The Basic Essay
Do you know the fundamentals of a good essay?
One of the biggest mistakes university or college students make is submitting essays with no real idea of the style or structure they need. An essay is much more than just a few thousand words of text. It's a very specific genre of writing with its own conventions and expectations.
If you learn what these are, your grades can improve substantially!
1. Start with structure
A well-structured essay will allow you to clearly showcase your thoughts, argument, and conclusions. The basic structure of an essay is: introduction > body > conclusion. The introduction allows you to make your stance clear and provide a thesis statement. The body is where your stance is explained with clear examples. The conclusion summarises your content and reminds your reader why it is correct.
A strong introduction lets your reader know what to expect from your essay. It is your chance to give some brief background or context for your topic, note what models or methodologies you might be using, or give an indication of case studies you've selected. This will differ based on your essay requirements. Remember, your introduction is just a brief note to get your reader ready for more information, so don't overwhelm them with detail.
An introduction should also include a clear thesis statement. Your thesis statement is your opportunity to present your stance and briefly summarise your reasoning. For example, 'dogs make great pets because they are cute and cuddly' or 'holidays are necessary because they allow us to relax'. Your own thesis statement will relate to the topic you are assigned, and will probably be more serious and complex! But see if you can distill your overall argument into the form of a clear claim followed by a brief reason. This will ensure that you and your marker are on the same page.
Let's unpack what could go in the body of your essay. A great place to start is any necessary background information about your topic - expanding on from any context you may have given in the introduction. This can also include a definition of key terms you will be using, notes on major historical events, discussions of scientific facts, etc.
The biggest thing to remember as you plan the body of your essay is to ensure that each paragraph has one focal point. For example, a paragraph should explore one case study, one time period, one experiment, one side of a debate, etc. Depending on the nature of your essay, you could arrange these paragraphs in chronological order, use each one to focus on an element of a debate, or dedicate each paragraph to a different example that helps to back up your overall stance.
Your individual paragraphs need a logical structure, just like your essay as a whole. Here's an easy way of doing it:
Open with a topic statement. This is similar to a thesis statement, as it briefly introduces the paragraph and signposts its content. For example, "Bitcoin also differs from fiat currencies because it is not controlled by a central bank". This will help to keep your paragraph focussed on a single argument or case study that helps to advance the essay as a whole.
Next comes the body of your paragraph. This is where you supply facts or evidence in support of the topic sentence. Make sure your reader can see your reasoning. For example, you could note how nations have central banks that regulate their money supply and set interests rates. Bitcoin operates outside of this national regulatory process making it an unusual kind of currency.
Finally, end with a transition sentence. This is where you wrap up your claims and signpost how the following paragraph will continue your argument. For example, "This is why central banks have been so important in the management of currency. Nevertheless, this may be changing in the future". This would signpost to your reader that your next paragraph will move on to future predictions on cryptocurrency.
Your conclusion is where you tie the different strands of your argument together. It's your opportunity to remind your marker what you have claimed and why. This isn't because they've forgotten, but because it's important for you to show how focussed and coherent your essay has been.
There should be an obvious connection between the content raised in your introduction, the information explored in your body, and the summary you end with. Remember, your conclusion should never contain any new information. Instead, it should reinforce the content you have already raised and leave your reader certain about what your argument has been and how the evidence you have selected supports it.
2. Consider your style
As you start to write your essay, the style of your prose will become important. This is an area of weakness for some students - regardless of their confidence with English.
As a general rule, academic writing should be formal, clear, and precise. Avoid informal elements like colloquial phrases or contractions. If you struggle with clarity, remember that there's no need for long and complicated sentences. Opt for the active voice and simple sentences without multiple clauses. Academic writing doesn't need to be 'fancy'.
A great way for improving your style is simply to pay attention to how other academics write. As you read sources for research purposes, also consider the kind of words and sentences professional academics opt for. If you found that a particular source flowed well or explained things clearly, try to consider what stylistic choices led to that experience.
Reading your work out aloud before submission is a great way of making sure it sounds as good as possible. When you read your prose on a screen, it's easy to miss mistakes. Saying your prose out aloud can make errors far more obvious. It can also give you a better sense of flow. If you have trouble saying a sentence out aloud, that indicates that your marker will have trouble reading it. Don't let bad style get in the way of communicating a strong message.
Note: remember to also consider the needs of your discipline or the requirements of your specific assessment task. You may need to chat with your lecturer or tutor to make sure you know any special requirements for the specific essay you want to write.