Writing good essays and assignments by Deborah Grieve Throughout your time at university you will be required to write essays or assignments. These serve an important function and you should see them as a very useful opportunity to express your own ideas and to reflect your understanding of a subject. Most of us find getting down to writing assignments difficult. The advice below will help you plan and clearly structure your writing. You should feel confident that when you hand in your work to be marked you have given it your ‘best shot’.
It is important for you to keep essay writing in perspective and not worry too much; this can often be easier said than done. By knowing what is expected of you, planning your essay writing thoroughly and getting it in on time you will feel more at ease with yourself. Why write essays – What are lecturers looking for in an assignment? The purpose of essays and assignments is to direct attention to certain ideas which are considered to be an important element in a course of study.
They are also a means of developing independent research skills. Essays and assignments therefore serve an important function and you should see them as a very useful opportunity to express your own ideas and to reflect your understanding of the subject. They can be used as part of the overall grading for a module (summative assessment) or to assess your current level of understanding of a topic and then help to raise that level by the use of tutor feedback (formative assessment). How are Essays Marked?
Assessment Criteria Often students aren’t sure of the best way to approach writing and having to write essays or assignments can thus seem quite daunting. Before sitting down to write your essay it is worthwhile thinking about what aspects will get you good marks. We asked a lecturer to say what he was looking for in a good assignment. His answers were as follows: “When assessing either written coursework or examination answers the following criteria are used”:- • (a) A good answer is one which ddresses the question, provides an analysis and a logical discussion in relation to the question, demonstrates a good grasp of relevant content and underlying concepts (Literature Review/Research), presents a balanced argument and shows knowledge of counter arguments, is well structured and clearly explained, shows good evidence of wider reading, refers appropriately to personal experiences, is accurately referenced according to a standardised system (Harvard Style), draws conclusions from sound evidence, has a high level of accuracy of English (or Welsh) and is neatly presented. (b) An average answer is one that attempts to address the question, is satisfactorily structured and explained, demonstrates an acceptable understanding of the content and concepts involved, shows some evidence of wider reading, uses some authoritative sources and is fairly well written with a few errors of English (or Welsh), but which generalises in places, presents a less balanced view, and maybe includes some unsupported opinion or unjustified conclusions. (c) A weak answer is one that does not directly answer the question, includes very little, if any, analysis or argument, is mainly descriptive in nature, shows inaccuracies and lack of understanding in relation to content, is poorly explained and demonstrates lack of clarity in expression and thought, is not logically structured, is based mainly on unsupported opinion, over-generalises and makes sweeping statements, uses few authoritative sources and references or none at all, includes material that is irrelevant to the question, does not refer to personal experiences, does not draw valid conclusions, is inaccurately referenced, contains several errors of English (or Welsh) and is untidy. The Essay Theme/Topic This may be selected to enable you to deal with material which has already been considered or discussed during lectures or seminars. Here its purpose is often to provide an opportunity for such ideas to be applied to a particular situation.
At other times the purpose may be to complement or supplement course work, in which case you may be concerned with quite new and unfamiliar material. It is essential that the essay theme should be fully understood before attempting an answer. In other words ensure that you answer the question. Themes which state “Discuss” or “Consider” expect you to examine evidence frequently derived from the literature on the subject. This means consulting the relevant books and authorities, selecting the key ideas, principles and practices, and then contrasting and comparing them. To such evidence may be added what is known about current practices in the field as appropriate. Having consulted the literature etc. you should then evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the various positions identified and draw conclusions which are valid (based on the evidence and not on personal opinion or prejudice). Where no clear conclusions can be drawn then a personal interpretation can be given provided it can be supported on the basis on the balance of probability. Themes which include a quotation followed by an instruction such as “Discuss” or “Consider”, or “How far do you think…? ” require a careful understanding of the significance of the quotation. It is important to consult the source of the quotation and consider it within the context of the author’s work as a whole.
