Friday, 9 March 2012

Improving your essay writing skills

As a librarian, I am often called upon to teach students research skills.  In an attempt to broaden my perspective on study skills more generally, I have been attending some of the Learning and Study Skills workshops, the latest of which was ‘Improving your essay writing skills.’  Writing good essays is a skill which takes a long time to develop, however there are some simple tips which can help you now.  I will briefly outline these below.

1. Understand the process

Your final goal is to hand the essay in on time, but before this happens there are a number of steps you have to go through – and preferably not in the evening before the hand-in date.

(i)    Make sure you understand the essay title.  Read the 'questions' section in Andy Gillet’s ‘Using English for Academic Purposes [Writing]' website.  This explains the meaning of commonly used words in essay questions.  For subject-specific terms use a subject-specific dictionary, encyclopedia or try CREDOreference (via Library Search).

(ii)    Do some research.  This means going to the library or using some of our online resources, selecting resources, and reading them.  Read the material in order to understand the topic, not just to find a few choice quotations.  Move from basic sources to complex ones rather than the other way around.

(iii)    Plan what you are going to write.  Use brainstorming, jot down headings, write down your ideas and select quotations that you might use. You will probably want to do some of this while you are doing the research.

(iv)    Write a first draft.  Manchester University’s ‘Phrasebank’ may help by suggesting commonly used forms of words.

(v)    Proofread your first draft. It is often a good idea to leave it for a couple of days before you do this.

(vi)    Re-write/modify

2. Get the introduction right

A good introduction will tell your reader clearly what you are writing about, and how you are tackling that particular topic.  It will probably comprise between 5-10% of your total essay, and you should try to include some of the following (suggested by McCormack & Slaght, 2005):

  • Introduction to the topic
  • Background information
  • Definition of key terms (if necessary)
  • Thesis statement (your argument)
  • Writer’s purpose
  • Outline of structure
As with all writing, don't try too hard to sound clever.  Try to imagine that you are introducing your topic to an informed and intelligent friend. 

3. Basic features of a conclusion

While the introduction sets out for the reader where you are going, the conclusion reminds them where they have been.  It may also be a good place to suggest where they may go in the future.  Try to include some of the following (suggested by McCormack & Slaght, 2005) and keep it to  5-10% of your total word count.
  • A brief summary of the main points
  • Logical conclusions
  • Comments on these ideas
  • Predictions (optional)
  • Limitations of the work (optional)
  • Mention of further research required (optional)

I have summarised the main points covered in the session I attended – the process, introductions and conclusions.  Even though I have a couple of degrees under my belt and one or two professional qualifications, I found them useful and I hope you do to.  This isn’t the last word on writing essays, however; and we haven’t looked at writing the main body of the text.  If you want to explore the topic further you could try some of the resources below.


Academic Phrasebank [University of Manchester]

McCormack, J. & Slaght (2005).  Extended writing & researching skills.  Garnet Education: Reading.

Learning and Study Skills Support [University of Westminster] (helpsheets, workshops, one-to-ones).

UEfAP: Academic Writing

Further reading

Study Skills – intro [selected study skills resources]