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How To Write Good Essays and Good Exam Answers by Really Trying
Author: ADMIN (ukstudent at gmail dot com)
Published: Fri, 22-Dec-2006
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How To Write Good Essays and Good Exam Answers by Really Trying. Article by Tom Mackie, Dave Marsh, Kevin Colclough and Dave Richards


1.1 Why Do We Write Essays

There are three principal reasons why students have to write essays. First, you write essays in order to gain marks so you can pass exams which allows you to graduate at the end of your university career. But in order to pass these exams you need to demonstrate that you understand the subject and can present a clear and logical argument. These both are the second and third main reasons why you write essays.

One of the reasons you come to university is to improve your chances of getting a good job. One of the main skills that you will learn at university is how to write a coherent 'report'. This applies not only to marketing or management courses, but also in the social sciences. Employers favour university graduates precisely because they have these skills and hence there is a fourth reason for writing essays: to meet employers' demands for this skill.

1.2 Writing Essays

Most students have problems, particularly initially, with preparing and writing essays. This booklet is intended to help; it may not turn you into George Orwell, but Jeffrey Archer's style, if not his fortune, should be within your grasp.

A good style, like most things in life, is something which involves work. Of course, writing does come easier to some people than others, but everyone can improve and, if you are intelligent enough to be here, you should be able to write competently before you leave.

Perhaps the most important advice you can be given is to think about your style and how it can be improved. Don't expect an essay to flow from you as a 'stream of consciousness'; perfect, well-formed and coherent. It doesn't happen in that way. You write an essay based upon a pre-set and written-out plan and then revise and improve your first effort.

1.3 Preparation of Essays

Your difficulties with an essay may start well before you begin to write, at the stage where you are reading books and articles and taking notes. You will need to devote enough time to this preparation despite the other distractions of University life. Obviously, it is best if you put aside some time each day for preparing essays, but only you can decide when and how you work best. You may be a person who works best in the mornings or at night; you may even find it easier to work very hard and intensively for shorter periods of time and then take a few days off. The crucial thing is to develop your own, sensible, working patterns. It never pays to leave yourself only a few days to write an essay.

You will have essay deadlines in each of your classes. Often these deadlines will be very similar in a number of your classes. You must plan your workload so that you can submit all the essays on time. You might also bear in mind that if you can start an essay well before the deadline it is likely to be easier to find the material you need, given that, especially in big classes, a large number of students are scrambling for the same sources.

If you are unsure about how to approach an essay, or are unable to obtain enough material to write one, don't be afraid to approach your tutor. He or she is there to give help; you are not asking for a favour or for favouritism. Indeed such discussions are an important part of the learning process and will, almost invariably, ensure your essays are better.

Be careful how much you read for an essay. Of course you must read enough, which will involve scrutinising a number of sources not just one or two. However, it is possible to read too much; then you may become bored with the subject, or the time you spend on reading for one essay may eat significantly into the time you have available for preparing another. Unless your essay is based closely on particular texts, you will find that you do not have enough time to read all books right through. So you must learn how to 'gut' books; two suggestions should help. First, use the book's index; so if you are reading a book on political developments under Mrs Thatcher, but are mainly interested in her policies in relation to the unions, look up the entries for 'trade unions' and 'industrial relations' in the index. Second, look at the introduction and conclusions of a book and at the opening and final paragraphs of each chapter; this will give you a good idea of the content of the book.

Taking notes from a book is another art. Of course, if you own a book you can mark passages and write marginal comments; this is much quicker than copying them out. In other circumstances you will need to write your own notes and you should try to make them selective. Writing out long quotations or extensive paraphrases from a book is often a substitute for thought; if you summarise the book's ideas succinctly, then you will save yourself a lot of time when you come to write the essay. If you do copy out a quotation, make sure you note the page reference, as it will be extremely annoying for you to have to go back to find it later. A good way to do this is to use a small card index. When you read a book you can write the author's name, title, publisher and date of publication on an index card and file it alphabetically. If you do this, when you come to write out your bibliography you will have it already available in your card index. What is more, you can also put key quotes, and page references to important ideas, from any book on the relevant index card. It all helps you recall work later and is a very good habit to develop. Always keep a copy of any essay you submit. With a word processor it is simple to make a copy; otherwise make a photocopy.

