Now, we may be experts in essay writing, but we’re also the first to admit that tackling essay questions can be, well, a bit of a challenge. Essays first require copious amounts of background reading and research so you can include accurate facts in your writing. You then have to figure out how to present those facts in a convincing and systematic argument. No mean feat.
But the silver lining here is that presenting your argument doesn’t have to be stressful. This goes even if you’re a new student without much experience and ability. To write a coherent and well-structured essay, you just have to really understand the requirements of the question. And to understand the requirements of the question, you need to have a good hold on all the different question words. For example, 'justify', 'examine', and 'discuss', to name a few.
Lacking this understanding is a pitfall many students tumble into. But our guide on essay question words below should keep you firmly above on safe, essay-acing ground.
This part constitutes the main part of your essay. Try to use about 60% of your words for this part. You can understand it as delivering what you have promised in the introduction. This part of the essay is often referred to as the main body, or the argument. It’s the part of the essay, where you develop the answer. Whilst doing so, it’s important to be aware of the question at all time. This is the only way to keep to the topic set.
Ideally, every paragraph is geared towards answering the question. It does not suffice, if you are aware of how a particular paragraph is focused on your task: you need to show the relevance to your reader. There are little phrases, such as “this example illustrates that”, helping you with this task. Consider the following example: “The resistance in Harlem insisting to keep an open market in 125th street helped to point out that there are people with different needs in the city (Zukin, 1995).” After outlining resistance in Harlem, these few sentences make it plain what the example showed us: that different people in cities have different needs.
Writing an essay can take a considerable time, but it’s important that you keep to your original plan as much as you can. Of course, new ideas will come up as you write. In this case, you should jot them down, so as not to lose them. Next, think about it: How will this help me answering the question? Is this relevant to the essay? Do I not have another example of this already? What you do is to make sure that what goes into the essay has one purpose only: answering the question. Sometimes it’s difficult to resist the temptation, but don’t explore thoughts by the way. This should not discourage you from having original ideas, or even exploring them, but it should encourage you to use your essay for one purpose only.
Keeping to the plan means keeping to the structure. This is important, because you can lose your reader by jumping around from one topic to the other, even if all you say as such is relevant and useful. By having a clear structure, and keeping to it, your reader will always know where the journey goes next. This makes your essay a pleasant read. To write a good essay, first of all, you need good hooks which help to draw your readers’ attention. A hook is a small element in the introduction of an essay which motivates people to read your work. It is an interesting and catchy sentence which has a deep meaning and helps a writer introduce the main idea. Essay hook Identifies a purpose of writing.
When writing the main part of the essay, it’s important to keep the argument and illustrations in balance. Too few examples make the essay dry and difficult. Too many, on the other hand, make the argument disappear. The trick is to include illustrations to bring the text alive, but link them tightly with the argument. Rather than stating that “this is an example of white-collar crime,” you may say “tax avoidance is a good example of white-collar crime, because…” By so doing, you demonstrate the importance of the example, you highlight how and why it is important, and most importantly, maybe, you avoid that the examples take over. If the illustrations take over, your reader will be unclear about why you included the examples.
Sections are an important tool to structure the answer of an essay. The longer the answer, the more important sections probably are. Some courses and tutors may ask you to include subheadings (as used in this book); some institutions even have explicit recommendations on their use. Subheadings can be a good way to structure an answer into sections. However, the lack of subheadings—or the fact that your tutor discourages you from using them—is no excuse for not having sections.
Sections group paragraphs that elaborate a similar point. Often, within a section, you’ll have a number of paragraphs discussing the same issue from a number of different perspectives. A section can be treated, in some ways, as if it was a mini essay in itself. This is the case, because in each section, a particular point is explored. For example, there might be a section on the arguments for abortion, and then a section on the arguments against.
What is important when writing a section, is that both you and the reader are aware of the purpose of the section. It’s tiring and frustrating for your reader to read half a page before knowing what you’re writing about, or more often why you’re writing this here. For these reasons it’s important to link the sections into a coherent one. By linking the sections, and linking the paragraphs within each section, your essay will be more focused on answering the question.
