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Essay Writing

What is an essay?
An essay is -  a written piece of work in which you present your position on a topic and support that position with evidence.

This guide offers an overview of the process of successful essay writing.

The process of essay writing
Thomson, Liz (2021) based on Francis, P. (2009) Panic to Production [Illustration] In: Francis, P. (2009) Inspiring Writing in Art and Design: Taking a Line for a Write. Bristol: Intellect Books p. 30.

Essays are a common way to demonstrate research and understanding, and so cannot be written in a few hours. You need to plan your time (for more information see - Time Management, Organisation & Motivation), counting back from the deadline, to give yourself enough time to work through the process of essay writing.  The time needed to find relevant resources, take notes, write, redraft and proofread need to be scheduled into your timetable in the weeks before the hand in date.  Essays are handed in through the software Turnitin which will check for plagiarism (for more information see - Academic Integrity).

Be clear what you are expected to do before you start!

An essay presents a written discussion. You are expected to demonstrate your independent research and critical thinking, so as to justify your viewpoint. You need to decide on your stance (a way of thinking about something, especially when expressed in a formally stated opinion), and find theories and examples to support your opinion, using these to structure a coherent argument.

A well structured essay typically consist of -

  • an introduction which is approximately 5-10% of your word count
  • your main body which is approximately 80-90% of your word count
  • a conclusion which is approximately 5-10% of your word count
  • a list of illustrations if you have used any images in your essay
  • a bibliography for all of your text-based sources

Cut and paste your essay title exactly as it is onto the document you start writing your essay on and refer back to it regularly to ensure you are not going off the subject.

If you are responding to a set question, you need to refer to your unit handbook to find the relevant subject specific lectures, and related reading as a starting point for your research and planning.


Think about -

  • What main topic or theme are you being asked to research?
  • How does this relate to topics covered in lectures and in the recommended reading list?
  • What are you being asked to do? 

Note: lectures provide you with introductions to theories, historical contexts, movements, practitioners etc. relating to your subject and possible essay questions/enquiries. They are not classed as research so you cannot quote or paraphrase information from them in your essays, instead use them to note relevant keywords and their relationship to each other, which can then be used for your essay research.

How many examples or themes are you being asked to consider – just one, or are you being asked to compare two or three? What are you being asked to do? Analyse? Discuss? Evaluate? (See the common terms tab).

If you are struggling to answer any of these questions, revisit some of your lectures or recommended reading, ask your tutor for help, or book a tutorial with a Learning Development Tutor.

Firstly, consider topics of interest (i.e. things that you want to understand better) in your field of study (you can discuss this with your tutor). Then consider specific examples in your field that are of particular interest (this will help you avoid making sweeping generalisations which are difficult to back up with evidence).

Next, consider the scope of your research (including the word count of your essay). How will you limit what you include so as to make it feasible?

  • A specific time period
  •  A specific practitioner or group of practitioners?
  • A particular design format?
  • A particular theory or approach?

Finally, search the library resources so as to identify where you can find credible sources to back up your discussion. If you have problems finding relevant resources, book a tutorial with a Liaison Librarian.

Framing your question
Students often begin a research project by stating their topic of interest, for example:

  • This is an investigation/study/exploration of…. This is a popular way to get started, although it is very open-ended.
  • Because essays and dissertations present arguments, it is helpful for a title to give the reader some idea of your main claim, and to provide you, as the writer, something to argue for and against.  This can be done simply by presenting your claim, as Aldos Loos (1908) famously did when he asserted: ‘Ornament is a crime.’  Or Roland Barthes (1967) when he argued that ‘The author is dead.’  Both of their highly-subjective and oft-disputed claims were used as the titles for their essays. Or it can be done by using a yes/no question, such as  ‘Is Ornament a Crime?’  or  ‘Can it be Argued that the Author is Dead?’

Note: for titles and headings, the most commonly accepted rules for capitalisation are:  Capitalise the first and last, and all the words longer than four letters in the title or heading, so generally conjunctions (and, or, but, nor, yet, so, for), articles (a, an, the), or prepositions (in, to, of, at, by, up, for, off, on) are not capitalised. 

