One of the most common written assignments you will be
required to submit at university is the essay. Essays are written for
various purposes: to inform/to entertain/to challenge/to explore/to
The academic essay is generally written in response to a
question. You are expected to present a point of view (expressed in a
thesis statement) that is informed by research. Your aim is to develop
a support argument for the thesis you propose.
Different disciplines within the university may require
different styles and approaches to essay writing. Make sure that you
ascertain what approach is required by your faculty/school. You can do
this by reading all associated faculty information/guides or by
discussing this with your lecturer or tutor.
There are no foolproof recipes for producing a quality
assignment. Each student will employ an individual approach to essay
writing; however, what follows is an outline of the fundamental steps
involved in the essay writing process.
1 Choosing a topic
Carefully consider the following:
- Which topic interests you most?
- Which topic has ample and quality resources?
- Which topic has most relevance to you
personally and professionally?
- Given your current circumstances, which topic
might be easiest for you to handle?
2 Analysing the question
A clear understanding of what you are expected to do is
crucial to writing a quality assignment. Make sure you understand what
issue/problem has to be addressed. Analyse the wording of the question
carefully to gain an understanding of what is being asked. There are
three aspects of the question to consider:
- instructional/operational/directive/task words
- content/information key words
- delimiting words.
Be mindful of exactly what process is required. Following is a
table of commonly used directions:
examine in parts, show how the parts contribute to the whole
||present a case
for and/or against
||decide the value
of, judge, measure the importance of
||discuss two or
more things in terms of their similarities and differences
for and against something, assessing all evidence. Decide which
opinions, theories, models or items are preferable.
full meaning(s), make clear what is meant by, use definition/s to
explore the concept of
||give a detailed
account of the features of something without interpreting the
||present and give
a judgement on the value of arguments for and against, consider all
||bring out the
differences between two possibly confusable items
account, such as all the steps in a process
in terms of impact/significance, and investigate the implications
||make clear the
details/meaning of, look in particular at reasons causes and effects,
account for, give reasons, justify
detail, and note impact
||use examples to
show a concept
specific areas (similar to illustrate)
||make clear the
meaning of, consider implications
saying what happened, telling a story
features, a broad but thorough account, identify briefly the main
||show by logical
similarities and connections between two or more things
features, criticise generally (important parts)
|to what extent
||consider how far
something is true or not true, consider how far something contributes
to a final outcome
describe the development or history of
Cottrell, S 1999, The study skills handbook, MacMillan
Marshall, L & Rowland, F 1993, A guide to learning
independently, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne.
Open Learning Network 1992, Writing and reading in
tertiary education: study guide,
Content/information key words
These words indicate the areas on which the essay will focus.
Use these key content words to guide your research.
Be mindful of words that limit:
- your research to a particular place, time or
- the word length of the essay
- the scope of information that is required and
the resources you use and
- the time for the essay.
An example of analysing a model question follows.
of a model topic
|Question: Discuss the
impact of tertiary study on mature aged students.
||impact of tertiary study/mature aged
||tertiary studies/mature aged students
NOTE: In tertiary studies, sometimes questions are
posed to test your ability to interpret the set question and develop
your own topic. This involves narrowing the topic to make it more
specific and manageable. After checking with your lecturer that you can
narrow the topic, make sure you make your interpretation of the
question explicit in your introduction. In a case such as this, a
sentence of intent will be required. In this sentence you must address
how you have limited your topic.
3 Constructing an initial outline plan
Construct an initial plan to guide your research. This plan
will be like a road map for what you read and note.
- Decide the general aspects of the question
around which you'll concentrate your research.
- Ask yourself questions: who, what, when,
how, what if… around these general aspects you have selected.
|Topic: Discuss the impact of
tertiary study on mature aged students.
Introduction: approximately 10% of total words
- What you interpret tertiary studies and
mature aged to mean.
- A general (thesis) statement about type
and size of the impact or effect of tertiary study on mature aged
- A statement of intent to include an
outline of the areas you'll consider in assessing the impact.
For example, this essay will consider the financial, social and family
impacts of tertiary studies on mature aged students.
Body: approximately 80% of the total words
Organise your body paragraphs to include a main idea, which is
then proven, developed or illustrated by support evidence.