For example, after a paragraph outlining problems of studying and measuring the transmission of social disadvantage, in one of my essays I discussed how sibling data may be the solution. I opened the paragraph as follows: “The use of sibling data promises a cure to at least some of the problems outlined above.” In one sentence, the new topic (sibling data) is introduced, but it is also indicated why this may be important (because these data help tackling the problems already outlined). The reader should not be puzzled as to what the link is between problems of measuring the transmission of social disadvantage on the one hand, and sibling data on the other.
Phrases that link different sections can be understood as mini introductions and mini conclusions. Particularly when a section is long, or where the link to the next section is not immediately apparent, it might be useful to write one or two sentences to summarize the section. This will indicate to the reader how far we have come in developing the argument, but also remind him or her, why we have bothered to write a section in the first place.
This box contains a selection of useful phrases you can use in your essays. You can use these words and phrases to connect the different bits and pieces of your text into a coherent whole. The following list is intended to give you an idea of all the phrases that are available to you.
Express improbability: is improbable, is unlikely, it is uncertain in spite of, despite, in spite of the fact that, despite the fact that, nevertheless, nonetheless, instead, conversely, on the contrary, by contrast, whereas, while, whilst, although, even though, on the one hand, on the other hand, in contrast, in comparison with, but, yet, alternatively, the former, the latter, respectively, all the same
Giving alternatives: there are two possibilities, alternatively, the one, the other, either, or, neither, nor, in addition, no only, but also, worse still, better still, equally, likewise, similarly, correspondingly, in the same way, another possibility, in a similar vein, as well as, furthermore, moreover, also, although, again, what is more, besides, too, as well as
Giving examples or introducing illustrations: for example, for instance, to name an example, to give an example, is well illustrated by, a case point is, such as, such, one of which, illustrates, is an example of this, is shown by, is exemplified by, is illustrated by
Stating sequence: first of all, first, firstly, second, secondly, thirdly, fourthly, now, then, next, finally, to complete, after that, 1, 2, 3, last, lastly, furthermore, to begin with, moreover, in addition, to conclude, afterwards
Reformulate the same point: in other words, to put it more simply, to put it differently, it would be better to say
Stating consequences: so, therefore, as a consequence, as a result, now, consequently, because of, thus, for this reason, then, this is why, accordingly, hence, given this, with reference to, given, on this basis, is caused by, causes, due to, has the effect, affects, the reason for, because of this, if, then, results in, leads to, produces, owing to, through, as, since, because
Stating purpose: in order to, so that, so as to, to
Giving the method by which something happened: by …ing, by (noun), by using
Stating surprise about something unexpected: besides, however, nevertheless, surprisingly, nonetheless, notwithstanding, only, still, while, in any case, at any rate, for all that, after all, at the same time, all the same
Summarizing: to sum up, in summary, to summarize, in brief, altogether, overall
Reaching a conclusion: I conclude, I therefore conclude, reached the conclusion that, it is concluded, therefore, for this reason, then, thus, in conclusion, to bring it all together
Listing components: distinct factors, comprises, consists of, constitutes, is composed of, may be classified, may be divided, can be distinguished
Giving definitions: (something) is, means, describes, is defined as, is used, is concerned with, deals with, relates to, involves, signifies, consist of
Approximating results: is just over, is just under, a little over, a little under, about, approximately, nearly
Qualifying comparisons: considerably, a great deal, much, very much, rather, somewhat, significantly, slightly, scarcely, hardly, only just (bigger than); exactly, precisely, just, virtually, practically, more or less, almost, nearly, approximately, almost, not quite, not entirely (the same as); totally, very, completely, entirely, quite, considerably (different from); is similar, is dissimilar, is different
Qualifying frequency: never, rarely, sometimes, usually, often, always, generally, on the whole, frequently, occasionally, hardly ever, seldom
Qualifying results: under no circumstances, mainly, generally, predominantly, usually, the majority, most of, almost all, a number of, may be, some, a few, a little, fairly, very, quite, rather, almost
Qualifying change: no, minimal, slight, small, slow, gradual, steady, marked, large, dramatic, complete, steep, sharp, rapid, sudden (rise, increase, fluctuation, decrease, decline, reduction, fall, drop, upwards trend, downward trend, peak, plateau, level off)
Just like sections are structured into paragraphs, each paragraph should have some internal logic. You can usually use the first sentence of a paragraph to introduce what the paragraph is about. This is particularly useful at the beginning of a new section. Consider these phrases as bridges. For example, in one of my essays, I opened a paragraph with “It will now be necessary to consider the argument that local cultures are dominated by transnational corporations.” My readers will immediately know what the paragraph is about.