1.4 Essay Deadlines

Each class will have due dates for its essays. These are deadlines not starting points for negotiations. Unless you have a legitimate excuse, which will normally be a medical one backed with a doctor's certificate, you will be penalised for late essays. Obviously you will find some deadlines painful, but they exist in order to ensure that you allocate your work more effectively and that there is equity between students.


Presentation of Essays

We encourage you to word process your essays. Word processing is a skill which employers increasingly regard as essential. The Faculty offers training courses in word processing. If you chose to use a pen instead, make sure your handwriting is legible.

In addition you should: write on only one side of the paper; number the pages; staple or paper-clip the pages of the essay together; write the title of the essay, your tutor's name and your name once on the first page; ensure that your essay has wide margins so that there is room for corrections or comments.

2.1 Essay Structure

Essays, like life, should have a beginning, a middle and an end. You are not writing all you know about a subject, rather you are answering a specific question. A well-structured essay will certainly earn you a higher mark, particularly of course, when allied to solid content.

2.1.1 Introductions

In the introduction you should give your answer to the question; outline your argument; tell the reader the main points you are going to make and why. You should also tell the reader how this will affect the structure of your essay. By doing these two things you will signpost the reader through your essay and give yourself a reminder of your intentions. As an example, the introduction to an answer to the question 'Analyse the importance of the House of Commons in the British political system' might read something like :

Specimen Introduction

The importance of the House of Commons in the British political system is relatively small. The House of Commons is simply a rubber stamp for legislation which comes from Cabinet and the Civil Service. This essay will examine the role of the House of Commons in relation to other aspects of the British political system, particularly the Cabinet and the Civil Service. The main argument of this essay is that the Civil Service and the Cabinet are the main initiators of policy and that the House of Commons, is no more than a rubber stamp.

It is worth noting that any definitions which are crucial to your answer should immediately follow your introduction.

2.1.2 The Body of The Essay (See Appendix)

Once you have written the introduction you can start on your essay proper. YOU MUST, MUST, MUST STICK TO YOUR INTRODUCTION IN THE BODY OF YOUR ESSAY. When writing an essay you are answering a specific question, therefore there are three things you must do : ANSWER THAT QUESTION; MAKE SURE EACH POINT YOU MAKE IS RELEVANT; USE EVIDENCE TO SHOW WHY IT IS RELEVANT.

The middle of your essay is where you show that you can form a logical argument and support it with evidence. In order to show that you can do this a good, clear structure is important. A good structure shows several things to the marker :

• That you understand the question and subject; by separating the different points relevant to the argument you indicate that you know the subject well and are therefore able to answer the question.
• That you can form a logical coherent argument; without this your structure will be illogical and difficult to follow.
• That you have an argument and that the introduction stating that argument has been followed; a clear structure in the middle of your essay helps the reader with the signposts you should have given them in the introduction, thus making the essay easy to read and improving your chances of a good mark.

Although structure is probably one of the most important things in your essay, this does not mean that you can ignore the content. If you have a good understanding of the material relevant to the question and can see the main points that need to be made it is a simple step to apply those points to a well structured argument. If you stick to the following rule then you should have a well structured essay :

One Point Per Paragraph

Of course along with this point you can make minor qualifications and should provide evidence to support it but, if you are making another major point you should use a new paragraph. There is no perfect length for a paragraph. But, if a paragraph lasts more than a page it is probably too long. Short paragraphs are unusual.

