• Jane

How to write a (really) good essay

I don’t know how to fix a punctured bike tyre, change a gas bottle or jump-start a car. However, I can write a pretty good essay.


People severely underestimate the importance of good writing. If you can’t write well, no matter how intelligent you might be, you’ll find yourself significantly disadvantaged both at university and in the workplace. If writing essays isn’t your strong point, do not fret. Essay writing is a skill that can be learnt.


The plan

Before you get going, make a plan. Once you’ve decided on your essay topic/question and have done some initial research (see point 5 for more information), open Word, place the question at the top of the page, and begin your essay setup. If the word count is 2000, split up how many approximate words you’ll need in each paragraph.


Example

Introduction [200-250], Background Paragraph [250], Point 1 [350], Point 2 [350], Point 3 [350], Point 4 [350], Conclusion [150]


After you have worked out your word count, use each of these points as a subtitle, and jot down 2-3 dot points of what you want to say in each paragraph. Make sure your arguments are ordered in a logical way, as this will make it easier to link paragraphs in the topic and concluding sentences.


Example


Point 1: Decolonisation of Africa

  • Suez Crisis

  • French/Algerian War

  • Rise of independence movements

Since you now have an overview of what each paragraph will say, researching will become much more efficient as you know exactly what kind of information you’re looking for.


The introduction

The introduction is by far the most important paragraph of an essay. If the introduction is shit, chances are the rest of the essay will probably be shit too. After reading the introduction, the reader should know the main point of each of your following paragraphs (in order). The introduction is a summary of what is to come, so don’t leave any surprises.


Depending on word count requirements, start with 2-3 background sentences of the essay topic to bring some context. Then, clearly signpost your argument. There’s nothing wrong with simply stating, “this paper will cover...” or “it will be argued that...” After outlining the main point of each of your following paragraphs, end the introduction with your thesis statement. If you use this formula, you really can’t go wrong!

The thesis statement

You MUST have a thesis statement. It is the backbone of the entire essay and will guide each of your arguments. Without a thesis, your essay has no purpose.


So, what is a thesis statement? It’s simply the answer to your essay question. Every argument you make in the essay is proof that your thesis is correct. If you can ace the thesis, your chances of a good grade increase considerably.


Example


Essay Question: Did the second half of the twentieth century see an end of empire?

Thesis: The second half of the twentieth century witnessed an end of empire with the rapid decline of European colonial powers, the decolonisation of the African continent, and the collapse of the Soviet Union.


This thesis statement answers the question and explains the reasoning (in brief terms, of course, which will be expanded further in the essay).

Writing your content paragraphs

Each paragraph should follow the TEEC structure. Topic sentence: A general statement to provide some context. Do not say, “This paragraph will discuss ___” Expand: Provide some more detail and background to the point you’re trying to make. Explain: Explain your point further. Conclude: Signpost your thesis and link to the following paragraph.

Research

So, now you know how to structure an essay... We now need to find what to put in it. In university-level essays, I would recommend relying on academic sources only, making exceptions only where it is completely necessary. Bookmark your university's online library and use its search function to gather your research.


Every time you locate a source you think you might use, paste it into your reference list (it is SO much easier to write a reference list as you go, rather than wait until the end). If you’re not good at referencing. Well... get good at it. Open the style guide and learn - it’s not that hard. A good essay with a bad reference list can never get you a high distinction.


Don’t rely on a small number of sources. A longer reference list will show your marker that your essay is well-read and considers a variety of literature and perspectives.

Other general tips

  • Use correct grammar. Capitalise words that are supposed to be capitalised. I recently read a student’s policy proposal to the Minister about overrepresentation in the justice system, and they somehow forgot to capitalise ‘Aborginal and Torres Strait Islander.’ University criteria sheets always have an entire section dedicated to spelling and grammar. Why spend 20 hours writing an essay if you can’t bother to take 10 minutes to proofread. Help yourself, people!

  • Unless you’re a law student, don’t use footnote referencing. All this will do is piss off your marker, and this can only disadvantage you.

  • Don’t write extra-long sentences. If a sentence is more than two lines, figure out a way to break it up.

  • Unless you have been advised specifically by your teacher, never use headings in an essay. If you’ve structured your essay well and each paragraph links, then there is simply no need for a heading. Headings are for reports, not for essays.

  • Don’t use fancy words if you don’t really know what they mean. You will always score higher with clear, concise, and simple language.

  • Read your work out loud if you think it might be confusing.

  • Restate the essence of all arguments in the conclusion, and with a link to the thesis statement. By this point, there should be no doubt whatsoever as to what you’re arguing.

  • Don’t forget to write a title!


Good luck!