Writing essays is something that you will have to do on a regular basis in order to demonstrate your understanding of a topic in a well-structured written format. There is no single correct way to approach essay writing; you need to find what approach suits you best. The following extract from A Handbook for Student Nurses offers some tips to support or develop your approach.
Understanding the question
The basis of any essay should always begin from an understanding of what you are trying to achieve. It is therefore important to make sure that you know exactly what is required of you before you begin to research or to draft your essay. If you have been given a specific question, you need to begin by ‘unpicking’ the information it contains. This can be done by carefully examining the words of the question, looking for: the content words that indicate the subject matter with which the essay should deal; limiting words that specify the particular aspect or aspects of the subject on which the essay should focus; and the instruction words which tell you how to approach the topic.
Essay questions usually contain one or more of the following keywords that indicate what you are being asked to do:
- Account for: give reasons for, explain how something came about, clarify
- Analyse: examine in detail, consider the various parts of the whole and describe the interrelationship between them
- Assess: decide the importance/value of something and give reasons
- Comment on: explain the importance of
- Compare: examine the objects in question with a view to demonstrating their similarities
- Contrast: examine the objects in question for the purpose of demonstrating differences, or examine two or more opposing ideas or arguments to highlight their differences
- Define: state precisely the meaning of something using examples — a simple statement is often not enough; it needs to be explored in detail
- Discuss: explain and give different views about something — this can include your own views as long as they are based on sound evidence (i.e. they are referenced)
- Evaluate: examine the evidence and decide the value of something; make a judgement about it, based on sound evidence
- Examine: look at very carefully
- Explain: make very clear why something is the way it is, or why it happens
- Give an account of: describe in detail how something happened
- Illustrate: make something very clear, using evidence and examples
- Outline: give a short description of the main points
- Justify: support a particular idea, using evidence, and show why particular conclusions were made — include counter-arguments
- Show: make clear; demonstrate evidence for
- Summarise: outline the main points briefly.
Once you have decided what is required, researched the topic and read through your notes, you should then make an essay plan. Time spent on essay planning is rarely time wasted as it provides an opportunity to identify the main themes, sections or areas and how all the various pieces of information fit together. An essay plan is also useful to take to a tutorial so that you can discuss with your tutor your ideas about completing the assignment. The plan should be written in a way that works for you personally, for example as a mind map, linear notes or a set of boxes, etc.
Structure of an essay
The structure of the essay is important because it demonstrates that you are able to order your thoughts in a systematic, logical way and provides a sense of direction through the essay. The accepted basic framework for any essay is:
- main text/body
The purpose of the introduction should be to set the context and direction of the essay. It should therefore:
- be clear that it is an introduction
- if required, set the question topic against a wider background (set the context)
- identify and/or define any key terms
- briefly summarise the overall theme of the essay, indicating the main points to be made and, possibly, the order in which they are to be presented — that is, explain what the essay is going to do.
The main body of the text is where the main ideas or arguments are developed. Depending on the length of the essay, it will contain several sections, each divided into paragraphs. The paragraphs should be logically linked as you develop the themes or ideas. In the main body you should:
- present key points clearly
- present ideas or arguments backed up by evidence from your reading
- accurately cite quotations and references to other works
- label any diagrams, figures or tables correctly.
The conclusion should follow logically from, and be based on, what you have presented in the main body of your essay as it brings together the main ideas explored. This can be achieved by:
- briefly summarising the main ideas and arguments
- linking back to the title/topic, showing how you have answered the question or drawn a relevant conclusion
- making clear why conclusions reached are important or significant
- not including any new ideas.
Referencing is the standardised method of acknowledging sources of information. When writing an essay, report or dissertation, it is usual to make reference (i.e. to identify the place where the original citation can be found) to the sources that you have used, referred to, or taken quotes from. These references might be from, for example, journals, newspaper articles, books or book chapters, government reports or internet publications. When you refer to someone else’s work or directly quote from it, you must acknowledge all the contributors and refer to all the authors/editors, both in the text and in a reference list or bibliography at the end of your work. Citing accurate references in academic work is important for the following reasons:
- to give credit to other authors’ concepts and ideas
- to provide evidence of the extent of your reading
- to allow a reader to locate the cited references easily
- to avoid being accused of plagiarism.
There are many systems for the citation of references. The most commonly used systems in the UK are the Harvard system and the Vancouver system. You should follow the system that will be identified in your course handbook or assessment guidelines.