Another aspect of structure which shows you and the marker that the points you are making are relevant is if each paragraph is linked. If your material is relevant and you present it in a logical order each paragraph should flow from the preceding one. It's no good talking about Mrs Thatcher's local government policy and then talking about how good her teacakes were! Whereas, if you talk about Mrs Thatcher's local government policy and then talk about the Poll Tax there is a logical link. The marker should not have to guess why something is included, and by making points which flow in a logical manner you will ensure that he or she will not have to guess.

Use of Evidence

You must give evidence which backs up your argument. Assertion without evidence is journalism, and not very good journalism either. However, the evidence used must be relevant. For example if you argue that class is still the main reason for voting preference you would need to give figures which match voting preference and class; and not give figures which match voting preference and hair colour.


As you are writing essays in a specific subject area you should use concepts relevant (i.e. taxation not teacakes) to that subject. Concepts are used, like all definitions, to provide short-cuts. If you had to write 'a book that contains definitions andspellings of words' instead of just writing 'dictionary' it would take a lot more effort and simply confuse your audience. As with the above example of voting preference and class, class is a concept which many authors have defined in a wide variety of ways. To have a coherent argument you must use definitions in a rigorous manner. You may reject a concept as defined in a particular book, but if you do so you must provide good reasons and evidence.

Essays are not an excuse for you to write everything you know about a given topic. You must avoid being too descriptive, irrelevant, polemical or tangential. Unfortunately people still believe that the more they write the better. This isn't necessarily, or even usually, the case. Moreover lecturers, who are busy people too, would much rather mark a short, bad essay than a long bad essay.

2.1.3 Conclusions

By the time you get to the end of an essay, there is an overwhelming desire to see the back of it, to finish and forget it. This desire, like many others at University, must be suppressed.

There are few things more frustrating than reading an essay which is good, but which is let down by its conclusion. You must learn to go back to the beginning of the essay and remind yourself of what you have just done, then you should clearly and concisely re-state your argument to pull the whole thing together. The conclusion is not the place to introduce new arguments; it is not the place to slip in all those things you had forgotten to say earlier. The conclusion only repeats your argument. It is only when you haven't planned your essay or given it enough thought that you need to resort to using the conclusion to introduce new material; beware, because it's very noticeable.

Specimen Conclusion

The House of Commons, due to the make-up of the party system, is no more than a rubber stamp. The main argument of this essay has been that the Civil Service and the Cabinet are the main initiators of policy and the House of Commons is not very important in the legislative process. Therefore the House of Commons is simply a rubber stamp for legislation which comes from Cabinet and the Civil Service.

2.2 Style

Very few people write good essays without really trying. You learn by experience and effort. Only you can really change a bad style into a competent one; there is no magic wand. If you think your style could be improved, or if a tutor tells you there are major problems with your style, try reading your essay out loud, or better still get a loved-one to read it to you, before you submit it. If you, or your friend, find the essay hard to read at a particular point, then reword that sentence / paragraph. In addition you should buy and use a dictionary.

2.2.1 Sentences

Sentences should normally be short and to the point. Winston Churchill said that no sentence should contain more than nine words. Of course that is an excessive stricture, but it is worth bearing in mind. There is a famous sentence, written by Bernard Levin, which contains 450 words and reads well. Do not try to break this record.

You must avoid 'non-sentences'. As an example, the following sentence is wrong because it is grammatically incomplete: 'Despite appearing in many printed sources nowadays including even books'. If you read this sentence carefully (and, certainly, if you read it aloud) you will notice its oddity. You will ask, 'Despite so-and-so ... then, what?' The sentence should continue and make its point, such as, " ... it remains incorrect'. Alternatively, the word which causes the problem ('despite') could be dropped and the sentence re-written by saying": 'Grammatically incomplete sentences appear in many printed sources nowadays, including even books.'

Generally if all your sentences make a simple point and sound right individually when spoken aloud, they will probably be sound grammatically.

