Essay Tips: 16 Tips on Writing an Effective Essay

Every project should ask a question. The title of the project does not necessarily have to be a question, but you need to identify, in the introduction to the project, what the underlying question is.

The major advantage of a project having a clear question is that it provides a focus for the project. Ultimately, what you have to do within the project is to answer that question. You have to build up, section by section, a thorough and convincing answer to the question that you have set for it. The conclusion to the project should therefore constitute an answer to the question.

The need to ‘adjust’ the question

When deciding what to do for the project, it is fine to think in terms of a general topic area to begin with. You then need to translate that into a question, though – which will probably serve to make more precise what you are intending to do. However, you may well end up with a question that will not actually ‘work’ in practice – in the sense of you not being able to access the information needed, of it being too broad, of the research required not being possible, etc., etc. In addition, you need to make sure that you are able to exploit the material, experience and links that you have got. In other words, be prepared to manipulate the question until you get to a question that allows you to incorporate and exploit that material, experience and links. Our strong advice is that you spend the time and effort needed to identify a clear question for the project.

Identify how you are going to answer the question

When trying to identify, and when refining, the intended question for the project, think in terms of how you are going to answer the question. Don’t, for the time being, think in terms of the ‘structure’ of the project. Think instead in terms of the steps/stages etc. that you need to go through in order to answer the question. Think in terms of how the question can be broken down into ‘sub-questions’ or ‘tasks’ which will have to be undertaken in order to answer the question. Check that you can complete these tasks – in the sense that you have the knowledge of theory, of the industry, etc. in order to complete the task; or that you have the appropriate contacts in the relevant organisation(s), or you have, or else can obtain, the key information that you need to complete the task. If you find that you are likely to run up against obstacles, then go back to the question and revise it, then repeat the process of splitting it up into a number of sub-questions/tasks.

The first written bit

Having identified a question, having adjusted it to fit your resources, contacts, etc. and having identified how you are going to answer the question, you then need to put that on paper. In not more than a couple of sides, identify what the question is, explain how you are going to break the question down into a number of sub-questions and tasks, explain how you are going to answer those sub-questions and tasks, and explain how it will all come together in order to answer the question. Let your seminar tutor have sight of that, to see if he/she can identify any problems with it or to suggest some alternatives. Once you have got this two-pager sorted out, it will be the plan for the completion of the project. We very strongly advise you not to do anything else on the project until you have got this ‘two-pager’ – your road map for the project – fully sorted out.

The project structure

Note that this is not the same thing as the 2-pager in 4. above. You need to produce the 2-pager without referring to ‘sections’ or ‘chapters’ or things like that; concentrate on working out how you are going to answer the question. Once you have got the 2-pager, then it is appropriate to think about how you are going to structure the project, in terms of splitting it down into sections, chapters, etc. In most instances, the sub-questions and tasks identified in the 2-pager will convert into sections/chapters quite neatly with a bit of adjustment – but it really is much better to think in terms of sub-questions and tasks first, and to forget about sections and chapters to begin with. There is no particular optimal number of sections or chapters for a project of this nature, and it will depend very much on the subject matter involved.

The Introduction

All projects should have an Introduction, which should do three things:

  • Outline what the question is, as distinct from the title of the project.
  • Explain why the question is worth asking – in other words, set the context of the question.
  • Outline how, within the project, you are going to answer that question. In other words, explain the structure of the project – so that the reader knows what is coming and has something like a road map in order to understand how he/she is going to be taken to the answer to the question.

Don’t do any substantive analysis within the Introduction; leave that for later sections/chapters. As a consequence, the Introduction needs to be short.

The Conclusion

As a general guide, do not introduce anything new in the Conclusion section/chapter; you should have completed all the necessary analysis in earlier sections/chapters. Concentrate on providing the answer to the question for the project – which should be reasonably apparent by then, but may need some bringing-together of various themes that have run through the project. Depending on the nature of the question being asked within the project, the Conclusion can sometimes usefully include some speculation on future changes/developments. In any event, it should not need to be very long – a couple of pages will usually suffice.

The individual sections/chapters

It is a good idea for each individual section/chapter to have a clearly-identified sub-question or task – for the same reasons that it is a good idea for the project as a whole; it allows for a clear focus and purpose. So, in the Introduction to each section/chapter, identify what the sub-question/task is, and explain how you are going to answer that sub-question/complete that task (i.e. outline the structure of the section/chapter). At the end of the Section or Chapter, have a Conclusion which provides the answer to the sub-question and/or summarises the result of the ‘task’.

