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Essay Advice
Author: ADMIN (ukstudent at gmail dot com)
Published: Sat, 07-Oct-2006
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Essay Advice. Article by Brunel University

Notes on Studying for Modules

With any module you do at University level, it is not simply facts that you are learning. You are expected to assimilate and assess new ideas and debates in relation to relevant ideas of your own. You are expected to make use of ideas from written material, lectures and seminars. When studying for the assessment for the module, you have to take on new ideas, integrate ideas with existing knowledge and current issues, and express your ideas. By level 3, you will also be expected to demonstrate independent research skills.

When reading and studying for the module you are encouraged to take an active approach to reading, lectures and seminars. Take time to edit your lecture notes and write up ideas after a lecture, screening or seminar. A lecture should stimulate your thinking, and you should get used to a variety of lecture techniques. Your experience of diverse lecturing styles helps you think about topics from different points of views and perspectives, and further aids the development of your own perspective on an issue or subject. While listening to a lecture try to formulate relevant questions throughout the lecture which you can follow up in your reading or in the seminar, think about what is said, and think about how this fits into a more general picture. This should help to prevent passive listening.

Remember that lectures are intended to complement your reading, not replace it. Take notes from relevant reading. When note-taking in preparation for writing an essay, keep your chosen essay title in mind. The seminars are designed to promote group discussion and, thereby, help to encourage active learning. In seminars you can explore ideas and practice using relevant language and constructing arguments, which will provide practice for the more formal activity of essay writing.

Writing your Essay: General Advice

When writing your essay you may like to divide the process into the following categories: examine the title; produce a plan and collect relevant material; organise your material; write a first draft; review it; write the final draft (checking spelling and punctuation); do the bibliography. Often these steps will overlap and you may expect to go back and forwards between them. In producing a plan you might like to take into account the following: start by noting down what issues and factors you feel are important to answering the question; divide this into sections and arrange an order, with an eye towards building to a conclusion; read strategically to add to your sections, checking that your material supports your argument.

You should aim to convince your reader of your argument. To do this you should take your reader through your argument step by step, demonstrating your points to be valid by illustrative examples (never simply state a point, instead always argue your point through). Try to stick to a single point per paragraph and try to ensure that each paragraph fits into an underlying structure, which will be provided by your argument. Include an introduction and conclusion. It is vital that you leave time to read your essay through thoroughly several times, checking references, punctuation, clarity of expression, and spelling, remove repetition, check and adjust length, and make sure that you have provided support for your points. Check that you have answered the question. Use wide margins, number the sheets, put word count at the end, put your name on the essay, use 1.5 or doubling line spacing. Keep a copy and you may be required to give your essay back at the end of the course for external examiner moderation.

Evaluating your Essays

The English staff shall be looking in particular at the following in our marking of all essay work in English:

i) essay relevant to topic,
ii) topic covered in depth;

iii) good knowledge of text(s), author(s), genre, historical and social context (as appropriate),
iv) logically developed and well-supported argument,
v) accurate presentation of evidence, textual or factual or theoretical,
vi) careful reflection upon the topic and the evidence,
vii) perceptive and original thought,
viii) careful use, and acknowledgement, of critical sources;

ix) fluency and clarity of writing,

x) grammatical sentences,
xi) accuracy of spelling,
xii) correct citation of references in texts, footnotes and bibliography;

xiii) essay supported by reading of primary texts and relevant secondary material,
xiv) ability to examine secondary sources critically and not to be too heavily dependent on them;

xv) 12 point type,
xvi) double-spaced,
xvii) with page numbers and your name in the header.

Presentation and Referencing of Coursework

Detailed guidelines on the presentation and referencing requirements for coursework in English are to be found in the new Department of English Handbook. If you do not have a copy see Ms Suzanne Wills in GB130. A copy is also available for consultation in the Department Office and in the Library in Restricted Access. You are expected to follow the requirements and conventions indicated there exactly.

