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Methods Of Writing An Essay

Being able to write well is not only fundamental to passing your exams, it’s a vital life skill. Using good grammar and correct spelling are essential, so if you’re weak on these, try and brush up a little more! Make sure you understand how to use paragraphs correctly. No one wants to read one long stream of consciousness. So take a look at these essay writing technique tips.

General technique

Essays need to have a beginning, a middle and an end. The introduction should outline the problem, explain why it’s important, and briefly outline the main arguments. Don’t start with a dictionary definition – this is clichéd and boring. It should sum up the main arguments in the middle and finish with a conclusions that finally answers the essay question.

Good essay writing technique means having a well-ordered essay. Make sure you plan your essay. Make a bullet point list, table, or spider diagram with the main components of your answer and clearly order them. Poor structure is one of the main reasons students get marked down in essays. Order your thoughts logically and stick to your essay plan. You may want to use subtitles to help you organise your essay.

The main thing that the examiners are looking for is to see that you’ve understood the question. Demonstrate your keen conceptual awareness and understanding of the key issues. Do not be vague. Be specific and illustrate your work with appropriately referenced examples. Use figures or pictures or maps to illustrate your point. Demonstrate that you’ve done the wider reading.

Make sure you answer the question. If it’s a ‘compare and contrast’ kind of question, you’ll need to demonstrate both sides of the argument. If it’s a ‘define and explain’ kind of question, you’ll need to show that you have a deep understanding of the topic. If it has two parts, divide your essay into two parts to answer the question. Read widely around the topic before you even start and you’re halfway there.

In the conclusions, you need to sum up your arguments. Do not introduce anything new at this stage. Highlight the most important points and provide a final conclusion.

Remember to proof read your work! Critically read it through with a red pen. Have you repeated yourself? Be your worst critic and CUT savagely. Use everyone one of your alloted words to good effect. Cut the waffle and stick to justified (and referenced) statements. Keep your writing clear and simple.

Correct spelling and grammar is a must. Some general language tips:

  • Avoid semicolons as they are difficult to use correctly and effectively.
  • Paragraphs should follow a ‘theme’. They generally consist of more than one sentence.
  • It comprises, but is composed of (it never comprises of).
  • Avoid using the same word too frequently or twice in quick succession.
  • Do not use clichés, metaphores or similes.
  • Do not use abbreviations. Stick to formal English (don’t use don’t).
  • Try to avoid using the first person. (“I”).
  • Try to use the active voice rather than the passive voice where possible – it makes for more direct and interesting reading.

If you don’t understand English grammar, read Eats, shoots and leaves by Lynne Truss.

Finally, make sure you read carefully any feedback you are given on your essays. Your tutors will be keen to help you learn and progress.

Referencing and citations

At undergraduate level, more so than at A-Level, you will need to demonstrate evidence of further reading. Lectures are supposed to be a pointer and guide for your further reading. By reading, we mean published, peer-reviewed literature; Wikipedia does not count! Other websites (including this one) should not be cited in essays, but you can use them to further your understanding and get lists of peer-reviewed literature to read.

Make sure you understand the referencing style (copy the syle used in Elsevier journals as a good guide), and if you don’t understand, ask your lecturer and teacher. See the example paragraph below.

Example referencing style

Despite substantial evidence for multiple glaciations in Britain and Scandinavia during the Quaternary, the interaction between these ice masses in eastern England and in the North Sea remains unclear. There is extensive evidence of large Scandinavian and British ice sheets in the North Sea during each of the main glacial stages (Ehlers et al. 1984; Sejrup et al. 2005; Davies et al. 2011). Coalescence of the British-Irish Ice Sheet (BIIS) and Fennoscandian Ice Sheet (FIS) have been suggested during MIS 12, MIS 6 and the Devensian (MIS 5d-2) (Catt and Penny 1966; Catt and Digby 1988; Bowen 1999; Carr et al. 2006; Catt 2007; Davies et al. 2009; 2012), with Scandinavian ice reaching the coast of eastern England during MIS 6 and MIS 12. However, recent research in north Norfolk has challenged this argument, suggesting that the North Sea Drift tills, which were traditionally thought to comprise Scandinavian and Scottish tills, have purely a Scottish provenance, and may in fact be older than MIS 12 (Lee et al. 2002; 2004; 2012).

Bowen, D.Q., 1999. On the correlation and classification of Quaternary deposits and land-sea correlations, A Revised Correlation of Quaternary Deposits in the British Isles. Geological Society Special Report, Special Report 23. Geological Society of London, London, pp. 1-10.

