Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Essay writing seminar

On the 22nd of October 2014, during our weekly coffee morning session, PhD student Alexandra Guglielmi gave a short seminar on essay writing, with particular focus on how to structure an essay, how to research it properly and finally, how to make sure it stands out.  Here is a summary of what she said.

A good essay revolves around 3 things, which will be discussed in turn
  1. structure
  2. content 
  3. style. 
You need the first two to get a good essay; enhance it with a great style and you'll have an excellent essay. But before you get to the essay writing part, there is one crucial thing: understanding the essay question.

The Question

Pay attention to the key words. Every word is there for a reason. Examine the question word with care as it will tell you a lot about the way you are meant to answer the question.

Examples of question words:
(From last year’s “Teachers’ advice” handout, fulltext available here )  
  • "outline" : Sketch the principle points on a topic. A discussion of these points is also presumed but the importance is on sketching: you must be able to present a general picture in a short time and word count.
  • "compare and contrast": Make an evaluation after weighing what the two things have in common and what is different.
  • "review": Present what you know and then compare and contrast, critically evaluate.
  •  discuss”: Write about this topic in detail, especially considering the different views and opinions known on this specific topic.
  • (critically) assess”: to judge or decide the amount, value, quality or importance of something
  • debate”: A serious discussion of a subject in which there are many sides to this subject
  • critique”: A report of something such as social situation or system, or a person’s work or ideas, which examines it and provides an often negative judgement
  • argue”: Serious discussion, indicating a strong stance on the subject matter
  • examine”: To look at or consider the subject matter carefully and in detail in order to discover something about it
  •  summarise”: To express the most important fact or ideas about something or someone in a short and clear form.

Some questions don’t have an explicit “question word”, but it is there somewhere, implicitly.

For instance (fake questions):
-       “Can radiocarbon dates replace typologies for the dating of sites from period X ?”
o    This would be like a “discuss”: you need to weigh the “yes” and “no” to answer it and think beyond this yes/no answer. You do not need to come up with a definite answer, but present arguments for both sides of the debate.
-       “How do human remains inform us about the diet of ancient people in country Y?”
o    This would be more of an “outline” or “review”: tell what you know about the topic, but be a bit critical, think about the limitations for instance.

Don’t jump on a question because you know the general theme it deals with. Avoid “word spotting” at all cost, especially in exams when you have extra time pressure.

In an exam, don’t start writing immediately! If you have 1h for 1 question, spend the first 5minutes reading all the questions and choosing one. Then spend another 10minutes analyzing the question and working on your plan (see below). 15 minutes may seem a lot, but you still have 40 minutes to write (5min to re-read at the end) and those initial 15minutes can make the difference between a good and a bad essay.

The Structure

An essay is like a journey, it needs to go somewhere: it starts from a point and it takes the reader to a different point, it moves. It needs to have an internal progression, you need to build up your argumentation in a logical way in order to produce something new.
Your lecturer does not want you to regurgitate what you’ve read in books, they want you to show some independent thinking on a specific topic and come up with an answer, and possibly an opinion (depending on the type of question).

Examples of progression:
  •  From general to specific or to specific to general, from concrete to abstract or vice versa
o    e.g. geographical scales, historical scales, material culture
  • Debate/ discussion structure: “yes”, “no”, “but”
o    “yes” and “no” review the current state of the debate; “but” introduces your own ideas (based on your reading). It goes beyond the yes/no opposition by trying to find a solution or by presenting an alternative way to think about the question.
  • Chronological progression:
o    Tricky: use it only if you are being critical in each of your chronological section, it must not be a simple description of events.
o    Unless you are asked to describe! It would be suitable for a history or archaeology question such as (fake question) “Outline the evolution of Roman foreign policy in the Late Empire”, because in that case, you are being asked to present a chronological overview.
  • Thematic organisation – specific to topic:
o    Not every essay needs to have an internal argumentation like described above. You may be asked to do a field report, or a work placement journal which you would organize around specific tasks or themes. Just remember to structure them.
o    You can also have essay like (fake question) “Explain how you would design a museum exhibit to host the collection from site X”. Consider all the things you would put in the exhibit and group them in logical categories. For instance: 1. The surrounding landscape, 2. The settlement and buildings, 3. The finds

The approach you take will depend on the question word so pay attention to it (see above). 
Whatever you do, remember, your essay needs to be dynamic (to “go somewhere”) and your points need to be linked. 
For this you will need to design a plan.  

A plan is here to help you lay down your ideas, organize them and see exactly where you are going. Do not start writing anything until you know exactly where you are going, from A to Z.

Remember the words of 17th century French scholar Nicolas Boileau:
Before you write, learn how to think:
Depending on whether your thinking is more or less obscure,
The expression will follow it, more or less clear, more or less pure.
What you can think well, you can state clearly,
And the words to say it will come easily
L’Art Poétique (1674)

(Original French: Avant donc que d'écrire, apprenez à penser./ Selon que notre idée est plus ou moins obscure, / L'expression la suit, ou moins nette, ou plus pure. / Ce que l'on conçoit bien s'énonce clairement,/ Et les mots pour le dire arrivent aisément.)