Above all, your attention is drawn to your responsibility for following exactly the requirements for citing work that you have used, be this by direct quotation, paraphrase, or the incorporation of the thoughts and arguments of other persons.

In particular, ensure that all quotations (whether from literary texts or from the work of critics) are in quotation marks. Failure to follow this requirement is likely to result in a charge of plagiarism. You must also clearly identify the source of the quotation in a footnote AND you must include the work in your bibliography. Similarly, you must also clearly indicate the nature and extent of paraphrased material and your reliance on arguments, points or ideas which are not your own. If a paragraph is a paraphrase from a critic, for example, you must indicate this to your reader by more than a footnote after the final sentence (which might suggest that only that sentence was derived from someone else). For example, you might show that a series of sentences are drawn from the work of another critic by beginning "As Kate Flint argues..." and concluding the paraphrased section with the appropriate footnote reference.

In Summary: You must use quotation marks for quotations, and indicate clearly and thoroughly the full nature and extent of your use of the ideas, arguments and words of other persons even in paraphrase. You must also acknowledge your use of others' work through footnotes in the essay. It is not enough to cite the books you have consulted in your bibliography if you have quoted from or paraphrased them or incorporated their arguments and ideas in your essay. Failure to do so is plagiarism - a form of cheating - and the consequences are serious. The result of plagiarism is a mark of 0 for the entire module, serious academic penalties for such failure (including the possible termination of your course), and the possibility of disciplinary action by the University. DO NOT PLAGIARISE.

If in doubt about how to reference some material after consulting your Handbook, ask your tutor.

FOOTNOTES: There are two different ways of doing footnotes and bibliography: the MLA and the MHRA style. Either is acceptable for English Department coursework.

MLA STYLE: This is the style suggested by the Modern Language Association, the umbrella organisation based in the US. Further information (including a list of frequently asked questions) can be found on their website.

Whenever you cite information from another source, quote or paraphrase another critic, you must use footnotes to avoid being guilty of plagiarism. Anything which repeats words from another source -- i.e. a direct quotation -- should be enclosed in inverted commas, and followed by a footnote or endnote, comprised of a superscript roman numeral. This will refer the reader to a citation at the bottom of the page (footnote) or end of the whole essay (endnote).

e.g.: Ben Jonson's temper was well known. Riggs writes that 'Jonson could identify with his villain-hero because his own instinctual drives had taken him down the very path that leads Volpone to ruin.'1

1 David Riggs, Ben Jonson: a Life (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard UP, 1989) 139.

If the quotation is more than a line, it should be set apart from the rest of the paragraph by a full line break, and indented on either side. In this case, the indentation sets it apart as a quotation, so you do not need to include quotation marks. For example:

Ben Jonson's temper was well known. Riggs writes that

Jonson could identify with his villain-hero because his own instinctual drives had taken him down the very path that leads Volpone to ruin. He too had been a "rider on mens wives" (IV.vi.24); he too was a "contemner and scorner of others" (Conv 680), to recall Drummond's appraisal... 1

The format of the information for the footnotes is as follows:


Author (First name Last name), Title (italics or underline) (Place of publication: Publisher, Date of Publication) page number.

e.g.: David Riggs, Ben Jonson: a Life (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard UP, 1989) 139.

Article in Book:

Author (First name Last name), 'Article title', Title (italics or underline), (Place of publication: Publisher, Date of Publication) page number.

e.g.: Deborah Rubin, 'The Mourner in the Flesh: George Herbert's Commemoration of Magdalen Herbert in Memoriae Matris Sacrum,' Men Writing the Feminine: Literature, Theory, and the Question of Genders, ed. Thas E. Morgan (Albany: State U of New York P, 1994) 13-28.

Article in Journal:

Author (First name Last name), 'Article title', Title (italics or underline), volume.number (date of publication): page numbers (specific page of reference).

e.g.: Matthew P. Parker, '"All are not born (Sir) to the Bay": "Jack" Suckling, "Tom" Carew, and the making of a Poet,' English Literary Renaissance 12.3 (1982): 341-68 (347).