Carr, S.J., Holmes, R., van der Meer, J.J.M. and Rose, J., 2006. The Last Glacial Maximum in the North Sea: Micromorphological evidence of extensive glaciation. Journal of Quaternary Science, 21(2): 131-153.

Catt, J.A., 2007. The Pleistocene glaciations of eastern Yorkshire: a review. Proceedings of the Yorkshire Geological Society, 56(3): 177-207.

Catt, J.A. and Digby, P.G.N., 1988. Boreholes in the Wolstonian Basement Till at Easington, Holderness, July 1985. Proceedings of the Yorkshire Geological Society, 47(1): 21-27.

Catt, J.A. and Penny, L.F., 1966. The Pleistocene deposits of Holderness, East Yorkshire. Proceedings of the Yorkshire Geological Society, 35: 375-420.

Davies, B.J., Roberts, D.H., Bridgland, D.R., Ó Cofaigh, C. and Riding, J.B., 2011. Provenance and depositional environments of Quaternary sedimentary formations of the western North Sea Basin. Journal of Quaternary Science, 26(1): 59-75.

Davies, B.J., Roberts, D.H., Bridgland, D.R., Ó Cofaigh, C., Riding, J.B., Demarchi, B., Penkman, K. and Pawley, S.M., 2012. Timing and depositional environments of a Middle Pleistocene glaciation of northeast England: New evidence from Warren House Gill, County Durham. Quaternary Science Reviews, 44: 180-212.

Davies, B.J., Roberts, D.H., Bridgland, D.R., Ó Cofaigh, C., Riding, J.B., Phillips, E.R. and Teasdale, D.A., 2009. Interlobate ice sheet dynamics during the Last Glacial Maximum at Whitburn Bay, County Durham, England. Boreas, 38: 555-575.

Ehlers, J., Meyer, K.-D. and Stephan, H.-J., 1984. The Pre-Weichselian glaciations of North-West Europe. Quaternary Science Reviews, 3(1): 1-40.

Lee, J.R., Busschers, F.S. and Sejrup, H.P., 2012. Pre-Weichselian Quaternary glaciations of the British Isles, The Netherlands, Norway and adjacent marine areas south of 68°N: implications for long-term ice sheet development in northern Europe. Quaternary Science Reviews, 44: 213-228.

Lee, J.R., Rose, J., Hamblin, R.J.O. and Moorlock, B.S.P., 2004. Dating the earliest lowland glaciation of eastern England: a pre-MIS 12 early Middle Pleistocene Happisburgh glaciation. Quaternary Science Reviews, 23(14-15): 1551-1566.

Lee, J.R., Rose, J., Riding, J.B., Moorlock, B.S.P. and Hamblin, R.J.O., 2002. Testing the case for a Middle Pleistocene Scandinavian glaciation in Eastern England: evidence for a Scottish ice source for tills within the Corton Formation of East Anglia, UK. Boreas, 31(4): 345-355.

Sejrup, H.P., Hjelstuen, B.O., Torbjorn Dahlgren, K.I., Haflidason, H., Kuijpers, A., Nygard, A., Praeg, D., Stoker, M.S. and Vorren, T.O., 2005. Pleistocene glacial history of the NW European continental margin. Marine and Petroleum Geology, 22(9-10): 1111-1129.

General Essay Writing Tips


Despite the fact that, as Shakespeare said, "the pen is mightier than the sword," the pen itself is not enough to make an effective writer. In fact, though we may all like to think of ourselves as the next Shakespeare, inspiration alone is not the key to effective essay writing. You see, the conventions of English essays are more formulaic than you might think – and, in many ways, it can be as simple as counting to five.

The Five Paragraph Essay

Though more advanced academic papers are a category all their own, the basic high school or college essay has the following standardized, five paragraph structure:

Paragraph 1: Introduction
Paragraph 2: Body 1
Paragraph 3: Body 2
Paragraph 4: Body 3
Paragraph 5: Conclusion

Though it may seem formulaic – and, well, it is - the idea behind this structure is to make it easier for the reader to navigate the ideas put forth in an essay. You see, if your essay has the same structure as every other one, any reader should be able to quickly and easily find the information most relevant to them.

The Introduction

Want to see sample essays?
Check out our Sample Essay section where you can see scholarship essays, admissions essays, and more!

The principle purpose of the introduction is to present your position (this is also known as the "thesis" or "argument") on the issue at hand but effective introductory paragraphs are so much more than that. Before you even get to this thesis statement, for example, the essay should begin with a "hook" that grabs the reader’s attention and makes them want to read on. Examples of effective hooks include relevant quotations ("no man is an island") or surprising statistics ("three out of four doctors report that…").

Only then, with the reader’s attention "hooked," should you move on to the thesis. The thesis should be a clear, one-sentence explanation of your position that leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind about which side you are on from the beginning of your essay.

