Six top tips for writing a great essay

An essay is used to assess the strength of your critical thinking and your ability to put that thinking into an academic written form. This resource covers some key considerations when writing an essay at university.

While reading a student’s essay, markers will ask themselves questions such as:

  • Does this essay directly address the set task?
  • Does it present a strong, supported position?
  • Does it use relevant sources appropriately?
  • Is the expression clear, and the style appropriate?
  • Is the essay organised coherently? Is there a clear introduction, body and conclusion?

You can use these questions to reflect on your own writing. Here are six top tips to help you address these criteria.

1. Analyse the question

Student essays are responses to specific questions. As an essay must address the question directly, your first step should be to analyse the question. Make sure you know exactly what is being asked of you.

Generally, essay questions contain three component parts:

  • Content terms: Key concepts that are specific to the task
  • Limiting terms: The scope that the topic focuses on
  • Directive terms: What you need to do in relation to the content, e.g. discuss, analyse, define, compare, evaluate.

Examples

  • Simple example

    Look at the following essay question:

    Discuss the importance of light in Gothic architecture.
    • Content terms: Gothic architecture
    • Limiting terms: the importance of light. If you discussed some other feature of Gothic architecture, for example spires or arches, you would be deviating from what is required. This essay question is limited to a discussion of light. Likewise, it asks you to write about the importance of light – not, for example, to discuss how light enters Gothic churches.
    • Directive term: discuss. This term asks you to take a broad approach to the variety of ways in which light may be important for Gothic architecture. You should introduce and consider different ideas and opinions that you have met in academic literature on this topic, citing them appropriately.
  • Complex example

    For a more complex question, you can highlight the key words and break it down into a series of sub-questions to make sure you answer all parts of the task. Consider the following question (from Arts):

    To what extent can the American Revolution be understood as a revolution ‘from below’? Why did working people become involved and with what aims in mind?

    The key words here are American Revolution and revolution ‘from below’. This is a view that you would need to respond to in this essay. This response must focus on the aims and motivations of working people in the revolution, as stated in the second question.

2. Define your argument

As you plan and prepare to write the essay, you must consider what your argument is going to be. This means taking an informed position or point of view on the topic presented in the question, then defining and presenting a specific argument.

Consider these two argument statements:

The architectural use of light in Gothic cathedrals physically embodied the significance of light in medieval theology.

Or:

In the Gothic cathedral of Cologne, light served to accentuate the authority and ritual centrality of the priest.

Statements like these define an essay’s argument. They give coherence by providing an overarching theme and position towards which the entire essay is directed.

3. Use evidence, reasoning and scholarship

To convince your audience of your argument, you must use evidence and reasoning, which involves referring to and evaluating relevant scholarship.

  • Evidence provides concrete information to support your claim. It typically consists of specific examples, facts, quotations, statistics and illustrations.
  • Reasoning connects the evidence to your argument. Rather than citing evidence like a shopping list, you need to evaluate the evidence and show how it supports your argument.
  • Scholarship is used to show how your argument relates to what has been written on the topic (citing specific works). Scholarship can be used as part of your evidence and reasoning to support your argument.

4. Organise a coherent essay

An essay has three basic components - introduction, body and conclusion.

  • Introduction

    The purpose of an introduction is to introduce your essay. It typically presents information in the following order:

    • A general statement about the topic that provides context for your argument
    • A thesis statement showing your argument. You can use explicit lead-ins, such as ‘This essay argues that...’
    • A ‘road map’ of the essay, telling the reader how it is going to present and develop your argument.

    Example introduction

    Question

    "To what extent can the American Revolution be understood as a revolution ‘from below’? Why did working people become involved and with what aims in mind?"

    Introduction*

    Historians generally concentrate on the twenty-year period between 1763 and 1783 as the period which constitutes the American Revolution [This sentence sets the general context of the period]. However, when considering the involvement of working people, or people from below, in the revolution it is important to make a distinction between the pre-revolutionary period 1763-1774 and the revolutionary period 1774-1788, marked by the establishment of the continental Congress(1) [This sentence defines the key term from below and gives more context to the argument that follows]. This paper will argue that the nature and aims of the actions of working people are difficult to assess as it changed according to each phase [This is the thesis statement]. The pre-revolutionary period was characterised by opposition to Britain’s authority. During this period the aims and actions of the working people were more conservative as they responded to grievances related to taxes and scarce land, issues which directly affected them. However, examination of activities such as the organisation of crowd action and town meetings, pamphlet writing, formal communications to Britain of American grievances and physical action in the streets, demonstrates that their aims and actions became more revolutionary after 1775 [These sentences give the ‘road map’ or overview of the content of the essay].

