blatant statement of fact, or a balance of both. Additionally, you can frame a better conclusion once you have already covered the right information in the essay.

As you write your essay and formulate arguments, make sure to keep checking back on the question just to be sure that you are not veering off and including all your knowledge on the general topic.

At the core of the essay, whether you select your own topic or not, is effective research just to inform both facts and your critical opinion. In the case of a topic that has been assigned to you, then your choice of text, word count, and style will be determined by the instructions that you have received. In the event that you are ‘starting from scratch’, then these decisions will be yours to make. Do not forget your essay can be altered at a later writing stage if your research opens you up to new ideas and areas to be covered.

1.2. Can’t seem to find the topic? Here’s the guide on researching your essay topic.

A critical element of researching is avoiding plagiarism. It is a seemingly straightforward thought but sometimes students forget to steer away from plagiarising content. Whether intentional or not, plagiarism will discredit your essay. Ensure you understand where your ideas start and end and how they overlap with those of others.

Second, create a balance. Your essay needs to be entirely agreeable especially if it is a perspective forming essay. You need a balance of ideas from others that support your thinking/opinion and also from those whose opinions contradict yours. This presents a view of awareness and thoroughness of research. So, make sure you have multiple points of view and that they all carry reason!

Compile the list of books, articles, and other material during this stage. Note down the page number too if it is included. One issue with waiting to do this at a later stage in the paper is that it will take a lot more time. When you already have a list of sources, referencing and bibliography become easy to do. Also, avoid the pitfall of fixing in sources unless you have cross-checked that they were used and are relevant. In addition, for an academic essay, it is expected that you will use an academic citation style. Such styles include Harvard referencing, MLA, APA, Chicago, and others. Your learning institution will often have a preferred style. Citation styles vary a lot but a pro-tip is that in all of them, a full citation is often required for the first time a book citation appears within the text (in-text).

1.3. You need to plan. Essay planning is essential.

When working on an essay, it is tempting to just jump in and start writing. Doing this however, wastes more time than you may realise. Working without a plan will have you going back and forth between sections deleting and adding information and even omitting important parts. Planning before the start is important because it will save you time and create coherence. A plan ensures the essay covers all necessary topics, has a solid structure, follows reason, and has the right amount of research. 

Let the key words in the question guide you into the exact material that you research. A search engine like Google (and more specific databases for journals and books) can be easy to use when you type in accurate key words in the search bars. Once you gather the evidence, look into how each piece complements the rest of the research. Remember when you have consistently stuck to your outline, and have the right key words, finding evidence that is complementary is easy. The goal here is to have some kind of flow in the essay.

It can however be a bit hard to understand which pieces of content best support the topic you have and present the most effective argument. To avoid this, when first gathering evidence you could include everything. You could then drop off pieces of evidence that are not very supportive of the main topics as you go along. In order to avoid a lot of conflicting sources, just keep the evidence that fully supports the points that you want to make. Students often make the mistake of failing to let go of sources just because it might have taken some time to unearth them.

It is common for students to get penalised for exceeding the word count. This happens due to a lack of a proper plan – breaking down the essay into pieces and assigning word count – and trying to include all types of evidence. So, ensure to avoid this pitfall by including a plan before writing and ensuring your evidence is sieved out enough to remain relevant.

At the research stage, you would also benefit in making a rough plan or a visual draft of your essay. At the least, include headings and subheadings and under each one, place the research that you will use. This structure will remind you later in the essay where everything is supposed to go. It will also prevent you from over-extending some thoughts at the expense of others. Another advantage of the structured essay is that your thoughts appear coherent, the argument is clear, concise, and with a natural flow. Finally, you can reveal gaps in your essay before you even begin to write.

2. Now onto writing your essay.

This is the stage where you now get into writing the actual essay. The first pointer here is that your grammar, punctuation, phrasing, and spelling should be perfect. These are among the immediate things that an examiner will look at. Misspellings, bad grammar, wrong punctuations, and general mistakes such as wrongly cited information will lead to a bad grade. Remember these are lost marks for items that can be easily corrected. Also, take care not to rely too much on your computer’s language checks just because they are not infallible. Use other resources like Grammarly and citation platforms. However, in the end, sit down and read the whole essay and see whether it is seamless. Further, get someone else to proofread your work since it would be easier for another person to spot mistakes in an essay that they are reading for the first time.

In terms of writing, you can choose two different approaches. The first approach is where you write the body of the essay first then go back and write the introduction. Here, the aim is to capture the essence of the details in the essay.  The alternate approach is to write the introduction first then the main body of the essay. Just ensure that when you start with the introduction, you have to stick to the thesis all through.

