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Writing an essay

Essays do not have one fixed form or style, and finding your own preferred way of writing is an important part of developing your academic skills.

That said, there are some general guidelines which you should try to follow when writing your essays:

Use your own ideas
You will have a reading list from which to select critical studies as background for your essays. While these will, hopefully, be useful, try not to rely on the ideas and arguments of other writers as the keystones of your own writing. Your own opinions and insights about the text should be the cornerstone of your work.

Don't be personal!
That said, your essays should not be about a subjective response to texts. Although you might discuss in tutorials or classes whether you have enjoyed your reading, and how you reacted to it on a personal level, it is only your academic and critical responses which should be included in your essay.

Depending on your own past experience of writing, you may find that it is difficult, initially, to get a feel for essay writing. The critical reading you do each week should give you some sense of the kind of language which is appropriate for academic writing at this level. Your style should aim to be concise, clear and to-the-point, but without being colloquial or particularly literary or journalistic.

Reading the question
It is, of course, absolutely vital that you pay close attention to the terms of the question you are answering. Different kinds of question require different approaches. An question which asks you "to what extent" a statement is true needs some evaluation of the evidence which supports and opposes the statement, and an evaluation of which side of the evidence is stronger. A question which asks "how" a topic is presented or discussed needs a sense of the different approaches to that topic, and whether they form a coherent presentation of it. Essays that ask you to "discuss" a topic can be particularly difficult, as the temptation is simply to enumerate points of interest without analysing them. You should try to create an argument of your own here in order to structure your work.

Answering the question
Every part of your essay should relate back to the question. When you re-read your essay, you should check each paragraph to make sure that it has relevance to the question. Ask yourself how each paragraph advances your argument.

It is tempting to use an introduction to set out exactly what your argument will be. However, this can limit your writing, guiding it towards an already-fixed conclusion. Your introduction is better used to identify the chief issues raised by the essay question, and then to discuss the ways in which you will tackle those issues. "The question demands a consideration of...", "The issue of ... is central to this question", "In order to address this issue, it is necessary to consider...".

Your essay can only go so far if you discuss one side of an argument in isolation. While you may be relatively clear about your stance even before you start writing, you should still consider other sides of the question. Sometimes, of course, there is no one clear answer or argument, and that is absolutely fine. It can be worth asking yourself at the end of each paragraph you write whether what you have just written relates back to the question, as you will occasionally find that you veer away from the original point onto an interesting but unrelated tangent.

Supporting your argument
It is very important that what you say is supported by evidence - usually, this means providing a quotation from the text you are discussing in order to illustrate a point you have made. It may also, however, mean adding a reference to a critical or historical source. For example, the statement "Beowulf shows anxiety about the role of violence" needs a quotation drawn from the text to back it up. In contrast, "violence was institutionalised in Anglo-Saxon society" is a statement which demands historical evidence.

The conclusion is the place to summarise your argument. Again, if your essay has reached more than one conclusion, or you are unable to decide between different attitudes towards a question, the conclusion should reflect that. Don't try to make your material artificially whole if it doesn't want to be.

Essays must have a bibliography at the end. References within the essay can be made either in-line or as footnotes, whichever is more convenient for you.