Rules are for fools and the guidance of the wise
The best essays will: acknowledge any ambiguities in the essay title;
concern themselves with important qualifying terms in the title (e.g.,
social behaviour); state explicitly the task that will be undertaken in
the essay (i.e. of those possible within the rubric of the title); justify
the legitimacy of the task selected (i.e. relative to others that could
be attempted within the rubric set by the title); and state explicitly
how the task undertaken is relevant to the essay title. They will then
do what they have told the reader they will do.
The best essays will contain only material relevant to the stated task
(see above). Where the relevance of material to that task is potentially
not clear to the reader, it will be made explicit.
Justification takes two main forms within undergraduate social psychology essays, referential and rational. Referential justification occurs when claims are justified by citing empirical studies or other sources (e.g. theories, news reports, quotes) that are consistent with the claim made. As far as possible, referential evidence should be used to provide evidence for the accuracy or legitimacy of every claim you make within an essay. This serves several purposes. First, it provides you with some security that there is some reason to make the claim you do. Secondly, it allows you to acknowledge when you are relying on someone else's evidence or ideas, thus avoiding accusations of plagiarism. Thirdly, you are suggesting (and ideally demonstrating) a familiarity with and an ability to effectively use the existing relevant literature. Finally, you are providing the reader with information about where to go to check out the validity of the claims you make. This is both good practice and more likely to persuade the reader of the legitimacy of your claim.
Rational justification occurs when 'reason' is appealed to justify an action or claim. Logic is good for this. This is not the place for a logic course, but I strongly recommend that you become familiar with the following concepts (and their opposites): consistency, entailment, preclusion, necessity, and sufficiency. Your ability to analyse and argue (see below) social psychological material will in large part be determined by your competence to employ concepts such as these. Less formally, rational justification is also possible by claiming similarities and differences between things (in order to draw conclusions on the basis of such comparisons).
Referential and rational justification are not entirely independent. For example, one may justify something by claiming a need for it on the basis of a gap in the relevant existing literature.
It is sometimes possible to indicate justification implicitly. Nevertheless, I recommend doing so explicitly wherever possible.
The best essays leave nothing unjustified. They justify their interpretation
of the essay title and their approach to addressing the issues raised.
They justify the relevance of all material included and they justify the
exclusion of seemingly important material they exclude. They justify each
and every discrete claim made and they justify the legitimacy of conclusions
drawn from those lower-level claims. Finally, they justify the overall
argument of the essay and the relevance of that argument to the essay title.
Essay titles either obviously or subtly invite argument. If they seem
not to and you want good grades, interpret them as if they did. Often this
may be done by simply (mentally) inserting the word "critically" in an
appropriate place (e.g. "[Critically] Compare..."; "[Critically] Describe...").
Other strategies include (i) mentally inserting other phrases, such as
"To what extent...", and (ii) interrogating assumptions made or implied
within the title. As already mentioned, as you advance through university
it will be increasingly assumed that you are familiar with the major theories,
studies and findings within social psychology. Progressively, then, essay
grades become determined by the relative ability of students to use that
commonly available information to persuasively present an argument (with
persuasiveness being largely dictated by presentation, justification, and
relevance). This requires not just the parroting back of 'facts', however
eloquently this is done. Instead, you need to establish what the relevant
facts are and how they may be combined to reach some conclusion that addresses
the issue(s) raised by the essay question. At its best, exposition (especially
within the later stages of the undergraduate degree) occurs only in the
service of making or justifying a point within an argument.
Much harder than avoiding plagiarism is being creative. Students ask,
"How can I come up with new ideas about (let alone new answers for) these
problems that have taxed numerous of the world's greatest thinkers for
a very long time?" The answer is that you don't have to. You can be creative
by evaluating the ideas these others have had. Just because somebody clever
has said something, this does not give that statement overwhelming authority.
Nor does the fact that it has been said by someone who has conducted 25
years of intensive empirical investigation into the matter. For almost
every claim there is an contrary or inconsistent claim made by someone
equally impressive (sometimes the same person!). Your job is to persuade
the reader that there is, or is not, a reason to favour one view over another.