The bibliography is formatted slightly differently from footnotes: the name of the author. It should include a list of all consulted sources, alphabetically listed, with the following information:


Author (Last name, First name). Title (italics or underline). Place of publication: Publisher, Date of Publication.

e.g.: Riggs, David. Ben Jonson: a Life. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard UP, 1989.

Article in Book:

Author (Last name, First name). 'Article title.' Title of book (italics or underline). Place of publication: Publisher, Date of Publication. Page numbers.

e.g.: Rubin, Deborah. 'The Mourner in the Flesh: George Herbert's Commemoration of Magdalen Herbert in Memoriae Matris Sacrum.' Men Writing the Feminine: Literature, Theory, and the Question of Genders. Ed. Thas E. Morgan. Albany: State U of New York P, 1994. 13-28.

Article in Journal:

Author (Last name, First name). 'Article title.' Title of journal (italics or underline) volume.number (date of publication): page numbers.

e.g.: Parker, Matthew P. '"All are not born (Sir) to the Bay": "Jack" Suckling, "Tom" Carew, and the making of a Poet.' English Literary Renaissance 12.3 (1982): 341-68.

For websites:
include the title of the web page, the name of the entire web site, the organization that posted it (this may be the same as the name of the website). Also include the full date the page was created or last updated (day, month, year if available) and the date you looked at it.
Internet Magazine Articles: Include:
The name of the database (underlined) and the company that created it and its home webpage;
The full date of the article (day, month, year if available) and the date you looked at it;
If you are citing a journal instead of a magazine, include the volume (and issue number) and date as shown under the Journal Style above.
The library or other organization (and its location) that provided you with access to the database.
As for page numbers, different databases will provide different information. Include the range of pages (ex. 25-28.); or the starting page followed by a hyphen, a blank space, and a period (ex. 64- .); or the total number of pages or paragraphs (ex. 12 pp. or 33 pars.). If no page information is given, then leave it out.

Grammar Mechanics

To brush up on your grammar, visit the Internet Grammar of English.

1. For goodness' sake don't write in text style! lower-case i, 4, u, it's ridiculous.
2. Paragraph structure: indent the first line of the paragraph. One sentence does not suffice as a separate paragraph. Paragraphs should be complete and elaborate thoughts, which move the argument along significantly.
3. Indent quotations - it makes the text much clearer. Don't centre quotations. If you include a short quotation in inverted commas, you don't need to set it apart from the rest of the paragraph.
4. Work on integrating your quotations into your argument. Often, the reader is whizzing along through your exposition, then bam! a quote comes out of nowhere, and like a thief in the night, is gone as quickly as it arrived. Try to make these transitions seamless. Even the standard formulas like 'Shakespeare challenges the association of women with tenderness, as when Lady Macbeth asks the murdering ministers to 'stop up the access and passage to remorse'.
5. Avoid the passive voice. The active voice is a sentence where the action passes from the subject to the predicate: 'The man threw the ball.' The passive is the opposite: 'The ball was thrown by the man.' When you use the passive voice, not only are your sentences weaker, they also can become ambiguous because it's not clear who is doing the action. 'It is argued that Shakespeare meant...' By whom? Better: 'The critic David Norbrook argues that' etc.
6. Run-on sentences. Don't be afraid of a short sentence. They can be dramatic and are usually more clear than huge phrasal pile-ups. Just because you put a comma in it doesn't make it right.
7. Split infinitives. If you use 'to' + verb, don't interpose any other word between them. I.e. 'to boldly go' should, technically, be 'boldly to go' or 'to go boldly'.
8. Prepositions. Don't end a sentence with a preposition. It's a bad habit to get into.
9. Dangling participles. As naughty as it sounds. If you start a sentence with a dependent clause, that clause should have the same subject as the subject of the sentence. I.e.: 'Walking to work, I noticed that it might rain' is correct; 'Walking to work, the rain started to fall' is not. The rain is not walking to work.
10. It's vs. its. A pet peeve of every English teacher. 'It's' is a contraction for 'it is'. 'Its' is a pronomial adjective, meaning 'that which belongs to it'. I know it's not easy to remember each of these rules and its importance to clear writing. Same rule for 'they're' ('they are') and 'their' ('that which belongs to them'). Get it?
11. References. Don't start sentences with 'It' or 'This', etc., when it isn't clear what these pronouns refer to: this [rule] is especially relevant where abstract, convoluted and rambling sentences precede your 'It' or 'This'.

