Essay Writing Guide
1. About writing university essays
Writing an essay at university involves a number of different tasks: undertaking research on a topic; developing the means to structure observations, information, analysis and theory into a coherent form; ensuring such form is logical; evaluating the meaning of observations, information, analysis and theory; and referencing the material you use according to a prescribed system.
An essay is not simply a collection of facts or a reporting of information. It is an attempt to grapple with the significance of an event or an issue that recurs across a range of discursive modes. Typically, in writing an essay you are asked to respond to a question. The important thing is not to stop short of giving that response by simply presenting the material in which the reader might find an answer. It is your job to be direct about what your answer is.
Writing a good essay involves the consolidation of a number of skills. Developing these skills very much depends on the attitude you take to your work. Reading and writing skills—such as careful reading, meticulous note taking and conscientious redrafting of written work—require self-discipline and effective time-management. They will be most effectively developed if you adopt a curious and reflective disposition, a willingness to be interested in the essay topic and in the content of the course. Good writing comes from a hunger for knowledge and understanding and an interest in expressing yourself verbally.
Developing the skills to write a good essay is cumulative. With effort, over your time at university you will become more adept at writing essays, and the skills you develop in the process will become the foundation of your life skills for making sense of the world by independent means.
Because skills are cumulative, you will benefit most from your time at university if you read carefully through the comments provided by your tutor when your work is returned. When it comes to writing your next essay, even if it is for a different course, you should bear those comments in mind, making it one of your objectives to pay special attention to any weaknesses that have been identified.
Writing essays is hard. Fortunately, it is also immensely rewarding. Generally speaking, it is an opportunity to learn about the world, to evaluate different views of a topic, to organise information from a variety of sources into a coherent and intelligible structure. It also allows you to find out what you yourself think about a topic and to accumulate expertise in the field you are studying and the area you have researched.
Writing essays at university is different from writing essays at school in as much as the curriculum is not limited, and you are expected to undertake independent research and penetrate some of the material covered in lectures more deeply than the lecturer does. While your lecturer should stand as a guide to your exploration of a research field, what you bring to a given piece of work should not be limited to what the lecturer has said in class. In section 6 of this document you will find a complete breakdown of how to go about writing a university essay.
Remember, although there is a lot of intense analytical thinking involved in essay writing and a degree of creativity, there is also a lot of plain hard work. Indeed the thinking and creative processes can’t really come into play with any degree of success until many of the more mechanical tasks have been completed. Fortunately, much of the anxiety we experience when we contemplate having to think deeply and creatively is ameliorated by the undertakings that require pure self-discipline. In other words self-discipline is the first and necessary step to writing a good essay.
In the first instance, you need to manage your time effectively. In your life-time you will hear many people boast that they received a good grade for an essay that they wrote the night before. Very occasionally people do obtain good results for completing a task on the fly, but they would undoubtedly have done better had they spent more time on it. And they would have learned more, which is, after all, the point of being at university. To do anything difficult properly takes time. When you are learning new skills, it will take more time than when you have mastered them.
So the very first thing you need to do to write a good essay is to plan your study for the semester. By the end of the second or third week of session you should have a firm idea of what all your assessment tasks are and when they due. It is more than likely that you will have multiple assignments due around the end of the semester. This means that you will need to organise yourself to make good use of those periods of the semester when not so much work is due to get going on those assignments that are bunched together at the end. Our advice is to plan your semester around the amount of pieces of written work you have, dividing the weeks in the semester by the number of assignments. Making sure you work consistently on those assignments throughout the semester should then be a straight forward task.
3. Be diligent
In most cases you will do better in any individual assignment by staying fully engaged with all aspects of the course for the duration of the semester. This means going to all lectures, tutorials and film screenings, keeping up with your weekly tutorial reading, taking notes in every instance and reviewing your notes when embarking on your assessment tasks. When reviewing your notes take the time to look up concepts you didn’t fully understand and if need be ask your tutor for further help.
4. Preparing to write your essay
4.1 Decide on a question and think about what it is asking of you. Write down whatever ideas come into your head.
4.2. Determine what avenues of research you will pursue: school course reader, internet databases and journal essays, library books, films, dictionaries, encyclopedias and other reference books. Try to assemble all of your material in one space as much as possible so that your can move on to the next task, which is reading and note taking.
