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Academic Communication

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Essay writing

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What an essay is

An essay is an extended piece of writing which attempts to answer a question or respond to a statement. It should be written in formal and grammatically correct English.

Essays are one of the most common assessments used in universities. Writing one forces you to think through an aspect of your course or module in detail.

The English word 'essay' is derived from the French verb 'essai,' meaning 'to try'. As a student writer, you will not be expected to produce the ultimate answer, but rather to 'try' your best to produce a plausible response to the topic. There is usually no right answer - just possible good answers that can be logically argued.

Your job is to:

  • Read around the topic.
  • Look at the evidence you find.
  • Formulate your own view or argument.

See our topic 'The essay as argument' for more on this.

Presentation: Essay writing

Watch and listen to this presentation about planning and writing essays.

Some of the conventions of essay writing

Essays should be written in continuous text without headings

This is the usual way of presenting an essay, but some tutors will expect to see section headings. If you are not using headings, use clear introductory sentences each time you introduce a new idea. Organise your writing so it is easy for your reader to follow.

Essays should generally be written in the third person

Use of the third person is usual in academic writing, but it is not always required. Using the third person does help to create an impression of impartiality and helps to show that you are assessing the question based on evidence and information from the sources you have consulted, rather than on your own opinions.

See our topic 'Choice of person in academic writing' for more on this.

The essay is formal in both structure and language

It should have an introduction, body or main part, and a conclusion. Standard English, not colloquial English, should be used.

Essays are usually between 500 to 5,000 words long

Shorter pieces might be some form of brief reflection or summary. Longer pieces of writing would probably be called projects, theses, or dissertations.

Tutors do not always want a standard or traditional essay - examine any instructions, guidance, or assessment criteria you are given.