Writing an essay is a process of writing and review. You should prepare a first draft, which you should return to with a critical eye at a later date if possible. This not only allows you to pick up any grammatical errors or poor phrasing, but also enables you to detect more serious faults such as a lack of clear structure or insufficient evidence to support your arguments.
An essay is usually a continuous piece of work without heading or sub-headings (check your assignment brief). But there is a recognisable structure which includes an introduction, main body, conclusion and references.
Introduction - say what you are going to say
The introduction gives you the opportunity to set the scene for your essay, with an overview of what is to come. A strong introduction should define or introduce the topic, state the main issues and describe the argument that you are intending to make. The position you have decided to take should be clear from the introduction.
You should work on your introduction only after you have produced a rough draft of the body of your essay, so that you are clear on the main points and have developed your argument.
Main body - say it!
All your ideas need to come together in the main body of your essay. Present your ideas in a logical order so that the reader can follow your reasoning and be persuaded by your arguments. Each main idea should become a paragraph in your essay. Each point needs to be described, explained, developed and debated.
All statements should be supported with evidence, such as examples or quotations from your literature. You must link your ideas in a way which develops a clear argument. There is no right or wrong way of doing this. It depends upon your subject matter. The term argument here means presenting your reasoning to show a clear line of thought. Remember to remain focussed on answering the question.
Conclusions - say what you have said
Students often confuse what should be included in the introduction and the conclusion. There is an element of overlap because the conclusion should include a summary of the essay, which means that the main points should be restated. Your summary should begin by restating your position on the question and retracing your arguments. This will remind the reader of how the parts of your essay fit together and strengthen the arguments you have presented. However, there should be a specific conclusion to the essay to draw it all together.
Your conclusion should be related to your position stated in the introduction, but here you should elaborate to explain why you are right to take the position that you have based on the evidence presented. In the conclusion you have the weight of the essay behind you and you can state your case succinctly, knowing that the reader has all the evidence you have provided.
Don’t present new material in the conclusion. Once you have tied up your argument, a good way to conclude is to use the final lines of your essay to suggest a way in which the material you have covered applies to a larger picture if possible or state ideas for future development.
You may be required to produce a bibliography or list of references according to the assignment brief. All of the publications you have consulted are included in a bibliography; a reference list includes only those that have been cited in the essay text. For more information on referencing correctly see Referencing & Plagiarism.
It can be useful to look at examples of good essays. The links below will take you to university websites that have provided example essays. These examples are particularly useful because they are annotated to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the work. The essays are on specific subjects and although the principles are generally applicable across all disciplines, style does vary so take care to always check your assignment brief.
The University of Plymouth has WrAssE (Writing for Assignments E-Library Project), enter the word 'essay' into the search box and choose an appropriate result.
The University of Teesside shows shows good and bad essays from the School of Arts and Media.