Date of Publication: 30 August 2017
The essay is a particularly academic form of writing, where importance lies in the ability to demonstrate intellect and understanding of an argument. Essay writing is usually discursive; you need to draw ideas together, backed by evidence and opposing arguments to address a specific issue or question.
Typically, they are used as a form of assessment, to assess your understanding of a particular topic, theme, or ideas through your own word choice. This occurs most frequently in subjects related to the Arts or Humanities, where viewpoints are most often subjective to an individual there isn’t a standardised answer. Therefore, as soon as you can, you should spend some time developing your skills in essay-writing, as it is crucial to success in your studies.
How Can I Get Better at Writing Essays?
The key to a good essay is planning. Every essay follows a particular structure; starting with an outline of your argument in the introduction, you’ll use the main body of your essay to present varying points of view around the topic and build your argument, before concluding with an overall key takeaway in the conclusion. The more time you commit to planning your essay, the more clarity you will have on your argument, and the easier it will be to get into the flow of writing.
But most importantly, the key to getting better at writing essays is to practice. Essay writing is a technique. And like any skill, one that needs practice if you want to master it. Whenever you have the opportunity to, spend the time mapping out essay plans and practicing your writing skill. The more you practice, the easier you will find the flow.
5 Useful Tips for Essay Writing
For some expert essay advice, we asked Victoria, a recent student helper on our summer courses in Oxford and a graduate from Lady Margaret Hall to provide her 5 top tips for writing a strong essay. Take a look through them and see how they can help you improve your writing.
1. How to Start an Essay
One of the most difficult components of academic writing comes from not knowing how to start an essay. The opening paragraph, or introduction as it is better known, is the key to letting your reader know what your essay is about – what the topic is.
The start of an essay is one of the most important components. It is a place for background information on the subject you are going to be discussing. It establishes the context with which you are writing, and what topic you hope to gain clarity on or find resolution to.
When thinking of how to start an essay, imagine the introduction as a menu. It outlines the detail of the meal you are going to eat and the order in which the courses will be served. It should include a brief outline of the content of the essay and should detail the order in which the key points of the essay will be explored. It’s also a good place to include any key definitions, ensuring clarity is established from the very beginning of your work.
It’s also important to mention that essays that start with a great opening keep the reader interested and engaged. This is particularly important for anyone writing essays as part of an exam, where the marker will be reading hundreds of responses to the same essay question. In this case, starting with an interesting fact, quote, or a rhetorical question such as ‘did you know…?’ can be highly effective. Another method is to begin the essay with a clear and concise statement outlining the importance and relevance of the essay topic. Both approaches can draw the reader in and engage them from the very beginning.
2. How to Structure an Essay
A good essay structure is quite easy to achieve and is of great importance. Even in some final exams at the University of Oxford, marks are awarded for a strong essay structure.
The layout of a science essay will generally consist of a clear introduction followed by the main arguments of the essay split up into paragraphs and finally the conclusion. Each paragraph within the main body should be a new point that you want to make that is related to the overall theme of your essay. And each new point you make needs to be elaborated on within that paragraph to give substance to your claim.
Planning is vital to achieve a good structure. Try visually drawing out the process of your essay, with signposts linking each paragraph to the next. Remember to include the evidence you plan to back your ideas up within each paragraph, and always close that same paragraph by explaining how the evidence and point you raised impacts the overall theme of your essay. Only then, can you move onto the next idea.
When taking your plan and transforming it into a fully-fledged essay, it can be hard to keep track of the structure which you spent so long preparing. If this is the case, one useful tip for keeping clear sections is to have essay headings throughout, like the headings for each of the tips used here. You can remove these at the end of the writing process, but they can be helpful in ensuring that you stick to your structure as you get into the flow of writing.
3. How to Make Sure Your Essay Flows
The second reason why planning is also useful for your essays is to maintain flow. That is, to make sure the paragraphs link together.
Remember how we said the introduction of your essay is like a menu at a restaurant? Well, the plan is like making a booking for a meal; it ensures everything is organised, such as the number of points and the order in which they are going to be made.
