This guide introduces basic concepts and skills to help improve your academic essay writing. It discusses the following topics:
- What is an essay?
- Planning your essay:
- Decide on a strategy
- Do your research
- Plan your essay structure
- Writing your essay:
- Tips for better essay writing
- Essay-writing checklist
- Essay research template
Topics addressed in Writing Guides include how to take better notes; critical and creative thinking; critical reading skills; critical writing skills; how to quote, paraphrase and summarise; how to cite right and avoid plagiarism; stress management for theological students; time management for theological students; writer’s block and other writing challenges; analysing and structuring your essay; improving your academic writing style; writing the body of your essay; writing your introduction and conclusion; grammar and usage for academic writing; using tables, graphs and figures; and revising, editing and proofreading your work.
If you have questions on academic writing, or suggestions for improving this Guide, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
What is an essay?
According to American literary critic Frederick Crews, an essay is “a fairly brief piece of nonfiction that tries to make a point in an interesting way.” Think for a moment about the four elements of that definition: length, form, purpose, and interest.
By that definition, a PhD thesis, a poem, an encyclopedia article, and a car manual are not essays. Nor is an essay the same as a report, conference paper, article, pamphlet, or short story. On the other hand, many kinds of prose writing, as well as non-prose forms such as photographic, film and music essays, do fit the definition.
An academic essay usually addresses a single subject through description, analysis, comparison, evaluation or reflection – or a combination of these. Some essays express the author’s perspective on a subject, while others seek to persuade the reader to adopt that perspective.
The essay is an important tool for teaching and learning, and a classic means of assessing a student’s academic ability. Within a set word limit, usually between 500 and 5,000 words, a student demonstrates their ability to research a subject, weigh arguments, organise their thoughts, express those thoughts critically and creatively, and reach clear conclusions based on the evidence and the arguments presented.
In theological studies, an essay assesses a student’s ability to think and write in the context of a biblically informed worldview and a distinct theological tradition; and to express their thoughts in a clear, coherent and persuasive manner.
It is not a perfect tool, but if you follow good advice and apply yourself well, you should significantly enhance your skills in research, analysis, interpretation, evaluation and persuasion by the time you complete your formal studies. You will also improve your planning, organising and communication skills. All these skills are transferable to the context of vocation and paid or voluntary employment.
Table 1 – Differences between descriptive and critical writing 
Planning your essay
To write a good academic essay, you should decide on a strategy, think creatively and critically, research the topic, plan the structure of your essay, and write it. This section discusses the elements of the planning process that come before the writing stage, and that help to make the writing and revision easier.
Decide on a strategy
Information about your essay will be printed in your course outline or in handouts provided by your lecturer. The current Student Handbook also has general guidelines for writing essays. Read this carefully, asking for help if anything is unclear. Know what type of essay you are required to write (see Writing Guide 2). Also ask questions about what gets good marks, and what loses marks. Different lecturers may have different expectations.
If you are writing a dissertation or thesis, much of the advice in this guide will be relevant, but you should also refer to the relevant Research Guides on postgraduate planning, research and writing.
Ensure that you answer the question that is asked. A frequent reason for poor essay grades is failure to answer the set question, or giving little attention to the question and instead waffling or writing about irrelevant matters. If there are several possible questions, select the one that most interests you or about which you know the most.
Work through the following steps, either in the order set out here or in a different order. Essay writing is not necessarily a linear process. You may get to the stage of writing a draft, then do further research and writing, or revise your essay plan. But all the steps are important:
- Analyse the essay question, identifying and defining key terms
- Research the topic;
- Take notes on your readings;
- Draft an essay plan and organise your ideas;
- Write a first draft;
- Set the draft aside for a couple of days, then re-read and revise it with fresh eyes;
- Obtain feedback from reliable friends or family;
- Produce a final draft;
- Check that your citations and references are complete;
- Submit your essay for assessment.
Different types of question require different responses. How the question is phrased often determines how you are expected to respond. There are three main types:
- open-ended questions asking for information and analysis, allowing you freedom to set the scope of the essay (who, what, when, where, how);
- evaluative questions, asking you to argue why and to what extent something is true (why);
- questions asking you to respond to a quotation, usually inviting you to give an analytical, evaluative or persuasive response; you will need to decide which of the basic questions (who, what, when, where, how and why) need to be addressed.