Following the thesis, you should provide a mini-outline which previews the examples you will use to support your thesis in the rest of the essay. Not only does this tell the reader what to expect in the paragraphs to come but it also gives them a clearer understanding of what the essay is about.

Finally, designing the last sentence in this way has the added benefit of seamlessly moving the reader to the first paragraph of the body of the paper. In this way we can see that the basic introduction does not need to be much more than three or four sentences in length. If yours is much longer you might want to consider editing it down a bit!

Here, by way of example, is an introductory paragraph to an essay in response to the following question:

"Do we learn more from finding out that we have made mistakes or from our successful actions?"

"No man is an island" and, as such, he is constantly shaped and influenced by his experiences. People learn by doing and, accordingly, learn considerably more from their mistakes than their success. For proof of this, consider examples from both science and everyday experience.

DO – Pay Attention to Your Introductory Paragraph

Because this is the first paragraph of your essay it is your opportunity to give the reader the best first impression possible. The introductory paragraph not only gives the reader an idea of what you will talk about but also shows them how you will talk about it. Put a disproportionate amount of effort into this – more than the 20% a simple calculation would suggest – and you will be rewarded accordingly.

DO NOT – Use Passive Voice or I/My

Active voice, wherein the subjects direct actions rather than let the actions "happen to" them – "he scored a 97%" instead of "he was given a 97%" – is a much more powerful and attention-grabbing way to write. At the same time, unless it is a personal narrative, avoid personal pronouns like I, My, or Me. Try instead to be more general and you will have your reader hooked.

The Body Paragraphs

The middle paragraphs of the essay are collectively known as the body paragraphs and, as alluded to above, the main purpose of a body paragraph is to spell out in detail the examples that support your thesis.

For the first body paragraph you should use your strongest argument or most significant example unless some other more obvious beginning point (as in the case of chronological explanations) is required. The first sentence of this paragraph should be the topic sentence of the paragraph that directly relates to the examples listed in the mini-outline of introductory paragraph.

A one sentence body paragraph that simply cites the example of "George Washington" or "LeBron James" is not enough, however. No, following this an effective essay will follow up on this topic sentence by explaining to the reader, in detail, who or what an example is and, more importantly, why that example is relevant.

Even the most famous examples need context. For example, George Washington’s life was extremely complex – by using him as an example, do you intend to refer to his honesty, bravery, or maybe even his wooden teeth? The reader needs to know this and it is your job as the writer to paint the appropriate picture for them. To do this, it is a good idea to provide the reader with five or six relevant facts about the life (in general) or event (in particular) you believe most clearly illustrates your point.

Having done that, you then need to explain exactly why this example proves your thesis. The importance of this step cannot be understated (although it clearly can be underlined); this is, after all, the whole reason you are providing the example in the first place. Seal the deal by directly stating why this example is relevant.

Here is an example of a body paragraph to continue the essay begun above:

Take, by way of example, Thomas Edison. The famed American inventor rose to prominence in the late 19th century because of his successes, yes, but even he felt that these successes were the result of his many failures. He did not succeed in his work on one of his most famous inventions, the lightbulb, on his first try nor even on his hundred and first try. In fact, it took him more than 1,000 attempts to make the first incandescent bulb but, along the way, he learned quite a deal. As he himself said, "I did not fail a thousand times but instead succeeded in finding a thousand ways it would not work." Thus Edison demonstrated both in thought and action how instructive mistakes can be.

DO – Tie Things Together

The first sentence – the topic sentence - of your body paragraphs needs to have a lot individual pieces to be truly effective. Not only should it open with a transition that signals the change from one idea to the next but also it should (ideally) also have a common thread which ties all of the body paragraphs together. For example, if you used "first" in the first body paragraph then you should used "secondly" in the second or "on the one hand" and "on the other hand" accordingly.

DO NOT – Be Too General

Examples should be relevant to the thesis and so should the explanatory details you provide for them. It can be hard to summarize the full richness of a given example in just a few lines so make them count. If you are trying to explain why George Washington is a great example of a strong leader, for instance, his childhood adventure with the cherry tree (though interesting in another essay) should probably be skipped over.

A Word on Transitions

You may have noticed that, though the above paragraph aligns pretty closely with the provided outline, there is one large exception: the first few words. These words are example of a transitional phrase – others include "furthermore," "moreover," but also "by contrast" and "on the other hand" – and are the hallmark of good writing.

Transitional phrases are useful for showing the reader where one section ends and another begins. It may be helpful to see them as the written equivalent of the kinds of spoken cues used in formal speeches that signal the end of one set of ideas and the beginning of another. In essence, they lead the reader from one section of the paragraph of another.