4.3 Reading and note taking: The way you read a text will very much depend on the kind of text it is and what you want from it. Some texts will be easy to understand and will require little more than skim reading to identify relevant parts/points and you will quickly move on to taking notes from them. Others will be very hard to understand, will involve the use of specialised dictionaries, encyclopaedias and reference books to fully grasp and will require you going over them two or three or even more times. I find that difficult texts require me to read them three times: first I skim, second I underline what I think the important points of the argument are, third I take notes, trying to paraphrase as much as I can rather than simply copy out slabs of text. Paraphrasing is an important way of digesting the meaning of written texts.
Good note taking is the key to writing a good essay and it can also be one of the most pleasurable tasks it involves. The way you take notes will also depend on the text and what you want from it. It is important to be careful in the way you take notes to avoid the charge of plagiarism. When you take notes make sure that the very first thing you write down are the bibliographical details of the book (author(s)/editor(s), chapter or essay title, book or journal title, publisher, year and date of publication, page numbers). The next thing you should do is write the number of the page you intend to take some point from. This is very important and will save the time in the long run. Next write your point, making sure that if you are quoting verbatim you use quotation marks, and making a note of it if you are doing a very close paraphrase.
5. Watching films and film analysis
Watch the films you are writing about multiple times and take notes while watching them. The most important evidence for your essay lies in the films themselves and your essays in Film Studies courses should include your own interpretation of the films in question. This interpretation needs to go beyond mere assertion and be backed up with concrete details from the film as evidence. Such details should include more than a description of what happens in the story. The story itself is an effect of film form so you should always be considering the importance of such formal elements as framing and frame composition, editing, lighting, mise-en-scène, camera-work, dialogue, sound, noise. You also need to be aware of what genre the film belongs to, what the conventions of genre are, and/or how the work relates to the oeuvre of its filmmaker.
6. How to Structure Essays and Research
6.1.1 Question the categories of the essay topic/question. This may mean taking the title apart word by word and asking what each one means and how they relate to each other.
6.1.2 And/or: Discuss the implications of the title if it is more straightforward.
6.1.3 Bring in any theoretical apparatus that might illuminate the title.
6.1.4 Briefly discuss the stance you will be taking in the piece of work towards the issues raised by the title.
6.1.5 Briefly outline the arguments you will be deploying in the course of the work (that is, set out your stall)
6.2.1 Make sure that arguments are logically ordered, and make the links between the major ones transparent.
6.2.2 When considering each argument, assess it from many sides, taking into account all the contradictions found in the text(s) under discussion. If these contradictions undermine your original ideas, then let them be modified.
6.2.3 Be circumspect, thus be aware that films/texts are not about uncomplicated matters. Take the complexity of characters or events into account when discussing them. The result can lead to a more rounded analysis.
6.2.4 Test the validity of your arguments by trying to argue against yourself before writing. Again, the result is a fuller appreciation of what you may have previously considered an open and shut case.
6.2.5 Don’t labour points or keep referring to them. They become repetitious and ultimately affect the way an examiner may assess your work.
6.2.6 Your arguments should resemble an intellectual journey from a place of relative ignorance, through a thorough examination, to a conclusion at the end of each argument.
6.2.7 Take material from the film/text as a whole – with examples from here and with examples from there: don’t be strait-jacketed by a work’s chronology.
6.2.8 In the case of comparative essays: attract material from all your relevant sources. For example, do not write two half essays – write one essay on the two texts, continually contrasting your sources for productive similarities and divergences around arguments.
6.3.1 Tie together the conclusions from the arguments presented in the corpus of the essay into one more all-encompassing conclusion, that is, a conclusion of the conclusions.
6.3.2 Tell the reader what you have learned through the process of writing the essay. Your engagement with the film (s)/text(s) in the work’s corpus may have opened your eyes to new facets which have surprised you. These need to be reported in the conclusion.
6.3.3 Don’t skimp: a conclusion is there to show the reader that the essay was worthwhile and that you have learned something by applying rigorous criticism to texts.
6.3.4 But don’t go overboard either: keep it concise yet full of points derived from the essay’s corpus.
6.3.5 Don’t merely repeat what you have already said either: draw what you have already said together and deduce interesting points.