A typical academic essay consists or an introduction, the main body and a conclusion - all of these is included in you word count. You also need a bibliography and a list of illustrations (if you include any images) these are not included in your word count.

Writing requires focus to clarify what you want to communicate.  It helps to organise your time and space so that you:

  • are comfortable (organise your desk/computer etc so you can work comfortably, make sure you have eaten and are not thirsty or overtired)
  • minimise distractions (turn off push notifications on your computer, put your phone on mute)

Have your references to hand.  Academic writing includes quotations and paraphrasing from other authors, so have relevant books and articles somewhere that is easy to refer to.

If you need inspiration, try -

Brainstorming - brainstorm any and every idea you can think of related to your essay topic. Then use that as a starting point to select particular themes or examples to develop.

Free writing – write whatever comes into your head – this can free up your thoughts and lead to clarifying your ideas.

Clarifying definitions - look at your question – what are the key words related to the topic. What do they mean to you? Try writing your own definition. Then look up some definitions written by theorists in your subject (not general dictionary definitions) Do they differ? Why might that be? Which definitions do you prefer? Why?

Reading to write - Does your question relate to a specific text, or a number of texts referenced in your unit handbook? Read or reread the relevant texts, making notes of questions and your reactions to the ideas in the text. Use those notes as a starting point for your essay plan.

When to write your introduction
This is a matter of choice: some people like to leave it till last, because they feel better able to clarify the overall contents of the essay. Other people prefer to write it first, knowing they may modify it later, so that they have a ‘roadmap’ to refer back to, and keep them on track while writing the main body of the essay.

What your introduction needs to include
Your introduction needs to tell your reader what to expect: it should be consistent with the content of the main body. State your purpose for writing, and specify:

  • your main topic or theme
  • key examples/case studies
  • key practitioners, theorists or approaches
An example of a very short introduction -
This essay analyses the mise-en-scene in the German Expressionist film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) in relation to the context of its production.

If you have sufficient word count, tell your reader why the topic or approach is significant, considering the context, background and any issues or controversies in the field of study. You may also want to define the topic and/or key terms used in the paper, however some of this can be covered in the first part of the main body.

An example of a longer introduction that explains the significance of the topic discussed -
Disney has released hundreds of children’s films since it was established in 1923, and is one of the most popular and prolific animation studios in the world. Arguably this means it is also a powerful influencer in terms of introducing character types and stereotypes to young audiences. This essay will compare the representation of characters in the films Sleeping Beauty (1959) with the remake Maleficent (2014), discussing how changing societal norms and gender roles are reflected in the two, very different, interpretations of the classic fairy story.


Possible sentences starters for your introduction

  • This essay explores/investigates/analyses/evaluates …X
  • X is a controversial contemporary issue because…
  • X is fundamental/critical to the development of…..
  • X is an increasingly common phenomena, which has an impact on….
  • This essays argues that/analyses the impact of/ traces the development of...

Telling your reader why it is important

  • A much debated question is whether …
  • To date there has been little agreement on what …
  • The issue has grown in importance in light of recent …
  • One of the most significant current discussions in X is …
  • Questions have been raised about …
  • Debate continues about the best strategies for the management of …
  • This concept has recently been challenged by X studies demonstrating …
  • The debate about X has gained fresh prominence with many arguing that …
  • One major theoretical issue that has dominated the field for many years concerns 

Telling your reader what to expect

  • The section below describes …
  • The following is a brief description of …
  • In the section that follows, it will be argued that …
  • The problem of X is discussed in the following section.
  • A more detailed account of X is given in the following section.
  • The structure and functions of X will be explained in the following section.

There is no ‘one-size-fits all’ essay structure, because your organisation should reflect what you want to say. Focus on what you are writing about, and making it clear to the reader why you have chosen the ideas and examples that you think are most important.