How to Plan your essay -What should your assignment be like? There are no absolute rules for this. The following is a general guide. Plan out the structure of your essay carefully with a; beginning (Introduction); middle (Development/Discussion) and end (Conclusion). Think about major points and ideas rather than simply facts and information. Develop a line of argument clearly and concisely (in other words avoid meandering and repetition). Perhaps initially draft a summary of your major points to provide a focus to your work, although this would not officially be part of the essay. Each part of the essay should be structured and deal with the following points: 1. Introduction
The introduction; identifies the key ideas to be considered, the background to the question, the possible aspects for consideration and the reason for selecting particular aspects. 2. Development This is a review of the existing evidence related to the materials in the introduction. In addition an examination of the literature/research, current thinking and general practices. The main discussion in depth which explores; the strengths and weaknesses of differing viewpoints. Also include an interpretation of the evidence and the presentation of an argument. Points you are making need to be backed up with references from texts on your reading lists, lecture notes etc. These references need to be written correctly (see Unit on Citation & Referencing). 3. Conclusion
This is a resolution of the discussion, summary of significant points, and presentation of the position and the identification of further aspects which might be examined. Tips Before starting to write an essay • Address the question/understand the theme • Ascertain the type of answer required. • Plan out the essay. • Organise its structure. • Gather data o Ascertain if you need to use the literature/your own experiences/your own opinions. o Use up-to-date texts (journals etc). o Always record where you found an idea or statement accurately. o Select key ideas (principles/practices). How to write essays When you write an essay you have to be precise and to weigh, select, reject and organise your ideas into a coherent pattern of your own. Here are a few guiding principles: . Be sure you know the precise subject and the kind of treatment that is called for (beware of being irrelevant). Note any restrictions in length (e. g. 500 words or 1,500 words). Keep to this length. 2. Investigate all probable sources of information – books, articles, lecture notes, etc. and select the most useful and relevant ones. Gather data 3. Draft a logical OUTLINE for your essay (using bullet points/short notes) based on a structure similar to: (a) Introduction (b) Development (c) Conclusion (If you are using a word processor use the ‘OUTLINE’ facility. This can help you quickly draft the outline and make revision to it easier. )
Some students find it helpful to write a preliminary draft of the final paragraph at this point – so as to give the essay a clear target. 4. 4. Write the FIRST DRAFT of your essay. o (a) Write simply and directly, remembering that someone else has to understand what you are trying to say. o (b) Use pictures (graphs, diagrams, etc) if they will save words. o (c) Take care to acknowledge the ideas borrowed from other authors. o (d) List the sources you have referred to for information. 5. Using the same size loose-leaf paper as used for notes (so that essays and notes can be filed together for revision), REWRITE the essay (if possible, after a gap of a few days) to eliminate any weaknesses of content or treatment.
Leave plenty of space (by having a large margin or using double line spacing) for your tutor’s comments. 6. Don’t just write your essays – read them too! It’s amazing how often people do not seem to read what they have written! Before you make your final version of an essay that’s going to be handed in for marking, you may need to make several drafts. More tips on writing essays and assignments: • Argue, analyse, discuss according to the question (avoid just describing). • Make your points and support these with appropriate evidence – avoid opinion and bias, qualify statements, be as objective as possible. • Avoid plagiarism at all costs. • Link points together and ‘signpost’ for the reader. Avoid generalisations – be as specific as possible (e. g. avoid ‘research says’, ‘teachers must’, ‘and it is proved that’, etc. ). • Use correct and accurate English. • Define terms. • Explain your points simply and clearly. • Avoid short paragraphs, abbreviations, colloquialisms, dashes, personalising, value judgements, etc.. • Use quotations sparingly – embed them within the text only if they are under five lines. • Reference accurately. • Be consistent with, and don’t mix, tenses or a singular subject with a plural word or vice versa. • Ensure your points are relevant to the question. • Re-draft and read through (share the essay with peers). Number pages and leave margins. Write on one side of the paper only. Presentation and Style of the Essay You must remember the importance of correct spelling, punctuation and grammar and of appropriate expression and presentation in your work. Your work should be neat both in layout and appearance. You will want the essay to be as “readable” as possible. Some lecturers like you to use headings for different sections of your essays – others don’t. Try to find out what their preferences are – by asking them. Headings and sub-headings can help your work to appear well laid-out and provide a clear structure. Each paragraph should be complete in itself.
However, it’s best that paragraphs don’t get too long. A hallmark of a good piece of writing is that the reader should be able to “scan” it. Similarly, with sentences: • Keep them fairly short. A sentence should only try to say one thing. Too many phrases can cause the main point to get lost! • Watch your commas and apostrophes! Ask yourself: “is this comma really necessary? ” It may be possible to replace a comma by a full stop or a semi-colon and a new sentence. The first sentence of each paragraph One way of making your essay more readable is to take particular care with the first sentence of each paragraph. The first sentence of each paragraph should set the scene for the rest of the paragraph • could state a major point – the rest of the paragraph justifying the point and adding detail • could pose a question – the rest of the paragraph answering the question. Bibliography/References This is a list of the books, periodicals, journals, etc. , which you have consulted or quoted from. It should be given at the end of the essay. There are several accepted ways in which it may be presented. It is important to ensure that the books consulted are recent editions. Essays constructed upon material which is seriously out of date may result in misleading statements and a consequent loss of marks. GOOD LUCK!