The Basic Ingredients of an Essay

By the time you reach University you should be no stranger to writing essays, but even if your college or foundation course essays were good, there’s still a lot you’ll need to do to make the grade at undergraduate level.

Follow these five tips and read all the articles in this series to make the most of your essays.


As the previous two blog entries show, writing an essay begins with preparation – and this may take longer than writing the essay itself. Even if you have a good knowledge of what you’re writing about, you will need to have relevant facts, arguments and quotes to hand. It’s tempting to sit down and get as many words down as possible – it feels like you’ve achieved something – but without the ground work the process will be made harder as you try to reshape your essay around the information you subsequently gather.

Writing an Introduction

Once you’ve selected a question and researched it, draft a rough introduction, setting out the aims of the essay – this is sometimes called a thesis statement. Your introduction or thesis statement sets out what you’ll be discussing in your essay, what arguments you’ll be exploring and which academics you will draw into your work – an important element sometimes overlooked. Always omit the personal pronoun – rather than “I will be exploring” write “this essay will explore…” Further information on this is provided in the next blog entry, “Selecting the Right Language and Tone in Essays“.

Placing the Essay in Context and Defining Vocabulary

After you have written your introduction, explore the background or the context of the question under consideration. This shouldn’t exceed more than one paragraph. Similarly, if you are discussing a concept which requires a definition, also do this early on in your essay, either before you explore the context or directly after, but certainly before you go on to embark on the main issues you’ve identified for discussion in your introduction. Don’t forget to draw in other academics or commentators.

Using Topic Paragraphs

Each paragraph should serve a purpose. Normally the first sentence of a paragraph sets out what that paragraph will explore, and this is known as a topic sentence. If you have structured your essay correctly, one paragraph will logically follow another and the essay will flow. See the last blog entry for more on structuring your essay. Again, make sure you are drawing in other authors to substantiate your work but don’t use too many long direct quotations – paraphrase where possible.

Writing a Conclusion

A conclusion is a vital part of any essay which simply summarises the key points the essay has explored. No new information is ever included in the conclusion, and this includes quotations. Conclusions don’t typically exceed two large paragraphs and ideally end with something sharp and snappy – something to get your lecturer’s attention, such as the use of a rhetorical question. – Why not?

Plagiarism from the webProviding references

Of course, it’s really important that you provide full references to any material you quote in your essay from other sources. This includes not only direct quotes but also material that you have paraphrased and even ideas that you have found elsewhere.

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