Always ensure you clarify the definitions of key terms used in your essay

  • Throughout this paper, the term ‘X’ will refer to …
  • The term ‘X’ will be used in this thesis to refer to …
  • Historically, the term ‘X’ has been used to describe … however, in this essay the term ‘Y’ is used because…
  • It is necessary here to clarify exactly what is meant by …
  • The phrase ‘X’ will be used in this study to describe the …
  • According to Smith (2002:169), X can be defined as follows: ‘ … ’
  • In this article, the abbreviation XYZ will be used to refer to …
  • Throughout this dissertation, the term ‘X’ will be used to refer to …
  • The term ‘X’ is a relatively new name for …, commonly referred to as …
  • In this essay, the term ‘X’ will be used in its broadest sense to refer to all …
  • In this essay, the terms ‘X’ and ‘Y’ are used interchangeably to mean …
  • While a variety of definitions of the term X are in use, Smith (1998:67) “…

Referring to examples and case studies 

  • This case has shown that …
  • This can be seen in this example …
  • This illustrates …
  • This case study confirms the importance of …
  • This case demonstrates the need for …
  • As this case very clearly demonstrates, it is important that …
  • This case reveals the need for further investigation in patients with …
  • This case demonstrates how X used innovative marketing strategies in …
  • Recent cases reported by Smith et al. (2013) also support the hypothesis that …
  • In support of X, Y has been shown to induce Y in several cases (Smith et al., 2001).

Demonstrating research and critical engagement with other authors and practitioners

  • Smith (2007:12) fails to fully address the causes of the issue …
  • Smith (2007:12) does not acknowledge the significance of …
  • The author overlooks the fact that X influenced Y.
  • The argument is flawed by the author’s bias towards…
  • There is no explanation given of how …
  • The research does not take into account … 
  • Jones (2003) has also questioned why …
  • However, Jones (2003) points out that …
  • The author challenges the widely held view that …
  • Smith is critical of …
  • Smith (1980) broke with tradition by raising the question of …
  • Jones (2003) has challenged some of Smith’s conclusions, arguing that …
  • Jones (2003) is critical of the conclusions that Smith draws from his findings.
  • An alternative interpretation of the origins of X can be found in Smith (1976).
  • Jones (2003) is probably the best known critic of the X theory. He argues that …
  • In a recent article in Academic Journal, Smith (2014) questions the extent to which …
  • A recently published article by Smith et al. (2011) casts doubt on Jones’ assumption that …
  • Other authors (see Harbison, 2003; Kaplan, 2004) question the usefulness of this approach.

Essays on artistic practice often use a mixture of contextualisation, analysis, evaluation, comparing and contrasting, and/or problem and solution frameworks. The structure below is a possible way of breaking up your essay into sections -

compare and contrast
Anker, Susan (2009) Real Essays


  • Task/activity
  • When contextualising artworks or artefacts, consider chronological developments leading up to it.  
  • What used to be done/used/practiced before the example you’ve selected?
  • How did the new version come about and why it was better/worse?
  • Did it have any unplanned consequences?
  • Why is this particular item significant?

Compare and contrast - useful language

  • X is different from Y in a number in that ...
  • X differs from Y in a number of important ways.
  • There are a number of important differences between X and Y.
  • Areas where significant differences have been found include X and Y.
  • Both X and Y share a number of key features.
  • There are a number of similarities between X and Y.
  • The effects of X on human health are similar to those of Y.
  • These results are similar to those reported by (Smith et al. 1999:59).
  • In the trial, women made more/fewer errors than men.
  • Women tend to have greater/less verbal fluency than men.
  • Women are more/less likely than men to perform well in tests.
  • Women tend to perform better/worse than men on tests of perceptual speed.

Useful phrases for summarising key ideas 

  • This study set out to …
  • This paper has argued that …
  • This essay has discussed the reasons for …
  • In this investigation, the aim was to evaluate …
  • The aim of the present research was to compare …
  • The purpose of this research was to propose alternative solutions to the problem of …
  • This study has shown that …
  • The research has demonstrated that …
  • This study suggests that …
  • The most significant finding to emerge from this study is that …

For information on creating a bibliography see - Plagiarism and Harvard Referencing [Bibliographies].

For information on creating a list of illustrations see - Plagiarism and Harvard Referencing [Images].

