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About this book

This engaging text shows students what markers look for in their work and helps them to develop the skills they need to produce a first-class essay. It focuses on all the core elements of effective essay writing, including devising a question, critical thinking, engaging with the literature and structuring an essay. Chapters include clear and concise guidance on meeting marking criteria, illustrated with real students’ essays from a range of disciplines, and activities which encourage students to put their new skills into practice.

This is an essential resource for all university students for whom essays and coursework form part of their assessment. It is also ideal for further education students and those preparing for university-level study.

Table of Contents

1. Understanding the Purpose of University Essays

Abstract
Writing a good essay involves providing an answer to a given question, or, once again, a solution to a problem. However, there is much more to it than that. You also need to demonstrate that you have a number of characteristics. These characteristics are closely related to the broader purpose of universities themselves and can be identified in most marking criteria. By exploring the broader purpose of universities and providing an overview of the criteria that will be used to mark your essays, this chapter will equip you with the ‘first principles’ of essay writing. Once you understand these, much of the time you will be able to work out yourself what you need to do to score well in a given essay. The chapter will finish by saying a few words about the people who will be marking your essays.
Jamie Roberts

2. Critical Thinking

Abstract
Critical thinking is essential not only for producing strong university essays but for any activity that calls for information to be evaluated and for problems to be solved (for knowledge to be created). While there are many facets to critical thinking, in a nutshell it involves two things: questioning claims about the nature of the world and about what people ought to do, and, if any claim is found not to be supported by sound reasoning and evidence, devising a better claim.Those who do not think critically tend to accept the ideas of others without sufficiently questioning them, or else they make their own claims but their reasoning and evidence are weak.
Jamie Roberts

3. Engaging with Others’ Work: The Fundamentals

Abstract
As has been discussed, including others’ work in your essays allows you to do a number of important things. It helps you to demonstrate that you are knowledgeable about your subject and it provides you with a context within which you can create new knowledge. Also, analysing others’ work is a good way to demonstrate critical thinking. Finally – and perhaps most obviously – by drawing on others’ work you can strengthen your own arguments. However, to do any of these things successfully (see Chapter 4 for details), you must have the basic skills to differentiate between your voice and the voices of others, that is, between your words and ideas and others’ words and ideas. This chapter will introduce these skills. It will begin with a brief discussion of plagiarism before considering the quality of different sources of information and explaining how exactly to integrate others’ work into your essays.
Jamie Roberts

4. How Others’ Work Can Help You Develop Your Arguments

Abstract
The previous chapter introduced you to the fundamentals of how to integrate others’ work into your essays. It stressed the importance of differentiating between your voice and the voices of others and showed how you can make use of quotations, summaries and paraphrases and also reporting verbs and phrases. This chapter builds on this by explaining how others’ work can help you develop your arguments. All of the approaches introduced play an important role in the process of knowledge creation. Remember that the creator of knowledge knows the ideas that already exist, understands how these ideas relate to one another and ultimately is able to evaluate and build upon these ideas. The approaches are ordered – roughly – from least to most challenging.
Jamie Roberts

5. Academic Writing Style, Grammar and Layout

Abstract
There is often debate about the extent to which writing style and grammar should matter. One argument is that so long as a person’s meaning is clear, how they express themselves is not so important. While this might be true in some instances, the reality for students is that style and grammar matter very much for markers; the requirement of having good expression and grammar is present in nearly all marking criteria. Furthermore, it is rare that poor style and grammar do not inhibit clarity. A musical analogy is useful. If your style is informal or wordy and if your writing has many grammatical errors, this is like a performer who has not practised for a performance. If your writing is incomprehensible, this is like a performer who cannot even play their instrument. Ultimately, you want your writing to have a transparent quality: the marker should grasp your meaning without even noticing they are reading. This is just like enjoying a good performance.
Jamie Roberts

6. The Essay Question

Abstract
Even though many essay questions are short, given they are the seed from which your essays grow they deserve considerable attention. Too often students hastily select a question then get on with writing their essays without thinking about what exactly the question is asking or indeed whether the question lends itself to scoring a high mark. This chapter will provide eight pieces of advice that will guide you when you are selecting and responding to essay questions. The most substantial piece of advice is presented first: ‘Answer the question, the whole question and nothing but the question.’ The discussion of this will include guidance about how to analyse essay questions. After this, the advice is more or less presented chronologically from the point of view of the researching and writing process.
Jamie Roberts

