Essay Writing Top Tips

1. Topic Body Wrap (‘5 paragraph essay’)

  • Introduction (TOPIC - explain what you are going to do)
  • (BODY - do what you said you were going to do)
    • First body para
    • Second body para
    • Third body para
  • Summary (WRAP - explain to your reader what you told them)

The same structure can also be for each individual paragraph. Start with a topic’ sentence that tells the reader what the aim of the paragraph is, then a few body’ sentences that do what you said you would do, then a final wrap’ sentence which makes it clear to the reader what you want them to understand from the paragraph.

2. Writing order (Intro last!)

  • Writing is hardly ever a linear’ process
  • Rewriting is normal
  • Discarding material that becomes irrelevant during the process of writing an essay is inevitable
  • When you know what you’ve written, then you can (re)write the introduction
  • Writing’ is actually mostly reading!

3. Avoiding crappy’ sources

Not all sources are equal

  • GOOD: Academic books and journals
  • GREY AREA: lots of online stuff (discretion required)
  • BAD:‘essay mill’ sites, other undergrad essays, AI-generated texts

Good Sources

  • books in the university library
  • articles published in reliable* academic journals
  • online sources where the authorship can be verified as appropriate

* Appropriate academic journals are those that undergo peer-review and have editorial oversight to ensure the accuracy and validity of published research. They establish the credibility of findings through a rigorous review process. There are, on the other hand, LOTS of predatory journals1 that will publish anything for a fee without proper review. Here’s a useful (if a little outdated) list of these dodgy publishers: Beall’s List ↗️

News sources: Journalism is different to academic work, thus we have to treat its products differently. News articles are useful for some things but nor for other, we have to use information in the appropriate manner.

Remember, a newspaper might contain an accurate report of a lie.

4. Literally!

  • Academic writing aims for clarity
  • Try to say exactly what you mean

This assumption means that academics take things literally; for instance, if you write, Everyone these days has a smartphone’ then literal-minded academics might assume that you think that everyone’ (which literally means 100% of all human beings!) has such a phone.

This is obviously wrong.

5. No claim without a reference!

Following on from the previous point; if you want to make a claim about reality…

  • Lots of people think X…
  • Culture Y is unique’

Then you have to present some evidence for that claim.

Common sense’: as a rule of thumb, if you can find 5 independent, credible sources that make the same claim without evidence then you might be able to argue that a piece of information is common sense’ and no reference is required.

6. Generalisations and value judgments’

  • All sweeping statements are wrong’ … 🤔
  • Avoid using simplistic evaluations. It’s rare for anything to be simply good’ or bad’. Avoid meaningless clichés rich culture’, glorious history’, etc. Mark Twain took dislike of adjectives to an extreme, saying, When you catch an adjective, kill it.”!
  • Always present reliable, relevant, nuanced evidence.
  • There are some things that we just don’t know!

7. Quoting - summarising - paraphrasing

  • Quotation - the exact words of the original

  • Paraphrase - eg. condenses a paragraph or two of original material into a single sentence (in your words)

  • Summary - overview of main ideas of a work in your own words

Attributions, in the form of a citation, are always required!

Using words from another person’s work with a couple of nouns or adjectives replaced by synonyms is still plagiarism! This is what simple tools like Rephrase do — and academics (and our plagiarism-checking software Turnitin) are wise to such superficial changes. Don’t be afraid to quote another author directly if their words best capture the point you want to make. Just be sure to use quotation marks and provide the full citation details.

8. Use bibliographic software

Get used to using some kind of bibliographic software, eg. Zotero (my recommendation) or Mendeley

  • short term investment in time/effort for long term gain
  • make bibliographies easily/quickly
  • no need to worry about formatting
  • integrate with web browser and writing software (Word etc)

9. Use the style book

Questions you have about how to format things, how to write certain things (people’s names, numbers, titles of films etc) will be answered in an academic style book, eg. APA

It is very likely that over the past 100 years someone else has had the same questions as you and a solution/convention has been agreed on.

Get used to how things work’ in academic writing as soon as possible, then you can concentrate on sharing your ideas.

10. Avoid cherry-picking’ your info/data

If you write write an essay that presents only information that supports your argument, you are doing advertising’.

A good essay acknowledges and/or deals with the weaknesses of an argument as well as its strengths.

If we ignore, don’t mention or don’t account for data/facts that seem to undermine support for an argument, we weaken our position (make ourselves seem less trustworthy 😈)

We can also undermine our position as reliable voice’ by, for instance (and this has happened!), declaring undying love for the subject of our essay (individual, country, music group etc), or demonstrating that our identity as a fan’ has overridden our duty as an academic to approach the subject in (as far as possible) a rational and objective way. In order to make a convincing argument you need to come across as reliable and trustworthy.

  1. See this article for ways to spot such a journal↩︎

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