Some assignments, and most examination answers, will be required to be presented in the form of an essay. An essay is a continuous piece of writing in which ideas, propositions, research and justifications are put forward and analysed in the form of a series of paragraphs.
The structure is different from that of a written report (see Report Writing below), which is separated into sections by numbers and headings: in the absence of such guidance for the reader of an essay, it is vitally important that the essay structure is planned so that each paragraph follows logically from the other and is wrapped up in an introductory paragraph/s and concluding paragraph/s.
The reader (lecturer/marker) needs to understand clearly:
a) What is being said
b) How what is said is justified
How do you know you have achieved a) & b)? Below are some suggested means of checking.
1. Do you understand the essay question? What is the proposition/hypothesis put forward for discussion/analysis? If you can rephrase the question for yourself then, yes. If not, ask for help.
2. Is there a structure? An outline is essential: What are you going to say, and what evidence will you bring in to support it?
3. Research: Key texts/sources: have you found out who the key (acknowledged experts) authors are on the topic under discussion? If not, the reader is not going to be convinced by what you say, because you are clearly not in possession of the key facts. Your reader (lecturer) is an informed reader i.e. in possession of the key facts.
4. Research: Relevance: the research process will provide you with a wide range of material. Having decided what you are going to say, which pieces of information/others’ research will best support your response to the question posed?
Beware of generalisations
Look at the following essay question and the attempt at beginning to answer it:
"Outline the difficulties facing the tourist industry today.
Travel broadens the mind. Without experience of people and places we would be much less informed about the world. From the earliest times travel was seen as dangerous and heroic…"
The writer is being too general and begins to offer some sociological evidence, which has not been asked for in the question. He/she is also being too imaginative and what is said is irrelevant. A better beginning to the question might have been:
There are a number of significant problems facing the tourist industry today (Pryer, 2004). Some of the most worrying concern the potential danger to the environment politically, physically and culturally; the place of tourism in the economy of many countries is also an issue…
Analyse key verbs used i.e. assess, explain, analyse, describe, narrate. These verbs give you some idea of the approach to use in your answer.
For example: Look at the following essay questions, all on the same subject:
a) ‘Tourism today is quite unlike tourism in 1900’. Justify this statement.
b) ‘Tourism today is quite unlike tourism in 1900’. Outline the main stages of changes in tourism since 1900.
c) ‘Tourists today are quite unlike the tourists of 1900’. Diagnose the main causes of change in tourists’ expectations in this century.
The key verbs here, (justify, outline, evaluate, diagnose) need to be looked at carefully because they indicate the approach you are expected to take when you prepare and write the essay. (A dictionary can prove an invaluable help here.) The other words in the question can provide the key to the subject matter you will need to include in your answer (i.e., tourism, change…).
How to get started
Generating ideas - there are various methods of doing this.
Different people have different methods. For example:
- Blank sheet – Take a blank sheet of paper and write whatever occurs to you, anywhere on the sheet, as you think about the question.
- List – List your ideas as they occur.
- Spider/pattern – Draw a diagram with the subject of the essay written in a central circle or box.
- Mind Map – sketch out all the ideas in your mind and then work out how they are related to each other.
Next you will need to ask yourself what you need to find out. Your idea-generating session should have given you some idea of the areas to follow. Your sources are likely to be books, people, magazines, journals, electronic resources and the media.
Some topics require you to research more, some to think and analyse more. Only collect information that will be useful – don’t waste time compiling masses of information that will not be used.
First, analyse the question and decide what it wants you to do. Next, re-write it in an easily understandable form. Your notes will vary according to you and your style – make any that seem relevant to the subject area, at any time – put the information into a box, or special essay file. This practice can help produce originality.
When you get to this point, you need to start to think about the reader of your essay. What you say must be clear and easy to follow, not a mass of unrelated points. Facts are important but not alone, they should be used in an organised way. You are now at the stage where you will begin to group your material. There are various ways of doing this. For example:
- Single pieces of paper for single points, allocated to group headings later.