Ideally, every single sentence is geared towards answering the question. Practically, this is hard to achieve, given the lack of infinite time resources available to most of us. However, by your trying to link similar paragraphs into sections, and by linking sections into a wider argument, every essay will benefit. The result is an essay that is easier and more pleasant to read.
Each paragraph, and definitely each section, should be geared towards the essay question you’re answering. It’s therefore a good idea to evaluate each section in terms of how far this helped to answer the essay question. You do a number of things with this: demonstrate that you’re still on track; you’re working towards a conclusion; you demonstrate the relevance of what you wrote in the section. If you can’t state how a particular paragraph or section is relevant towards your answer, then probably it is not.
Structuring the Main Part
There are different ways to structure the main part of the essay. One key difference is between essays structured along the lines of analytic dimensions, and those structured along the lines of argumentative dimensions. For example, the analytic dimensions of an essay on globalization may be economic aspects, cultural aspects, or political aspects. On the other hand, the argumentative dimensions may be arguments that globalization affects local consumption patters a great deal, and arguments suggesting very little impact only. The analytic approach would examine the different views in terms of economic aspects first, before moving on to cultural aspects. The argumentative approach would first explore the views in favour of strong impacts in all the different dimensions: economic, cultural, political, and then move on to do the same for arguments against.
There is no fast rule which of these approaches is better. In fact, both approaches can be very successful. You should consider the extent to which your structure helps you avoid saying the same thing twice. Whatever approach you choose, a clear indication in the introduction as to how you approach the essay will make sure your reader knows where you’re going.
Dealing with Repetition
An essay where the same word or sentence structure is repeated time and time again is often boring. Many writers consider repetitions bad writing. There are a few things you can do to avoid repetition. Where you should be careful, however, is the use of specialist terms. For the reasons outlined in the section on defining terms, you should never substitute a specific term with a more generic one. If you talk about power, then say so, even if this means using the same word over and over again. By no means use a thesaurus and pick a random suggestion offered there. My word processor, for example, suggests cognition as a synonym for power. This may be the case in some contexts, but as a key term, this is hardly ever the case.
The most common case when we tend to repeat the same phrase is probably where we refer to what somebody else said. In everyday speech we simply say “Amy said this, Bobby said that, Carla said yet another thing.” In the more formal style required in essay writing, this is commonly written in the following way: “Adams (2006) states that…, Bird (1999) suggests that.”
In order to make your essay less repetitive, consider the following options in addition to the common states and suggests. Always use your own judgement, when a phrase feels overused. By suggesting that repetition may leave a less than ideal impression, it’s not argued that this is an area of essay writing worth spending hours on. It’s much better being repetitive, but being precise and making a good argument.
- Crouch (1977) argues that …
- Daniels (2004) sees the problem as resulting from …
- Elton (1848) identifies the problem as consisting of …
- Ferro (1997) is of the opinion that …
- Gallagher (2003) defends the view that …
- Hall (1998) notes that the problem originates from …
- Inglehart (2000) considers that …
- Jackson (1984) views the issue as caused by …
- Kanter (1970) maintains that …
- Lewis (2002) concurs with Mann (2000) that …
- Nixon (1955) supports the view that …
- Orwell (1999) holds the view that …
- Perry (2005) agrees that …
- Quart (2001) denies that …
These alternative ways to put the ever same idea may be particularly useful when reviewing what different authors had to say on an issue—the parts of the essay where you simply restate what has been said before. Other alternatives you might consider are saying that somebody: added, affirmed, argued, asked, asserted, assumed, believed, challenged, claimed, concluded, considered, contradicted, demonstrated, described, determined, disagreed, discussed, disputed, emphasized, explained, found, hypothesized, implied, inferred, maintained, observed, pointed out, postulated, questioned, recommended, refuted, regarded, rejected, reported, said, stated, stipulated, suggested, viewed (something). This list should illustrate that there need be no conflict between variation in writing and writing clearly. If in doubt, however, you should always prioritize clarity.
