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Writing essays

Your ability to write essays will dramatically affect your performance at university level. You need to be able to write an essay well. Good essay writing is not a skill you are born with, but it is a skill you can learn.

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Book: Writing essays
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Date: Monday, 25 June 2018, 8:33 PM

Writing essays

Writing essays

To succeed at writing essays you need to know how to resourceanalyse the question and plan the structure. This book looks at how you can approach your essay planning and writing successfully.

Watch this video of a student emphasising how important it is to read widely:

Watch this video of a student talking about the the importance of using relevant quotations:

The difference between essays & reports

Usually your tutor will decide what form your writing should take and will lay it out in the assessment criteria. However, the further you go into your academic career, the more freedom of choice you will have. This means that you need to engage more in the decision of what is the most appropriate form of writing.

For your university life, and for your working life beyond, it’s important to be able to distinguish between a report and an essay, and to be able to understand why you might write one rather than the other.

    When choosing to write a report or an essay for your assignment you should understand these key differences:


    Reports are the presentation and analysis of findings from practical research. They begin with an aim (to investigate, to explore) and probably a hypothesis (a proposition that the research will test). Depending on the guidelines or purpose, a report may make recommendations.

    Essays begin with a question and seek to answer that question based on research into existing theories and through the writer’s own evaluation. An essay may include results of practical research but only in so far as it may help support the writer’s conclusions.


    Reports are generally descriptive, reporting sequential events (experiments or fixed results from surveys etc). However, they involve an evaluation in either the conclusion or recommendations sections.

    Essays can be descriptive, discursive, evaluative, etc. This is dependent on the process given in the essay question. Content usually involves a synthesis of knowledge gained from existing texts and from the author's own opinions and argument.


    Both essays and reports use an introduction and conclusion format. The main content, findings, analysis etc. come inbetween.

    A report generally has a  fixed structure. The choice of sections will depend on the purpose of your report and, while at uni, the preferences of your tutor or department.

    In an essay, the thought process taken from the question dictates the structure of the main body of an essay.

    Differences between reports and essays (PDF opens in new window)

    Getting started with essay writing

    Listen to these students' approaches to writing essays




    1. resourceAnalyse the question
    The key to analysing the question is to:

    • identify the PROCESS -check out the process word used in the essay question, topic or title e.g. Discuss, Explain, Evaluate, Justify
    • identify the TOPIC - the main idea, concept or phenomenon you will write about e.g: Compare and contrast two equipment testing techniques ...Describe the development of HTML ...Discuss British Imperialism in South Asia
    • identify the LIMITS - if your question is:‘Discuss British Imperialism in the South Asia up to World War II.’, don't write about anything after World War II. That’s your limit.

    Example question:
    Evaluate James Smith’s essay writing strategies in the context of the British university system.’

    Key questions:

    • What’s the process?
    • What’s the topic?
    • And what are the limits?


    • Your process is to evaluate.
    • The topic is essay writing strategies, specifically those put forward by ‘William Doig’.
    • Your limits are to evaluate the effectiveness of essay writing strategies within the ‘British university system’ only. It would be a waste of time to refer to school systems or education in any other country.

    2. Check the marking criteria

    Ask your lecturer or tutor for a set of marking criteria that shows how marks are awarded for your paper and what your tutor is looking for.The criteria may give you a way to kick-start your writing.

    Ask your tutor for essay writing guidelines as well. Your school should have a description of their expected standard format for essays. For example, what font size should you use; do you need a cover page?


    Practice analysing questions with past exam papers available from your Unit Resources on MyCourse.

    Understanding essay questions

    Writing academicallyTo understand an essay question

    • Identify the key words in the question
    • Understand process words
    • Recognise the topic of the question
    • Recognise the limits of the question
    • Play the resourceAnalyse the question (interactive game) below

    To choose a topic:

    • Pick a topic that suits you
    • Write an effective title.
    Use the assessment criteria to ensure you are focused on the task. Try rewriting the criteria to help you understand what you are being assessed on. Keep referring back to the question set.
    Watch this video for a student's perspective on how useful assessment criteria can be:

    Identify key words & process words

    The ‘key words’ in an essay question allow you to identify what you are supposed to write about. Use the strategies below to break questions down in to manageable chunks.