When you are confident with the direction of the essay, start off with the introduction. The introduction should state the argument and concisely state the ideas. These should be reflected through the entire essay. However, if you feel that your essay will change as you write it, then do not develop the introduction first. Later, you can then piece up the introduction as it is easier to adapt it to the thesis.

2.1. How do you write the introduction? Here is the writing guide.

The introduction part in your essay is very critical since it is the first part that your examiner will read. This is not influenced by the approach or nature of the essay, it is just the fact. One mistake most students will make is overlooking this importance of the introduction and ending up saying either too much, too little, or nothing substantive. The golden rule of a good introduction is that it clearly covers the topic of the essay and says specifically how the response to the topic is going to be presented. Simple and straightforward right? Also, the general consensus is that the introduction is a balance of your opinion and a bit of other people’s research. However, your opinion should clearly stand out. Direct quotes are also discouraged in this part. Make your introduction short and ensure that it does not reel around too much. Focus on the topic and at the end of the introduction find a way to ‘marry’ it with the first paragraph in the main body of the essay.

2.2. How do you write the main body? Here is the writing process.

When writing the main body, think of each paragraph as having a basis on the main topic but addressing just one piece of this topic. The paragraph thus is a way to piece together one idea and make it part of all the other ideas in the essay. Approach a paragraph as a sub-heading and in the case you do not exhaust the idea in this one sub-heading then it can spill onto the next paragraph. The whole point is to follow the structure you developed when planning the essay with paragraphs just beefing up the skeleton. While there is no one rule about paragraph length, it is wise to keep each paragraph restricted to four or five pages.

In academic essays, statements need to be supported by evidence. When you state a claim or a fact, there needs to be research showing how such a statement is true or worth considering. Further, it is the evidence that you collect that should be used for analysis rather than your individual opinion. This is often referred to as an Informed Opinion which is mainly the opinion that you form after finding supporting evidence. So, your comments will not be unsupported statements hanging loosely on the essay. In most instances, the analysis that you add – rather than simply bundling together pieces of evidence – is what gets you extra marks.

Another important element in the main body is direct quotations from sources. Direct quotations are necessary when you are presenting evidence word-for-word as in the source. However, it is generally expected that you will not quote more than a few lines and not each paragraph or section will have direct quotations. Use the quotations sparingly and remember to cite them properly or otherwise they will appear as plagiarised content. Longer quotes are often done on a new line and indented to separate them from the rest of the content. Shorter quotations can be done using quotation marks.

An additional trick that would work for you is to tie up paragraphs into a smooth flow. As you write, consider how one paragraph will usher in the next one. You do not want to make your essay feel like a series of unrelated ideas. To ensure a continuous flow, use the last line of a paragraph to usher in the next one. Also, follow up the last line in the previous paragraph by starting the new paragraph with an extension of the same thought. Eventually, the paragraphs will establish a pattern of argument that ultimately empties into the conclusion. When the paragraphs are not presenting an argument that you might have missed on the flow. 

Something to watch out for is the nature of the essay. Not all essays demand analysis or counterargument or even comparisons. So, you could be simply working on an elaborative essay which would just explain and extend ideas you get from others. The flow might be very different from an argumentative essay. 

2.3. How do you write the conclusion? Here is the writing process.

The conclusion of an essay is a sum of your arguments. It ties together the essence of the argument and tries to restate it in a few short sentences. One mistake that students make in the conclusion section is suddenly ending the essay without proper round-up of the arguments. This would seem rash to an examiner and could be viewed as a lack of space – hence planning. The conclusion should leave the reader satisfied about the stance that you took on the essay or with nuggets such as future implications of the topic etc. Remember the conclusion is also dependent on the purpose of the essay. Lastly, think of the conclusion as tying up any loose ends by ensuring the reader is satisfied by whatever position the essay took. The less effective the conclusion the more the questions a reader raises.

 2.4. Referencing your essay.

Referencing is the process of declaring your sources. As stated before, the gist of academic writing is that your opinion is backed up by evidence you gather from different sources. Anything that has been used to justify your sentiments goes into the reference list.

Referencing serves the important point of ensuring that your arguments are solid and can be cross-checked if need arises. However, the core purpose is to show that content and ideas have not been plagiarised. 