When writing for academic purposes, there are a number of conventions that you should follow. A key difference to most other forms of writing is that we give references to the sources of our argument. Ambiguity is something most academics dislike, and you’re more credible, too, if you avoid it. Academic writing tends to be rather formal, and many will advise you to avoid writing in the first person (that is, not write using I). This makes academic writing both formal and impersonal.
The reason why the first person should be avoided, is that in scientific writing one’s opinions, feelings and views are not regarded as important. Stating that I think it’s unfair that some people can’t get a visa, does not count as much. However, urging you not to use I in essays can fail in two ways. Firstly, you could still write about your own feelings and opinions using different phrases, and secondly, not all uses of the first person are bad. It’s a good idea to stay clear of phrases such as “I think,” or “in my opinion,” unless you’re evaluating a claim. However, there is no apparent reason for not saying “I will first define the key terms.” Using the first person in this way will make a text more approachable. Moreover, using phrases starting with I, you avoid using the passive voice which many find more difficult to read.
Having said this, some markers still consider it preferable not to use the first person. Should your tutor or marker be one of them, you may want to play it safe. Don’t use we when you mean I. If you are the sole author, the use of a plural is technically not correct. However, even a tutor who hates such phrases will not mark you down: It’s the argument and general structure of your essay that count for much more.
One area where there is no room for argument is the use of colloquialisms, slang, or street language. Academic writing is formal writing, and you might be penalized for using the wrong register. A little bit of informality here or there will not normally matter much. Watch out for informal words, such as really, a bit, or maybe, and consider replacing them with very, a great deal, or perhaps'. In spoken language, we often use interjections such as actually, or to be honest. These, too, don’t belong into an academic essay.
Consider the following example: “To be honest, I don’t think much of this theory” is something we might say to a colleague of ours. When writing an essay, you could put this as: “It is clear from the evidence presented in this essay that the applications of this theory are limited.” The following list further illustrates what is meant by formal and informal English. The formal words are included in brackets in each case: Ask for (request), carry out (conduct), chance (opportunity), find out (discover), get better (improve), get worse (deteriorate), guess (estimate), look into (investigate), OK (satisfactory), tell (inform), worried (concerned).
Euphemisms, such as passed away for die, are another aspect of language you should not use in your essays: if you write about and mean die, then say so. Clarity and accuracy are paramount. For these reasons academic writing can be rather tentative and cautious. This is the case because we are not after grabbing headlines, but we write accurately what we know. If our data suggest that X possibly leads to Y, we say just that. In this case we should never say that X leads to Y. In academia we are often unsure what really goes on, and we should be upfront about this.
Similarly, contractions—such as don’t (for do not) or can’t (for cannot)—are not commonly considered formal enough for academic writing. Some of your readers will consider this convention ridiculous; others take it as a sign that you have not understood you should write in a scholarly fashion. To play it safe, use the full forms at any time. This particular academic convention seems to ease more and more.
Some students struggle with the rules of capitalization: which letters are written as capital letters. The easiest one is that every sentence starts with a capital letter. Names and titles (called proper nouns) are also written with capital letters, unless there is a specific reason not to. So, we write the name of Mark Granovetter with capital letters, but the special case of the iPod is written with a small one. Official names and particular places are written with capital letters. It’s thus the Department of Health, and Oxford University. However, when we write about general places, we don’t use capital letters. We study at university in general. Official titles are often capitalized, such as Value Added Tax. Furthermore, many abbreviations come with capital letters. It’s an MBA your friend may be studying for. The days of the week are capitalized, such as in Monday and Wednesday, as are the names of the months. The names of countries, nationalities, languages, and people from places are written with capital letters: the Swiss live in Switzerland, and Norway is a country. Apart from this, about every other word is written with small letters.
Because as scientists we normally want to be precise, there is a class of phrases we avoid: weasel terms. Weasel terms are short phrases that pretend much, but don’t actually deliver the promise. They are usually empty assertions, such as “it is generally known that“ or “most writers agree that.”