- Group headings established.
- Tree diagram or form of pattern diagram.
Once groups have been established, it is important that the sequence of ideas is organised. In other words, in what order will your information or comments come in the essay?
When the material and ideas have been organised in sequence you can begin to write the essay. Each paragraph should contain a controlling idea, or topic sentence which links and anticipates. Support sentences will expand on the idea in this sentence, by giving examples or re-emphasising the point in some way, so that the reader grasps the main point of the paragraph. “Signposting” words and phrases can be useful in the linking process, for example: “Developing this further…” (looking ahead), or “Such developments…” (referring back).
Drafting (writing up)
Write (or word process) your rough copy. This can be done in sections or written up in its entirety from the organised notes. Each person has their own preference. One useful method is the half-page system which leaves space for annotation and possible alteration to the sequencing of points.
Introductions and conclusions
The introduction and conclusion should be written after the main body paragraphs have been written and organised. This ensures that what the essay says is supported at either end.
An introduction should outline the basis of your essay, giving the reader an indication of what you will be writing about or discussing. A relevant quotation from a key source could provide a gripping start. So could a positive statement such as: “History is bunk” (H. Ford 1934) provided that you then proceed to justify the statement.
Henry Ford did not, which is why he is given credibility as an expert on cars, not history. For a 1,000-word essay an introduction of approximately 50-100 words would be appropriate.
A conclusion should pull an essay together. A positive finish is also a good idea. You may summarise your arguments in the concluding paragraph, drawing together the threads of an argument but also reminding the reader that your essay (hopefully) has proved the points you set out to make. A final paragraph for a 1,000-word essay would be 50-100 words in length.
A verdict or judgement in answer to the question set should be considered.
Style & presentation
Academic writing must be objective in its approach; that is, students are not simply asked for opinions (subjective), but to analyse, judge and propose, using evidence. For this reason, the use of the personal pronouns (I, we, you…) should be avoided. If necessary, the term ‘the author’ may also be used. You may, however, give supported judgements which use references, including examples of data to offer perceptive comment.
Essays should be presented word processed as directed on A4 paper. You should use clear, simple English. Slang and jargon should not be used and long, rambling sentences should be avoided. A good dictionary is the writer’s friend – spell checks cannot always be relied on. Your grammar (sentence structure, use of vocabulary…) should be considered carefully, as should punctuation. Together with research and planning, these areas make an impression on the reader.
Appendices are not usually necessary for an essay. However, you should make your sources clear at the end of the essay.
Quotations – It is important to show, by the use of speech marks (“t”), when you are quoting what someone else said or wrote. Lengthy quotations are not generally appropriate to the short (approximately 1,000 word) essay and it is better to quote a reference for the reader to follow up if she/he wishes. Shorter, succinct quotations relating to a particular point can be very effective.
A guide to essay writing, including a number of helpful videos, is available in the CASE (the Centre for Academic Skills and English) Toolkit for HE.
Presentation of Submitted Work
Most work is now required to be submitted anonymously. Please follow any specific guidelines given in your assignment brief.
The following instructions give you the University standard for presenting your written work for assessment: it is strongly recommended you follow these instructions as you are assessed on presentation in written assignments. Should a lecturing team require you to present your work in any format and style other than these instructions, they will directly inform you of this.
These instructions aim to ensure that all work you submit will be presented in a professional and consistent manner. Unless you are specifically instructed otherwise, all submitted work should be word-processed. Where necessary, some diagrams may have to be drawn by hand, but the majority of work should be produced using appropriate software.
Think very carefully before adding decorative features like WordArt, page borders or Clip Art to any piece of academic work. Such additions are unlikely to improve the work, and often serve only as a distraction. Therefore, generally, these are best avoided.
The use of colour is permissible, and may be particularly useful if you are presenting charts or diagrams. However, monochrome printing should normally be adequate for any work you are required to present.
Use Times New Roman size 12 for general text. Use Arial size 14 for main headings and Arial size 12 for sub-headings.