Arguments can be easily structured: you introduce your terms, you process your material with your ideas, and you draw conclusions.
7. Style Guide for submission of written work
Please read the following guidelines carefully. Poorly formatted work and incorrect referencing will attract penalties and may result in it having to be resubmitted.
7.1 Formatting your work
7.1.1 All work should be submitted in 12pt Times or Times Roman Font. Your text should be double-spaced and new paragraphs should be indented. Footnote or endnote text should be single-spaced.
7.1.2 When using quotation marks use double quotes as a default. Only use single quotes when there are quotes within quotes.
7.1.3 Text in quotes should not be italicised unless the original text is in italics or unless you want to emphasise part of the text you are citing, in which case you should say at the beginning of the footnote/reference to the text: my emphasis.
7.1.4 Film titles and book titles should be italicised. Journal articles and book chapters should be in quotation marks.
7.2 Notes and references
7.2.1 Use Chicago Style
7.2.2 Notes and references should appear at the foot of individual pages but at the end of the essay is also acceptable.
7.2.3 Do not use in text references.
7.2.4 Footnote numbers should be superscript and placed at the end of the sentence after the fullstop.
7.2.5 Second and later references to a previously cited work should be referred to by the author’s last name and the title of the work. If there are consecutive references to the same work you can use ibid after the first reference. Do not use op. cit.
7.2.6 All note references must include page numbers.
7.3 Example of Notes
1. Christian Metz, Psychoanalysis and Cinema: The Imaginary Signifier, trans. Celia Britton, Annwyl Williams, Ben Brewster and Alfred Guzzetti (London: Macmillan, 1982), 36.
2. Ibid., 34.
3. Ibid., 36.
4. Ginette Vincendeau, “Melodramatic realism: on some French women’s films in the 1930s”, Screen, vol. 30, no. 3 (1989), 51-2.
5. Monika Treut, “Female misbehaviour”, in Laura Pietrapaolo and Ada Testaferri (eds), Feminisms in the Cinema (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995), 110.
6. Vincendeau, “Melodramatic realism”, 55.
7. Ibid., 56.
8. Metz, Psychoanalysis and Cinema, 31.
7.4 References to films in both notes and main text should include full title with initial capitalisation according to accepted style of the language concerned. Titles should be italicised, and in the case of non-English language films original release title should precede US and/or British release title, followed by director and release date in round brackets:
A bout de souffle/Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)
Where such information is relevant to the argument and does not appear elsewhere in the text, details of production company and/or country of origin may also be included:
The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, Warner Bros, US, 1945).
7.5 References to television programmes should be dated from the year of first transmission, and, in the case of long-running serials, the duration of the run should be indicated. Details of production company, transmitting channel, country, may be supplied where they are relevant to the argument:
Coronation Street (Granada, 1961- )
Where writers or producers are credited their role should be indicated:
Where the Difference Begins (w. David Mercer, BBC, 1961).
7.6 When citing the internet don’t forget to include the date of access:
Malpas, J., “Donald Davidson”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2012/entries/davidson/ (accessed March 12, 2013)
7.7 Bibliography should be in alphabetical order by family name and should follow the same format as your references (see above) except that the last name should be first. Do not number entries or use bullet points.
Metz, Christian, Psychoanalysis and Cinema: The Imaginary Signifier, trans. Celia Britton, Annwyl Williams, Ben Brewster and Alfred Guzzetti (London: Macmillan, 1982).
Treut, Monika, “Female misbehaviour”, in Laura Pietrapaolo and Ada Testaferri (eds), Feminisms in the Cinema (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995), pp. 106-21.
Vincendeau, Ginette, “Melodramatic realism: on some French women’s films in the 1930s”, Screen, vol. 30, no. 3 (1989), pp. 51-65.
7.8 Filmography should follow the same format as your references and should list films in alphabetical order according to title. Again, don’t number or use bullet points before entries.
8. Proofreading Don’t forget to proofread your essay before you submit it. The best way to do this is to read it aloud. You will read it better this way and are more likely to locate grammatical errors and long and unwieldy sentences.
9. For further information see The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2003). This is now available via the library catalogue.
Lisa Trahair and Angelos Koutsourakis, October 2013.