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Blogs from the School of History, Classics and Archaeology

Essays – everything you ever wanted to know but were afraid to ask

An image of a typewriter with the words write something on the paper

Student Ambassador Tess (studying Classics and English Literature, MA Hons) takes a deep dive into how to approach writing essays.

I think writing essays and academic papers are probably one of the more daunting tasks you’ll have to take on as a university student. I’ve spent the last three years trying to figure out a formula that works for both aspects of my degree, and honestly, sometimes I still am not sure if I’ve cracked it. That being said, I do have two tricks of the trade to keep in mind when writing an essay:

Break your question down into its essential parts

Once you write a few essays, you start to realise that all essay questions have a similar structure. There are only so many ways the examiners can ask you ‘To what extent’ and once you recognise certain buzzwords, it becomes much easier to formulate a plan of attack. Here are some examples:

‘To what extent…’, ‘How far…’, ‘What…’ and ‘Evaluate …’ often signify questions that ask you to discuss whether you agree with a certain point of view on a debated topic within the subject. The best way to approach these questions is to pick a stance and then find opposing arguments that you can dismantle to show a bit more academic sophistication.

In comparison, ‘Describe…’, ‘Illustrate…’, ‘How…’ and ‘Explain…’ are usually questions that require a more holistic approach to a topic, in which you have to discuss as many facets of the topics as possible in relation to the question (word limit permitting).

Another aspect of the question to look out for are certain key phrases you can use throughout your essay to signal-post to the reader throughout your essay that you are still addressing the question. Constantly linking your essay back to the question in your essay also helps you to stay on topic as a writer.

Here’s an example of a question and how you can break it down:

‘What is depicted on the Parthenon Frieze?’

This question seems relatively simple, but it is one of the most debated topics within Classical Greek archaeology. The use of ‘What’ indicates that you have to pick an academic stance and justify why you think this is the most likely hypothesis using both primary and secondary sources. You should then pick one or two opposing perspective to evaluate, in order to demonstrate why your chosen interpretation is still the best. Additionally, you should always round a point off with a: ‘therefore, as (evidence) demonstrates, (point) is what is depicted on the Parthenon frieze.’ That way you are able to double check as you are editing if your points are properly explained to allow such a statement at the end and your examiner will also be able to pick up quickly if you are doing so because you have used words from the question itself, such as ‘depicted.’

Reference well from the start

Books with pages marked for future referenceReferencing is simultaneously the easiest way to secure and lose marks in an essay. I had so many instances in first year where I lost a significant number of points for poor referencing that had me kicking myself, mainly because it would have potentially pushed me up a grade boundary. The one thing I cannot stand when reading feedback is finding out that I didn’t get full marks on a section that is so clearly set out by the subject area. The School uses a variation of the Harvard system and every citation form is listed out in the Essay Guidelines. There is literally no reason besides carelessness for someone to not score fully on this section (I promise I speak from experience).

The best way to ensure you follow the guidelines to a tee is to reference properly from the start. Even when I am reading and taking notes on my computer, I will reference quotes and points in the correct format from the beginning. This ensures that when I write my essay and use said quotes from my notes, I can rest assured that the referencing is already done and dusted. Additionally, if you start building your bibliography at the start, it means that you have one less thing to worry about in your editing stage of your essay. It’s so much easier to remove any additional sources you ended up not using than scrambling to find a source you forgot to note down during your research stage.

Easy. Right? Don’t worry, there’s lots of help both in the School and the University with writing essays and other assignments. Look out for Peer Support Groups – SHCA has ArchPals and UoE HCA Peer Support – and Societies running sessions on writing and studying, and the Institute for Academic Development offers workshops and online resources on all aspects of learning.


Institute for Academic Development

SHCA Peer Support



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