    Introductory question or statement

    Example 1

    Full question: “What is meant by shock advertising? Evaluate the arguments for and against the use of shock advertising by marketers.”
    Extract the basic question:
    Evaluate the arguments for and against the use of shock advertising by marketers.”
    Remaining words introduce the topic and give focus. They are not key to the question.

    Example 2 

    Full question: “Popular magazines for men and women are selfish, superficial and obsessed with sex. Discuss, making reference to at least one magazine.”
    Extract the basic question:
    “Discuss, making reference to at least one magazine.”
    The process word ‘discuss’ refers back to the topic in the initial statement.
    The initial statement is vital to understanding the question in this case.
    Possible actions: Take out the introductory/initial question or statement to see what effect it has on your question.
    If the question feels like it has missing information, look for what is missing in the initial statement.

    Example 3 - Identify the meaning words

    Question: "What is meant by shock advertising? Evaluate the arguments for and against the use of shock advertising by marketers."
    Analysis: The initial question is struck out because it is not vital to understanding the essay question.
    Green indicates the process word (in this case 'Evaluate'). This tells you how to approach the paper.
    The words in blue carry all the meaning. Work out their significance. Use your knowledge of the subject to help you do that.


    'Arguments’ carries the same meaning as ‘for and against’ so it doesn’t add anything further to the question.

    The concept of ‘use’ is implied by the topic ‘shock advertising’. Check whether you need to distinguish ‘use’ from ‘concept’, as this could be a key word as well.

    Examples of essay titles (Word doc)

    Understanding process words

    The process word tells you what structure your essay will take: linear, two sided, argumentative?

    Remember to:

    • Pick out the verb in the question – the word that tells you what to do in the paper
    • Understand what that word means (download our list of process words below)
    • Structure your essay around that word

    Go to chapter on 'Structuring your essay' to help you structure your essay based on the process word.

    List of process words and their meanings (word doc)

    Recognise the topic of the question

    The topic is the main idea, concept or process:

    "Compare and contrast two equipment testing techniques ...”

    “Describe the development of HTML ...”

    “Discuss British Imperialism in South Asia ...”

    Look out for certain kinds of words:

    • Names of people;
    • Names of places;
    • Names of theories;
    • Names of processes;
    • Scientific terms;
    • Mathematical terms;
    • Specific terms related to your subject.

    How to recognise topics:

    • Know your area;
    • Go back to your lecture notes;
    • Ask your classmates;
    • Use your reading list;
    • Use your myCourse module;
    • Use your course outline.

      Recognise the limits of the question

      Limits provide the key to a focussed and manageable paper. Look for obvious instructions that set limits.

      For example:
      ...any two examples of...

      ...within the last ten years... the 20th Century...
      ...with reference to...

      Important little words include:

      • 'Any' -indicates there must be several available for you to choose from.For example: ‘Describe any two processes...’, suggests there must be more than two processes available to describe. You have to choose which two to write about.
      • 'Or'- gives you a choice. For example: Evaluate one method of preventing illness or one method of preventing injury' gives you a choice between illness or injury – you must not write about both.
      • 'And' -presents the opposite – you must write about both.For example:Evaluate one method of preventing illness and one method of preventing injury’ asks you to write about both illness and injury.

      Once you understand your question

      Step 1: Ask yourself questions about the topic

      What do you not understand? What controversies are there? What issues need discussing?

      Throughout your research and reading, keep asking questions. You will find the answers in other people’s ideas and your own evaluation of them.

      Example Question: 'Discuss British Imperialism in the South Asia up to World War II.'