This box contains a list of weasel terms. In an essay, you should never use these phrases without a reference to substantiate what is said.
- as opposed to most
- considered by many
- contrary to many
- critics say that
- experts say that
- it could be argued that
- it has been noticed
- it has been said
- it has been stated
- it has been suggested
- it is generally claimed
- it is widely believed that
- mainstream scholars say that
- mainstream scientists say that
- many people say
- many scientists argue that
- research has shown
- researchers argue that
- serious scholars say that
- social science says
- sociologists believe that
- some argue
- some feel that
- some historians argue
- the scientific community
- this is widely considered to be
- this is widely regarded as
- widely considered as
It is possible to use weasel terms, as long as they are backed up with a reference or two. So, saying that something is “widely considered the foremost example of” something is possible, if you either provide a reference to someone who demonstrates this, or provide a group of references to back up your claim. However, in most cases we want to be more precise. Rather than saying that “many social scientists argue that class is important”—which is probably true—and giving a couple of references to back this up, it’s better to put it as follows: “Goldthorpe (2000) argues that class remains important.” Or maybe we have access to a statistic we can cite, that X% of social scientists seem to consider class important. In either case, the solution is more precise and thus more satisfactory.
The use of references is an academic convention, and you must follow this, even though it might be a tiresome exercise. Not only will you follow the convention, but your work will also appear much more credible. You can find more on the use of references in a separate section.
Footnotes are often associated with academic writing. Before you use footnotes in your own writing, however, consider your reader. Footnotes interrupt the flow of reading: you force your audience to stop for a while, moving down to the bottom of the page, before they can read on. From the reader’s point of view you should avoid footnotes if you can. The only general exception is if you use footnotes for referencing. Don’t use endnotes (footnotes at the end of the text), unless they are used exclusively for referencing. Asking your reader to flick forth and back through your essay is even more of an interruption. Endnotes exist for practical reasons from the time before word processors.
Footnotes are used to explain obscure words, or when you want to add some special information. In the case of obscure words, if it’s a key term, define it in the main text. There are cases, where you’ll want to use an obscure word, but it is not central to the argument. Consider the following example: “The Deputy must, with every word he speaks in the Diet1, […] anticipate himself under the scrutiny of his constituents” (Rousseau, 1762, cited in Putterman, 2003, p.465). Here I talk about the name of an assembly. The word is probably obscure to most readers, but not central to my argument: I write about parliaments in general, not the Diet in particular. Adding this footnote will help the readers to understand the quote. In terms of special information, if you make an important point, then make in the main text. If it’s an unimportant remark, then very often you don’t want to make it at all. The guiding principle is whether the note is relevant to your answer.
Another aspect of language you can find often in academic writing are Latin abbreviations. Never use these unless you’re sure what they mean. Normally, you should not use abbreviations in the main text. Instead, use plain English. Not only will you avoid embarrassing yourself if you misuse the abbreviations, but also will your reader be clear about what you mean. It’s much clearer to write for example, rather than mistakenly putting i.e. instead of e.g. (a common mistake). Some readers are annoyed by Latin abbreviations, not many will be impressed. Others will simply struggle to understand without a look in the dictionary. The same is true for a number of English abbreviations.
Another area of academic writing where there are many bad examples out there is the use of jargon and specialist terms. Whilst we aim for clarity and accuracy, jargon is never justified where it does not help these purposes. Specialist terms can be very useful to summarize complex issues into a few letters. Nonetheless, all technical terms need to be defined in simpler language somewhere in your essay. Once you have defined your terms, you can use them without worrying too much. This is where the define section comes in. Bear in mind what your audience is likely to know.
Other aspects of writing that may make your essay easier to read, and thus more approachable are: the use of shorter words where possible, cutting out words where they are redundant, using the active voice (I do, she says, rather than it is understood, it is achieved), and using English words where they are not different from the Latin or Greek ones. We want to write as clearly as we can, because when the writing is not clear, very often this is an indication that the argument is not very clear, either.
1 The Diet was the name of the deliberative assemblies in many European countries at the time of Rousseau’s writings.