A good flow makes an essay easy for the reader to follow. Easy connectivity between paragraphs allow the reader to follow the thread of your argument from beginning to end, gaining a comprehensive understanding of your thought process and how you arrived at the conclusion you did.
A key to maintaining good flow is to use strong linking words and phrases. These linking words and phrases need to seem natural to the reader, and signpost the next direction for your essay. For example, if you are looking to show a contrasting view of an argument, you should use phrases such as:
- “On the other hand…”
- “Despite this…”
- “Having discussed X, it’s now imperative that X…”
- “Turning now onto…”
- “In contrast to…”
On top of having a flow of language between one paragraph to the next, it is also important to make sure the arguments flow in a logical order, for example, in order of discovery. You wouldn’t read the end of a book without first understanding the context in which it occurred. It wouldn’t make sense. So you shouldn’t expect your reader to be able to keep up with your train of thought in your essay if it doesn’t flow in a logical order.
Again, the key to this is thorough planning. Just as you would draw a storyboard to lay out the sequence of events in a narrative, you should map out your ideas in logical order from one to the next. It’s the only way to ensure an easy flow of information for which your marker can digest.
4. How to Maintain Focus in Your Essay
When planning an essay, you’ll no doubt come across lots of interesting pieces of evidence, or conjure up lots of different points of view which relate to the overall theme of your essay. It can sometimes be tempting to include all these differing points from all of the reading you have done prior to writing your essay. However, despite all of the time it has taken, you should only include relevant information, otherwise the essay loses focus.
This is true for both unnecessary breadth and unnecessary depth. Being concise is a useful skill. In fact, as you progress through university, you’ll often discover that your tutors put strict word limits on your essays and other assignments, to see if you can master the art of precision.
A key tip for maintaining focus in your essay comes from the planning. As you map out your overall structure, select the pieces of evidence that best support each point you are making in your paragraphs. You don’t need too many examples to justify your statement, just enough to show how your idea has some grounding. Then, when it comes to writing the first draft of your essay, you’ll know exactly what to include, without worry about going ‘off-track.’
5. How to Finish an Essay
Just as how the start of an essay is crucial to setting out the context for your debate, knowing how to finish an essay is equally important. This is so your reader leaves with resolution and complete clarity over what you have discovered during your essay.
Simply put, the conclusion is the place where the main points of the essay are summarised. It is not a place to introduce new arguments or ideas. Going back to the meal analogy, the conclusion is like the dessert – it can make or break a meal. If the essay has been strong throughout but then the final conclusions are weak, it can ruin an essay. This is the last part a reader will consider, particularly for examiners as this is the last part they read before giving you a score. So, be sure to go out with a bang!
When thinking of how to finish an essay, a good place to start is by thinking about how everything you’ve discussed throughout the main body links to the introduction. It’s important to note, your conclusion is not a repeat of your introduction. Rather, it’s an assessment of what your final understanding of the topic is after having sifted through lots of evidence and ideas in the main body of your essay. It needs to bring together the main elements of your essay in one unifying them, giving both resolution and satisfaction to the reader.
Victoria Pike was recently a student helper and has graduated from Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford with a degree in Biological Sciences. She also started an Oxford Interdisciplinary Bioscience Doctoral Training Partnership in 2017. Follow her updates on Twitter.
Improve Your Essay Writing On a Summer Course
One of the best ways to put your skills to the test is to join us on one of our academic summer courses.
On top of your usual seminars, each course will require you to complete 2 long-form pieces of work independently – such as an essay – that will be peer reviewed and subject to feedback in weekly tutorial classes.
These weekly tutorials follow the same style of teaching which make the University of Oxford recognised for its world-class education, and have proven to be highly effective in helping students develop a better understanding of their chosen subject.
With courses available in the cities of Oxford and Cambridge, you have the opportunity to choose from over 50 different subjects. Take a look at the courses we have available and apply to put your skills to the test this summer.