Spend time working on your plan: the more detailed it is, the clearer your idea of what you are going to write about will be.
There is no “right or wrong” answer as long as it is structured and backed up by arguments. You can disagree completely with something, as long as you do it well and using valid arguments.

There is no standard “length” for a plan: It can be half a page, a page, 2 pages... You may need only the main bullet points to have your ideas clear, or you may need detailed description of each argument with the list of case studies for instance.

Your Plan:

1.     Introduction
a.    Introduces the topic/theme (general introduction)
b.    Points out what the question is asking
c.    Presents the plan – very important part!

2.     Main body
(as many part as you want as long as logical and making sense, but ideally 3-4)
a.    Part 1
                                          i.    Argument 1 + examples/case studies
                                         ii.    Argument 2 + examples/case studies
b.    Part 2
                                          i.    Argument 1 + examples /case studies
c.    Part 3
                                          i.    Argument 1 + examples/case studies
a.    Summarises your arguments
b.    Answers the question – the most important part!
c.    “Opens up” to further questions

Bear in mind the importance of:

-       Introduction: You need to catch the reader’s attention, remember your lecturer/the examiner will have dozens and dozens of copies to mark. You need to show them that this is going to be an interesting piece of work.
-       Conclusion: This is the last thing your lecturer/the examiner is going to read. It is your chance to make a final impact. End with a bit of a “TADAAAM!” effect, give them that final conviction that you deserve a good mark.
-       Transitions: Your essay needs to flow. Your ideas need to be linked in a logical way. Use transition sentences to conclude on one argument and introduce the next one: “All this I have just explained shows this particular point. Which brings us to our next point…"

The Content

A good essay is a well-researched essay.

  1.  Start with the module handbook reading list’s “essential reading”
  2. Add to this with some of the “additional reading”
  3. Add your own sources
    • Use the bibliographies of essential readings: quite often, they reference very good papers which you will be able to access.
    • Use journals and online journals (JSTOR, Library catalogue…)


  • Don’t use Wikipedia – lecturers have a special gift to smell this!
  • Don’t use non-reliable websites: use only official websites (National Museum of Ireland, National Monument Service, Heritage Board, British Museum, etc.), or official research project websites (EMAP, Mapping Death, etc.)

Use the appropriate referencing style. For archaeology, Harvard referencing, for Classics, foot notes.
A complete handbook of Harvard referencing style is available from the library:

Use Word Referencing tool for an easy way to have a flawless bibliography and keep a record of your references for a future essay.

The Style

Remember you are one in maybe dozens of copies! Not only do you need to have a catchy introduction that will hook the reader, but you need to stand out all throughout your essay.

Some basics:
  • Absolutely no contractions: “is not” and not “isn’t”; “do not” and not “don’t”, etc.
  •  GRAMMAR!!!
  • Avoid repetitions – don’t be afraid to use a thesaurus (synonym dictionary)!
  • Avoid “simple” words (see examples below) – but do not use jargon either (especially if you don’t know what it means, lecturers just know when you do it!).
  • Be specific in your terminology.
o    Example: “is” = consists of, represent, reflect; “has” = encompasses, includes, entails…; “look at” = “examine, analyse, review,
o    Example sentences:
§  “This site has a lot of wooden finds”
ð   “A large number of wooden finds were recovered from this site”,
ð  “The assemblage from this site includes a considerable number of wooden artefacts”.
§  There is a trackway going across the bog”
ð  “A trackway crossed the bog at this point in the landscape”

-       Avoid too long or too short sentences – read it out loud: if it sounds well, it will read well.
-       Link your ideas with connecting words such as “in addition to this”, “however”, “firstly”, “secondly”, “similarly”, “conversely”, etc. etc.
-       Be consistent! If you use “BC” dates, use them all throughout, don’t switch to “BCE” halfway through. If you write “5th century”, don’t then write “sixth century”.

If you don’ know how you should write, imagine yourself…
…being a professor giving a talk at a conference: you need to sound professional and serious, while at the same time catching the audience’s attention.

This is where the difference can be made between a good and an excellent essay. An essay is after all, a piece of literature, it needs to be nice to read, in addition to being well-researched and well-structured.

Use Word tools:
Finally, your essay is also a piece of printed literature: don’t feel shy about using Word Styles to make it look goodUse titles, headings, sub-headings, use the caption tool for your images so that they are all numbered in the same way.

And if you are doing a portfolio or a report with different sections, why not insert a nice “Table of Contents” and “List of Illustrations” at the beginning, using the Word tools for them?
Make your essay look as nice and professional as possible!

Extra support

  1. Advice from lecturers (from previous study seminars) here
  2. Special advice for students with dyslexia and dyspraxia here
  3. For any question about this handout and the points raised, please feel free to contact Alex at


No comments:

Post a Comment