What is an essay?

Why write essays?

The writing process

Some formal aspects of the academic essay

Improving as a writer


Exercises and examples



There are two ways of looking at this question. The first is purely pragmatic - you write essays because they are required, and they constitute the primary way in which you will be evaluated as a student at university. Lecturers and tutors use the essay (and other written assignments) as a way of assessing your mastery of the content of your courses as well as your familiarity with the kind of specialised language used in that discipline. Your success at university will depend very much on how successfully you complete your assignments.

The other way of thinking about the question "Why write essays?" centres more on your intellectual growth and development. One of the things you can reasonably expect to acquire at university is a set of skills. If you think of a skill as something that can only be learnt by doing, then you will quickly realise that in order to acquire the kind of writing skills expected of a university graduate, you will have to practise that kind of academic writing. Every essay and written assignment offers you the opportunity to practise and improve your academic writing skills.

Many students feel that the academic essay is boring and that it doesnít allow them any creative or unique self-expression. It is true that academic writing is very different from the essays or compositions written at school, and it is essential that students learn the "rules" for academic writing. Although not obviously "creative", the essay is not just an occasion for presenting the ideas of others, but an opportunity for you to "construct" your own response to the question and to the readings and lecture notes related to the topic.

In the section on Tutorials, we mentioned the idea of the "construction of knowledge"; similar ideas came up in the idea of active note-taking and interactive reading. This view of learning can also help you to view your essays and written assignments positively, instead of simply as a chore. All the ideas and theories that you read about and hear about in your lectures have been generated by humans, each of them affected by their own context (which will include the ideas and theories they have been exposed to, the time in which they lived and wrote, their geographical situation, their religion, their gender and other factors). When you are asked to analyse or critique or comment on these ideas, remember that they are not holy or absolute. You do not have to believe and accept everything you read or are told. Once you have understood them, you can, and should, question the ideas you read or hear about. If you do this responsibly and respectfully, you will be constructing your own ideas and your own arguments.

As you get used to writing academic essays, you will begin to see that writing about academic topics actually allows you to come to grips with all the conceptual and theoretical aspects of the topic in a very useful way. Writing often highlights contradictions and issues that could be ignored or vaguely explained away in a casual conversation. For many people, writing an essay helps them to shape an argument more forcefully and more coherently.

A positive, constructive approach to writing your essays must, of course, be accompanied by learning the structure and the formal aspects of the academic essay. This will help you to create your arguments and present your thoughts in a way that will be useful and acceptable to other readers and thinkers in your discipline. Your different academic departments will issue you with specific instructions on how to write essays appropriate to that discipline, but there are some general approaches that will be helpful in writing for any subject or course.

(Adapted from Stella Clark, Studying at University: A Guide for First Year Students, 1998. ã Academic Development Programme, UCT)



This is an idea about writing that is useful in dealing with most of the writing you will be asked to do at university. It might be more realistic to say that writing is a long process and includes many stages.

The first stage will always be understanding the question. This can take longer than expected at university, as it may involve re-reading some of your notes, or the recommended readings. You might need to consult your tutor or lecturer in order to clarify some of the terms or other aspects of the question that you donít understand. Part of understanding the question is always careful reading and analysis of the essay title. The title will indicate what general and specific areas of the subject should be included in the essay, and it might give you some idea of the kind of evidence that should be used. It will also tell you what you should be doing with this content. Should you be "identifying" causes of something, or should you be "demonstrating" how something happened? Should you simply give one side of the story, or should you be "comparing" two interpretations? Analysis of the essay title will reveal to you what activity you should be doing in your essay. Below is a list of possible "action words" commonly found in essay titles, and an explanation of what each word would require you to do.


Account for

provide reasons for something or show causes


find and describe the main ideas, show how they are related and why they are important


show both the similarities and differences, emphasising similarities


show differences by setting differing points in opposition to each other


give your judgement or opinion of something, supporting it with a reasoned argument. Remember that "criticise" in the academic sense doesnít necessarily mean to attack.


show by reasoned argument why a particular opinion, judgement or assertion is true.


This is the most widely used action word. It seems difficult because it is vague, but it is actually an opportunity for you to respond creatively to the question. What is generally required is a thorough exploration of the area/topic through argument and reflection showing your insight and grasp of the subject matter.


discuss advantages & disadvantages of a position, or the merits of an argument. Your own point of view is an essential part of this activity and should be made clear.