There are different kinds of editing, consisting of three main stages -

  • Structural editing, which involves changing the content, for example, the order that information is presented in, or the way key points are linked
  • Sentence-by-sentence editing, which means considering the meaning, style, vocabulary and grammar of your writing.
  • Proofreading is the detailed correction of minor errors, such as spelling and punctuation.

It is useful to go through your work several times checking for different things -

Does it make sense? Read it aloud or use peer review for feedback. Imagine you are reading someone else's work and ask yourself whether the ideas are convincing or if the argument needs further clarification.

You need to consider whether the organisation is reader-friendly, whether the main points are clear to your reader and if they are in a logical order.  Additionally, check if the relationship between sentences and paragraphs is clearly signposted. Check you have used signposting to indicate the thread of your argument to your reader. Have you tried to guide them through your argument by introducing the main idea in the first sentence of a paragraph and using the last sentence to sum up the paragraph and link it to the next?

Paragraphs create stepping stones to build your argument. Each paragraph should focus on one main point. They can vary in length from a couple of sentences to around twenty, but in academic writing the first sentence is usually a topic sentence, which tells your reader what the paragraph will be about. 

A possible structure is -

  • Introduction of paragraph focus
  • Introduction of related evidence/information
  • Interpretation and/or analysis

However, paragraphs (like sentences, essays etc.) can vary, depending on what is being communicating. 

Checklist for structural editing

  • Read back over your draft, and ask yourself:
  • Does the essay provide an answer to the question, which is stated in the introduction?
  • Is it clear what the main claims are? (Is your message clear?)
  • Are these claims justified and backed up with evidence? (Is your message convincing?)
  • Is there anything I can do to clarify and justify my claims?
  • So for example, does your introduction clearly tell your reader what the essay includes?
  • Is it clear why you have included quotations and examples?

In academic writing you are expected to use full sentences, not bullet points or notes. 

A sentence can be classified as simple, compound and complex. Simple sentences consist of one main clause. All main clauses must include a verb, and a subject, but also may contain other components.

Below are examples of possible sentence structures, simple sentences (one main clause), compound sentences (more than one main clause) and complex sentences (at least one main clause and one subordinate clause).

Simple sentences (one clause – link to explanation of a clause)

A verb alone is the shortest sentence grammatically possible in English but usually only used in spoken language (the subject is ‘you’ - the listener). 


A subject and verb is the basis of most written sentences. The verb must agree with the subject in present tense (e.g I am, you are, he is etc.)

He waits.
They know.

It is broken.
They are late.

A subject, verb and object, and subject, or verb and object, object. The object is the what or who the action verb is done to.

I opened the window.
He gave her the letter.

A subject and a complement. The complement includes a state verb, (not an action verb) and gives more information about the subject.

He is a doctor.
The music sounds wonderful.

A subject, verb and adverb or adverbial phrase. The adverbial phrase gives more about the action verb.

Jane worked swiftly.
The doctor stayed in his office all day.
Compound sentences

Compound sentences are made up of two (or more) main clauses (each of which could be independent sentences), e.g.:

Alex studies graphic design, and Simon studies architecture. 
(Could be: Alex studies graphic design. Simon studies architecture.) 

Complex sentences

Complex sentences are made up of an independent clause joined by one or more dependent clauses. A complex sentence always has a subordinator such as because, since, after, although, or when or a relative pronoun such as that, who, or which, which indicates that that clause is subordinate to the main clause and cannot stand alone as a sentence. 

Although he was invited to the meeting, he was unable to attend.
The designer had a studio technician, who had worked in a similar role before.

Some sentences can be a combination of compound and complex e.g.:

The package arrived in the morning, but the courier left before I could check the contents.

This section provides you with some information about grammar for essay writing.

These three punctuation marks indicate sentence endings.

The full stop is used to indicate the end of declarative sentences (statements).
The student did not attend the lecture. 

The question mark (?) is used to indicate a direct question when placed at the end of a sentence. 
When did Jane leave for the market? 

The exclamation point/mark (!) is used when a person wants to express a sudden outcry or add emphasis.

