Understand the question
The first step in writing an essay is to understand the question or task. Regardless of its wording, you should assume that you are required to take a position and present an argument.
One way to break down the question is to look at its main ideas. How do they link to the key themes, concepts and theories you have been studying in your course? This contextual information helps you to formulate your position and argument in reference to the course objectives.
The way the essay question is worded can provide many clues as to how you should proceed. Close reading of the question and referring back to it throughout the essay writing process is critical to ensuring that you are answering it properly.
The beauty of an essay at university is that you can take any position and present any argument, so long as it is reasonable, logical and supported by suitable and relevant evidence.
Naturally, there may be a viewpoint that you agree with early on, perhaps not long after you first read the question. However, you may not be able to take a strong position supported by evidence until you spend more time engaging with the debate.
Understand the debate
In order to be persuasive, you need to be familiar with all sides of the debate, not just that which supports your view.
There are likely to be many viewpoints on any given topic within the academic literature. To become familiar with the arguments made by those on both (or multiple) sides of a debate, you need to carry out research.
Reading is central to research. Reading widely helps you to find information about what is currently known about the topic. It helps you to understand its background context and underlying theories. It also shows you the varied lines of argument that exist.
The research process helps you to refine and strengthen your own position.
- Research and read with a purpose. Seek out information that answers a specific question you have. For example, you may ask yourself, 'I want to understand this theory more' or 'I want to know more about the historical context.' This will help to focus each stage of your literature search and make the process more manageable. The questions you ask will change as you progress.
- Look for evidence in the readings that you think may support your position. Engage with evidence that you think contradicts your position.
- Read strategically at the early stages of research. This means skimming rather than reading entire journal articles or chapters. For example, read the abstract, introduction, conclusion and topic sentences of a journal article. Later on, you can return to key readings and re-read them in-depth.
- Judicious highlighting can help to identify key ideas when you return to a reading.
- Have a systematic approach to your notetaking. For example, you may like to make margin notes while reading then rewrite or summarise them in a new document.
Remember that the research process is cyclical, meaning that you may return to your position and the readings many times before you feel that you have a clear argument.