A Helpful Guide to Essay Writing
By Vivien Perutz
Part 1 – structure and organisation 4
A good essay structure 4
A model essay structure 4
Essay writing – the main stages 5
Stage 1 – analysing the question 6
Key words in essay titles 6
Stage 2 – planning 8
Stage 3 – use your plan to guide your research 9
Stage 4 – refine your plan 9
Stage 5 – drafting 10
Stage 6 – editing your draft 10
Useful linking words and phrases 11
Part 2 – style and clarity 14
Academic writing style 14
Descriptive writing 14
Argumentative writing 15
Evaluative writing 15
Using personal experience 16
A critical, analytical approach 17
Using your reading to support your writing 18
Citing references in text – some useful expressions 19
Conventions of style in academic writing 20
Expressing your ideas clearly 21
Spot the gaffe 22
Sources of further guidance 23
Useful websites 23
Please note the following is general guidance; different courses
have different demands. You should check with individual tutors
regarding specific requirements.
The guide is partly based on material gathered and adapted from a
range of publications listed in the further reading section at the end.
Part 1 concentrates on structural and organisational aspects. Part 2
offers guidance on style and clarity in essay writing.
The guidelines should be taken as just that. There is no rule, for
example, that says you must plan an essay before writing it. Some
people find that they work best by getting the ideas flowing first and
imposing some sort of structure later; it is only once they start writing
that they start to have an idea of what their direction will be. Even so,
they must be clear at the outset as to what the essay title requires of
them to make sure that they stay within its constraints. If, however, you
are fairly new to essay writing and not very confident about it, you might
find it helpful to follow the suggested stages on pages 6 – 13.
PART 1 – STRUCTURE AND ORGANISATION
A good essay structure
• Is made easier by prior planning.
• Makes it clear how you are going to address the question, where you
are going and why.
• Sets out your main ideas clearly.
• Makes it clear how the main ideas relate to each other.
• Takes the reader through your answer in a logical, progressive way.
• Helps the reader to remember what you have said.
• Organises groups of related information in paragraphs.
• Uses connecting words and phrases to relate each point/idea to
earlier and later points (see page 12).
A model essay structure
• Arouse the reader’s interest
• Set the scene
• Explain how you interpret the question set
• Define or explain key terms if necessary
• Give a brief outline of which issues you will explore, and in which
Contains the points outlined in your introduction, divided into
• Paragraph 1
Covers the first thing you said you would address.
The first sentence (the topic sentence) introduces the main idea of
Other sentences develop the topic.
Include relevant examples, details, evidence, quotations, references.
• Paragraph 2 and other paragraphs
The first sentence links the paragraph to the previous paragraph
then introduces the main idea of the paragraph.
• Draw everything together
• Summarise the main themes
• State your general conclusions
• Make it clear why those conclusions are important or significant
• Do not introduce new material
• In the last sentence, sum up your argument very briefly, linking it to
• Set the issues in a broader perspective/wider context
• Discuss what you have failed to do – answers not clear, space
• Suggest further questions of your own
Essay writing – the main stages
1. Analyse the question
2. Make a rough outline plan
3. Use plan to guide research
4. Review, revise and refine the plan
5. Write first draft
6. Edit draft for structure and content
7. Edit draft for style
8. Check referencing
9. Proof read for spelling/punctuation
10. Produce final copy
5 Stage 1 - Analysing the essay question
• Read the question (aloud if it helps) several times.
• Underline the words that tell you what approach to take (e.g.
discuss, assess, compare – see key words below).
• Highlight key words relating to the subject matter.
• Circle any other significant words that identify the scope of what you
have to write about (e.g. simply, fundamentally, only, merely,
• Note any terms that you need to define.
• Write the question out in your own words.
• In your introduction say how you interpret the question (e.g. by
rephrasing in your own words)
• In your conclusion, refer back to the question; show the reader that
you are still answering the set question.
• Write the question out in full on plans, notes and drafts to make sure
you do not lose sight of it.
Key words in essay titles
NB. You might find that the title you have been given does not contain
any of these key words. You will have to look carefully at the way the
question is phrased, along with any accompanying guidance as to what
is expected (e.g. learning outcomes in module guide) to establish what
sort of approach is required.