list and describe

Once you are sure you understand the question, you can move into the next phase, which is planning. This stage looks different for different people, but in general, it must include the gathering of information (from the required sources and any others you have available to you), thinking about how the information can be used to answer the question and the drawing up of a plan for how you think the information can best be arranged in the essay. Reading is a major part of this early stage in essay writing. Often it takes place in a cyclical sort of way: you might do the required readings, which might raise some questions in relation to the topic; then you might go to the library to do some extra reading or research before adding some ideas to your plan. As your plan gets more detailed, you might want to do a bit more reading, or re-read something you have already read. Some people also like to talk to friends about the topic, or discuss in their study groups or tutorials how they are thinking about the essay. This planning stage is absolutely crucial and should not be neglected. As you write more essays you will become more familiar with your own writing rhythms - some people spend a long time thinking and talking and reading before they ever put pen to paper, while others will begin sketching out plans on paper and do most of their thinking while they draw and re-draw their plan. Some people will come up with a carefully ordered numbered plan while others will be able to work from a mindmap full of arrows and circles. Whatever works for you, you will discover that it takes TIME! You cannot begin writing an essay the day before it is due to be handed in.

So far, the essay writing process may look familiar except for the fact that at high school you may have been required to produce an essay or composition overnight. You probably then handed it in to the teacher and waited for your mark to be returned to you, after which you moved on to the next section of the work. The writing process approach, however, is based on the way real, published authors go about their writing, and its most important principle is that the first piece of writing you do in response to the title or question is never the final one. Your first attempt (or draft, as it is called) should be read by someone who will then comment on it, or give you feedback. Sometimes tutors are willing to read and comment on first drafts, but very often students will ask a fellow student to read their first drafts. It is also a good idea to ask a consultant at the Writing Centre to read one of your drafts. This reading is not so much to point out spelling or grammar mistakes, but to comment on the logic, how well the information is arranged or how clear the meaning is. The comments made by the reader will often help you to see where your argument is illogical or unsupported by evidence.

Perhaps they will point out a contradiction, or a weakness in your essay that you hadnít recognised while you were writing. They might draw attention to a vital piece of information that you have left out. This leads you into the next phase which is re-writing to produce your second draft. Some people repeat the whole cycle, getting feedback and then writing a third draft.

The final stage in the writing process is the editing you will do before handing in your final draft. At this stage you will have settled all the questions about content and style and structure, and you read through simply to make sure that the spelling, punctuation, grammar and references are correct. It is sometimes more useful to get someone else to read it through for this edit, as it is very easy to miss your own mistakes.

Some students donít like the process writing approach, complaining that it is too time-consuming. It is time-consuming, but time is always a necessary ingredient in writing an essay that will result in a good mark for you, and also increase your writing skills. If you use a computer with a word-processing package to write your essays, the whole drafting and redrafting process becomes much less time-consuming, as changes can be made and text moved around without having to rewrite the whole essay every time. Some faculties at the university are beginning to require that essays are written using the computer, so it is worth spending the time to become "computer literate" as it will make the whole essay writing process easier and more efficient.

Another objection to the drafting-feedback-redrafting phase of writing is the fear of showing oneís writing to other students. Most of us are a little shy of having our writing read by our peers. This is because it seems so public, and if weíve misunderstood something, or written something down in a way that isnít appropriate, we may feel that our peers will think we are stupid. The solution is to ask someone you really trust, who will take you seriously, and not put you down for making a mistake. Sometimes the fear of sharing writing is based on the suspicion that your reader will "steal" your ideas or copy your essay. Once again the idea of getting someone trustworthy comes up, but also, remember that you have constructed your essay yourself by putting your understandings together in your own way, and no one can really steal that. Also, this is your first draft, and you will probably alter it and improve it before you hand it in. If trust is a big problem for you, try using the Writing Centre, where confidentiality is guaranteed.

Part of the process approach to writing is that we never stop learning from our writing. It is useful to remember this when you get your essays back. Many students turn straight to the page which bears the mark. If they see 72%, they feel elated and cram the essay into the back of a file, never to be seen again. If they see 50%, they feel disappointed, crumple up the pages, tossing them into the bin, never to be seen again. You will learn more if you read through your essay again, taking note of the comments made by the marker - otherwise how will you know which parts of your essay were correct or successful, and what aspects of it caused you to lose marks? If you donít understand the feedback given by your tutor or lecturer, ask them to explain it - this is where you can really clear up misunderstandings and learn a lot about writing in your discipline. Use the insight gained by writing one essay to help you write the next one.

(Adapted from Stella Clark, Studying at University: A Guide for First Year Students, 1998. ã Academic Development Programme, UCT)


Course guides, handbooks and departmental handouts will usually spell out the details of how that department expects students to write their essays and assignments. In fact, some are very detailed and helpful and it is worthwhile reading them carefully. The following list provides some very general definitions and guidelines about what your finished product should look like, whatever process you have used to produce it. It is still absolutely necessary for you to consult the guidelines provided by your departments, and to seek extra information from tutors and lecturers in the department about their expectations for your written work.


