Writing essays

Essays are the currency of the university. They are written for assessment in almost all discipline areas. Academics write essays for each other when they attend conferences, for in-house seminal presentations, and importantly,  for publication (they call them “papers”).

You will have to write essays too. They are a critical part of your assessment at university. They will initially be short, but they will build in length and sophistication from 1st year until 3rd year and beyond. Expectations placed on you in terms of your essay writing will become more demanding too.

This page covers:

  • The aim of essay writing
  • Planning
  • Structuring

In doing so it covers the main parts of an essay and the style of writing needed in each section.

Essays?

Not all is equal: differences between disciplines

Each discipline has its own stylistic preferences and genre conventions when it comes to academic writing. An essay for Biology will be very different from an essay for Visual Arts or Philosophy. Economics essays are different from essays in Marketing. Some essays require an empirical (scientific) methodology; other require theoretical analysis and critical interpretation of text; others require personal reflective analysis; others have quite different requirements.

Listen carefully to your lecturer when they tell you what they are looking for in an essay. Read the assessment task carefully and do a topic analysis.

Fortunately, the “essay” as a writing genre has universal elements too. They are all common in terms of structure and academic writing style. They differ in terms of what different disciplines regard as suitable topics of investigation, the terminology used, the methods of analysis adopted, and the interpretive techniques they regard as credible. They even differ on what they regard as being suitable evidence.

Learning the art of essay writing involves learning many transferable skills. This include learning how to:

  • develop a succinct, clear, scholarly writing style
  • defending a point of view with evidence
  • constructing an academic argument
  • marshalling sources and citing and referencing using established conventions used in all professional-level writing.

These skills will be very useful when you eventually join the workforce. The ability to write in a professional way is applicable to all professions. It is therefore wise to take the process of learning to write essays very seriously.

This is a general guide, and not specific to your discipline. Should you have any specific questions about the structure of your essay, ask your tutor or lecturer.

The aim of an essay

In general, when writing an essay your main goal is to present information about a topic along with your point of view on that topic. There are two main forms of essay:

Argumentative essays: Here you analyse or interpret an event, problem, situation, or theory and argue for a point of view about that event/problem/situation/theory and provide evidence to support your argument.

Reflective essays: Here you typically: 1) describe a situation and present a point of view about an issue of concern that you have experienced, or 2) evaluate a situation that you might experience as a professional, and draw conclusions about how to deal with it.

Occasionally you may be asked to write descriptively and reflectively. This occurs in subjects like Nursing and allied health professions subjects, in Psychology or Community Welfare disciplines. Usually, however, you are expected to analyse, discuss or evaluate an issue, applying research to support an argument.

Either way, your essay should always have one major aim, which defending your point of view. It’s important to keep that goal in mind when writing. The point of view is sometimes called your thesis statement.

Plan & structure your essay

Planning

Having a plan before you start writing will provide direction and structure. It will allow you to map the topic and align your research with particular paragraphs. It will also help you to identify where you need more evidence.

Structuring

Understanding essay structure simplifies the whole process of writing. It may help to think of structure as the skeleton of your writing; if your body was missing a skeleton, you’d flop around. Essays without structure do much the same.

There are three main parts of an essay: the introduction, the body and the conclusion. One simple and memorable way to describe each part is as follows:

  • Introduction: tell them what you’re going to say
  • Body: say it
  • Conclusion: remind them what you just said

That’s oversimplifying it, but it’s a quick way to remember the purpose of each section. Here is a visual outline on essay structure that shows you generally what to aim for:

Structure of an essay

Download this structure of an essay.

Let’s now look at these parts in detail.

Your introduction

The introduction is typically done in four parts:

1. Introduce the topic, provide general background information

Show the context of your essay by introducing some key words or concepts from your essay topic. This can be done in a sentence or two.

Example: Essay topic

“Discuss the impacts of the phenomenon of performance enhancing drugs in Australian professional sports on adolescent athletes.”

The first sentence of an example Introduction may go something like this:

  • Performance enhancing drugs have been shown to have a detrimental effect in the Australian sporting world since the 1980s as evidenced in the media and among professional sporting bodies (Fenanigan & Crawley, 2013).