If the question is general, you have more freedom in how you develop your answer, but may need to work hard to identify what is most important and develop a structure. If, on the other hand, the question is detailed, your answer will need to address these details and not other matters.
When no topic is assigned, you have maximum freedom, but will need to work especially hard to choose the best subject and develop the structure of your essay. Then follow the steps in the list on the left.
A good academic essay leads your reader through the subject matter, following a clear line of argument. This does not happen by accident. It requires strategy, diligence and patience. It is important to start out with a clear idea in your mind of what you want to say, and how you intend to say it.
For an evaluative or persuasive essay, each paragraph in the body of the essay should make a claim or develop your argument, and be supported by evidence; and each paragraph should be arranged in the logical order that best suits your overall argument. Ensure that your discussion of sources/evidence is balanced and fair, but also indicate your own view based on your assessment of the information and opinions expressed.
Do your research
Crafting an academic essay gives you the opportunity to demonstrate how clearly you think, how well you write, and how widely you read. It is important for you to know and understand what others have written on a topic, including an analysis (and possibly evaluation) of the content and structure of their work.
This requires research, and it must be well organised. Ensure that you invest enough time in searching for the best resources, and in managing citation details and filing of electronic (or paper) resources so that they are easily accessible. Your future self will thank you for this.
In your essay, subject to the requirements stated in your course outline or by your lecturer, you should include direct/indirect quotes from quality primary sources, and possibly from secondary sources. Take care to include just enough quotes, as the presence of too many may suggest that you lack confidence to explain ideas or arguments in your own words, or have nothing yourself to say about the topic. Avoid writing an essay that simply strings together a series of quotes.
Take every opportunity to widen your reading. Don’t be satisfied with only the familiar books, authors, publishers, or schools of thought. Consider the following:
- other works by the same author;
- works by contemporary authors who extend (or refute) the thought of one author or movement;
- works that are seen to have inspired or prompted the production of a key text;
- works that place a key text in its historical, theological, cultural or other context;
- journal reviews of significant publications.
Publishing in print or online does not guarantee that a document is valid, reliable or authoritative. It is quite legitimate for you to disagree with a scholarly statement or opinion, provided that you understand what is being argued, and supply valid evidence and explanation supporting your perspective on the issue.
For comprehensive information and advice on academic research practices, consult the accompanying Writing Guides and Research Guides. See also the Essay Research Template at the end of this Guide, which will help you gather the citation data you need for references and bibliography, and provide a place where you can record notes and ideas as you read and analyse a resource.
Plan your essay structure
Planning a clear essay structure is as important as doing the research for it. A poorly structured essay suggests that you are struggling to complete the task – through poor time management, poor research, unfamiliarity with course content, or lack of understanding of the nature of an essay.
An essay structure is the form your writing will take based on your research. It expresses your thinking about the topic in a clear and logical way. Plan your structure before you start writing a draft of the essay.
A clear, logical and detailed plan indicates that you have done sufficient research to understand the issues, and have found evidence to support this understanding. Even if you discover problematic evidence or arguments late in the research cycle, you will probably find a logical place to discuss this within your essay structure.
All academic essays consist of three structural elements:
- an introduction, where you engage the reader and set out your argument(s);
- a main body, in which you explain the argument(s) and provide supporting evidence; and
- a conclusion, summarising your main points and providing a clear answer to the essay question.
More complex essays expand the structure and content of the main body to accommodate more arguments, evidence and/or explanation. Short essays often display a rigid or repetitive structure, whereas longer essays may be (should be, in my opinion) more discursive and creative. A longer essay may also include a literature review summarising what has been published on a topic.
As you develop your essay structure, look for keywords in the essay question. These might be proper nouns (e.g. Augustine of Hippo, or Lutheran), abstract terms (e.g. “secondary causality,” or “religious policy”), or verbs (such as “analyse,” “compare,” or “evaluate”). Understanding these keywords, in context, will help you find relevant resources and answer the essay question.
You should also consider which, of all the possible points you can imagine, you wish to address in your essay. Good choices here will deliver a clearer and more cogent essay. Ensure that you can adequately support your main ideas or arguments with valid evidence. Avoid unsupported speculation and opinion. Ask for advice if necessary.
