A very common complaint from lecturers and examiners is that students write a lot of information but they just don't answer the question. Don't rush straight into researching – give yourself time to think carefully about the question and understand what it is asking.
Set the question in context – how does it fit with the key issues, debates and controversies in your module and your subject as a whole? An essay question often asks about a specific angle or aspect of one of these key debates. If you understand the context it makes your understanding of the question clearer.
Is the question open-ended or closed? If it is open-ended you will need to narrow it down. Explain how and why you have decided to limit it in the introduction to your essay, so the reader knows you appreciate the wider issues, but that you can also be selective. If it is a closed question, your answer must refer to and stay within the limits of the question (i.e. specific dates, texts, or countries).
Underlining key words – This is a good start point for making sure you understand all the terms (some might need defining); identifying the crucial information in the question; and clarifying what the question is asking you to do (compare & contrast, analyse, discuss). But make sure you then consider the question as a whole again, not just as a series of unconnected words.
Re-read the question – Read the question through a few times. Explain it to yourself, so you are sure you know what it is asking you to do.
Try breaking the question down into sub-questions – What is the question asking? Why is this important? How am I going to answer it? What do I need to find out first, second, third in order to answer the question? This is a good way of working out what important points or issues make up the overall question – it can help focus your reading and start giving your essay a structure. However, try not to have too many sub-questions as this can lead to following up minor issues, as opposed to the most important points.
Content Preview: Essay writing
Planning your essay and getting started
The more you prepare before you start writing, the easier the task will be. There are a number of activities or stages involved in producing a good essay - allow sufficient time for all of these.
Organise your ideas
Write down all your ideas on the essay topic. Do this as a list, or as a diagram or mind-map. Work out what the question is asking you to do - in particular make sure you understand the 'instruction' words in the title, and which particular aspects of the topic you are being asked to cover.
Check our topics 'Understanding assignment questions' and 'Mind-maps' for more on this.
Decide on a logical sequence for your ideas - the order which you will probably put them in your essay. This is your initial outline or essay plan.
Collect your materials
Review the information you already have, including your lecture notes, and any information from books, articles, websites and other sources. Decide where the gaps in your knowledge and understanding are. Identify areas where you need more supporting evidence.
Carry out a literature search. Identify keywords to describe the topic and use them to search with. As you search, you will find more useful keywords - use these to make sure you have not missed anything which could be useful. Remember to collect the details of your sources - you will need this information for referencing them later.
See our topic 'Literature searching' for more on this.
Write your essay plan
Finalise your essay plan - including any further information found from your literature search. There is no ideal or recommended way of doing this. But if you would like to see a few sample essay plans, have a look at the following:
Essay plan 1 - consumer complaints
Title: Discuss how the different types of behaviour displayed by dissatisfied customers relate to service recovery and improvement.
Intro - outline approach - i.e. behaviours then recovery
Briefly cover psychology of disappointment - ref Godwin et al.
Possible behaviour listed by Kim et al. (list then take each in turn)
- Behaviour 1 - do nothing or apathy
- Behaviour 2 - tell other people
- Behaviour 3 - complain to service provider
Behaviour 1 - not doing anything, quote figs from Chebat - use e.g. of wrong dish at meal from Kim et al. - outcome no remedy or improvement
Behaviour 2 - tell other people, discuss trad methods also social media - use Trip Advisor as example - outcomes can be very negative
Behaviour 3 - complaint to provider - bring in personality research and emotional aspects re likelihood of complaining- outcomes can vary
Service recovery - discuss how achieved from each type of behaviour - i.e. 1 = not at all; 2 = not likely from trad methods, but maybe from internet feedback - give examples; 3 discuss ways of dealing with complaints and compensation/fairness ideas - find some more refs and examples for this?
Conclusion - mention the complexity of consumer behaviour and summarise the three behaviours and outcomes - emphasise which most helpful or damaging for providers etc.
Essay plan 2 - Belbin's team roles
Title: Compare Belbin's 'nine roles' model with one other model which describes how people work together in teams.
Intro - will compare Belbin's famous model with the Myers-Briggs personality indicator. Both used extensively in training.
One para description of Belbin's model and its importance - give origin in 1981 book - examples of books, articles etc. which refer to it.
One para description of Myers-Briggs model - give origin - include why chosen for comparison, quite similar in its emphasis on individual qualities, yet different - based on Jung psychology, Belbin more pragmatic
Describe outcomes of the two models - i.e. descriptions of individuals, Belbin assigns you a role, MB says what type of person you are. List the roles and the types.
What an individual supposed to do with this info? Find an example of teams using this information (?) Lead into training providers using it - give some examples of companies - find their web pages
Process - questionnaires for each. Describe questionnaires: similarity - self assessment aspect - difference - Belbin more focussed on what we do at work as opposed to underlying personality. Refs. James; Taylor on validity of self assessment tests.
Discuss some of the criticism of these models - Morrison re Belbin, find ref critical of Myers-Briggs
Conclusion - Both of these models well used - allow people to reflect on how they relate to others - summarise advants and disadvants of both - could say that they are more similar than they appear at first glance?
Write the essay
Start with a copy of your essay plan, and expand it. Many people find it helpful to write the conclusion first - to clarify their ideas and also to give them something to work towards. Some people also find it helps to write the introduction last. Aim for a clear, objective and logical presentation of material.
See our topic on 'The essay as argument' for more on this.