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Essay Writing

One of the most frequently asked questions by Freshers (and, indeed, a query often shared by finalists) is…well, what does my department want from me? You’ve escaped the world of decodable mark-schemes. A simple inclusion of a key word no longer garners easy points. Rather, it all sounds a bit…wishy-washy.

Essays are particularly slippery beasts. After all, what makes the difference between good, very good, or even superb writing? The mark schemes may give you adjectives galore, but they hardly tell you how to achieve those.

So, you need to develop your own strategies – and fast. You need to create a game-plan. I may not be able to give you a map, but I’m here to point you in the right direction.

(Of course, take all this advice with a pinch of salt. I’m hardly a qualified professor. I only claim the limited authority which my degree experience may grant me. However, if an English degree teaches you anything, it’s to be opinionated…and to write lots of essays.)

The secret

There’s a well-guarded secret key which can unlock academic writing. Actually, it applies to any piece of writing – whether it’s a cover letter, an email, a CV, a birthday card…

As you can imagine, this is a rather important piece of information. Indeed, I feel I must whisper as I tell you this now. Pay attention: the message may self-destruct. To write a good essay, you must…

betray Julie Andrews.

(Your confusion is palpable. Stick with me – it will all become clear.)

What does this mean? Well, the logic which presides over the world of writing is quite contrary to that which governs the practical world. In the real world, cause comes before effect. (If you flick a light switch, the light comes on; if you press a piano key, you’ll hear the sound…and always in that order.) However, the world of writing is not the real world.

In writing, it’s better to decide the effect you want first – and then work back, and figure out how to cause it.

Therefore, in writing, do not start at the very beginning.

Start where you’ll conclude

The first sentence you decide upon should be your concluding one. By focusing upon your conclusion from the very beginning, you force yourself to commit to a line of argument. By setting your end point, your essay becomes far more focused. As a result, it is also so much easier to write. It’s like giving yourself a sat-nav: rather than aimlessly wandering the academic streets, choosing your destination allows you to take the direct and logical path.

After all, the communication skills you display in an essay are as integral as its content. An essay could be well-researched, with evidenced points and a nuanced argument…and yet be totally worthless, if it cannot be understood.

Secondly, choosing your conclusion means that you restrict yourself – which, contrary to how it may sound, is actually a really good idea. You see, a University degree has one fundamental difference from any educational experience you will have had before: it is totally unlimited. Although a broad syllabus is defined, there is much less constraint to an exact marking scheme. As a result, the scope of what you may discuss, research, and explore becomes infinitely larger.

Of course, this has its advantages – for one, it means that your degree is a lot more interesting! However, it also makes essay writing so much more difficult.

Therefore, your concluding sentence should not only define your argument, but it should also make the scope that your essay will cover clear. Doing this allows you to limit what you discuss – and therefore, to engage in in-depth, rather than surface, discussion. Determining what you exclude is just as important as deciding what you’re going to include. It’s important to remember that most essays are acts of persuasion, not of exploration. An essay must be focused: I was once told that you should be able to summarise an essay’s argument in a rhyming couplet. It sounds mad, but it works.

Last, but not least – your conclusion must demonstrate that your essay has been worthwhile. A good litmus test: if it doesn’t sound like you’re dropping a mic at the end, it’s not a good enough finale.

If you’re still struggling, never suffer in silence. Durham’s Centre for Academic Development runs many group sessions and offers 1-on-1 consultations. I can testify that they’re as friendly as they are knowledgeable.

In summary

                Start where you’ll conclude:
                You’ll see what to include.

Emily Smith


Hi I’m Emily, as befits a recent English graduate, I was Collingwood College’s student Librarian when I was in Durham (I hope to return soon to study more). You’ll usually find me, for either work or play, buried in archives researching the obscure, the niche, and the forgotten…and sometimes wrangling dragons.


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