Alignment and Spacing
- Apart from main headings, please left align all text.
- All work is to be 1.5 line spaced, except for leaving one line space between sub-headings and text.
- Paragraphs should be separated from each other and from indented quotations by twice as much white space as there is between lines.
- Wherever possible, no gaps should be left on the page unless a chart means you have to. Only main headings or new tasks should start on a new page – not subheadings.
- Tables, charts and graphs should be centred on the page wherever possible and should be of approximately the same size wherever possible.
- Bullet points and numbers can use the pre-given Microsoft Word settings.
Headings and sub-headings should be in Arial font. Major headings should be in bold and centred; type these in size 14 upper and lower case letters; sub-headings should be typed in upper and lowercase letters, size 12, aligned to the left margin and bold.
All margins are to be 2.5 cms both sides.
Headers (unless this is an anonymous submission)
Insert a header that contains your name as per your ID card and course only: put this header in upper and lower case size 9 font and left align it; do not underline or put it in bold.
Page numbers to be size 12 and placed on the bottom right-hand corner in a footer.
Please think very carefully before numbering headings and paragraphs in reports as these often become confusing and adversely affect presentation. If you decide to use a numbering style, please use the Microsoft Word numbering tools, as these will present the numbers in the most suitable manner.
Numbering and Titling Tables and Charts
Please number each table – ‘table 1’, ‘table 2’ etc. – and number each chart or graph as ‘figure 1’, ‘figure 2’ etc. Centre these numbers directly above the table or figure. It is good practice to give each table or chart a title. This title should be in Arial, size 12 and centred directly below the chart or table.
If the quotation is less than one line, then it should be included in the main text enclosed in a double speech mark – do not italicise this or place it in bold. If the quotation is more than one line then:
- Separate it from the main text with a double hard return (‘enter’) top and bottom and indented by 1 cm each side.
- It should be placed within double speech marks.
- Placed in size 12 font.
Do not italicise quotes or place them in bold lettering. Direct quotes must be acknowledged using double speech marks otherwise you are vulnerable to an accusation of attempting to pass off a source’s words as your own paraphrasing summary. This could be interpreted as plagiarism (see below).
List of References
These are to be single line spaced and must follow the University Standard exactly in both procedure and presentation. A guide is available from the ASC in Camden House East. It can also be located in the CASE Toolkit for HE.
Appendices should be kept to a minimum. When used, they should be titled and presented in a professional and consistent manner. Title each one 'Appendix A’ (with a description of the content), B, C, etc., and place this title in bold, Arial font 12 and place on the left margin.
Paper and Printing
Use only white A4 paper and print on both sides.
Care must be taken when using other people’s work in your own. Otherwise you could face the very serious charge of plagiarism - stealing someone else’s ideas. Please note:
- When you use a direct quotation you must use quotation marks.
- If you summarise another writer’s views, you must cite the source correctly.
- If you paraphrase someone else’s thoughts, you must document the source.
See the section on Plagiarism.
The last thing you should do before handing in your essay is to proofread it. It is often useful to let someone else read it and listen to their comments, as well as reading it through out loud to yourself.
A final check for grammar and punctuation errors is always time well spent, since grading is influenced by the appropriate use of standard English.
Your assignment feedback will inform you of the grading criteria applied. You have access to these to build in the appropriate features of strong work.
Further details about the presentation of your work are available in the CASE Toolkit for HE.
Any report, regardless of style, is very different from an essay. Reports are designed to be selective in information given, and the correct compilation and layout of a report is arguably as important as the material it contains.
Reports can be read whole or in part. They are often used as the basis for further research. Report writing skills are widely used in industry and are therefore well worth acquiring.
Basic styles in report writing
A report is a style of writing that is both systematic and objective in its presentation of information to the reader.
Some or all of these approaches may be used:
- Informative – the result of research, and predominantly the presentation of fact.
- Persuasive – recommending a course of action or maybe a change of opinion, reinforcement of an idea or concept.
- Explanatory – to present possible reasons for problems and situations.