Always be on the look out for 'back-to-front' sentences which would read much better if the clauses they contain were reversed. Two examples should illustrate the point.


In an attempt to prevent a serious confrontation with the incumbent Labour Government the Productivity Deal formed the backbone of this strategy.


The Productivity Deal formed the backbone of a strategy which attempted to prevent a serious confrontation with the incumbent Labour Government.


Resolving the conceptual problems surrounding the relationship between the State and the economy remains Jessop's primary concern.


Jessop's primary concern remains to resolve the conceptual problems surrounding the relationship between the State and the economy.

The general rule here is clear. The subject should precede the verb and the object should follow the verb.

It is best to avoid beginning a sentence with a verb or a preposition (with, and, but, etc.).

2.2.2 Commas

Commas should not be scattered about but reserved for points in the sentence when a speaking voice would want to pause, perhaps to take a breath. Two general points are worth noting. First, a comma only rarely precedes 'and', 'or' or 'with'. Second, many, but not all, commas should appear in pairs, around a subordinate clause. An example is :

'He entered the room and, pausing to look around quickly at the empty chairs, sat down at the table.'

As so often, if you read this aloud, with a natural and correct emphasis, you would hear where the commas should go.

2.2.3 Semi-colons

Semi-colons can assist good style. A long sentence can be relieved, although not if it's grammatically suspect; over-use can be a danger. They should be used when you want a break in a sentence; they involve a stronger break than does a comma, but a weaker break than does a full stop. Semi-colons are also commonly used in lists : maths; physics; history; and politics.

2.2.4 The Possessive Case

A word's possessive case is another of one's students' common errors. In the previous sentence one uses "word's" and "one's" because they are in the possessive case and they are singular. We write students' not student's because there are more than one of them.

2.2.5 Clichιs

They are to be avoided like the plague because they get so heavy and boring.

2.2.6 It's and Its

It's a shame that University students are so often unable to tell the difference between the possessive word 'its' and the short form of 'it is'. (It's all the schools' fault, of course.)

2.2.7 Principal and Principle

A principal or main cause of English spelling mistakes is the lack of principles or rules in English spelling.

2.2.8 Affect and Effect

To affect the outcome of the general election would produce the desired effect.

2.2.9 Proper Names

Proper names, such as Paris, Celtic, Conservative Party, Kevin, Tom, Dave, etc., should have CAPITAL LETTERS.


3 References

Ideas are like property. You can borrow ideas, you can use ideas in new ways, you can build new ideas from existing ones, you can criticise existing ideas, but if you steal ideas you will be a plagiarist. How do you use ideas you have come across without passing them off as your own? The answer, referencing!

A reference (or a citation) is an acknowledgement of sources of ideas, arguments or factual information. When you employ an idea that is not your own, summarise someone else's argument or report information which you did not collect yourself, you must identify the source. Everybody depends upon the ideas of others. To fail to admit that you do as well is a sign of intellectual immaturity. Deliberate failure to refer to sources is plagiarism.

There is, unfortunately, no commonly agreed set of conventions for references in the body of an essay (or book or journal article) or at the end of an essay. But the best, and the one we use, is the 'Harvard' or 'American' system.

3.1 The Harvard Referencing System

This is a simple referencing system which is easy to use for both author and reader, and we strongly recommend it. If you use this system, you cite the author's surname, the year of publication, and the page reference immediately after the quoted material, e.g. 'Many students have been seriously misled by the literature on policy networks' (Marsh, 1995: 45).

Examples of references:
• a single author on a piece of work
o (Tarrow, 1994)
• a single author on more than a piece of work
o (Pye, 1985, 1988)
• two authors collaborating on a piece of work
o (Lieberthal and Oksensbery, 1988))
• a number of authors collaborating on a piece of work
o (Bellah et al., 1985)
• a number of works on a similar subject
o (Gamson, 1988; Gamson and Modigliana, 1989; Donati, 1992)
• if you want to alert the reader to specific pages
o (Downs, 1967: 130-133)

3.2 Bibliography

This should include every work cited in the text plus other works consulted. Avoid the temptation to decorate your bibliography with other titles.