  • Within dialogue: “Oh my God!” screamed Jane. 
  • To emphasize a point: "My mother-in-law's rants make me furious!"

Note - Question marks and exclamation marks are not commonly used in essay writing because generally it is considered inappropriate to ask your reader (e.g. your assessor) direct questions, or to use exclamation marks which indicate heightened emotion in speech.

These are used to indicate a separation of ideas or elements within the structure of a sentence, or the separation of complete clauses. They occur where pauses would occur in spoken language.  Commas are very commonly used, for example to present items in a list. E.g

I would like you to watch the video, take notes, copy diagrams, make sketches and be prepared to answer questions on the content. 
Suzi wanted the black, green and blue shoes. 
To separate main clauses, or main and subordinate clauses, e.g.:
Although suitable protective clothing was available, most of the operatives were not wearing it.
After the main points had been presented, the students were asked for their comments. 

Pairs of commas can be used to cordon off information that is an addition, and not essential. The reader can ‘leap-frog’ the commas and the sentence will still make sense. 

The President of the Speleological Society, Jim Brown, gave an interesting talk on ‘Caves under the Mendip Hills’.

The College, which is situated in the centre of Canterbury, has an excellent reputation. 

Semicolons are used to connect independent main clauses (so never use them if you are not able to use a full stop in the same position); however, they indicate a closer relationship between the clauses than a full stop does. For example: 
Thank you for your letter dated 06.06.2011; we apologise for the delay in replying. 
Students should try to keep track of their thinking throughout the project by using a research or design journal; these are useful tools. 

Semi-colons can also be used to separate items in a list (like commas). 

In the library, there were some students researching their latest project; one or two tutors checking the availability of books for the next project; and a librarian restocking the shelves. 

Sometimes semi-colons can be followed by conjunctions. 

The students were not entirely sure that their solution to the question posed was going to work; nevertheless, they decided to give it a try. 

Darkness came down on the field and city; and Amelia was praying for George, who was lying on his face, dead, with a bullet through his heart.
A colon (:) is usually used after a word introducing a quotation:
Berger (1972:54) claims:

“In the average European oil painting of the nude the principal protagonist is never painted. He is the spectator in front of the picture and he is presumed to be a man. Everything is addressed to him.”
Colons can also be used to introduce a list:
An essay usually includes the following components: an introduction, a main body of text and a conclusion. 

Or they can be used to introduce an explanation or example:

The results of the student survey were clear: there was a need for a change in policy. 

Dashes (-)and hyphens(-)
The dash can be used to connect continuing or inclusive numbers or to connect elements of a compound adjective when either of the elements is an open compound, such as 1880 – 1945,  or Princeton - New York trains.
Sometimes, in informal writing, dashes are used to indicate a break in thought or to introduce an aside, similar to pairs of commas. In formal writing these uses tend to be replaced with commas or semicolons. 
Visitors may stay overnight – or longer – in the hostel nearby.
A hyphen (-) is used between the parts of a compound word or name or between the syllables of a word, especially when divided at the end of a line of text.”
• Between a compound name: Mrs. Creely-Reynolds 
• Within a compound word: up-to-date, well-known, reddish-brown 
• Between syllables of a word when text is on divided:
The thought -
ful girl brought cookies to her ailing neighbour. 

Brackets are symbols used to contain words that are a further explanation, however, they can be replaced by commas without changing the meaning in most cases. For example: 
John and Jane (who were actually half brother and sister) both have red hair. 
In academic writing, brackets are most commonly used for referencing. E.g.:
Smith (1997: 64) argues that…
‘The medium is the message’ (Macluhan, 2001)

An apostrophe (') is used to used to indicate the omission of a letter or letters from a word or the possessive (see examples below).
•Omission of letters from a word is generally to be avoided in formal academic writing: 
It’s late. (In formal writing this should be It is late.)
Jon' s work is excellent. 
Today’s news is devastating.
If the ‘possessor’ is plural the apostrophe goes after the ‘s;’ e.g.
The student’s work is excellent. (one student – not plural)
The students’ work is excellent. (more than one student - plural)
If the ‘possessor’ ends in an ‘s’ the apostrophe generally goes after the ‘s;’ e.g.
Mr Jones’ computer has been stolen. 