- Historical – to record an event or verbal agreement.
Stages in report writing
1. Decide the task to be undertaken
2. Compile a plan of action and prioritise set tasks
3. Collect evidence or material
4. Organise, evaluate and analyse material
5. Write the report
6. Review and proofread draft script
7. Make amendments
8. Make final evaluation
Careful thought and preparation is the key to presenting successful reports. It is well worth taking some time to think about what you aim to achieve from your efforts and also who the reader may be.
Plan of action
Often with report writing there are many tasks to be done. In group work it may be appropriate to allocate tasks between group members. Whatever the situation, try to think ahead and plan your strategy, bearing in mind the time limit that you have to work within.
Information for a report can come from a variety of sources: questionnaires, books/periodicals, journals, personal interviews, internet sources. Evidence may be divided into either primary or secondary information – primary evidence is evidence that you have collected yourself and is characterised by being new and original. This is sometimes referred to as empirical research; secondary evidence is already published information from books, articles, specialist magazines or Internet sources.
Organisation and evaluation of material
1. Identify the main purpose of the report and state clearly what you hope to achieve by the end.
2. Choose a title which is appropriate and relevant and is closely linked to the main purpose of the report.
3. Plan the layout of your material. All reports should have an introduction, main body, divided into sections, a conclusion and, sometimes, recommendations. Information which is not directly relevant to your discussion but worthy of inclusion for follow-up purposes should be placed in the appendices.
4. Use clear headings and subheadings. Make the report as easy and interesting to read as possible.
5. Consider the use of diagrams and illustrations to clarify points raised and to make the report more interesting to the reader.
Writing the report
Your report should be structured as follows:
- Title page – The title must say something about the work, showing for whom the report was written, by whom and when, and it should also arouse the reader’s interest.
- Table of contents – Detail each stage of the report with headings and subheadings as required. Include a table of any diagrams or illustrations used in the main text.
- Summary/terms of reference – Description of the scope and purpose of the report.
- Introduction – To include methodology
- Main body/findings
- Recommendations (where applicable)
- List of references
- Appendices – List the contents of this section on a separate sheet.
Additional notes for guidance
- Avoid the FIRST PERSON singular or plural i.e.: ‘I’ or ‘we’. Instead use the passive tense for example:- ‘Evidence suggests…’ or ‘On investigation…’ or ‘This report was researched…’
- Choose your wording carefully. Avoid colloquial expressions, e.g. ‘due to the fact that’ when no factual evidence is provided, archaic or foreign words or indeed any phrases the reader may be unfamiliar with. Technical jargon, abbreviations, slang and clichés should also be omitted, unless appropriate technical language is essential to meaning.
- If the tables, diagrams and illustrations you wish to use are directly relevant to your discussion include them in the main text. If not, use them as supporting evidence in your appendices.
- Some lecturers who set scientific or practical reports may require a slightly different format. If you are in any doubt about what is required from you, please ask the module leader concerned.
- As you research or read for your report, keep a note of all the books, newspapers and magazines, websites or journal articles that have helped you. You should record all your included sources when you come to prepare your references (see below).
- If you are in any doubt about any aspect of your report, CASE will be happy to offer advice on request.
- Begin your report in good time so that amendments can be made prior to submission.
- Keep to the given word limit. Part of the skill in report writing is to know what to leave out as well as include. You may lose marks if your report is too long or too short.
- Avoid plagiarism. Plagiarism is the act of using someone else’s words or ideas and passing them off as your own. See the section on plagiarism.
Further details about report writing are available in the CASE Toolkit for HE.
When writing a report, a number of books, websites and journal articles may be used. It is extremely important that your sources of reference are both adequate and accurate. Your work may well be used by others as a basis for future research and the information that you detail in this section of the report is not incidental but of immense value to the reader.
A comprehensive list of references is also of value in evaluating the quality of the report itself and recognising your efforts in its compilation. See the Referencing Guide in the CASE Toolkit for HE for details of how to present references correctly in your written work.