Strong essays tell the reader an argument that answers the question and convinces them using evidence. Weak essays often summarise or regurgitate the course material. The latter illustrates a lack of understanding of what is required in an essay. I want to share with you a recipe which, if followed correctly, never fails to deliver an excellent essay. This recipe can be used not only for scientific essays but all forms of evidence-based argument under either exam or coursework conditions.
Interpret the question correctly
Identify the “process words” and “content words”, and make sure they dictate the content and structure of your essay. For example, Describe and explain the importance of critical periods of development?” "Describe" and "explain" are the process words and the "importance of critical periods of development" are the content words.
Rewrite the title in your mind to include the words “critically evaluate” and “with reference to specific examples”. Do not assume that any essay question can be reinterpreted as “Write down everything you know about topic X, based on your notes and course material”. These essays are very common and do not get high grades.
Answer the question, but do not take this advice too literally. For example “What are the philosophical assumptions of behavioural therapy?” A weak answer would just list some assumptions. It answers the question, but is not going to get a high grade. A strong answer might critically evaluate assumptions underlying concepts such as conditioning, reinforcement etc, and discuss evidence for their relevance in models of behavioural therapy.
Outline your argument and thesis
Write an outline or “table of contents” that will form the structure of your argument. Let the content words in the title guide your plan. Once you have generated an exhaustive list of ideas, organise the strongest and most relevant points into a logical order and coherent structure.
Restate each point in this outline structure as a sentence that asserts an argument that addresses the question, not a description, finding or quote. These will be the first sentences of the paragraphs in the main body of your essay. Under each point in your outline structure, collect together evidence that you will draw upon to justify this assertion.
Now you can write out your main argument or “thesis statement”. This should be no longer than a sentence or two and clearly delineate your overall argument.
Introduce and signpost your argument
The introduction should identify the subject of the essay, define the key terms and highlight the major issues which “lie behind” the question. Finish the introduction by “signposting” your argument (this could be your thesis statement) and, if possible how this argument is structured.
An essay that starts poorly will have to work hard to get the marker to adequately adjust their initial impression (and grade) upwards. Whereas an essay with a beautifully crafted introduction may be “forgiven” the odd weakness later on. More generally, a well articulated introduction will help re-orient the reader if they lose the thread of your argument.
Good introductions take practice, and can be written after the main body of the essay.
Assert and justify your argument with evidence
Use your outline to structure and order the main body of your essay. Each paragraph should begin with an assertion of one point in your argument. The remainder of the paragraph then justifies this assertion by using description, discussion and critical appraisal of the evidence that you collected at the outline stage. Include only one point in your argument per paragraph. The order in which you make each point should flow and gradually build an argument that facilitates smooth transitions between paragraphs.
This assert and justify approach is successfully used in many forms of evidence-based writing. It is widely accepted that it makes it easier to write in short sentences and paragraphs. It communicates more effectively with time-poor markers and examiners, who might skim your essay. Provided you put blanks between your paragraphs, they will easily pick out the thrust of your argument from your assertions in the first sentence. It also makes it easier to write a conclusion.
Conclude by answering the question
The assertions from all paragraphs comprise a draft summary which can be edited to write a distinct conclusion. Draw these threads of your argument together to answer the question. A good conclusion will be ringing in your tutor’s ears as they decide what grade to award you. Do not introduce new arguments in the conclusion. Try not to “sit on the fence, but be balanced”. Do not conclude with “clearly more research needs to be done in this area”. Give some indication as to what that research might be!
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