      Compile a list of questions for investigation such as:

      • What was the British Empire in South Asia prior to WWII?
      • What negative impact did this imperialism have in the region?
      • What positive impact did this imperialism have?
      • Were there noticeable differences in impact in different countries or areas?
      • For how long prior to WWII was there a British Empire in this region?
      • Are there any more specific time periods that would be better to focus on in terms of the impact of imperialism in this region?

      Where can you find the answers? In your lecture notes? In particular books?

      Step 2: Decide on a thesis statement

      Form a thesis statement if your essay topic is two-sided, discursive, or argumentative, – a thesis statement is your own preferred opinion or position on the argument. You do not have to stay with this decision, but it will help give you focus in your reading.

      Develop your own argument through a process like this:

      Example Question: 'Evaluate James Smith’s essay writing strategies in the context of the British university system.'

      • The question asks you to evaluate - are these 'writing strategies' useful or not?
      • pick out a thesis statement:
      Position 1: Smith’s strategies allow for an elementary or Level 0 process for essay writing, but are not sufficient for the full academic standard required for success in British university assessment up to Level 3.

      Position 2: Smith’s strategies allow a university student to start develop writing processes that allow them to write at the standard required for success in a British university.


      Be prepared to change your opinion and thesis statement if your research leads you to believe otherwise.

      Choosing an essay topic

      Pick a topic that suits you

      • Research around your interest to create a precise and limited topic.
      • Don't be overly ambitious.
      • Identify a gap in the existing knowledge.
      • Don’t be shy about focussing on a topic interesting to your tutor; it can only be beneficial to write about something that will engage them.

      Ask yourself:

      • What has come up during your course work that sparked your interest?
      • What have you heard or read about that grabs your attention?
      Talk to your tutor/department
      • Get your tutor’s advice on what is interesting, what you can do well
      • Talk to other students about their interests
      • Find out if you can have a look at old essays or dissertations

      Go to the library

      • Read research journals
      • Take a look at the questions in past exam papers
      • Seek out any lists of theses titles accepted for higher degrees at various universities

      Know how to write an effective title

      1) Decide which kind of essay you are going to write

      Choose the process word you use in your essay title carefully. Is it descriptive, critical, evaluative?

      • When presenting information about a single subject in a linear structure you could use: ‘describe’, ‘explain’, ‘outline’
      • When showing two sides of a subject you could use: ‘compare’, ‘contrast’, ‘consider arguments for and against’, ‘differentiate between’
      • When developing an argument around a particular topic you could use: ‘evaluate’, ‘argue’, ‘justify’, ‘criticise’.

      2) Mind-map ideas related to the main theme

      Mind-mapping helps you find a selection of topics from which you can pick out an idea that:

      • interests you;
      • is broad enough to write a paper on;
      • is restrictive enough to be controllable.

      3) State your topic clearly

      Use a simple noun phrase to state the topic clearly.

      Example 1: “What is meant by shock advertising? Evaluate the arguments for and against the use of shock advertising by marketers.”
      Question analysis: No ambiguity: the topic is ‘shock advertising’.

      Example 2: “Critically analyse the major areas of risk in general contracting and construction management.”
      Question analysis:
      Not quite so succinct: pick out ‘contracting and construction management’ as the topic.

      4) Set your limits carefully

      Ask yourself ‘How much can I write about this topic?’

      Example 1- Original essay question: “Critically analyse all major areas of risk in general contracting and construction management.”
      Adapted in order to restrict your scope: “Critically analyse two major areas of risk in general contracting and construction management.”

      Example 2- Either: “Account for the emergence of ‘Left Realism’ during the 20th Century.”
      :“Account for the emergence of ‘Left Realism’ in the 1980’s.”

      The two questions have different limits. Provide yourself with broad enough limits in order to have sufficient depth.

      5) Write your title in the correct format

      The purpose of any essay or dissertation title is to help you examine a topic that will engage the reader and understand your points.Your title can consist of :

      • an introductory question
      • a statement
      • an instruction

      Example 1: Titles showing an introductory question or statement providing focus or supporting information.“What is meant by shock advertising? Evaluate the arguments for and against the use of shock advertising by marketers.”

