Writing an essay. This seems obvious - but it is surprising how many people don't really do this.

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1 Writing an essay Look back If this is not your first essay, take a look at your previous one. Did your tutor make any suggestions that you need to bear in mind for this essay? Did you learn anything else about essay writing? Read the question This seems obvious - but it is surprising how many people don't really do this. Identify the process or 'command' words like compare, discuss, evaluate. These tell you how you have to answer the question. An appendix of such words and their definitions is at the end of this handout. Identify the 'content' words. These tell you what you have to write about. Think about the question. What exactly is it asking you to do? What do think the person who framed it expects from you? Are there any unclear terms that will need defining at the beginning of the essay? Let's consider the question: "Relative decline severely undermined the ability of British governments to tackle the economic shocks of the 1970s". Discuss. 'Discuss' is the command word. It implies that you have to explore the evidence for and against the statement. The content words are 'severely undermined' and 'ability to tackle. So, the evidence that you need to explore should focus on whether or not relative decline restricted the ability of government to respond to shocks, and you need to ask what 'severely undermined' might mean in this context. You would also be well advised to discuss the nature of both relative decline and the economic shocks referred to. Identify the relevant material Establish your secondary reading list: identify items you have already read which contain material that is relevant to the question; look at other reading lists relevant to the unit and see if there is anything that looks promising; browse the library shelves; follow up citations in the material you read that looks relevant to your topic; conduct searches in bibliographical databases (for more on this see my Research Resources page). Identify relevant primary sources that might be used to inform your analysis. Do your research Read your secondary sources and conduct necessary primary research, making notes on points made that are relevant to your topic. Be an active reader: use the contents pages and index pages of books to

2 identify relevant material; skip read, lingering only on relevant passages; think always in your note taking about the argument that the writer is making; make sure to record bibliographical information and, especially, relevant page references against your notes to be used in footnotes if you end up making use of that material Don t ignore material that doesn t suit your argument. If you disagree with a writer, you need to demonstrate their error in your essay, not just pretend they don t exist. (This is the difference between producing an analysis and producing a polemic). Organise your material Options include 'brainstorming' your ideas for the essay on paper - jotting down a list of questions and issues prompted by the essay question, all the relevant examples you can think of and any other related evidence. Re-check your notes and add missing material. Then link connected ideas and points. Collate and write out these points in a way that you can easily move them about. You might like to do this in an electronic document, but I think it is quite effective to liberate yourself from technology and do it on separate sheets of paper, on 'post-it' notes, or on index cards (there s something about the low-tech process that seems to liberate the imagination). Shuffle these until you have them in a logical order. This is effectively your essay plan. But I suggest that you write yourself a one page summary with all your key points listed in the order you will tackle them. Each key point will then have a paragraph to expand it. Don't forget to plan an introduction and conclusion. It can be a good idea to discuss your plan with a friend or with your tutor. Ideas may come to you at unexpected moments - keep a notebook handy and jot them down. First draft to final version Before you start, are you sure what your conclusion is going to be? You must know this now if your essay is to focus on answering the question. Never start an essay without knowing exactly where it is going to end up to do this is to ensure a rambling and poorly focused essay that fails fully (even, perhaps, fails at all) to answer the question. Now, working from your essay plan, begin to write your first draft. Do the best you can but remember that this is only the first draft. It can be amended to improve it. Consider the signposts which will be needed to help a reader to follow your argument. It is good practice to set out in your introduction the bare outlines of your essay s structure, but I suggest you also succinctly say what you conclusion will be (a sentence will suffice). This helps your reader, but it also helps you because it establishes a sort of contract between the two of you that you have to deliver on, and thus helps prevent wandering off the point. Provide links between key sections in your argument using phrases such as - 'Although it is true that the winter of discontent played an important part in Labour s defeat in the 1979 general election there are also other factors involved.'

3 In the essay, make it clear whether you are citing evidence, drawing a reasoned conclusion or putting a counter-argument. Use such phrases as: 'This clearly demonstrates that..' 'It has been argued that..' 'On the other hand..' 'However, this view conflicts with that of..' When you have finished your first draft you can amend it for style, etc. But do not immediately submit it. Instead, put it in a drawer for a day or two to let the dust settle, or show it to a friend for feedback. Having let the draft 'mature' for a couple of days, re-read the question and the essay itself. Its strengths and weaknesses should now be much clearer to you. Now you can write your definitive answer. Now is the time to check detailed issues of spelling, grammar, sentence structure, footnoting, bibliography, etc. and to check for clarity of expression. When you have finished writing, use your PC's spell and grammar check (I know this sounds obvious, but I am perpetually amazed at how many students don t do this) but make sure it is set up to use British English not U.S. English. Don't rely on it entirely - it won't, for example, detect homonyms (e.g. distinguish 'there' from 'their'), nor will it detect correctly spelled but inappropriate words. Have a last read through just to check everything really is ok (again, leaving it to mature for a couple of days will help you here). Now (at last!) submit the essay, then sit back and await my comments with quiet confidence. My top tip Don t, whatever you do, leave it all to the last few days / hours before the deadline. You are being asked to think deeply about a question and to deliver a considered answer that embodies a clear analysis and logical argument. Nobody delivers this in a rush. Also, because so many people do leave it all until the last few days, to do so is to ensure that the books you are going to need are out on loan to the better organised. So give yourself time. Set a personal deadline that allows the necessary time for reading, reflection, and maturation of your essay. Just because you have been set a final deadline for submission doesn t mean that this has to be your own deadline. Dr Hugh Pemberton Department of Historical Studies, University of Bristol, Jan 2013.

4 Appendix: process and command words in essay questions Account for Analyse Assess Compare Contrast Compare and contrast Criticise Define Explain, clarify, give reasons for. Resolve into its component parts. Examine critically or minutely. Determine the value of, weigh up (see also 'evaluate'). Look for similarities and differences between. Reach conclusions about which is preferable and justify this clearly. If you cannot choose between them, clearly explain why not. Set in opposition in order to bring out the differences sharply. Find some points of common ground between x and y and show where or how they differ. Make a judgement (backed by a discussion of the evidence or reasoning involved) about the merit of theories or opinions or about the truth of facts. State the exact meaning of a word or phase. In some cases it may be necessary or desirable to examine different possible or often used definitions. Describe Give a detailed account of... Discuss Distinguish or differentiate between Evaluate Examine the argument that... Explain, then give two sides of the issue and any implications Look for differences between... Make an appraisal of the worth / validity / effectiveness of something in the light of its truth or usefulness (see also 'assess'). Look in detail at this line of argument. Explain Give details about how and why it... How far... Illustrate Justify Outline State Summarise To what extent... Usually involves looking at evidence / arguments for and against and weighing them up. Make clear and explicit. Usually requires the use of carefully chosen examples. Show adequate grounds for decisions or conclusions, answer the main objections likely to be made about them. Give the main features or general principles of a subject, omitting minor details and emphasising structures, processes, and arrangements. Present in a brief and clear way. Give a concise, clear explanation or account of... presenting the chief factors and omitting minor details and examples (see also 'outline').

5 What arguments can be made for and against the view that... Look at both sides of this argument. Source: Redman, P. et al (1998) Good essay writing: a social sciences guide (Milton Keynes: Open University Press), pp

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