There exists various referencing styles each with its own rules and hence it is necessary to consult the course/module handbook or your institution’s policies for guidance. Some of the referencing styles are Harvard, APA, MLA, OSCOLA, Footnotes, Chicago, and IEEE. In the body of an essay, attribution is given either via the author-date, author-page, or footnote system. The author-date is where the name of the author and the date of publication are used. The author-page is where the author’s name and page number are used. Footnotes are used in combination with numbers. A number is placed at the end of the sentence for instance as a superscript while the same number and corresponding reference are placed in the footer section of the page.

Referencing styles can seem complicated at first but once you do it a couple of times, it is an easy process. If you still cannot wrap your head around citations and referencing in general, it may be a good idea to keep the copy of your course handbook close whenever you are writing an essay.

2.5. The difference between essay writing styles.

Each learning institution usually has guidelines on how essays – and other academic papers – should be written. This is what is called the writing style. Often, the writing style is bundled together with the instructions that you need when starting to write an essay. Just be careful to read through all instructions because sometimes the same university could have multiple style requirements between different courses or modules. 

In general, there are some stylistic requirements that you will encounter across most universities and learning institutions when it comes to academic writing. One example is the requirement that papers should be typed, double-spaced and use size 12 fonts from Times New Roman font type or Calibri. In addition, it is expected that essays – and other academic writing forms – do not take the first person approach. So, instead of writing “I am going to explain…”, write, “This essay is going to explain…” This creates a form of objectivity. The first person rule however does not apply in personal reflection statements.

To become a great essay writer, it is encouraged that you read lots of essays in your field. Look for A-grade essays written by authorities in the field or students from previous years. Also, avoid plagiarism at all cost (this fact cannot be overstated). Plagiarism is unfair to the original writers of the ideas which you are stealing. It is also self-defeating as you will be penalised and the original authors do not get credit.

Further on writing style, a general rule is to avoid collegial language. Stick to standard english and its generic rules. Similarly, avoid using filler words and sentences. If a word or sentence is not adding value, do not force it into the essay. A good practice here is to look at journal articles in your field and notice how they approach language with specificity. 

Unless expressly asked, lists within essays are not a good idea. They may seem to save time but the examiner might view them as rushed and lacking enough information to build up the ideas. Lastly, check the requirements on how to write your cover page. Again, the style of the essay given by your institution matters since it also dictates how the cover page looks like.

3. Mandatory final checks on your essay.

Always read through your essay after you are done writing it. If you can, read it multiple times or read it out loud. You will be surprised how many mistakes you can catch when you repeat this process over and over. Reading out loud catches many typographical errors and inconsistencies in the flow of argument. Also, get someone who can read the essay for the first time and take note of their criticism.

Ensure you correct any errors before rushing to submit your work. Simple errors that could take a few minutes to fix can be the difference between two grades.

Another check is on the references. Go through all the cited sources to ensure they are both well stated in the in-text citations and in the full-length references. Do a different check to ensure all sources were cited and no plagiarism exists. Do a third check on the accuracy of the references based on the referencing guide that your institution, module, or course recommends.

The quality of sources that are in your bibliography also affects the perception of your essay. It is important to include authoritative sources as this is testament to good research, wider reading, and to your ability to sift through loads of information. A pitfall when dealing with the bibliography is when many students treat it as a last-minute and rushed task. Avoid this by making your bibliography evolve as you write. Note down your sources and fix them as you move along. As already pointed above, writing down each source fully and noting things such as page numbers will save you a lot of time once it is time to create a bibliography.   

And lastly

The goal of an essay is to properly respond to the question. It should follow the guidelines and stand out as an effective flow of ideas. Of course different academic areas and disciplines will have varied rules for essays including stylistic guides and type of content. However, it remains true that a good essay must be very coherent, present a clear argument, have good referencing, and follow a smooth structure.

Ensure that you stick to the rule of academic writing. Do not go over the word count and work within the required style. 

At the back of your mind, always know that your essay is supposed to engage the reader. It is fairly easy to get caught up with the minute details and requirements that you end up neglecting the attractiveness of the essay to the reader. So, ensure that your essay interests the reader via a combination of facts, thoroughness, good research, and an engaging language. Be informative and entertaining. Take it up as a challenge to engage and keep your reader focused on the content. In an academic setting, this is particularly important because your essay will be one of many that is read by your examiner. It needs to stand out. 

Writing a good essay can be hard. Essay writing itself is a skill that is learned over time and while it is viewed as hard to master, it can be enjoyed once you have it under control.

You can find help on essay writing by contacting us directly. We have a wide array of resources that can guide you more specifically as you write your essays. In addition, we offer one-on-one coaching for academic writing to help you get started on writing great papers. We cover areas such as forming arguments, good grammar usage, references and citations, as well as simple steps to make your work stand out.

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