Guide to Writing Essays

1. Use Proper Formatting

An essay’s formatting is noticeable before someone reads the first sentence. Formatting rules differ between disciplines. Use a standard style of formatting and referencing such as The Oxford Manual of Style or The Chicago Manual of Style. Be consistent. Insert page numbers; use 12-point font and double spacing; provide bold, numbered headings for each section; keep within 10% of assigned word count.

2. Organise Your Essay

A good essay is not a record of your research. Do not present information in the same order that you happen to have read various books, recorded your notes, and discovered your conclusions. It is obvious if you do this – and whoever grades your essay will not like it. Write a second draft of your essay and reorganise the material. The order in which you present information should be decided by justifiable reasons: e.g. three kinds of evidence for your argument, the strongest argument against your claim and why it fails, the four main sections of the book you analyse, or the early, middle, and late opinions of an author.

3. Have a Clear Thesis and State It

The thesis of an essay should be stated clearly and concisely, normally in the first paragraph. This is your claim, your argument, the perspective that you want readers to adopt by the time they finish your essay. The body of an essay should display evidence in support of the thesis. The best argument to support the thesis should decide the overall structure of the essay. You might discover your thesis at the end of your research – but you should still present it first (write a second draft).

4. Use Signposting

The opening paragraph should be clear and concise, stating the central claim of the essay and why it matters. Keep literary flourishes to minimum. The second paragraph should survey your essay: concisely summarize how each section of your essay will contribute to your central claim. Say something about the most important sources you will be using. Provide clear, bold, numbered headings for each new section. Imagine that the person grading your essay will only read the first sentence of every paragraph – that person should still understand the whole story. Throughout your writing, alert readers when you are transitioning to a new point. Remember: you are instructing your reader about how to assess your work.

5. Separate Description and Evaluation

Make clear the difference between your exposition of an author and your analysis of their arguments. Carefully restate the views of an author or reconstruct their argument; attach these to the author; then provide your assessment, signalling that it is your own. Example: ‘Kant would have us believe A for reasons 1, 2, and 3; however, it is my contention that Kant fails to notice B, which undermines his claim in the following way, C.’

6. Attribute all Views

Claims should be clearly attached to an author or clearly made your own. Sometimes authors talk about other authors – keep the layers clear. ‘In Korsgaard’s reading of Kant, Kant vigorously defends the claim A; but in my own reading of Kant, Kant merely suggests B.’

7. Cite the Authoritative and Relevant Source

Citations fall into two broad classes: primary and secondary. Cite the most authoritative and relevant source in each case. Example: ‘Kant says A (cite Kant, not Allison); Allison offers the most widely adopted criticism of Kant’s claim, namely B (cite Allison, not Kant).’ Note: doctoral students should cite literature in the original language (unless tangential to the field of study); graduate students should develop a practical plan for learning those languages if they are unfamiliar.

8. Avoid Vanity Citations

This typically happens when someone wants to increase the size of their bibliography or demonstrate that they have read (or opened) various books. Such quotations and citations are irrelevant in two ways. 1) They fail to engage with the source’s distinctive overall argument, simply pointing to a trivial fact. 2) They do not advance your own essay’s argument, but merely cite general knowledge or points of tangential interest. Example: ‘Kant published the first edition of his Critique in 1781 (cites Zammito).’

9. Consider Objections

A strong essay will entertain the possibility that its central claim is wrong. You should rehearse the best argument(s) against your central thesis; and you should show readers why, nevertheless, they ought to adopt your essay’s central viewpoint, despite those objections. Do not entertain weak (‘straw man’) objections. Do not consider objections as a final afterthought – alternative perspectives should be raised in the main body of the essay. Do not allow your engagement with an objection to undermine your main thesis – if this happens, you need to change your thesis. The final conclusion of your essay should not be unexpected, or consist of a muddled and downgraded version of your initial claim. The vision in the first paragraph should be the same as the last paragraph.

10. Use the Right Tone

Academic writing should be clear, concise, and readable. The style should not be too high or too low. This takes practice. Avoid archaic and flowery language, and avoid colloquial or informal expressions. ‘The splendid majesty of reason overflows upon the many pages of Kant’s monographs!’ and, ‘Like who knows what Kant was thinking!’ are both to be avoided.

11. Use Specific Conjunctions

When connecting two clauses, specify the relationship between the ideas expressed in each clause by using a precise conjunction.