7. Structure and Signposting

Abstract
Structure has already been mentioned several times in this book. We have seen, for example, that having a good structure is one of the characteristics of critical thinking. However, structure is also very much a criterion unto itself. For example, in the ‘Undergraduate Generic Marking Criteria’ developed by King’s College London there are three main criteria: Understanding, Depth of Knowledge and Structure.Looking in more detail at the ‘Structure’ criterion, we read that the best assignments are ‘Excellently structured, focused and well written’ and that ‘Compelling arguments are made’. From this we see that structure is not just about clear organisation, but about the quality of your arguments. Building on this philosophy, in this and the following chapters, structure is rarely considered in isolation; rather, I discuss structure in relation to answering the essay question.
Jamie Roberts

8. Essay Introductions

Abstract
Introductions provide the reader with an overview of what will occur in the body of the essay. To explain why they exist, it is again worth comparing essays with novels. Novels are written to entertain, and one of the main ways they do this is by creating mysteries. Essays are not written to entertain, but to demonstrate knowledge, explore complex problems and, at higher levels, create knowledge. Given this, it makes sense to avoid mystery and provide an overview of the essay at the outset. Or, in the parlance of our times, to start an essay with the ‘spoiler’.However, there is no such thing as a ‘right’ introduction. Students and academics in different disciplines achieve success using different structures, and different questions sometimes require different approaches. This chapter will provide advice about how to construct a comprehensive introduction, but because the information will be presented in a modular fashion, you will be able to adapt the advice to suit your needs.
Jamie Roberts

9. Rules for Writing Body Paragraphs

Abstract
In many ways we now come to the main event of this book. This is because the bulk of your essays will comprise body paragraphs. Compared with introductions, however, the structure of paragraphs is much more variable. But this is not such a bad thing, as this is where the art of essay writing really makes itself felt! This is where you must make decisions about how best to present the knowledge you have gained and make your arguments. Having said this, there are a number of guidelines which can help you improve your paragraphs. This chapter will discuss a number of these. The following chapter will introduce some of the many ways you can structure your paragraphs. As has been said several times now, if what you write does not obviously help you answer the question and does not support your thesis (if you have one), then you should not be writing it. Unfortunately, it is the lot of all writers to put energy into producing text which must, in the end, be deleted.
Jamie Roberts

10. Different Body Paragraph Structures

Abstract
There are many ways to structure paragraphs in the body of your essay. Because of the great variety, I will not attempt to give an exhaustive account of different structures. Instead, and consistent with my approach throughout this book, I will establish some of the principles which should inform your thinking about body-paragraph structures (hereafter I will write ‘paragraph’, not ‘body-paragraph’). Having done this, I will analyse a number of examples. No activities are included in this chapter because the complete essays in Chapter 12 will give you a good opportunity to analyse paragraph structures. The way you structure a paragraph should be informed by the function of the paragraph. This function will largely be determined by how you want the paragraph to help you to respond to the essay question, and should also be influenced by the ever-present requirements that your essays demonstrate knowledge and critical thinking. This advice, however, is quite general. To understand what you can do in individual paragraphs, we need to return to the discussion of task words in Chapter 6.
Jamie Roberts

11. Essay Conclusions

Abstract
Students are sometimes confused about conclusions. They are often told that conclusions should summarise what has been achieved in the essay. However, on the one hand, they encounter academic articles and books whose conclusions keep arguing rather than summarising. And on the other hand, they worry that if their conclusions only include a summary they will be repetitive. Both of these concerns are well founded. Nevertheless, there is a good way to go about writing conclusions and it need not be overly repetitive. Although conclusions and introductions include similar information, they emphasise different things. Introductions are concerned with introducing the question/problem to be addressed and explaining its significance, and giving a brief overview of what will be covered. Conclusions are more concerned with summarising the key arguments that have been made; this summary will be more substantial than the outline in the introduction.
Jamie Roberts

12. Analysing Complete Essays

Abstract
I conclude this book by analysing two complete essays: a weaker and a stronger one. The essays were chosen because they are accessible and illustrate much of what has been covered, and also because they are relatively short. Comments are made throughout. Most transition signals and reporting verbs and phrases have been underlined, and occasionally extraneous words have been struck out. After each essay, comments are made on a marking sheet whose criteria closely follow the topics covered in the book. Our first complete essay comes from a course which explored comedy. The 1350 word essay was responding to the question, ‘Why do we like to laugh?’ As there are many theories across the sciences and arts about why we like to laugh, the question very much lends itself to the three basic academic activities of showing knowledge, exploring complexity and making evaluations. The essay is weak because it is poorly structured and dominated by others’ ideas (the student’s voice is not sufficiently present). Also, while much of what it discusses is broadly relevant, the student often does not clearly link their points with the question.
Jamie Roberts
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