Give reasons for; explain why something happens.
Break up into parts; investigate.
Identify and write about the main issues; give your reactions based on
what you have read/heard in lectures. Avoid just personal opinion.
Look for the similarities/differences between two things. Show the
relevance or consequences of these similarities. Perhaps conclude
which is preferable.
Bring out the differences between two items or arguments. Show
whether the differences are significant. Perhaps give reasons why one
Weigh arguments for and against something, assessing the strength of
the evidence on both sides. Use criteria to guide your assessment of
which opinions, theories, models or items are preferable.
Give the exact meaning of. Where relevant, show you understand how
the definition may be problematic.
Give the main characteristics or features of something, or outline the
Investigate or examine by argument; sift and debate; give reasons for
and against; examine the implications.
Bring out the differences between.
Assess and give your judgement about the merit, importance or
usefulness of something. Back your judgement with evidence.
Look closely into something.
Make clear why something happens, or is the way it is; interpret and
account for; give reasons for.
Examine thoroughly; consider from a variety of viewpoints.
Make something clear and explicit, giving examples of evidence.
Show the meaning and relevance of data or other material presented
Give evidence which supports an argument or idea; show why a
decision or conclusions were made; answer the main objections which
might be made.
Outline what happened.
Give the main points/features/general principles; show the main
structure and interrelations; omit details and examples.
(b) Show similarities and connections between
Give the main features briefly and clearly.
Draw out the main points only; omit details and examples.
To what extent
Consider how far something is true, or contributes to a final outcome.
Consider also ways in which it is not true.
Follow the development or history of an event or process.
Stage 2 – Planning
Make an outline plan
• Keep the question in sight
• Try using a “spider” or “pattern plan” to brainstorm relevant points –
both what you know and what you need to find out. This type of plan
reflects the way your brain works and helps to give you an overview
of the essay
(See Anglia Ruskin’s on-line guide on mind mapping at
8 Give star ratings to the points you have noted:
for key points
for important points
for background points
Use different colours, letters or lines to show links
Number the key points in the order you think you will introduce them.
• Try out “Mind Genius”, a mind mapping programme on the open
access computers in the University Library.
• Try ways of planning where you can physically arrange the points:
Different points on separate index cards – colour code
“Post-its” on a sheet of wallpaper.
Stage 3 – Use your plan to guide your research
• Armed with your outline plan, use skimming and scanning strategies
to identify material relevant to your key points (see on-line guide on
reading for academic purposes)
• Use an active, critical, questioning approach to read the material you
have identified (see Anglia Ruskin’s on-line guides at
Stage 4 - Refine your plan
• If your research has drawn out key points you would have missed
out, include them. Delete anything that now seems irrelevant or
• Work out the order for introducing key points.
• Convert your outline plan into a linear plan – list the main
topics/arguments as headings in order.
• Code (colour, letters, numbers) the headings.
• For each main topic/argument note the main information you will
include and the examples/other supporting details.
• Divide up your word allowance between the headings – allow one
tenth each for the introduction and conclusion.
• Work out how many words per page you write in your handwriting.
Select the total number of pages you will need. Draw out pages
showing what topics you’ll include on each page.
• Sort your research notes – use the code colour, number or letter to
relate them to your plan.
• Start drafting
Stage 5 - Drafting
• If you have a mental block with the introduction, start with the
“middle”, with a topic/idea you feel most comfortable with.
• Take each main topic/idea and write a paragraph about it.
• Do not worry about style/spelling at this stage – let the ideas flow.
• For each paragraph include a “topic sentence” that makes it clear
what that paragraph is about. The rest of the paragraph will include
information and evidence related to that “topic”.
• Leave space for editing.
• Write the conclusion – it should sum up the content of the “middle”
and relate back to the title.
• Write the introduction – it is easier to say what your essay sets out to
do once you have done it.
• If you have word-processed your draft, print off a hard copy for
• Put the draft aside for a day or so – come back to it with a fresh pair
Stage 6 – Editing your draft
First re-read your draft, checking for structure and content:
• Does the main body do what the introduction says it will do?