For more advice on how to write your essay, see the next section of this Guide, and also Writing Guides 3-11 (for all academic writing) and 12 (for theses and dissertations).
Writing your essay
Some students fear they won’t be able to organise their thoughts sufficiently to draft the “right” essay, and that what they do write will be “wrong” and lead to failure and humiliation. Others reason that the one right way to compose an essay (content or method) does not exist, but its Platonic ideal does exist somewhere, and it is their duty to discover this and capture it on paper. If that describes you, consider this quote from author Howard S. Becker:
Scholarly writers have to organize their material, express an argument clearly enough that readers can follow the reasoning and accept the conclusions. They make this job harder than it need be when they think there is Only One Right Way to do it, that each paper they write has a preordained structure they must find. They simplify their work, on the other hand, when they recognize that there are many effective ways to say something and that their job is only to choose one and execute it so that readers will know what they are doing.
The following pages provide suggested tips for improving your essay-writing, a checklist to use throughout the writing process (and especially as you approach the end of the task), and an essay research template which you may find helpful when collecting citation details and making notes as you read a document.
For more advice on academic writing, see Writing Guides 3-12 (as they become available). On time management, stress management, procrastination and writer’s block, see Writing Guides 13-15.
As always, we love to receive feedback and suggestions for improvements to this guide, and new ideas for academic research and writing. Please contact research Support Officer Rod Benson.
Tips for better essay-writing
- Sweet spot. Find a comfortable place where you can think clearly. Remove distractions from sight – smartphone; books and research for other essays; magazines; household administration; unwashed dishes.
- Routine. Develop rituals to focus your mind on the writing task (as athletes do before competition): prepare your favourite beverage; sharpen your pencils; do a few minutes of stretch exercises.
- Resources. Ensure that you have access to all the resources you will need to complete the next writing task (physical resources, data, books, articles).
- Goals. Set challenging but realistic goals for each writing session (a word count, number of lines, or pages).
- Rhythm. Write at a time of day/night when you are physically and mentally fresh. Take regular breaks; drink plenty of water; get enough sleep.
- Treats. Give yourself small incentives as you reach writing goals – line up the Smarties; reach for the Tim Tams, apples or kale chips; go for a short walk.
- Discover. Learn as you write: “Follow your ideas where they take you, then return to what you have written and think about how it hangs together, how it might be structured and organized so as to function as a single, coherent whole.”
- Change: “Sometimes just changing the way the writing looks (e.g. type font, formatting) or the kind of writing (e.g. from academic paper to children’s book), or the mode (e.g. visual instead of verbal), or the medium (e.g. paper instead of computer) can make the material look ‘fresh’ or expose something different.”
- Fear. Make fear your ally. Identify precisely what you fear in this project or paragraph, and use this knowledge as a “productive instinct” enabling better writing or new thoughts.
- Write on. Keep writing until you have a full draft of your essay or section. Don’t revise as you write, and risk falling into a perfectionist editing loop.
Your essay will probably be one of many on the same or a similar subject marked by one marker (that is, reader). Your essay therefore needs to attract the marker’s attention, encourage them to read with interest, and reward them for the time invested in reading your work.
For a theological essay or research project, the primary way to attract a marker’s attention is by demonstrating mastery of relevant evidence, and providing the best arguments, analysis and evaluation you can muster.
Keep this checklist in mind as you write:
- Have I clarified my essay’s subject (precisely what I’m writing about) and aims (what I hope to achieve)?
- Have I correctly understood what the essay question is asking?
- Have I adequately defined the key terms (especially those prone to controversy or ambiguity)?
- Is my argument logically consistent and coherent?
- Does my writing demonstrate consistency of style and expression?
- Have I been sufficiently clear and accurate in all my claims, analysis, and documentation of sources?
- Have I answered all parts of the essay question?
- Is there any padding (irrelevant or unnecessary material) that I should remove?
- Are my conclusions firmly based on the evidence I have presented?
- Have I discussed any relevant practical consequences arising from my research, analysis and evaluation?
- Have I carefully edited and revised my essay, and left enough time to sleep on it before a final proofread?
- Am I on track to meet the submission deadline?