Essay Writing Guide

Essays are intended to develop, test and show your capacity for acquiring knowledge and understanding, and for presenting an argument on the basis of that knowledge and understanding. Writing essays should also make the subject more interesting to you and give you the chance to be creative. Organising and expressing your thoughts on paper will not only give you a firmer grasp of the subject but will provide you with a skill which is invaluable throughout your life. The following guidelines apply primarily to essays written as coursework, though the general principles apply also to essays written as part of examinations.

The most important thing is to answer the question. Do not include material which is irrelevant to the question set. Read the question carefully and decide for yourself what it is asking: only when you have done so should you read as much as possible of the recommended reading. It is more important to know and understand the ancient texts, artworks and artefacts than the views of modern scholars, though these should not be neglected. Make notes of the important points in your reading but, while you are doing so, keep the essay question in your mind at all times. Do not copy out large sections from books into your notes: your task is to analyse, not regurgitate. Read and take notes which are relevant, critical, and creative.

When you have completed your reading, put aside your notes; write down the main general points you wish to make in response to the essay question, and consider whether they are arranged in the best order to present your argument coherently; rearrange them if they are not. This is an opportunity to be creative: your own thinking, even if limited and off-beam, will be recognised and rewarded. Under your general headings you should now write down specific details and add illustrations drawn from your research which support each of these. You now have your structure and are ready to write the essay.

The statements made in the essay should be backed up by evidence. Be specific in your references. Identify quotations from ancient works and refer to the key passages or artefacts which support the general statements you make. It is especially worthwhile to bring together a number of sources for the point you are discussing and to compare their evidence and implications. Whenever you use information or ideas taken from other sources, you need to acknowledge this fact by giving a reference to the publication in questions (see below on conventions). If you fail to acknowledge the use you make of other people’s work, this is called plagiarism: it is an academic offence and will be punished.

Word limits are important, and failure to keep to them will be penalised. They help you to keep your essays focussed and to the point. The normal word-limit for an essay is about 2,000 words (Levels 1 and 2) or 3,000 words (Level 3). The quality of your English expression is vital. Poor English can make a written argument difficult to follow, so it is important that, in your written work, you use English correctly, with due attention to spelling, grammar, and presentation. If you have difficulty in any of these areas, there are a number of places to go for help:

  • Booklets on English grammar and usage are kept in the Department Office which you can borrow.
  • The Study-skills Adviser is available to help with written work.
  • Web-sites are available with guidance on English and English expression.
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