To further illustrate this, consider the second body paragraph of our example essay:

In a similar way, we are all like Edison in our own way. Whenever we learn a new skill - be it riding a bike, driving a car, or cooking a cake - we learn from our mistakes. Few, if any, are ready to go from training wheels to a marathon in a single day but these early experiences (these so-called mistakes) can help us improve our performance over time. You cannot make a cake without breaking a few eggs and, likewise, we learn by doing and doing inevitably means making mistakes.

Hopefully this example not only provides another example of an effective body paragraph but also illustrates how transitional phrases can be used to distinguish between them.

The Conclusion

Although the conclusion paragraph comes at the end of your essay it should not be seen as an afterthought. As the final paragraph is represents your last chance to make your case and, as such, should follow an extremely rigid format.

One way to think of the conclusion is, paradoxically, as a second introduction because it does in fact contain many of the same features. While it does not need to be too long – four well-crafted sentence should be enough – it can make or break and essay.

Effective conclusions open with a concluding transition ("in conclusion," "in the end," etc.) and an allusion to the "hook" used in the introductory paragraph. After that you should immediately provide a restatement of your thesis statement.

This should be the fourth or fifth time you have repeated your thesis so while you should use a variety of word choice in the body paragraphs it is a acceptable idea to use some (but not all) of the original language you used in the introduction. This echoing effect not only reinforces your argument but also ties it nicely to the second key element of the conclusion: a brief (two or three words is enough) review of the three main points from the body of the paper.

Having done all of that, the final element – and final sentence in your essay – should be a "global statement" or "call to action" that gives the reader signals that the discussion has come to an end.

In the end, then, one thing is clear: mistakes do far more to help us learn and improve than successes. As examples from both science and everyday experience can attest, if we treat each mistake not as a misstep but as a learning experience the possibilities for self-improvement are limitless.

DO – Be Powerful

The conclusion paragraph can be a difficult paragraph to write effectively but, as it is your last chance to convince or otherwise impress the reader, it is worth investing some time in. Take this opportunity to restate your thesis with confidence; if you present your argument as "obvious" then the reader might just do the same.

DO NOT – Copy the First Paragraph

Although you can reuse the same key words in the conclusion as you did in the introduction, try not to copy whole phrases word for word. Instead, try to use this last paragraph to really show your skills as a writer by being as artful in your rephrasing as possible.

Taken together, then, the overall structure of a five paragraph essay should look something like this:

Introduction Paragraph

  • An attention-grabbing "hook"
  • A thesis statement
  • A preview of the three subtopics you will discuss in the body paragraphs.

First Body Paragraph

  • Topic sentence which states the first subtopic and opens with a transition
  • Supporting details or examples
  • An explanation of how this example proves your thesis

Second Body Paragraph

  • Topic sentence which states the second subtopic and opens with a transition
  • Supporting details or examples
  • An explanation of how this example proves your thesis

Third Body Paragraph

  • Topic sentence which states the third subtopic and opens with a transition
  • Supporting details or examples
  • An explanation of how this example proves your thesis

Concluding Paragraph

  • Concluding Transition, Reverse "hook," and restatement of thesis.
  • Rephrasing main topic and subtopics.
  • Global statement or call to action.

More tips to make your essay shine

Planning Pays

Although it may seem like a waste of time – especially during exams where time is tight – it is almost always better to brainstorm a bit before beginning your essay. This should enable you to find the best supporting ideas – rather than simply the first ones that come to mind – and position them in your essay accordingly.

Your best supporting idea – the one that most strongly makes your case and, simultaneously, about which you have the most knowledge – should go first. Even the best-written essays can fail because of ineffectively placed arguments.

Aim for Variety

Sentences and vocabulary of varying complexity are one of the hallmarks of effective writing. When you are writing, try to avoid using the same words and phrases over and over again. You don’t have to be a walking thesaurus but a little variance can make the same idea sparkle.

If you are asked about "money," you could try "wealth" or "riches." At the same time, avoid beginning sentences the dull pattern of "subject + verb + direct object." Although examples of this are harder to give, consider our writing throughout this article as one big example of sentence structure variety.

Practice! Practice! Practice!

In the end, though, remember that good writing does not happen by accident. Although we have endeavored to explain everything that goes into effective essay writing in as clear and concise a way as possible, it is much easier in theory than it is in practice.

As a result, we recommend that you practice writing sample essays on various topics. Even if they are not masterpieces at first, a bit of regular practice will soon change that – and make you better prepared when it comes to the real thing.

Now that you’ve learned how to write an effective essay, check out our Sample Essays so you can see how they are done in practice.

Essay Writing Center

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