As you can see, three key words have been introduced here, which are: ‘performance enhancing drugs’, ‘Australian’ and ‘professional sports’. Your next sentences can expand on this information.

2. Narrow your focus, set the context for your specific argument

Introduce the other key words from your topic to set up the context for your upcoming point of view, or thesis statement. You may want to define certain words at this point as well, for example:

  • Young adolescent athletes, generally aged between 14 and 18, are not immune to the prevalence of drug use. This is not only based on their awareness of its existence in professional sports, but their own attitudes towards performance enhancing drugs (Hagan, 2013).

The other key words from the original topic were introduced here, namely, ‘adolescent athletes’. This sets the scene for the essay and leads the reader towards your specific angle on this subject. Your essay will be focussed on adolescent athletes and the issue of drug-taking in sport.

3. Present your viewpoint/line of argument/thesis statement

Next you state the main argument or focus for the Body of your essay based on the background information you provided for the reader. This can either be a direct answer in response to the essay topic provided, or a statement about the issue that is highlighted in your essay topic.

Ensure all key words from the essay topic have been introduced by this stage, so that your reader has the complete context for your ideas. For example, a thesis statement that outlines the issue to be discussed in your essay could be something like this (using the topic of drug-taking in sport):

  • Drug taking in sport has only negative impacts on adolescent athletes with regard to their own potential moral code as professional sportspeople and also their propensity for participating in drug taking itself.

The underlined bit is the thesis statement you will defend in the Body of the essay.

Alternatively, your argument can be a direct answer to a question posed in the essay topic. Suppose your essay topic is as follows: “Why are nurses more susceptible to chain smoking compared to other professionals?”). In response you can write something like this:

  • This essay argues that nurses are more susceptible to chain smoking than other professionals because of their excessive and stressful work demands and their poor work-life balance‘. (The underlined bit is the thesis statement you will defend.)

Students writing on the same essay topic will typically have a different thesis statement in response to the essay topic. This is because of the evidence they adduce and they way they interpret the essay question or topic.

4. Outline areas/main points to be discussed

The job of this part of the Introduction is to inform your reader about what is coming next. The next part of the essay is the Body. This part of the Introduction is a courtesy to your reader. It gives them the confidence that you are not going to ramble. In particular, you need to state what the main points in the Body paragraphs will be about. For example:

  • This essay examines impacts on the attitudes and aspirations of young athletes as a result of drug use in sport, and how these arise as a result of role modelling and exposure to drugs through sports clubs.

This tells the reader the Body of your essay will cover:

  1. impacts of drug use on attitudes of young athletes
  2. impacts of drug use on the aspirations of young athletes
  3. How the impacts arise as a result of role modelling
  4. How the impacts arise from exposure to drugs in sports clubs.

You will notice that the final section of the Introduction is tightly written and succinct. It uses as few words as possible to get the message across in  order to avoid repetition.

It should be noted that the four sections described above do not have to be followed in this rigid order. Use them as needed in your essays, but always follow your marker’s instructions in the first instance.

Importantly, when writing the Body of the essay make you you do what you say you are going to do in the Introduction!

Generally, your introduction makes up approximately 10-15% of your total length. So, if you were asked to write a 2,000 word essay, your introduction would be about 200300 words, as a general estimate.

Example: Topic and introduction
(adapted from LaTrobe University, 2014)

Analyse the role of the MCH nurse working in partnership with the family to care for a child with a diagnosed developmental delay.

Background information Narrowing focus Thesis statement Outline of main ideas

Monitoring the growth and development of children at regular intervals allows for the early detection of developmental delay. One of the key aims of Maternal and Child Health (MCH) nursing practice is the early detection and the referral of children with a developmental delay (Neil & Marcuson, 2011). In the transition from suspicion and concerns about their child’s development, to the confirmation of the diagnosis of developmental delay, the lived experience for the family takes on a whole new chapter. Depending on the degree of severity and permanence of the developmental delay, families may face a rollercoaster journey of therapies, testing and appointments (Collster, 2009). Families may also face the loss of the sense of normality of their child eventually growing into an independent adult, as well as mounting financial burdens (Foster & McCauley, 2010). MCH nursing practice has a role to play in supporting families beyond the diagnosis, especially in the context of more major persistent delay where there is significant impact on the family. In the context of the impact on the family, this essay explores the question of what happens following a diagnosis of developmental delay and how MCH nurses can work collaboratively with families. Developmental delay is discussed generally rather than with reference to a specific type of delay, and the role of the MCH nurse (MCHN) in the care of the child is critically analysed along the spectrum of working in an expert role to working in partnership with the family.