  • Body

    The body of the essay develops and elaborates your argument. It does this by presenting a reasoned case supported by evidence from relevant scholarship. Its shape corresponds to the overview that you provided in your introduction.

    The body of your essay should be written in paragraphs. Each body paragraph should develop one main idea that supports your argument. To learn how to structure a paragraph, look at the page developing clarity and focus in academic writing or do the Canvas module building good paragraphs.

  • Conclusion

    Your conclusion should not offer any new material. Your evidence and argumentation should have been made clear to the reader in the body of the essay.

    Use the conclusion to briefly restate the main argumentative position and provide a short summary of the themes discussed. In addition, also consider telling your reader:

    • What the significance of your findings, or the implications of your conclusion, might be
    • Whether there are other factors which need to be looked at, but which were outside the scope of the essay
    • How your topic links to the wider context (‘bigger picture’) in your discipline.

    Do not simply repeat yourself in this section. A conclusion which merely summarises is repetitive and reduces the impact of your paper.

    Example conclusion

    Question

    "To what extent can the American Revolution be understood as a revolution ‘from below’? Why did working people become involved and with what aims in mind?"

    Conclusion*

    Although, to a large extent, the working class were mainly those in the forefront of crowd action and they also led the revolts against wealthy plantation farmers, the American Revolution was not a class struggle [This is a statement of the concluding position of the essay]. Working people participated because the issues directly affected them – the threat posed by powerful landowners and the tyranny Britain represented. Whereas the aims and actions of the working classes were more concerned with resistance to British rule during the pre-revolutionary period, they became more revolutionary in nature after 1775 when the tension with Britain escalated [These sentences restate the key argument]. With this shift, a change in ideas occurred. In terms of considering the Revolution as a whole range of activities such as organising riots, communicating to Britain, attendance at town hall meetings and pamphlet writing, a difficulty emerges in that all classes were involved. Therefore, it is impossible to assess the extent to which a single group such as working people contributed to the American Revolution [These sentences give final thoughts on the topic].

5. Write clearly

An essay that makes good, evidence-supported points will only receive a high grade if it is written clearly. Clarity is produced through careful revision and editing, which can turn a good essay into an excellent one.

When you edit your essay, try to view it with fresh eyes – almost as if someone else had written it.

Ask yourself the following questions:

Overall structure

  • Have you clearly stated your argument in your introduction?
  • Does the actual structure correspond to the ‘road map’ set out in your introduction?
  • Have you clearly indicated how your main points support your argument?
  • Have you clearly signposted the transitions between each of your main points for your reader?

Paragraphs

  • Does each paragraph introduce one main idea?
  • Does every sentence in the paragraph support that main idea?
  • Does each paragraph display relevant evidence and reasoning?
  • Does each paragraph logically follow on from the one before it?

Sentences

  • Is each sentence grammatically complete?
  • Is the spelling correct?
  • Is the link between sentences clear to your readers?
  • Have you avoided redundancy and repetition?

See more about editing on our editing your writing page.

6. Cite sources and evidence

Finally, check your citations to make sure that they are accurate and complete. Some faculties require you to use a specific citation style (e.g. APA) while others may allow you to choose a preferred one. Whatever style you use, you must follow its guidelines correctly and consistently. You can use Recite, the University of Melbourne style guide, to check your citations.

Further resources

  • Germov, J. (2011). Get great marks for your essays, reports and presentations (3rd ed.). NSW: Allen and Unwin.
  • Using English for Academic Purposes: A guide for students in Higher Education [online]. Retrieved January 2020 from http://www.uefap.com
  • Williams, J.M. & Colomb, G. G. (2010) Style: Lessons in clarity and grace. 10th ed. New York: Longman.

* Example introduction and conclusion adapted from a student paper.

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