Hello, my name is Robin Banerjee and I'm a senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Sussex. I teach many first year, second year and third year students so if you come into the Psychology department I'm sure I'll see lots of you while you're here. Today I'm going to be talking a little bit about guidelines for writing essays. Now I'm sure that when you've got essays to write you'll find lots of different instructions to follow for the different assignments that you've got, and of course you'll have to pay attention to them. But what I'm going to give you today are some helpful guidelines which I hope will be useful to you as you set about the task of writing an essay.
1. Come up with a clear line of argument
Well, my first guideline for writing an essay is to make sure that you have a clear line of argument. If the essay title is in the form of a question -- this might seem obvious -- answer the question. Although it seems like an obvious point, I've read many essays where student simply don't answer the question. They'll talk about lots of things that relate to the question but they don't actually give you an answer to the question. So if the title is in the form of a question, make sure you answer the question. And even if the essay title isn't in the form of a question, make sure that you have something clear that you want to say. Don't just talk in general terms about the subject area. Make sure you have a clear point that you want to communicate in your essay.
2. Make it clear where you are going
All right, so my second major guideline for writing an essay is to make it clear where you are going. The reader needs to know what you're saying and needs to be aware of the path that you are taking in the essay. So don't wait until the very end of the essay to reveal the main point that you're trying to communicate. As I've said before the most important thing in an essay is to come up with a clear line of argument and it's important to tell the reader about that right at the beginning. So set out your plan for the essay at the outset and then use the rest of the essay to actually build up your argument. Use examples and evidence to support the points that you're making. Don't run through a whole range of different examples and pieces of evidence and theories and then at the end say the point that you want to make about it. Make the point first and then use the evidence to support it.
3. Plan your essay
Express your key points in complete sentences
My third guideline for writing an essay is to use a plan. Once you've done all your reading, once you've done all your research you need to step back from it and decide what you're going to say. Come up with your main line of argument, but plan your essay before you launch into the actual writing of the essay. That means that you need to decide exactly what your key points are. So you need a logical sequence of key points that actually build up your argument. It's really important when you've arrived at your key points, it's really important to express them in complete sentences. One of the mistakes that I often see students doing, and one of the things that makes plans a bit problematic for a lot of students, is that when they're coming up with their outline for their essay they just have a list of subject headings: First I'm going to be talking about this, then I'm going to be talking about that, and then last of all I'm going to talk about that. And actually that's not a very good plan, because when you go down to write something you don't know what you're going to say. You know what you're going to talk about, but you don't know what you're going to say about it. So the most important thing about the plan is to decide what your main points are and to express them in complete sentences -- not just what are you going to talk about but what are you going to say about it? Once you've got that sequence of key points expressed in complete sentences you should have a pretty good summary of your essay. And that should be able to stand alone as an answer to your essay question.
Select your evidence
Once you've decided on your sequence of key points, then you can start to flesh out your plan by listing the evidence that you're going to include for each key point. What examples are you going to draw on? What pieces of evidence or empirical work or theoretical work are you going to use to actually support each of those key points? Once you've actually done that you've got a really good framework for writing your essay: you know what your main argument is, you know what each key point is that you're going to use to support that argument, and in turn you know what key bits of evidence or examples or theories you're going to use to make each of those key points.
Review your choice of key points and evidence
One final point about the plans. If you look at your plan and you find that you've got nine, ten or even more key points then think again about whether they really need to stand separate from each other as different points. In an essay, and even in longer essays like 4,000 word essays, you'll usually only need to have a handful of key points. Remember the main objective is to support the main line of argument that you want to present to the reader. That doesn't mean that you have to cover absolutely everything that you've read. It may be the case that there will be material that you've read that really isn't relevant to the point that you want to make in this essay - so decide what the best pieces of evidence are to support the points that you actually want to make in this essay.
4. Ask someone else to read you essay
My next guideline for writing an essay is to make sure that you give it to someone else to read. It's really important to get a second opinion on your essay and sometimes when you've been working on an essay for a long time it can be really hard to adopt a fresh objective stance and look at your essay. So find someone, maybe a friend that you can bribe to read your essay, maybe a family member, long suffering flat mates - whoever you can. Get someone else to read the essay and to try and extract the main points. If you've done your job well -- if you started out with a good plan, with the key points expressed in complete sentences, and you based your essay on that plan -- then when you give that essay to someone else to read and you ask them, ‘Can you pull out the main points from this essay?', their extracted main points should look very similar to the main points that you had in your plan. So that would be a good sign that you've accomplished what you wanted to accomplish in the essay.
5. Show originality in your essay
OK, my final guideline for writing an essay concerns originality. You'll probably see in most of the assessment criteria for essays in different subjects across the university that originality is one of the markers of first class essays. Can you show originality and flair in the way that you write your essay? Well, a lot of students often ask, ‘What do I do to show originality in an essay? Do I just say what my opinion is about the subject matter?' Well, partly -- but it's not just a matter of expressing your personal opinion without justification or rationale. Originality in an academic essay is all about the way that you interrogate the material in front of you and the way that you put the material together. So, regarding the first of those points, if you are dealing with evidence, examples, theories, other people's writing - question it, adopt a critical standpoint, evaluate it, don't just accept it at face value. Regarding the second point -- about how you put ideas together and how you put your points and evidence together in your essay -- that's a really important opportunity to show your originality. It's not so much about waiting until you get to the end of the essay and then coming up with - ‘well I think ... blah blah blah..' But it's about how you put the argument together. That's where you can really show your originality. Have you taken these theories, these different bits of evidence, the different readings that you've done, have you put them together in an interesting and innovative way to answer the question? That's how a student shows originality in an essay!