You do this in exactly the same way that your tutor will read your essay,
i.e., by evaluating the justification for and ramifications of all relevant
claims made. Just as you would fail to be impressed by a commentator who
merely paraphrased someone else when claiming to present a novel argument,
so too will your tutor’s positive impression of your essay increase to
the extent that you have avoided merely summarising or rephrasing the thoughts
of others (especially from secondary texts on the essential reading list).
There will also be some more or less local requirements you will need to take account of. In social psychology at Sussex, for example, we expect all citation and referencing to accord with ‘APA-style’. (In case you don’t yet know, APA is an acronym for the American Psychological Association. Most of the top journals in social psychology, e.g., the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, are written in APA style, so check how things are done there if in doubt. There are also plenty of APA style guides available, especially on the world wide web – see links from my web page). Again, it is your responsibility, and in your interest, to find out what local requirements apply and conform to them or risk adverse consequences.
Readers of your essay will clearly have many expectations concerning style. To the extent that you deviate from such expectations, you risk losing percentage points for your essay in two ways. First, by the mere fact of demonstrating a lack of ability to learn and adopt conventions considered appropriate. Secondly, to the extent that the reader notices the form of your essay (i.e., because of the deviations from expectations), they are likely to be distracted from its content - which is where the good marks potentially come from.
Beyond conventional concerns, the other important aspect of style boils
down to the way you write. Many undergraduates (and many others) try very
hard to adopt an ‘academic style’ in their writing and succeed only in
producing impenetrable, sprawling and dull tracts of pseudo-psychology.
Others go too far the other way in an attempt to make their writing lively
and fun (and to show their refusal to be bound by restrictive conventions),
ending up coming across as arrogant, flippant, or plain silly. In large
part, learning an appropriate style is a matter of trial and error, although
vicarious learning (i.e. learning from others’ mistakes, and the lack of
them) is very useful. As a broad rule (and no more is appropriate here),
make everything as clear and concise as you possibly can, from overall
arguments down to single words. Thus, avoid jokes, barely relevant anecdotes,
jargon, needlessly ‘intellectual’ vocabulary, and (do as I say, not as
I do), overly long – and excessively punctuated - sentences. (Thank you
to those who have pointed out that the previous sentence is overly long
and excessively punctuated. Such feedback is confirmation that one should
be very wary of attempting humour when writing in academic settings.) Two
tips. First, prior to writing, say aloud (ideally to someone else, if need
be to yourself) the point you intend to make, as though explaining it to
an interested and intelligent person who knows nothing of the area. Then
write the point down as simply as possible. Second, once you have finished
writing, read your essay aloud (or, better yet, get someone else to): where
you falter, revise or re-write.
A good essay will display critical skills, so make sure you choose titles
that allow you to do more than describe. Many titles that might appear
to ask for descriptions should - if at all possible - be read as invitations
to argue something.
The other crucially important aspect of the introduction is its end.
Here you should explicitly report what you will argue and what title-relevant
conclusion this will lead you to reach. It is greatly in your interest
to provide this guide for the reader. It will allow them to see (or if
necessary infer) the relevance of all that follows. It will help you make
sure that everything that follows is relevant. And it will imply a structure
to the essay that goes from statement of objective, through evidence, to
relevant and justified conclusion.
The most important sentences in the development stage of essays tend to be either the first or last ones in each paragraph. My preference is for first lines. I like to try and do two things with opening lines to paragraphs. First, I like them to make the main 'point' of that paragraph, with the rest of the paragraph explaining, elaborating, qualifying, and justifying that main point. Secondly, I like the first sentence of each paragraph to 'link' the preceding and following paragraphs. This latter point means that I could (and often do) form a 'skeleton' of the essay just by reading the first line of each paragraph. Doing so should tell me about most of the content of the essay as well as demonstrate the linear development of the essay that persuasively moves the reader from Introduction to Conclusion. Some authors prefer to do similar things with the final line of each paragraph instead of the opening ones. Really good authors use both sentences to perform different roles, e.g. opening ones to make a main point linked from all that's gone before and closing ones to draw a conclusion from the material in that paragraph and provide a link to the next. Do what works for you, but always concern yourself with relevance, justification, and direction/structure.
