Friday, 10 January 2020

One simple rule for essay writing

There is plenty of good essay writing advice out there.

However, I was thinking today how frustrating it was that some very capable students do badly in essays. In some cases intelligent and diligent students fail for wholly avoidable reasons.

My 'one simple rule' advice is to focus on the question.

Throughout the process, students should keep the essay question in the back (and often the front) of their mind. There are two aspects to this:

1. Interpret the question carefully.

There may be several ways to interpret a question, and there will always be several ways to answer it (often "yes", "no" and "it depends").

Look at the syllabus and course materials; the essay is an opportunity to show your understanding of the material covered on your course. Think about which of those readings or topics are relevant to the question and why.

The most impressive essays show understanding that there are different ways to answer the question, and explain why the answer they have chosen is better than the alternatives.

2. Avoid diversions from answering the question.

When planning and writing the essay, make sure you are always working towards answering the question.

As an undergraduate myself I was prone to go off on diversions where something interested me, or to share my thoughts on some related topic. These diversions are best put to one side, perhaps for a future essay or your own interest. You could even write them up into a blog!

I don't mean to say you should be very simplistic in answering the question. You will need to consider rival views and explain why those positions that deny your view are wrong.


There are important conventions to follow when structuring and writing essays, which are of course very important. However, if you haven't responded to the essay question then it can be very hard for the marker to give you any credit, however good your essay is in other ways.

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