'Tis hard to say, if greater want of skill
Appear in writing or in judging ill;
But, of the two, less dang'rous is th' offence
To tire our patience, than mislead our sense.
Some few in that, but numbers err in this,
Ten censure wrong for one who writes amiss;
A fool might once himself alone expose,
Now one in verse makes many more in prose.
'Tis with our judgments as our watches, none
Go just alike, yet each believes his own.
In poets as true genius is but rare,
True taste as seldom is the critic's share;
Both must alike from Heav'n derive their light,
These born to judge, as well as those to write.
Let such teach others who themselves excel,
And censure freely who have written well.
Authors are partial to their wit, 'tis true,
But are not critics to their judgment too?
Yet if we look more closely we shall find
Most have the seeds of judgment in their mind;
Nature affords at least a glimm'ring light;
The lines, tho' touch'd but faintly, are drawn right.
But as the slightest sketch, if justly trac'd,
Is by ill colouring but the more disgrac'd,
So by false learning is good sense defac'd;
Some are bewilder'd in the maze of schools,
And some made coxcombs Nature meant but fools.
In search of wit these lose their common sense,
And then turn critics in their own defence:
Each burns alike, who can, or cannot write,
Or with a rival's, or an eunuch's spite.
All fools have still an itching to deride,
And fain would be upon the laughing side.
If Mævius scribble in Apollo's spite,
There are, who judge still worse than he can write.
Some have at first for wits, then poets pass'd,
Turn'd critics next, and prov'd plain fools at last;
Some neither can for wits nor critics pass,
As heavy mules are neither horse nor ass.
Those half-learn'd witlings, num'rous in our isle
As half-form'd insects on the banks of Nile;
Unfinish'd things, one knows not what to call,
Their generation's so equivocal:
To tell 'em, would a hundred tongues require,
Or one vain wit's, that might a hundred tire.
But you who seek to give and merit fame,
And justly bear a critic's noble name,
Be sure your self and your own reach to know,
How far your genius, taste, and learning go;
Launch not beyond your depth, but be discreet,
And mark that point where sense and dulness meet.
Of all the causes which conspire to blind
Man's erring judgment, and misguide the mind,
What the weak head with strongest bias rules,
Is pride, the never-failing vice of fools.
Whatever Nature has in worth denied,
She gives in large recruits of needful pride;
For as in bodies, thus in souls, we find
What wants in blood and spirits, swell'd with wind;
Pride, where wit fails, steps in to our defence,
And fills up all the mighty void of sense!
If once right reason drives that cloud away,
Truth breaks upon us with resistless day;
Trust not yourself; but your defects to know,
Make use of ev'ry friend—and ev'ry foe.
A little learning is a dang'rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fir'd at first sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless youth we tempt the heights of arts,
While from the bounded level of our mind,
Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind,
But more advanc'd, behold with strange surprise
New, distant scenes of endless science rise!
So pleas'd at first, the tow'ring Alps we try,
Mount o'er the vales, and seem to tread the sky;
Th' eternal snows appear already past,
And the first clouds and mountains seem the last;
But those attain'd, we tremble to survey
The growing labours of the lengthen'd way,
Th' increasing prospect tires our wand'ring eyes,
Hills peep o'er hills, and Alps on Alps arise!
A perfect judge will read each work of wit
With the same spirit that its author writ,
Survey the whole, nor seek slight faults to find,
Where nature moves, and rapture warms the mind;
Nor lose, for that malignant dull delight,
The gen'rous pleasure to be charm'd with wit.
But in such lays as neither ebb, nor flow,
Correctly cold, and regularly low,
That shunning faults, one quiet tenour keep;
We cannot blame indeed—but we may sleep.
In wit, as nature, what affects our hearts
Is not th' exactness of peculiar parts;
'Tis not a lip, or eye, we beauty call,
But the joint force and full result of all.
Thus when we view some well-proportion'd dome,
(The world's just wonder, and ev'n thine, O Rome!'
No single parts unequally surprise;
All comes united to th' admiring eyes;
No monstrous height, or breadth, or length appear;
The whole at once is bold, and regular.
Whoever thinks a faultless piece to see,
Thinks what ne'er was, nor is, nor e'er shall be.
In ev'ry work regard the writer's end,
Since none can compass more than they intend;
And if the means be just, the conduct true,
Applause, in spite of trivial faults, is due.
As men of breeding, sometimes men of wit,
T' avoid great errors, must the less commit:
Neglect the rules each verbal critic lays,
For not to know such trifles, is a praise.
Most critics, fond of some subservient art,
Still make the whole depend upon a part:
They talk of principles, but notions prize,
And all to one lov'd folly sacrifice.
Learn then what morals critics ought to show,
For 'tis but half a judge's task, to know.
'Tis not enough, taste, judgment, learning, join;
In all you speak, let truth and candour shine:
That not alone what to your sense is due,
All may allow; but seek your friendship too.
Be silent always when you doubt your sense;
And speak, though sure, with seeming diffidence:
Some positive, persisting fops we know,
Who, if once wrong, will needs be always so;
But you, with pleasure own your errors past,
And make each day a critic on the last.
'Tis not enough, your counsel still be true;
Blunt truths more mischief than nice falsehoods do;
Men must be taught as if you taught them not;
And things unknown proposed as things forgot.
Without good breeding, truth is disapprov'd;
That only makes superior sense belov'd.
Be niggards of advice on no pretence;
For the worst avarice is that of sense.
With mean complacence ne'er betray your trust,
Nor be so civil as to prove unjust.
Fear not the anger of the wise to raise;
Those best can bear reproof, who merit praise.