The hardest advice to give in this guide concerns exposition. The appropriate
form and proportion of exposition in an essay varies considerably across
years of study (among other things). At the start of your degree you are
likely to be expected to report a few studies or theories in some detail.
By the end of your degree you should be able to let the reader know that
you have read 'enough' of the relevant literature and refer to particular
findings and procedures (or whatever) only when to do so serves an analytic
purpose, i.e. is necessary for your argument. Describing classic studies
and theories in detail is neither necessary nor appropriate in the final
year of a degree: tutors know such material and they EXPECT students to.
Early education is about learning material and analytic tools. Later education
is about using those materials and tools to actually analyse. Thus, the
best exposition serves the purpose of justifying or providing an argument.
Exposition for its own sake, no matter how good, is rarely appropriate
for undergraduates. Your undergraduate career (and any subsequent academic
development) should be essentially a process of altering the exposition/criticism
ratio of your communications in favour of the latter term.
The Conclusion has several components. The first, but not the only one, is to summarise and/or synthesise the main points made and/or conclusions reached in the main body of your presentation (i.e. during the Development), possibly with an accompanying summary of the main reasons for (i.e. justification of) those points/conclusions.
Another important function of the Conclusion is to explore the importance and/or relevance of the points made/conclusions reached for the theories (etc.) mentioned in the Introduction. For example, do the points support, destroy, or indicate necessary amendments to such theories? Remember what was said above that all good essay titles implicitly or explicitly ask to what extent something is or is not the case.
Thirdly, are there other implications of your conclusions, e.g. for future research, for social policy, or whatever?
Finally, how confident should one be of your conclusions? Are there any qualifications or caveats? Are there any important possible objections to your conclusions and, if so, how might you meet those objections?
Having already carefully listed the potential limitations of and qualifications to your arguments, try to end your essay on an up-beat note. There is a big difference between modesty and careful judgement on the one hand and suggesting to the reader that both they and you have been completely wasting time. Let the reader know why both of you have gained from the production of your essay.
If in doubt, use the third-person singlular, i.e., "It may be argued"
rather than "I would like to argue".
As a rule: avoid them. If you must use them, tell the reader what the answer is. (Answers to rhetorical questions are rarely as obvious as writers think.) Then justify your answer, i.e. say why this 'must be' the answer to the rhetorical question. Then make explicit the relevance of the answer for the argument you are developing. In my experience, rhetorical questions are usually reliable indicators of laziness, used in a failed attempt to avoid having to provide a necessary rationale or 'link'.
Life's too short to needlessly worry about these, surely?
Note: Words and phrases underlined or circled below are particularly note-worthy: in red if considerable improvement possible, in black or blue if done well.
Excellent Good Adequate Poor Bad Comments
1. Focus on topic ( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( )
Question answered. Relevant material used. Essential issues covered.
NOT: off the subject, missing the point.
Excellent Good Adequate Poor
2. Reading/understanding ( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( )
Breadth and depth of study. Overall understanding of issues
NOT: poorly researched, thin, confused, inaccurate
Excellent Good Adequate Poor
3. Analysis ( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( )
Critical reflection. Depth of analysis.
NOT: superficial, mechanical
Excellent Good Adequate Poor
4. Structure ( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( )
Ordering of ideas and arguments. Distinct points in paragraphs. Linkages between sections.
NOT: disorganised, lacking a coherent thread, no introduction or conclusion.
Excellent Good Adequate Poor
5. Use of evidence ( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( )
Consistent reference to evidence for claims. Appropriate detail. Balance.
NOT: unsubstantiated assertion, weak argument, waffle
Excellent Good Adequate Poor
6. Style and presentation ( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( )
Clear, concise, lively. Appropriate use of references and quotations. Proper Bibliography.
NOT: dull, difficult to read, ungrammatical, poorly spelt
Please check overleaf for possible additional comments