The introductory paragraph tells your reader what your essay is going to be about. It should refer to the title of the essay without merely restating it; you could think of this as the part of the introduction that contains the information given to you. It should also indicate what direction your argument will be taking, but this should be a general statement, not a detailed piece of your argument; you could think of this as the part of the introduction that contains the information that you will create. When you have finished writing your essay, you should re-read your introduction to make sure that you have in fact done what your introduction says you will be doing.


We are all familiar with this word in its everyday meaning of disagreement, fight or dispute. In academic writing, this word has a slightly different meaning. It is the logical arrangement of information, which can include facts, interpretations, theories, etc., so that a certain point can be proved or disproved, confirmed or brought into question. Your argument will always be in the main body of the essay, and will require your hardest, most creative thinking.


Every claim you make in your essay should be supported by evidence. If you want to write, "Women are naturally more talkative than men," you would have to consider someone who might say, "How do you know that?" or "Can you prove it?" Evidence is almost like "proof," although real proof is often impossible, especially in the social sciences. The evidence used in academic essays usually comes from the readings or the information supplied in lectures.


This is often the hardest thing new students have to learn about writing academic essays.

Every time you refer to, or mention, or quote, the ideas or words of another author in your essay, you must make a formal reference to it by using the referencing convention favoured by your discipline or department.

This is because, in the academic world, words and theories and ideas are "products" - people work hard to produce them, and expect to be recognised and rewarded for them. If you use someone elseís product without acknowledging it, it is considered to be like "stealing" their valuable words or ideas. This is what is called PLAGIARISM.

The positive side of referencing is that it allows you to share information about othersí ideas with your reader. Letís say you have read an article about socialisation, and it has persuaded you that, "Society can not ever get rid of socialisation," then your reader might want to know more about this interesting approach to socialisation. It is important for you to let your reader know where you read about it and where they can find out about it, so you would write "(Eagle, 1988)" immediately afterwards. The sentence in your essay would then look like this:

Society can not ever get rid of socialisation (Eagle, 1988) but they ....

This lets your reader know that she can find out more in the article written in 1988 by someone whose surname is Eagle. If you want to quote some of the words that Eagle herself uses in her article, you can do so, provided you put them between quotation marks or inverted commas and include the page number in the reference, for instance:

Eagle (1988, 68) says, "Socialisation is common to all societies."

If your reader wants to know more details, like the title of the article you have read, or Eagleís first name, she can refer to the Bibliography at the end of your essay (see below).

Please remember to check your departmental handbook for their referencing guidelines. There are different conventions in different disciplines. For example, some use the method shown here, while other use numbered footnotes.


The last paragraph is where you round off your essay. You can do this by summarising your argument or restating any conclusions the argument might have reached. You should never introduce new ideas or information in the conclusion. It is important to check that your conclusion is relevant to the essay title - if it is not, it means that your argument has wandered away from the required topic.


A bibliography is a list of all the books or articles you have used in writing your essay. The bibliography is always arranged alphabetically by the authorsí surnames. You will notice that the author is always referred to by his or her surname. This is a common academic convention, and it is never necessary to refer to an author as Ms Eagle, or Mr Achebe.

Every reference (see above) you make in your essay refers the reader to the bibliography, so if, in the body of your essay, you have referred to "Eagle (1988)", then your bibliography should have an entry that gives all the details of the article by Eagle that you have read:

Eagle, Gill. 1988. Learning to become a "Natural Woman": The process of socialisation, Agenda, 2, pp. 67-80

(Adapted from Stella Clark, Studying at University: A Guide for First Year Students, 1998. ã Academic Development Programme, UCT)


At the beginning of this section on Essay writing, we defined a skill as "something you can learn by doing". This implies that your writing skills should improve as you have more and more experience as a writer. Much of this improvement will be the result of your deliberate efforts to learn from your mistakes and build on your successes. There are several ways of doing this:

  • Make use of consultation times with and feedback from your tutors to correct errors and overcome weaknesses in your writing.
  • Make an appointment with one of the consultants at the Writing Centre (see last section of this booklet) to help you in unravelling a difficult essay title, to discuss early drafts of your work or to polish up a final draft.
  • Share your writing with some of your peers or the members of your study group. You will learn as much from reading and commenting on their drafts as you will from their feedback on your own writing.
  • Find out and use the conventions appropriate to the various disciplines. If you make mistakes in referencing in your Sociology essay, ask your Sociology tutor to explain what you did wrong, and how you can correct it; donít rely on information from your tutors or senior students in other departments. Seeking advice within the disciplines is essential to your success as an academic writer.
  • When you read, be conscious of how other authors compose and structure their writing. When you think about how you, as a reader, are responding to a written text, you are preparing yourself to consider how to write for your own readers.
  • Above all, plan well in advance, and allow yourself time to learn how to write academic essays.

    (Adapted from Stella Clark, Studying at University: A Guide for First Year Students, 1998. ã Academic Development Programme, UCT)



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