1. Answer the Question.
- Failure to answer the question set is one of the most common student mistakes, and it can have disastrous consequences for your grade.
- Spend time thinking about the question, why it has been set, and how it relates to ideas and themes explored in your lectures and tutorials.
- Keep the question in mind as you write, and be sure to clarify how each point you make relates to it.
- Do not introduce irrelevant information. However interesting you may think it is, if it does not help you to answer the question you will not get credit for it.
2. Make focused notes.
- A proper understanding the question set should guide not only what you write, but also what you read.
- In other words, use your understanding of the question to make selections in your reading.
- You cannot write notes on everything, so only include what may be relevant to answering the question.
- Producing focused notes will also help you to develop a structured outline for your essay.
3. Set an early deadline.
- Begin by outlining what you are going to say, how you will structure your arguments, and what evidence you will draw upon in order to substantiate your claims.
- This means setting an early deadline for your first draft, leaving ample time for later revisions and improvements.
- Never underestimate how long it will take to complete an assignment, and manage your time wisely.
4. Provide a clear structure.
- Use the introductory paragraph to clarify your understanding of the question and to outline what you will cover.
- The structure of the essay must be clear to the reader from the outset.
- Ensure that each step in the argument is clearly signposted so that the reader is never left wondering why a particular point is being made.
- Each paragraph should be a step forward in your argument, developing a single point and building upon the point made in the previous one.
5. Get straight to the point.
- Do not ramble or beat around the bush.
- Nothing should appear in your essay that does not contribute to the overall argument.
- If you cannot summarise the argument of your essay in a few sentences, you probably need to gain more clarity about what you want to say.
- Be explicit, clear and precise.
- Markers can only give credit for what is on the paper, not for what they think you might have intended to say but failed to articulate properly.
6. Use plain language.
- Avoid verbiage and convoluted sentences.
- Long words and sentences are more likely to obscure your key arguments and infuriate your examiner than gain you extra credit.
- If you are not sure how a word should be used or what it means, leave it out and use another instead.
- Be concise, clear and consistent.
- Adding unnecessary technical jargon will make your essay worse rather than better, while omitting needless words will always improve its readability.
7. Provide critical analysis and elaboration.
- Summarising without providing critical analysis and argumentation will not earn you a high grade.
- Showing that you have correctly understood the course material is important but only a starting point.
- It is always better to discuss two or three authors in detail, and to elaborate your points, than to cover half a dozen only superficially.
- Always substantiate your claims with arguments and evidence, but avoid over-reliance on any particular text.
8. Address counter-arguments and alternative explanations.
- A good academic essay not only provides arguments and evidence for its claims, but also attempts to demonstrate why opposing views are flawed.
- Spend some time, then, thinking about possible objections to your claims and use of evidence.
- If you can refute such objections, do so; if you can’t, you will need to revise or qualify your argument.
9. Summarise your argument.
- Use the conclusion to provide a succinct summary, to draw your themes together, and to clearly demonstrate that and how you have answered the question.
- Although it is always good to explore a range of arguments within the body of the essay, a conclusion should always conclude, so avoid introducing any new material.
- Try to push your argument through to some kind of resolution, and avoid just sitting on the fence.
- Once again: your goal is to answer the question.
10. Proofread, revise and format.
- Be sure to carefully proofread your work (and/or have somebody else do it for you) in order to ensure correct spelling, grammar and punctuation.
- While doing this it is also a good idea to make revisions and amendments, tightening up sentences, sharpening your prose, and deleting redundant words and phrases.
- While each of a hundred such improvements may seem trivial on its own, taken together they can lift your essay to a whole new level.
- Finally, be sure to format and reference your essay in accordance with your department’s preferred specifications.