• Is it clear what each paragraph is about? (Highlight the topic
sentence; sum up the topic in the margin and colour code it.)
• Is every paragraph relevant to the question?
• Is everything in the paragraph relevant to the main “topic”?
• Is there enough in each paragraph to support the “topic”?
• Is anything repeated/superfluous?
• Is everything in the right place?
• Are the sentences in each paragraph in the right order?
• Does every paragraph relate clearly to the others? (See useful
linking words and phrases).
Check again for style and presentation:
• Are the ideas clearly expressed, in an academic style?
• Have you cited references correctly and listed them at the end?
• Does the spelling/punctuation help the reader?
Useful linking words and phrases
To indicate a contrast:
however on the other hand in contrast
alternatively on the contrary conversely
in comparison rather in fact
another possibility better/worse still but
despite this notwithstanding in spite of
nevertheless for all that yet
all the same instead although
11 To provide an illustration:
for example as follows that is
that is to say for instance say
in other words namely such as
chiefly mainly most importantly
typical of this/such notably one such
including especially not least
a typical/particular/ in particular
To extend a point:
similarly equally indeed in addition
in the same way in addition likewise
too besides also
above all as well furthermore
To show cause and effect/conclusion:
so therefore accordingly
thus hence then
it follows that for this reason this implies
in this/that case consequently because of this/that
this suggests that in conclusion in short
to conclude In brief in all
it might be concluded accepting/assuming resulting from/
from this this in consequence of this
as a result/ owing to/due to the accepting/assuming
consequence fact that this
To show the next step:
first(ly) second(ly) to begin/start with
lastly last but not least ultimately
first and foremost finally another
then after next
afterwards third(ly) first and most
in the first/second
PART 2 – STYLE AND CLARITY
Academic writing style
Stella Cottrell (2003) refers to three main styles used in academic
writing: descriptive, argumentative and evaluative. Many writing tasks
will involve some combination of the three and the use of critical,
analytical skills. Some courses will require a degree of more personal,
reflective writing. Some guidelines are provided here, but see the
separate on-line guide on reflective writing for further guidance if this
type of writing is required on your course.
• To describe what happened: e.g. main events. methods, findings.
• To describe the main features or functions: e.g. of a policy, practice,
• To summarise the main points: e.g. of a theory or article.
• Identify relevant themes to include
• Be clear, precise and accurate
• Use a logical order
• Keep to the point
• Indicate the significance of what you describe
NB. Descriptive style varies between subjects – get used to what your
To argue a case/point of view, to influence the reader’s thoughts/actions
• State your position clearly and concisely.
• Use a clear line of reasoning to support your position.
• Give reliable, relevant, valid and convincing evidence/examples to
support your reasons.
• Consider and respond to the possible arguments against.
• Try not to sit on the fence – show there are different arguments but
make clear which you find most convincing.
• Comparing - finding points of similarity.
• Contrasting – finding points of difference.
• Evaluating significance of similarities and differences. Do they
matter? Do they have important implications for which model should
be used? How did you decide what was significant?
• Making a judgement. Give reasons for your opinion, based on the
• Showing your criteria. Show what criteria you used to arrive at your
opinion – e.g. data, research evidence
• Get the balance right – compare like with like and give equal
information and evidence to both.
Using Personal Experience
• Only use if your course requires it.
• Do not use as your main evidence unless you’re specifically asked to
• Points to consider when including personal experience:
- How typical is your experience?
(Any research done? Any relevant reports or articles?)
- How does your experience compare with other people’s?
- How relevant is it?
- How does it link to theories you have studied?
- How does it support or contradict theories and views you have
- Can any lessons be drawn from it?
- Can any valid generalisations be drawn from it?
• Personal writing uses different language:
“I found that” rather than “It was found that”
(More emotional, subjective, intuitive and anecdotal)
A critical, analytical approach
As students move beyond Level 1 work to Levels 2 and 3, tutors often
comment that the work is too descriptive and needs to be more
analytical and/or critical.
Being analytical is about breaking things (situations, practices,
problems, statements, ideas, theories, arguments) down into their
Being critical is about not accepting things at face value, but evaluating
them i.e. making reasoned judgements about how valid, effective,
important, relevant, useful and worthwhile they are.