- loss of income
home budget constraints
- childcare costs
- loss of former peer group
- fewer social opportunities outside university
- social events within the university
- fewer opportunities for family time
- change in household duties
- more rigid family routine
Conclusion: approximately 10% of total words
- a restatement of your thesis about the type
and size of the impacts of tertiary studies on mature aged students
- a comment on consequences and implications for
life after university.
4 Locating and evaluating resources
- Use as many information sources as possible -
libraries, course reading lists, professional associations.
- Spend 5 - 10 minutes investigating each
resource — look at contents pages, indexes, abstracts (if they exist),
subheadings, diagrams, tables, graphs, introductions and conclusions.
- Decide which resources will be useful and then
prioritise your reading.
5 Researching/organising notes
- Read both widely and selectively to gain
an overall perspective of the topic.
- Use reading strategies (overviewing,
skimming, scanning) to streamline your research and gain an overall
understanding of the area as quickly as possible.
- Read with the topic in mind.
- Note-make (with your initial plan in
mind) under already selected headings.
- Add new headings if your research
suggests you should.
- Only record information and ideas that
are relevant to your question.
- Always remember to record all the
bibliographic details of the resources from which you note-take so that
you do not need to retrace resources in order to create your reference
list (you may find that you cannot find the resource the second time).
Methods of recording your research
Using individual cards
The card-indexing system is one effective method. Use separate cards or
pieces of paper to record: author's surname and initials, date, title,
publisher and place of publication, together with your notes from each
source. These can be shuffled under various headings to correspond with
Using note pages
Another method is to use loose sheets of paper. Record your notes on
one side and then your comments about these notes on the other. Use
headings at the top of each page that correspond with your plan.
Using the computer
Gather information under various headings, or in different files.
Material can be easily moved from one point to another as your essay
develops. Always ensure you make a back-up disk copy.
6 Constructing a final essay plan
- Return to your initial plan.
- Consider if and how you need to change it or
- Finalise the content, which will build your
- Consider what will be included in the
introduction, body and conclusion of your
7 Preparing the rough draft
1. Write the BODY of the essay first.
The body paragraphs lead your reader step by step through your
argument so that the final impression you give is a credible one.
Construct a paragraph on each main idea you want to communicate which
- a topic sentence for each paragraph (which is
usually placed first and always contains the main idea you wish to
- support information which expands on this main
2. Then write the INTRODUCTION to include:
- a brief background to the topic
- a thesis statement that shows your viewpoint
on the topic
- an outline of how you will support this point
- a definition of important terms.
3. Then write the CONCLUSION to include:
- a restatement of your thesis
- a summary of the main points/arguments
developed in the body
- the implications of the view/what might happen
as a result.
Style, grammar, spelling and presentation are not of major
importance at this stage. You are writing for yourself - to get your
ideas down on paper in a structural manner. Let the writing flow. 'Get
the ideas out'. Do not be restricted by considerations of technical
correctness - this can be considered in the final draft.
8 Redrafting and editing
- You may do several complete revisions
of your first draft to achieve the final draft. At this stage you are
preparing your work for submission so adopt the same critical attitude
as your reader.
- Read aloud to yourself and look for areas that
could be improved.
- Read aloud to a critical partner and genuinely
encourage constructive criticism.
- You may find it easier to edit by looking at
different aspects of the essay at each redrafting.
Carefully check that:
- You have clearly answered the question,
adequately covered all essential material and avoided irrelevant
- You have a clear, logical structure with all
- the introduction is clear and effective
- the body comprises paragraphs, each of which contain
ideas that support your thesis statement
- the conclusion is clear and effective.
- All ideas are properly cited/referenced in the
text of your essay as required by the lecturer.
- A reference list is included which is in the
referencing style required by the lecturer.
- Spelling, grammar, sentence structure and
punctuation are correct.
- You have used unambiguous language and
avoided discriminatory language.
- Your writing style is clear and simple.
Remember: Your reader is interested in how successful
you have been at interpreting researched works and using the ideas to
construct your own sentences NOT how you can extract key
expressions/phrases from other writers' work and then add extra words
to create your sentences. The essay MUST be your work!
9 Preparing the final draft
If possible, wait a day or so before re-writing so that you
will approach the final draft refreshed.
Unless indicated otherwise by the lecturer, your work should
be word-processed. Check that the physical presentation of the essay
meets the requirements set down by your lecturer.
This checklist is for your self-evaluation before you submit
your assignment. It is important for you to critically appraise your
work or proofread in light of the following questions in the checklist.
The assignment preparation checklist