The structure of the individual sections/chapters

With the exception of the Introduction and the Conclusion, each individual section/chapter should have a clear structure. The suggestion here is that the structure of each section/chapter mirrors the structure of the project as a whole – in other words, that there is an Introduction (which identifies the question/task for that section/chapter, explains why it is worth asking – i.e. how it fits into the answering of the overall question for the project – and outlines the structure of the section/chapter.) You then have a number of sub-sections within the section/chapter in which you progressively build up the answer or task to the question posed for the section/chapter, and finally have a Conclusion which provides the answer posed for the section/chapter, and which explains how that conclusion lays the groundwork for the next section/chapter (and hence remind the reader of how the overall argument within the project is going to progress).

Use of section numbers

Following on from 9. above, we would strongly recommend that you make use of a numbering system for sections and sub-sections within your project. The major advantage of doing so is that they force you, as the author, to structure your material and argument together in a coherent fashion so that it ends up being convincing.
So, it is appropriate to use a numbering system so that you end up with Sections/Sub-sections 2.3, and then 2.3.2 and 2.3.3, etc. We would not recommend that you go to any deeper levels of sectionalisation than this – otherwise you are in danger of each sentence becoming a separate section . . .

Writing individual sections/chapters

The approach to writing individual sections/chapters needs to mirror the approach for the project as a whole. In other words, having sorted out a clear sub-question/task for the section/chapter, you need to then work out how you are going to answer that sub-question/complete that task. You need to identify the various steps and stages you need to go through, and in what order – so that you end up with a plan for completing the section/chapter. Then, you can translate that into a structure for the chapter, complete with numbers and headings. We would very strongly recommend that you do not start writing any section/chapter until you have got this clear structure for the section/chapter written down. A lot of time is wasted by people who start writing something without knowing where they want to end up; self-discipline at this stage in terms of sorting out a clear structure will save you a lot of time and effort.

When to do the research/fieldwork

There is a strong temptation to get going quickly with whatever fieldwork/research you intend to undertake for the project. While we would never advocate that people should delay work on their project, do make sure that you are very clear on what you want to gain from the research before you undertake it. There have been many instances of where people have sent out questionnaires before they have any clear idea of what the central question for the project is – let alone what the purpose of the questionnaire is within the central question for the project. Almost inevitably, the questionnaires then become a complete waste of time. Similarly, there have been interviews undertaken at an inappropriate stage, with the consequence that the right questions have not been asked – and it is invariably impossible to go back, saying: “Sorry, but I didn’t ask you the right questions – can I have another go, please?”

You must sort out the question for the project, how your are going to answer that question, and the structure of the project before you undertake the research/fieldwork. In many instances, you will need to complete one or two of the early stages of the project before you can determine what it is you really need from the research. All of which points to the need to actually make some early progress on the project in terms of actually getting the question and structure of the project sorted out, so that you don’t run out of time for the research/fieldwork.

Appendices

Resist the temptation to dump a lot of material in Appendices. In overall terms, there are three types of material when considering what to include in a project:

There is material that really does need to be in the project – so include it in the main text.

There is material that does not really need to be in the project in order to answer the question convincingly – so leave it out altogether.

There is a very limited amount of material that falls between the first two – and that is what goes in Appendices.

A good example of material to go in an Appendix is a copy of the (blank) questionnaire that you may have used. You don’t want to include this in the main text – but it could usefully be included in the project, for reference purposes.

We would advise against putting diagrams and tables in Appendices. Often, diagrams and tables are really important as a means of making a point; putting them in Appendices risks them not being consulted adequately, and in addition there is the frustration of shuffling through pages to find the right Appendix, flicking back to the main text, etc. In general, put diagrams and tables in the main text (even if they take up a whole page or more).

Referencing

Getting into boring detail here; but do follow the standard guidelines for referencing, and in particular the information in the Module Guide.

Bold/underling/italics

Even deeper into boring detail here. The general point is that where you need to make some emphasis, then provide that emphasis by making use of underlining, or putting words into bold, or italics. It really does help you to get your point across – and is very under-utilised within what students write (and not just projects, in that respect).

Font

Continuing the boring detail theme: you can use any font of any size you like. However, my view is that it is preferable to use a relatively small font – mainly because you can then get a decent number of words on the page and avoid shuffling pages like crazy. The type and size that this is written in (Arial 11) is fine. Times New Roman 12 is an entirely satisfactory alternative. But it is essentially up to you. It is advisable to make use of 1.5 spacing. Don’t use double spacing – that goes too far and uses too much paper.

2016-11-10T15:00:30+00:00 Academic Skills|