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How to Write an Essay: Part 4

How to Write an Essay: Part 4


Hi, it’s Lisa here from Capstone Editing. Welcome to the fourth video in our comprehensive series on essay writing. In this video, I’ll be focusing on how to write the first draft of your essay.

Students often think of this as the most important step, and some of you may have skipped straight to this video, but I assure you that it is impossible to get this step right if you haven’t first completed the others correctly.

If anything, it is your research stage that is most important. So if you haven’t yet watched the first three videos, I would strongly encourage you to do so now.

Ok, so by the time you are ready to write the first draft, you will already have a final essay plan and a research document that presents your findings from the research stage in an organised and easy to use way.

Together, these documents provide a clear map and all the information you need to write a well-structured essay in a fraction of the time it would otherwise take.

This time saving comes from the fact that you have already made all of the big decisions about your essay during the research phase:

  1. You have a clear idea of your answer to the essay question.
  2. You know the main topics you will discuss to support your answer.
  3. You know the best order in which to discuss these topics.
  4. You know how many words should be spent on these topics, based on their importance to supporting your answer.
  5. You know what points you will make under each topic and will discuss each of these in a new paragraph.
  6. You know exactly what information each paragraph of your essay should contain.
  7. You have already compiled reference list or bibliography and have easy access to all of the details you need to correctly reference your work as you are writing the essay, not afterwards.

Before starting to write your essay, you must understand that using formal academic language is essential when writing at university. Formal academic language is clear and concise. You should never use 20 words when 10 will do, or indeed two words when one will do, and your writing should leave no room for misunderstanding or confusion.

The first person should almost always be avoided when writing an essay; however, it is recommended that you check with your tutor or lecturer about their attitude towards the first person and when it should be used, if ever.

Conversely, contractions (like shouldn’t, could’ve, he’s and hasn’t) are always inappropriate in academic writing. The only time you should see a contraction in academic text is in a direct quotation, usually taken from informal or spoken text.

Care should be taken to craft grammatically correct sentences with no errors of spelling or punctuation. Colloquialisms and idiomatic language should be avoided because that is characteristic of informal or spoken language, not formal academic writing. (This is something I’ve covered in another video, so you can check that out later.)

It is also important to avoid racist, sexist and gender-specific language in your writing. Instead, use inclusive and gender-neutral vocabulary.

Ok, so now you are ready to write your introduction!

As you already have a clear idea of what your essay will include, you can write your introduction first. Of course, you should always come back to your introduction at the end of writing your essay to make sure that it definitely introduces all of the topics you discussed. (You shouldn’t discuss any topics in the body of your essay that you haven’t mentioned in your intro.)

Some other points to remember when writing your introduction are that you need to clearly state your answer to the essay question (which is your thesis statement), not just introduce the question. Also, your introduction should include no information that is not directly relevant to your topic. Including irrelevant background information in the introduction is a common mistake made by novice academic writers.

This is an example of a poorly written introduction. You might like to pause the video here so you can read it carefully. It’s an introduction that’s been written in response to the essay question and with the essay plan that I’ve been talking about in all the videos in this series thus far.

In this example of a poor introduction, note that background information is included that isn’t directly relevant to the topic. That’s the info about Columbus setting sail in 1492, looking for a new trade route to Asia but finding another continent. Remember, the essay question for this essay is ‘Was indigenous culture completely decimated in the Americas as a result of Spain’s colonisation in the 16th century?’ So information about the discovery of the Americas is only indirectly relevant.

Also, it doesn’t answer the question; it only introduces it, by saying ‘This essay will examine the issue of whether or not indigenous culture was completely decimated in the Americas as a result of Spain’s colonisation in the 16th century’.

Finally, it doesn’t introduce all of the topics to be discussed (as outlined in the final essay plan that I showed you in the previous video), and for those it does introduce, it doesn’t mention them in the order they will be discussed in the essay

This is an example of a good introduction:

Beginning in the sixteenth century, Spanish colonisation of the Americas had a significantly negative effect on the cultural practices of the indigenous population. In particular, the introduction of new diseases and the consequent demographic collapse dramatically weakened indigenous culture and their ability to resist Spanish domination. However, aspects of the culture of some indigenous groups survived and even thrived—it was not completely decimated. Through an examination of the evidence related to religion, family and language, including the effects of colonisation on these areas of society, this essay will demonstrate aspects of indigenous beliefs, customs and practices that managed to endure.

Ok, now compare that with this example of a well-written introduction here. Again, you might like to pause the video so you can read it properly.

In contrast to the previous example, this introduction provides a clear thesis statement, which has two parts to it, first that ‘Spanish colonisation of the Americas had a significantly negative effect on the cultural practices of the indigenous population’ and second ‘However, aspects of the culture of some indigenous groups survived and even thrived—it was not completely decimated.’

It also introduces, in the correct order, all of the topics to be discussed; and only includes information that is directly relevant to the essay question.

Ok, so now that your introduction is taken care of, you are on to writing the body of your essay. To ensure that your essay is organised well and flows smoothly and logically, topic sentences are vitally important.

As I explained in the video ‘How to Begin’, every paragraph needs a topic sentence. The topic sentence introduces the new topic about to be discussed. It also links the topic back to the essay question to make it clear why it is relevant and how it advances your argument.