      “Shock advertising has become much more prevalent in the last two decades. Evaluate the arguments for and against the use of shock advertising by marketers.”

      Example 2: Title showing an instruction. “Critically analyse the major areas of risk in general contracting and construction management.”

      Structuring your essay

      The basic five-part essay structure

      Once you have the basic structure of your essay, fill in the gaps.

      Structuring your essay


      The introduction should:

      • Give the background to the topic
      • Outline the aims of the paper ('This paper is going to examine...')

      The introduction may also:

      • Give a strong relevant quote
      • Define key terms
      Example introductions (PDF opens in new window)

      The Main Body

      • The Main Body expands on all the topics mentioned in your introduction;
      • The Main Body brings together information you have gathered from sources during your research;
      • The Main Body develops your argument in a logical structure.
      Essay Structure Key Points (PDF opens in new window)

      What logical structure should you apply to your essay?
      The process word in your essay question should show you this.

      • If the process is to describe: your paper is likely to be linear. 
      • If your process is to compare: use a two-sided structure.
      Process words and their definitions (PDF opens in new window)


      The conclusion always:

      • Summarises main points in the essay
      • Draws together ideas in a meaningful way

      The conclusion may also:

      • Suggest further reading
      • Give a concluding statement
      • Pose a further question
      Examples of conclusions (PDF opens in new window)

      Topic Sentences

      The topic sentence will often be the first sentence in the paragraph.Sometimes it may come further into the paragraph. For example, a sentence linking to the previous paragraph or an introductory sentence could be used first.

      • Linking phrases can be helpful to show how your paragraph fits in with the rest.
      • Other sentences, before or after the topic sentence, must relate to and support the idea stated in the topic sentence.
      • To offer a new idea: start a new paragraph

      Tutor requirements

      A standard academic essay includes the following:

      • Cover page
      • Title
      • Introduction
      • Main body (discussion)
      • Conclusion
      • Reference list or Bibliography

       Use the list below to check whether you need any extra components in your essay:

      • Contents page?
      • Illustrations or tables?
      • A list of illustrations or tables?
      • Appendices?
      • Index?
      • Glossary?

      Check the course’s marking criteria or unit guide to see if your tutor wants you to put in other components.

      Linear essays

      A linear structure goes from one point to the next in a chosen sequence.You could group ideas in order of importance of topic or chronologically.

      Linnear essay flowchart

      Most essays require you to evaluate and show off your bookcritical thinking for which a linear essay structure would not be appropriate. You might use a linear structure more for sections in an academic report, e.g. when you are asked to describe a process or set of results.

      Annotated example of a Linear essay (PDF opens in new window)

      Two-sided essays

      If you are asked to compare, contrast or differentiate two items, use a two-sided approach. However, this structure can be limited. It suggests equality between the two but doesn't allow for weighing more in favour of one side of the argument.

      Two sided essay flowchart

      Most uni-level essays want you to evaluate by forming an opinion and supporting it, not to describe.

      Example of a two-sided essay (PDF opens in new window)

      Argumentative essays

      When you argue you lead towards your own opinion or conclusion. The balance of the two-sides will weigh in favour of your argument.

      Argumentative essay flowchart

      Example of an argumentative essay (PDF opens in new window)

      SPSE (Situation Problem Solutions Evaluation) essays

      Use this approach when you are asked to look at a problem and suggest solutions to it.

      SPSE essay flowchart

      Situation - gives the reader some background, so they can place the problem.

      Evaluate - evaluate solutions rather than simply state them.

      Example of a SPSE essay (PDF opens in new window)

      Formatting & presenting your essay

      Ask your tutor for criteria on how your essay should look. Familiarise yourself with your tutor’s expectations and make an effort to meet them.