Research and Presentation

1. Format: 12 point, double-spaced, with page numbers and your name in the header.
2. Italicise or underline titles and anything else that would be published on its own (newspaper or magazine titles, movies etc). Put names of songs, poems, anything that would be published in something else, in inverted commas. You don't need both italics and quote marks.
3. Citations and footnotes. There are formulas for exactly how you should format your citations. They are discussed briefly in the Department Handbook. You should also have a look at the MLA Handbook or the MHRA Handbook, both of which are in the library. Above all: in the first citation of a particular text, supply all the information (author, title, place of publication, publisher, date) along with the page number. Afterwards, you can either put the references in parenthesis in the text (Churchill 9) or in abbreviated footnotes.
4. OED. If you're unsure about the history of a particular word, look it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, which not only gives elaborate definitions, but also reflects on how the meaning of the word has changed over the years, and provides some significant examples of its changing usage.


1. Organisation. What ever happened to introductions and conclusions? You say what you're going to accomplish and name your thesis about the text at hand; you organise your support for that thesis in a coherent and logical way, giving the reader signposts like 'First, then, finally'; you reach a tidy and thoughtful conclusion, where that thesis is restated with the benefit of the argument and new conclusions you've just discovered. It's basic good practice.
2. Redundancy. Don't repeat exactly the same conclusions one or more times in a paragraph just because you haven't thought of anything else to add. Keep thinking to try to find a fresh or different conclusion, or another variation on what you've already said.
3. Analyse, don't review. This is the big difference between a II.I and a II.II. 'The stage was bare and the actors were dressed in black.' Well, so what? Better to say 'The stage was bare, signifying the abandonment of the material riches of Venetian life; the black-clothed characters were at once menacing and identical to each other, suggesting the malice which underlies all societies...' etc.
4. Move from details to conclusions. For example: it's useful to point out that the stigmata and crown of thorns makes Lear and Tom look like Christ; but why? What's the textual support for this interpretation?
5. Learn to think more dialectically or critically. Film is great because it lets the director accomplish some things, but it also has its disadvantages. Our focus is controlled - do we lose our freedom or our autonomy? Are we more easily manipulated?
6. 'I identified with the characters.' This is not really the point. While Aristotle and other theoreticians of tragedy talk about the importance of the audience feeling pity for the victims of a tragedy, that Lear's death makes you feel sad is not a sufficient analysis of the complex web of significations that is King Lear.
7. Characters are not real people. They only exist in the text or the performance. It seems obvious but sometimes, when you've been working on an essay for a while, you might come to think of the characters as people, constrained from revealing their true selves by the author. Stop and consider this for a while.
8. Cuts and clarity. Do we really watch, read or study literature just for the plot? If the director has made a number of cuts, this might make the plot easier to follow; but is nothing lost? What about the complexity of the ideas, the power of the imagery, the beauty of the poetry? If all you're after is an easy plot, wouldn't you settle for a Hollywood movie?
9. What did the author mean? Does it matter? It is not really a preoccupation of criticism at the moment whether an author intends to convey one and only one specific interpretation. The text is considered to exceed the individual will of its creator. Therefore, discussing whether Shakespeare meant for Iago to be played by a black actor, or for The Tempest to be a critical reflection on colonialism, is rather idle speculation. How could we prove it, one way or the other?

Copyright for this article belongs to Brunel University

This document was re-printed with the kind permission of Brunel University. Original Source of the article is located here: http://www.brunel.ac.uk/about/acad/sa/artsub/english/currentstudents/essayadvice

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