Body paragraphs

The body consists of a series of paragraphs, and each paragraph should cover only one topic. A key to writing effectively in the body of your essay is including topic sentences.

The topic sentence is generally written in your own words and tells the reader what the paragraph is about. Using the original essay topic on sports, drugs and adolescents, you might start your first body paragraph with:

  • Inevitably, being a professional athlete in Australia means there is the additional responsibility of becoming a role model or the ‘face’ of a sport for younger generations.

There should be no need to reference this sentence as it is supposed to be your idea that you have developed based on your own research. What would follow after this topic sentence would be evidence (examples and references) for your statement that explores and justifies why this is the case. For more information about writing winning paragraphs, see Writing Construction.

Example: Body paragraph

(Adapted from LaTrobe University, 2014)

Topic sentence Evidence Linking words

The diagnosis of developmental delay can result in a wide range of reactions from family members. Head and Abbeduto (2007, p. 293) note that some families have high levels of stress with sustained impairment of functioning, while some thrive on the challenges associated with the child’s developmental delay. But, the impact of having a child with a developmental delay on a family can never be underestimated. There are often very intense emotions such as grief, anger, disbelief and isolation (DCDR, 2008, p.13). In particular, the time of diagnosis can be a crisis where the parents’ expectations are turned upside down (Sen & Yurtsever, 2006, p.239). Because the child is most influenced by their family, it is very important to empower the family (Blann, 2005, p. 265) and so the nature of the relationship between families and health professionals is important. Specifically, how the family is treated at the time of their child’s initial diagnosis can have long term impacts (DEECD, 2010a, p.27). Therefore, it is important that the MCH nurse leaves room for hope at this initial stage, as this leads to a family’s healthy functioning within a framework of optimism (Kearney & Griffin, 2001, p.589) and helps build a connection between the MCH nurse and the family.

Notice the extensive use of linking words which has the effect of signposting what you are doing in the essay. This is invaluable for your reader, the lecturer. It helps with ensuring clarity of expression and keeps you on track. (It’s hard to start a sentence with ‘Specifically…’ and not be specific!) Linking expressions should be used throughout your essay.

The conclusion

The Conclusion is where you wrap it all up. It’s much like the reverse of the introduction in that you remind your reader what the focus of your essay was. This includes your thesis statement, and an outline of your arguments from the Body. You then close with a general statement such as  any recommendations about further research that could be done (if that’s appropriate), or a general summary sentence. There should be no new information in the conclusion or any references. If a point is important, it should be in the Body. The Conclusion is your own summary of your essay and what it has achieved.

Example: Conclusion

(Adapted from LaTrobe University, 2014)

Reminder of thesis statement Re-statement of main points Concluding statement

The role of the MCHN has been critically analysed in the context of the question of “What happens afterwards?” for families once their child has a diagnosed developmental delay. The appropriateness of MCHN involvement has been questioned particularly from the view of not wanting to place a greater burden on a family who may already have multiple practitioners involved in their care, and a time consuming schedule of appointments. It is acknowledged that in some circumstances particularly where there are complex needs, it may be in the families’ best interests to not have MCHN involvement. However, the MCHN’s availability could be invaluable for families who require support if issues arise… For families who do have ongoing contact with the MCHN service, the role of the MCHN may involve assisting parents with their child’s basic needs of attachment, feeding, sleep and behaviour, and normalising behaviour which is not part of the delay… As the need arises, the MCHN can offer information and referral to support services, and as a free service the MCHN does not add to the financial burden on the family. When they need to share and be heard, the MCHN may be the only person that mothers and families can go to, and as such, this is a vital role in the health and wellbeing of the family.

Download essay format examples here.