Quotations marks are used primarily to mark the beginning and end of text attributed to another and repeated word for word.
‘Seeing comes before words’ (Berger, 1972:7)
However, they can also be used to indicate the unusual or dubious status of a word. 
It has been argued that animation is a ‘completely fake’ medium, because…
The so-called ‘pornographic’ images were censored.

The ellipses is generally represented by three periods (. . . ) which are used in writing or printing to indicate an omission.
Ellipses are frequently used within quotations to jump from one phrase to another, omitting unnecessary words that do not interfere with the meaning. Students writing research papers or newspapers quoting parts of speeches will often employ ellipses to avoid copying lengthy text that is not needed. For example:
‘Another institutional difference between film and literature is to which texts are censored. Films tend, in the west, to be much more heavily censored than literature; while the former uses icons, the latter uses symbols. One effect of that is that graphic detail can be shown more powerfully using images.' (Lacey, 2000:196)

' Another institutional difference between film and literature is to which texts are censored. Films tend, in the west, to be much more heavily censored than literature … One effect of that is that graphic detail can be shown more powerfully using images.’ (Lacey, 2000:92)

UCA uses Harvard referencing, so make sure you have reference correctly (for more information see - Plagiarism and Referencing.

Referencing checklist

  • Have you acknowledged all sources - text and images?
  • Are your quotations accurate?
  • Is your bibliography complete?
  • Are your citations complete and do they meet the system recommended by your course?

Finally -

  • consider your writing style
  • re-write awkward expressions or clumsy phrases
  • split up sentences that are too long
  • check for relevance
  • check for consistency
  • eliminate repetition.

Explain, clarify, give the reasons for. (Quite different from "Give an account of..." which is more like "Describe in detail".)

Break an issue down into its component parts, discuss in-depth and show how they interrelate.

Make a case, based on appropriate evidence and logically structured for and/or against some point of view.

Consider the value or importance of something, paying attention to positive, negative and disputable aspects, and citing the judgements of any known authorities as well as your own.

State clearly and objectively your opinions on the material or subject in question. Support your views with reference to suitable evidence or explanations.

Look for similarities and differences between two or more things.

Single out and emphasise the differences and dissimilarities between two or more things.

Give your judgement as to the value or truth of something. Discuss all the available evidence and examine all the implications. Cite specific instances and arguments as to how the criteria apply in this case.

Set down the precise meaning of something, giving sufficient detail as to allow it to be distinguished from other similar things.

Give a detailed and comprehensive account of something.

Investigate and examine by careful argument. Explore the implications and the advantages and disadvantages. Weigh up the arguments and draw conclusions.

Make an appraisal as to the worth of something in the light of its truth or utility; cite evidence and argument in support of your case.

Clarify, interpret, describe and account for.

Explore the case for a stated proposition or explanation, probably arguing for a less than total acceptance of the proposition.

Pick out what you regard as the key features of something, perhaps making clear the criteria you use in doing so.

Make clear and explicit by the discussion of concrete examples.

Clarify or explain something, perhaps indicating how it relates to some other thing or looking at it in a particular way.

Argue a case expressing valid reasons for accepting a particular interpretation or conclusion.

Give the main features or the general principles of a subject, omitting minor details and emphasising structure or arrangement.

Sets out your area of enquiry, methodology and initial bibliography.

Show how things are connected and how they possibly affect, cause, or resemble each other.

Make a survey of, examining the subject critically.

Present the main points in a brief, clear form.

Give a concise account of the main points, omitting details and examples.

Drawing together ideas, theories, or themes from texts or your own ideas and theories with these texts.

Describe in narrative form the progress, development or sequence of events from some particular point.

Learning Development Tutors
Learning Development Tutors work with students to help ensure they have the knowledge, skills and confidence to be successful learners.  For more information about Learning Development Tutors and to book a tutorial see - Academic Skills.

Further Reading
Available from the Library -