The following are examples of topic sentences for Topic 1 ‘Disease and demographic impact’, Topic 2 ‘Religion’ and Topic 4 ‘Language’, as outlined in the final essay plan that I shared in the video ‘How to Finalise Your Essay Plan’. Once again, you might like to pause to read these.

Notice how they all link back to the thesis statement, which is ‘Spain’s colonisation had a significantly negative effect on the indigenous population of the Americas, but some aspects of the culture of some indigenous groups survived and even thrived—it was not completely decimated’.

And, of course, they all introduce the topic that the paragraph will discuss.

A common misconception among uni students (usually left over from what they were taught at high school) is that your paragraphs need a concluding sentence for each topic. This is not true, and in fact, will just result in unnecessary repetition, especially in a short essay.

The next aspect of essay writing to consider is paragraphing.

If you have carefully followed the steps outlined in the articles on organising your research and finalising your essay plan, your final essay plan should clearly indicate what information will go in each paragraph of your essay.

Each paragraph should contain only one main idea. You should think of a paragraph as one complete thought. Subsequent ideas or sub-ideas need to be included in another paragraph. Remember, you don’t just put all of your information on one topic into one paragraph. In longer essays, you will be writing several paragraphs on each topic.

Care should also be taken to only spend as many words as planned on each paragraph and topic. If you decided in your research and planning stages that 150 words were enough to discuss a certain topic, then stick as closely to that plan as possible. Likewise, unless you have a very good reason for doing otherwise, follow your planned order of paragraphs, as that order should reflect the most logical arrangement and help your essay to flow well.

When writing your paragraphs, you want to choose the best supporting evidence and examples from your research to use. You must also ensure that you are inserting the necessary in-text citations and compiling your final reference list as you are writing, rather than leaving this until the end. This should be easy to do, as all of these details are readily available in your research document.

Next, you will be ready to start writing your conclusion!

As explained in the ‘How to Begin’ video, a conclusion should restate the thesis statement (but not necessarily using the exact same words) and summarise the points that were made in the body of the essay, in the order in which they were made.

The conclusion offers an important opportunity to synthesise the points you have made to support your argument and to reinforce how these points prove that your argument is correct.

In many ways, the conclusion is a reflection of the introduction, but it is important that it is not an exact repeat of it.

A key point of difference is that you have already provided ample evidence and support for your answer to the essay question, so the purpose of your conclusion is not to introduce what you will say but rather to reiterate what you have said.

And lastly, your conclusion absolutely must not contain any new material not already discussed in detail in the body of your text. 

Ok, on to referencing your essay. I’ll just give you a brief overview of referencing here. It is a very important topic, and I cover it in detail in a number of other videos and articles on our blog, so please do check them out for more information.

It is important that you acknowledge your sources of information in your academic writing. This allows you to clearly show how the ideas of others have influenced your own work. You should provide a citation, which is either an in-text reference or a footnote (and a corresponding full reference in your reference list or bibliography), every time you use words, ideas or information from other sources. In this way, you can avoid what is known as accidental plagiarism, which is taking credit for the work of others.

Referencing also serves other purposes. It allows you to demonstrate the depth and breadth of your research, to show that you have read and engaged with the ideas of experts in your field. It also allows you to give credit to the writers from whom you have borrowed words or ideas. For your reader, referencing allows them to trace the sources of information you have used, to verify the validity of your work. Your referencing must be accurate and provide all the necessary details to allow your reader to locate the source.

Whether you have been provided referencing guidelines to follow or have selected guidelines that you consider appropriate for your field, these must be followed closely, correctly and consistently.

All work that is not 100% your own should be referenced, including page numbers where necessary. You can take a look at our video entitled ‘How, When and Why to Reference’ for more info on this.

Your referencing should be checked carefully at the end of writing your essay to ensure that everything that should have been referenced has been, all citations have corresponding reference list entries, and the reference list or bibliography is correctly ordered.

You are nearly there! There is just one final stage to perform before you’ve finished writing your first draft, and that is formatting your essay.

Your document should be neatly and consistently formatted, following any guidelines provided by your tutor or lecturer. Neat formatting shows that you have taken pride in your work and that you understand the importance of following convention.

If no guidelines have been provided to you, I recommend you use the following formatting guidelines:

  • normal page margins
  • 12 pt Times New Roman or Arial font for the body (and make sure to use 10 pt for footnotes and any page numbers)
  • Bold for headings (not underlined or blue font, so don’t use the template styles for headings in Word)
  • 1.5 or double line spacing for the body (but single spacing for footnotes and normally also for any indented quotations)
  • a line between each paragraph or a first-line indent of 1.27 cm for each paragraph (but not both, just one or the other)

These are the guidelines most commonly preferred by Australian and New Zealand universities.

And that’s everything you need to know to successfully write the first draft of your essay!

I hope you’ve found this article very useful. I’ve introduced a lot of concepts here in relation to academic writing, referencing and formatting that you can find more detailed videos and articles about on our You Tube channel and blog. So please do subscribe to both.

And don’t forget to watch the final video in the series, ‘How to Finalise and Polish your Essay’!