      Formatting and fonts

      • Font -the standard font for Southampton Solent University is Trebuchet MS.
      • Spacing -set your line spacing to 1.5 lines.
      • Indents or breaks -it is current standard to leave a space of one line between paragraphs, rather than indenting the first line. A good way to do this is to set your spacing at 12pt after a line.
      • Section headings -left aligned, bold and numbered. The numbering should be the same as given in your contents page. Be consistent in your numbering of headings and sub-headings.
      • Title- at the top, centrally aligned.

      Cover page

      Include the following items on your cover page:

      • Your student number
      • Your tutor's name
      • Your university
      • Your department
      • Your school
      • Title of the module the essay is for
      • Number of credits awarded for the essay
      • Module/essay level
      • The number of words in your paper

      The list above is based on a standard Solent University format. Notice that you should put your student number, not your name on the cover page. The word count should be the number of words set in your paper, not the exact number of words that you have written.

      Most of your written work will be submitted online using Turnitin. You must use the electronic cover sheet. Get a copy of this from your Unit page, or visit succeed @ online submission.

      First page

      Include the following on your first page:

      • Your essay title/question
      • The introduction to your essay
      • Page numbers- helps the reader negotiate your essay
      • Your student number in the footer – check with your tutor first.
      Example of a First Page (PDF opens in new window)


      See the chapter on 'structuring your essay'.

      Main Body

      See the chapter on 'structuring your essay'.


      See the chapter on 'structuring your essay'.

      Reference List

      A reference list is a list of books, web-pages, articles and any other sources used and referred to in your essay. This is put at the end of your essay.


      Anything that is not your original material must be given a reference. You must give a citation in the bibliography and a reference in the text if you use a picture from another source, copy an illustration, photo, graph or table.

      Illustration Reference example (PDF opens in new window)
      Only use pictures in the text where they are relevant and add something to your argument, just like quotations or other references. Make sure that the picture is referred to within the text of your essay.

      Remember to put a title on your picture as well – something descriptive that tells us exactly what it is.
      • Text wrapping

      To make the picture sit nicely in your Word document, change the text-wrapping to ‘In line with text’.

      • List of illustrations:

      If needed, include a ‘List of illustrations’ after the contents page, and before the first page of the essay.

      List of Illustrations (PDF opens in new window)
      When submitting any written work via Turnitin add an electronic cover sheet to your assignment. Get a copy of this from your Unit page, or visit succeed @ online submission.
      Summary-What an essay should look like (PDF opens in new window)
      Example essay (PDF opens in new window)
      Essay template (Word doc)

      Essay writing case study

      Essay tutorial 1

      Follow the steps below to read and grade Stuart's essay yourself against the marking criteria set by his tutor, and to view his tutorial.

      See if you agree with his tutor!

      Step 1 - Download Stuart's essay here:

      Stuart's essay (PDF opens in new window)

      Step 2 - Marking criteria

      Note which of the following marking criteria Stuart met successfully:

      • Is it clear and easy to read?
      • Is the language used appropriately academic?
      • Does the writing show planning and structure?
      • Is the writing edited properly?
      • Does the writing use paragraphs that each deal with one main idea?
      • Do all of the ideas flow easily, using connecting phrases?
      • Are there quotations and paraphrases from other sources (using correct references)?
      • Is the writing formatted so that it looks like an essay?
      • Does the paper have a clear introduction and conclusion as well as a main body?
      • Is there a clearly presented cover page?
      • Is there a list of references at the end of the paper?

      What grade would you give this essay?

      Step 3 - View the video where the tutor is giving Stuart feedback on his first essay.


      Were you right?
      Have you made any notes based on Stuart's feedback?

