Part of the work of your courses is assessed by the writing of essays, either in prepared form during the term or in the examinations. It is therefore vitally important that you master the art of constructing proper analytical essay answers. Writing is an art-form and in the long run it is hoped you will come to enjoy being able to use language to express your ideas clearly and accurately. Writing essays is also a skill which will be of great use to you in the future because it teaches you to express yourself properly and to argue a coherent and convincing case. It is a skill developed single route to success, and it is important to learn about your particular strengths and weaknesses.
You will be helped to improve your own performance by the guidance and comments offered by the tutors who assess your work. Though it is essential that you learn to write grammatically, clearly and fluently, this does not mean you have to have an elaborate prose style. When writing your essay, be concise and explicit and try to state precisely what you are trying to say, with no waffle. Clarity of thought is usually the best way to achieve clarity of expression. Think about what you are writing, and decide whether you are using the appropriate language, try to avoid slang and sexist, sectarian or even pious phrases. You need to express your opinions but using an academic style and based upon evidence or understanding. If you are in any doubt about the meaning or spelling of words, check them in a dictionary. There are some hints below on common grammatical and spelling errors. Remember that your essay must be in your own words and you must not plagiarize (see below).
Structure and content
An analytical essay needs to be planned. You first need to scrutinise the essay question carefully to discover precisely what is being asked. The wording of the question helps to shape the structure of the essay, for e.g. compare is asking for something different from how far or discuss. The organisation of the essay is vital because it allows you to create an analytical and critical argument about the specific question. It is the quality of the essay's organisation and argument which will demonstrate your intellectual ability to the reader.
An essay builds up its overall argument from several component parts. Having worked out precisely what you are being asked, you need to sort out two things. First, decide on the main points or components of your argument and then decide the order in which they should appear; any old order will not do. This means that it is best to plan the main body of your essay first and, only after you know what that main section contains, do you consider your introduction and conclusion.
For that main section think about the content of your chief points and about their relative importance within your overall argument. You also need to work out how these different components relate to each other and how they fit together to make a single, coherent whole. Each separate component should have its main point which is related directly to the question. It should be explained and supported by carefully chosen evidence or examples. Try not to swamp your analysis with vast quantities of factual information; just provide enough to develop or support each point. Remember that essays are not simply repositories for bits of knowledge; you are trying to argue a case and engage in an intellectual debate. In exams or essays of limited length, if necessary, reduce the factual information but retain all the main planks of your argument.
An introduction is essential because it provides the platform for launching the main body of your essay. It should give the reader some idea of where you are going and help you to keep to the point throughout the essay. In the introduction it may be necessary to define particular terms within the question or to clarify the issues you will be discussing. You might also want to present preparatory information which is essential to the later development of your argument. Although you are setting out the issues, the introduction is not a conclusion and you should not provide a direct answer to the question here.
In the conclusion you should summarise briefly your main points and indicate clearly what, in your judgement, is the answer to the specific question. Don't stop there, you then need to place your answer within a broader context and comment upon the wider significance of the issues which were raised by the question.
Guidelines for the Presentation of Essays
1. Work submitted for assessment should be written in MSWord 5.0 or similar. For hard copies, use only one side of the paper, using one-and-a-half or double spacing. Always leave margins of 3 cm on both sides of each page. Number each page consecutively, omitting the cover sheet, which should contain (in the centre) the title of your essay and (in the top right-hand corner) your name, the title of the course, the date, and (for hard copies only) the number of words written.
2. (a) Underline (or italicize) book titles and foreign words used as English words (e.g. status quo).
(b) Put the titles of journal articles and essays in double inverted commas (e.g., "Augustine on Free Will").
(c) Avoid all colloquialisms and elided verb forms (e.g. "don't", "isn't").
(d) Be sure not to treat phrases as if they were sentences (e.g. "Right through to the collapse of Judah.").
(e) Be sure not to write two or more sentences together as if they comprised only one ("Many have found the unity of this chapter questionable, Gunkel is thought to hold the majority opinion.").
3. Avoid the following common errors:
(a) faulty capitalisation (e.g. not capitalising words which begin sentences, or proper names; randomly capitalising other words which do not require it);
(b) faulty transcription of technical or other words which have been picked up from books or primary sources (e.g. "Deuteronomer" for "Deuteronomist"), and faulty transcription of book titles or authors;
(c) faulty spelling of a more general kind (e.g. "alter" for "altar"; "affect" for "effect");
(d) writing "it's" (= "it is") when what you mean is "its" (e.g. "the dog buried its bone");
(e) failure to use apostrophes (e.g. "Gods" for "God's").
N.B. There is a very useful little book to help with all these problems devised by the Centre of Canadian Studies, University of Edinburgh, but applicable to everyone. It is called Good English [for Canadian Studies] by Ged Martin & Grace Owens and can be bought for £1 from the Centre of Canadian Studies, 21 George Square.
4. Shorter quotations (less than 50 words) should be enclosed in single quotation marks and run on with the main text. Use double quotation marks for quotations within quotations. Longer quotations should be separated from the main text by being indented without quotation marks.
Do not quote secondary sources if the point could be made equally well in your own words. Quotations should illustrate or support your argument but not carry the main burden of it. We want to know what you have to say.
5. You should use a footnote or endnote whenever you cite or refer closely to another text. If you fail to do this, you run the risk of being suspected of plagiarism (the action of including, without adequate acknowledgement, the work of another in one's own work as if it were one's own). Plagiarism is an offence against University discipline and may incur serious penalties; see the special note below. Footnotes should be numbered consecutively throughout the essay. They should follow the following examples of common types of published works:
After the first, extensive reference, subsequent footnotes should give the minimum necessary information to enable the reader to identify the publication cited. If you cite only one work by an author, the author's name and the page reference (and volume number if multi-volume work) will do: e.g., Baker, p. 78. If you use more than one item by an author, or if you cite more than one person with the same last name, then author's name and short title, followed by page reference is all necessary: e.g., Baker, Two Testaments, p. 78. An alternative, and equally acceptable, way of doing this is to list books in your bibliography by author and date of publication and then just cite author, date, and page reference, e.g. Baker 1991:78.
- Book: D.L. Baker, Two Testaments, One Bible (Leicester: IVP, 1991), p. 5.
- Journal Article: D. Wiebe, "The Role of 'Belief' in the Study of Religion", Numen 26 (1979), 234-49 (citation p. 239).
- Article in Book: A. Primavesi, "A Tide in the Affairs of Women?", In Ecotheology: Voices from South and North, ed. D. G. Hallman (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1994) pp. 186-98 (on p. 190).
- Article in Reference Work: R. L. Webb, "Epistles, Catholic", in Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. D. N. Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), vol. 2, pp. 569-70.
6. Sources used should be recorded in a bibliography at the end of the paper, and arranged in alphabetical order according to the authors' surnames. Give full bibliographical information for each item listed, as shown in examples above.
(With grateful thanks to my Alma Mater, the University of Edinburgh, for this contribution)
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