Examples of entries in a bibliography

• Book
o Dahl, Robert A. (1989) Democracy and Its Critics (New Haven and London: Yale University Press)
• A co-authored book
o Laver, Michael and Norman Scofield (1990) Multi-Party Government : the Politics of Coalitions in Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
• A chapter in an edited book
o Diamond, Larry (1989), 'Introduction : Persistence, Erosion, Breakdown, and Renewal' in Larry Diamond, Juan Linz and Seymour Martin Lipset, eds., Democracy in Developing Countries, Vol.3 : Asia (Boulder, Colorado : Lynne Rienner Publishers)
• An article in a journal
o Wade, Robert (1992) 'East Asia's Economic Success : Conflicting Perspectives, Partial Insights, Shaky Evidence', World Politics, 44: 270-320.
• Materials from the web
o Wessels, Wolfgang and Diedrich, Udo (1997), 'A New Kind of Legitimacy for a New Kind of Parliament : The Evolution of the European Parliament', European Integration Online Papers No. 6, http://eiop.or.at/eiop/teste/1997-006a.htm.


All the written work you submit must be your own. Plagiarism of other people's work whether passages are 'lifted' directly without attribution, or with slight rewording, and irrespective of whether the work in question is listed in your bibliography, is wholly unacceptable and will be heavily penalised.

The mark for your essay will certainly be lower and may well be zero. In severe cases you may be required to submit another essay in order to qualify to take the class exam. Disciplinary procedures which will be invoked for prima facie cases of plagiarism are set out on page 6 of the Department's Students' Charter.

Of course we do not want to discourage you from using other people's ideas or data. Our aim is exactly the opposite. But you must always make clear your sources. The following rules will help you to avoid plagiarism. If you are in any way uncertain about what constitutes plagiarism always consult your tutor.

• The language in your paper must either be your own or a direct quote from the original author.
• Changing a few words or phrases from another writer's work is not enough to make the writing 'your own'. The writing is either your own or the other person's; there are no in-betweens.
• Footnotes/endnotes acknowledge that the fact or opinion expressed comes from another writer. If the language comes from another writer, quotation marks are necessary in addition, to a footnote.

Marking of Essays

It would be unfair to expect you to write your essay without letting you know what we expect. There are two principal ways that essays can be marked. In the Politics Division your essays are marked holistically, i.e., the essay is judged as a whole. In the Sociology Division your essay is marked on the basis of certain criteria, each of which are allocated so many marks.

5.1 Marking Checklist

However, even in holistic marking certain elements are looked for in your essay. Markers take into account three major elements in assessing your essay: interpretation, knowledge and organisation e.g.

• Addresses & Interprets the Question
o Essay makes an interpretation of the questions and in relation to this develops a coherent and connected line of argument. The essays sticks to the point. Instructions in the question are carried out (e.g. discuss, compare and contrast). Readership as well as purpose are considered.
• Knowledge
o Concepts, theories, facts, examples, and research evidence are relevant and selected to back-up and illustrate what is being said (ie the arguments and interpretation). Use/application of techniques and analysis also support the interpretation being made.
• Organisation / Presentation
o Organisational framework designed to present arguments and evidence coherently and in a logical form taking account of readers' needs. Acknowledgement of sources, citation conventions, legible, length, clarity, grammar and spelling etc.


Unfortunately exams are an essential part of university life. They are intended to test what you know in a stressful environment, and away from the tools you would normally use. You will need to prepare carefully for such challenges. This section should help you to do just that. Writing exam answers requires different skills from essay writing. The examiners are seeking to test your knowledge of the concepts and empirical material taught in a particular class by requiring you to write answers on some or all of the material covered in that class.