The argumentative and evaluative writing styles referred to above
reflect this analytical, critical approach.
To demonstrate the analytical/critical thinking expected means asking
lots of questions of everything you read, observe, hear, experience
and do to probe beneath the surface, looking for reasons, explanations
See Cottrell (2003) for guidance and activities to help develop critical
See also Anglia Ruskin’s on-line guides “Critical analytical thinking” and
“Evaluating an argument” found at:
Use of the linking words and phrases on page 11 and the expressions
for citing references on page 19 will help to show that you have used an
analytical, critical approach.
17 Using your reading to support your writing
In developing your ideas and arguments in an essay you need to refer
to a range of books, journals and other material to support your
views/statements and give weight to your arguments. However
Do not pass off other people’s ideas as your own (plagiarism).
Do acknowledge your sources of ideas and information
(see the library’s on-line guide on Harvard Referencing
under “Library Guides” at:
Do not just piece together other people’s ideas to construct your
Do use other people’s ideas to scaffold your own argument.
Do not “decorate” your essay with lots of direct quotes to prove
you have read lots of books.
Do use direct quotes sparingly, introduce them carefully and
make it clear how they relate to your ideas.
Do not present other people’s ideas as fact.
Do show you’ve critically questioned other people’s work to
inform your own learning.
Do not just cite authors who agree with you.
Do bring in opposing ideas and show why you think they are
Do not read passively, just collecting ideas and reading the lines.
Do engage with your reading – link it to other things you have
learned/read, ask questions, use it to develop your opinions
and attitudes – read between the lines.
The following expressions will be useful for introducing other people’s
ideas in your essays.
Citing References in Text – some useful expressions
Introducing someone’s ideas:
suggests/argues/states/believes/concludes/proposes that -
expresses/holds the view that -
draws attention to -
describes X as -
describes how -
refers to -
takes the stance that -
emphasises/stresses the need to/the importance of-
According to Bloggs (2002) -
As stated/suggested/argued/proposed by Bloggs (2002) -
There is a view/theory/argument that - (Bloggs, 2002).
It has been suggested/stated/argued/proposed that - (Bloggs, 2002)
One view/theory/argument/suggestion/proposal is that - (Bloggs,
One view, expressed by Bloggs (2002) is that -
Introducing an idea/theory that agrees with/has built on another:
This is supported by Smith (2003).
in line with the view/theory/suggestion of Smith (2003).
reflects the “ “ “
Smith (2003) accepts/supports/agrees with/concurs with this
A similar view is held by Smith (2003)
” ” stance is taken by
This idea/theory has been extended/developed/taken further/built upon
by Smith (2003).
Introducing an idea/theory that disagrees/contrasts with another:
This conflicts/contrasts with/is contrary to the view held by Smith (2003)
This is not accepted by/has been challenged by Smith (2003), who
argues that -
Smith (2003), on the other hand/however/in contrast, suggests that -
An alternative view/suggestion is that - (Smith, 2003)
The opposite/a conflicting view is expressed by Smith (2003)
Conventions of style in essays
• Use formal, standard English - avoid colloquial terms and dialect.
(“You write as you speak” is a common complaint from tutors”).
• Avoid abbreviations and contractions
(use “for example”, not “e.g.”; use “did not” instead of “didn’t”).
Proper Nouns (e.g. the National Health Service) can be abbreviated
provided you give the full name as well as the abbreviation on the
• Numbers below ten are written out in full, except in statistical and
• Be impersonal (unless your course requires otherwise) – avoid using
“I”, “we” and “you”. Instead use “It can be seen that”, “There are a
number of”, “It has been found that” etc.
• Be cautious. Avoid sweeping statements - use words and phrases
such as “appears to, “seems to”, “may”, “probably”, “apparently”,
“generally”, “The evidence suggests that”, “In some cases this”.
• Use rational argument rather than emotive language.
• Be objective – avoid personal, subjective words such as “wonderful”,
• Use continuous prose – lists and headings are for reports and
• Do not address the reader directly by asking them a direct question
or telling them what to think.