      Essay Tutorial 2

      Make sure you have read Stuart's second essay, have had a go at marking it and have watched his feedback before watching the video of Stuart's second lot of feedback from his tutor

      Step 1:

      Stuart's second attempt (PDF opens in new window)

      Step 2: View the video where the tutor is giving Stuart feedback on his second essay


      Essay writing checklist

      ChecklistIf you want to get better grades for your essay, do these things:

      • Really get to grips with your essay brief and marking criteria
      • Find a good way to get started on your essay
      • Use a process that will the make the essay easier to write
      • Get a good style of writing
      • Make sure your essay has a clear structure
      • Be absolutely sure you are writing the right type of essay
      • Use proper references and a reference list
      Essay Writing Summary Leaflet (PDF opens in new window)

      Avoiding plagiarism

      Plagiarism is taking the words, theories, creations or ideas of another person and passing them off as your own.

      Plagiarism can be deliberate – copying a passage from a book or journal or pasting something from the internet into an assignment without referencing the original source.

      You can also commit inadvertent plagiarism which is where you unintentionally repeat some of the information you have read in the course of your research. You must ensure you do reference ALL material that comes from another source so question yourself as to whether you have read the information elsewhere and go back to your sources to locate the reference.

      Plagiarism can also result from not referencing correctly. You must ensure you know how to reference your work using the style advised by your tutor.

      Watch this video to find out more about avoiding plagiarism:



      Plagiarism is a serious issue that can result in failing an assignment, failing the year or even having to leave the course. All forms of plagiarism will be taken seriously - deliberate or not!

      Plagiarism is a form of academic misconduct. Southampton Solent University has clear guidelines on student academic conduct and procedures for dealing with academic misconduct. Make sure you are familiar with these by looking at the links on this webpage:

      Student academic misconduct (Weblink opens in new window)

      To avoid plagiarism, make sure you include references within your assignment to all sources you use and then include full details of all the sources in a reference list at the end of your work.

      To find out more, download the Avoiding plagiarism summary below.

      Avoiding plagiarism summary leaflet (PDF opens in new window)

      Test your understanding of what plagiarism is by clicking on the links below.

      More help

      If you'd like some more help with Writing essays you can:

      • Ask your lecturer for guidance.
      • Email us at
      • If you are a disabled student you can also contact Access Solent for guidance and support.
      • View the glossary to help you understand the words used.
      • Read a book or ebook from the reading list found in Extra resources.
      • Visit recommended websites in Extra resources for further guidance on Writing essays.

      If you have any feedback about this book or additional material you'd like to see in the course, please email us at

      Thank you to all staff and students at Southampton Solent University who contributed to this course.

      Extra resources

      Reading List

      Read a book or ebook from the Writing Essays reading list.

      The following titles are available from the library:

      Subject specific books or ebooks

      Recommended websites

      Click on these recommended websites below for further guidance on Writing Essays.

      BBC Adult learning : learning online learning, support and advice (Opens in new window)

      A useful site with tips for adult learners. It includes advice on improving study skills, courses and support.

      University of Bolton interactive study skills tutorial (Opens in new window)

      Provides a range of study skills tutorials to improve study techniques. Tutorials cover information skills, computer skills, bookresearch skills such as bookliterature reviews and dissertations and study skills such as note taking and report and essay writing.

      Online courses from the Open University (Opens in new window)


      Documents used in this resource

      Annotated example of a Linear essay (PDF opens in new window)
      Differences between reports and essays (PDF opens in new window)
      Essay structure key points (PDF opens in new window)
      Essay template (Word doc)
      Essay writing summary leaflet (PDF opens in new window)
      Example essay (Word doc)
      Example of argumentative essays (PDF opens in new window)
      Examples of conclusions (PDF opens in new window)
      Examples of essay titles (Word doc)
      Example of first pages (PDF opens in new window)
      Example introductions (PDF opens in new window)
      Example of SPSE essays (PDF opens in new window)
      Example of two-sided essays (PDF opens in new window)
      Illustration reference example (PDF opens in new window)
      List of illustrations (PDF opens in new window)
      List of process words and their meanings (PDF opens in new window)
      Process words and their definitions (PDF opens in new window)
      Stuart's essay (PDF opens in new window)
      Stuart's second attempt (PDF opens in new window)
      What an essay should look like (PDF opens in new window)