6.1 Revision

There is no right or wrong way to revise for exams. What is intended here are a few general tips which may assist your own method of revision. First, do not leave it till the night before the exam. If you want to gain a good mark, for example to gain entry to Honours year, this is not the best way to go about it.

Leave yourself at least a couple of days, preferably not including time to do your reading. Sort out your notes for the topics you want to cover. Read through them for the main points and then revise each point. Use index cards, if you can, as they are easy to use. Take your time to go over these points until you are confident that you remember them well enough to attempt a mock question from a past paper. Always try and answer a past paper question for each of your topics and time yourself. Not only is this good practice for the exam itself, but it gives you a good indication of how much you can write in that space of time. This way you can concentrate on the main points.

6.2 What is expected in an Exam Answer

You will not be able to write as much in an exam as you would for an assessment essay. It is important to bear this in mind. It means that you will often not be able to put down all you know about the subject, which re-emphasises the need for a plan. You are looking to make the main points and give some illustrations in support of those points.

6.3 Planning Your Answer

Planning your answer is the key to getting a good mark. If you have a plan your answer is likely to be better structured and that plan will provide the basis of your introductory paragraph. This plan should be based on the points that you were revising and so should not take up too much time to write down. Remember though that it is unlikely that the points you have revised will fit a question exactly, which is why you need to plan how to USE the points revised. You should spend at least 10 minutes (of 60) per question on your plan. In addition you should try to spend five minutes per question reading your answer through.

6.4 Write a Complete Answer

It is absolutely crucial to write a complete answer or if you have to answer two or three questions to write two or three complete answers. You will get more marks for a complete answer than you will for an incomplete one. Timing in an examination is crucial. If you spend one and a half hours of an exam on the first question and only half an hour on the second question then the extra marks you get for writing more on question one will invariably be less than the marks you lose by writing an incomplete second answer. This is clearly another reason why you need a good plan. If you have problems with exam timing you should practise writing in one hour at home.

6.5 Answer the Question

Students are always being told this for the very good reason that many of them do not do it. It is no good writing down all you know about a subject, only answering the question at a tangent. You must write a plan which specifically answers the question posed, not the one you wanted to be asked, or the one you answered for your class essay, and then stick to the plan. If you answer the question, even if you are short of information, you are likely to get more marks than if you waffle on using all the information you have on the subject, but only indirectly touching on the question.


Question: 'Explain changes in Conservative policy towards local government during the Thatcher Government'.

For example

In this answer I will look first at the changes in government policy towards local government since 1979. Subsequently I will examine three putative explanations of these changes, which stress: the influence of New Right ideology; the Conservative Government's antipathy towards local authorities, which were mostly Labour controlled; and the Thatcher Government's desire to centralise in the area of 'High Politics' while increasing accountability in the area of 'Low Politics'. I will argue that all of these three explanations have some validity, but I will emphasise the importance of the final one.

An introduction like this has two main advantages. First, it offers the reader signposts: he/she (and hopefully you!) will know where you are going. Second, it also convinces the reader that you are on top of your material; you have read the question, planned an answer and made it clear how you intend to respond - all very impressive.

The conclusion should round off the answer by summarising the main conclusions.

For example

In this essay I first established that there were major changes in relations between central and local government after 1979. In particular, local government is more dependent upon central government funding, the powers of local government have been reduced and there has been a significant move to introduce 'market forces' into local government. Subsequently, I examined three explanations of these changes which have been suggested. I argued that all three explanations have validity but that the Government's main aim was to increase control by central government over local government, particularly, although not exclusively, in the area of finance, while making local government more accountable to its electors and customers.

As is clear from this example, in a sense, the conclusion is almost a 'mirror image' of the introduction.

© Copyright for this article belongs to University of Strathclyde

This document was re-printed with the kind permission of Fiona Macintyre. Original Source of the article is located here: http://www.strath.ac.uk/government/essays.html

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