10 Essay Writing Tips for Undergraduates
1. Read, Write, Read. Instead of researching for a paper and then writing it all up at the end, see research and writing as an integral process. As you write you will see areas that need further research.
2. Outline. Even before you begin research, write an outline however brief it may be. Continually add to it and edit it. It will keep you on track during both the writing and research phases and will highlight areas that need further research.
3. Argue. This is the biggest problem undergraduates have. Writing an essay is not merely writing a narrative of facts and events, but answers a question and most importantly, it makes an argument. When writing an essay, keep in mind that the aim is to answer a question and provide an analysis of the issue. Make sure that each paragraph directly refers to your central argument. Here are some things to consider when making an argument:
- Provide evidence or examples to support your arguments. Show the evidence to be reliable and that your sources are authoritative. Make sure the significance of the evidence is clear.
- Do not be vague by saying ‘several authors said….’ Be specific and say what authors said, what, where.
- Your argument will be more convincing if you give fair treatment to those you are arguing against. People are automatically put off by an overly biased argument. Admit to weaknesses in your argument and raise arguments that could be challenged against your own, otherwise your objectivity will be doubted. Challenge counter-arguments by demonstrating that your argument is better. Challenge their evidence and relevance.
- Make sure your voice is clear. Address what arguments you think are more convincing and why.
4. Free Writing. Take some time without the aid of notes to write what is the point you are trying to make in your essay. This is especially helpful when formulating a conclusion, but also addresses whether you are on track and are answering the question of your essay. I prefer using pen and paper for this task.
5. Introduction: The introduction not only briefly introduces the topic you are going to discuss in your essay but also:
1) Outlines the aims and objectives of the essay as well as the scope and limitations that the essay will be covering.
2) Methodology used to answer your question.
3) It can also be used to provide a brief historical background to your topic.
4) Introduce key definitions that may be used.
5) Address the purpose of the essay — what is it trying to achieve and why is it important.
6. Paragraphs. For an undergraduate essay you will typically have 3-5 paragraphs of no more than 250 words that address each point you will need to make. Each first sentence or two should address the purpose of the paragraph. This is called a topic sentence. The subsequent sentences are used to support and argue your claims. Make sure each sentence within the paragraph fits within the topic sentence.
Try the funnel structure – starting with larger ideas first and then focusing on specifics.
Each paragraph should link back to the subsequent paragraph, allowing your essay to flow to the logical conclusion of your arguments. Refer each paragraph back to your main argument.
7. Sentences. Structure sentences starting with old information first and then ending with new information. Try to make sentences concise by limiting them to 30 words where possible.
8. Conclusion. The conclusion should not summarise what you have just written; it should be used to highlight the significance of your findings. Show what the essay has achieved by stating what you have discovered through your research process that you did not know at the beginning.
- Refer to the aim in the Introduction. How did you fulfill it? Make sure there is a clear link between the introduction and conclusion. Some people will read the introduction and conclusion concurrently before they read the body of the work.
- Remind the reader what you have done and why you have done it. What is the ‘take home message’ of your research? What is the significance of your research? Do not simply summarise. Show you have achieved your objectives with examples.
- What are the implications of the findings? How does it make a significant contribution to scholarship, understanding or practical implications for the contemporary world?
- Highlight any original contribution to research.
- Discuss how your research connects to earlier work or existing theories.
- Do not raise new material or argue points that have not been addressed in the main text.
- Openly discuss limits of research and potential for further research.
9. Edit. Editing is key to good writing. Beginning the writing process early allows for more time to spend on editing. Each time you sit down to write, read through what you have already written and edit as you go along. Continuous editing will improve the flow as well as the style of your writing. Some tips to consider while editing include:
- Read out loud. This not only helps to highlight awkward language, but also helps indicate comma placement and highlights where sentences run on too long (when you run out of breath). You could also record yourself reading or use a natural-voice app to read your work out loud to get distance from your writing. Microsoft Word has built this function in ‘Review – Read Aloud’.
- My pro-tip is to read each sentence backwards. It means you are less likely to read what you expect to read and highlights unnecessary words, awkward sentence structure, and repetition.
- Some people prefer to print out their essay to edit or are perfectly happy to edit straight from the computer. Do what works best for you.
- Sleep on it. The best editing occurs when your mind is fresh so when you read through your work you are not reading what you expect to read.
- Be concise. Cut out unnecessary words and sentences. Make sure that every word, sentence, and paragraph has a purpose and is directly relevant.
- Word processing applications such as Word have built in editing. However, you can also use services such as Grammarly. A warning that these applications are not always accurate and you would still need a good grasp of grammar. Alternatively, you can swap drafts with a friend. It is possible to use paid editors, however, only to do basic editing.
- Break down tasks, focusing on one at a time. For example:
Task One: Work out sequence of paragraphs.
Task Two: Make transitions from one paragraph to the next flow.
Task Three: Look for one kind of error at a time. Write a list of your commonly confused or overused words.
Task Four: Read out loud correcting comma placements.
10. Check List. During the writing process continuously ask yourself the following questions:
- Does this answer the question? Is the argument clear?
- Is there sufficient evidence or examples to support the argument?
- Is the essay organised in a logical fashion? Does the argument take the reader from one logical point to the next?
- Is the material directly relevant?
- Are your own opinions and ideas clear?
- Lastly, make sure you present your essay according to your course guidelines, which will have its own referencing system and presentation guidelines.