Critical essay writing
Plan your time well
One mistake students often make with an essay is to start writing too soon. There is research and thinking to do first and putting words on the page comes later. Another big mistake is to write an essay at the last minute. You will lose marks if it doesn't flow well, words are spelled wrong or your punctuation is sloppy because you didn't allow time for editing and proofreading.
Guide to critical essay writing
The different stages you need to go through to write an excellent critical essay:
- De-code the essay title
- Plan your essay
- Research your subject
- Structure your essay
- Develop your argument and introduce counter-arguments
- Use relevant evidence
- Develop your academic writing style
- Find out how to present your work
The Alex Essay Writing Tool is a free app that you may find useful. Developed by the RLF, it takes you through all the stages of essay writing.
The word 'critical' can seem negative – it is associated with condemning, disparaging, judging or finding fault.
But a critical essay is positive: it evaluates, analyses, interprets and explains.
View Robin's Guide to Essay Writing
Hello, my name is Robin Banerjee and I'm a senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Sussex. I teach many first year, second year and third year students so if you come into the Psychology department I'm sure I'll see lots of you while you're here.
Today I'm going to be talking a little bit about guidelines for writing essays. Now I'm sure that when you've got essays to write you'll find lots of different instructions to follow for the different assignments that you've got, and of course you'll have to pay attention to them.
But what I'm going to give you today are some helpful guidelines which I hope will be useful to you as you set about the task of writing an essay.
1. Come up with a clear line of argument
Well, my first guideline for writing an essay is to make sure that you have a clear line of argument. If the essay title is in the form of a question - this might seem obvious - answer the question.
Although it seems like an obvious point, I've read many essays where student simply don't answer the question. They'll talk about lots of things that relate to the question but they don't actually give you an answer to the question. So if the title is in the form of a question, make sure you answer the question.
And even if the essay title isn't in the form of a question, make sure that you have something clear that you want to say. Don't just talk in general terms about the subject area. Make sure you have a clear point that you want to communicate in your essay.
2. Make it clear where you are going
All right, so my second major guideline for writing an essay is to make it clear where you are going. The reader needs to know what you're saying and needs to be aware of the path that you are taking in the essay. So don't wait until the very end of the essay to reveal the main point that you're trying to communicate.
As I've said before the most important thing in an essay is to come up with a clear line of argument and it's important to tell the reader about that right at the beginning. So set out your plan for the essay at the outset and then use the rest of the essay to actually build up your argument.
Use examples and evidence to support the points that you're making. Don't run through a whole range of different examples and pieces of evidence and theories and then at the end say the point that you want to make about it. Make the point first and then use the evidence to support it.
3. Plan your essay
Express your key points in complete sentences
My third guideline for writing an essay is to use a plan. Once you've done all your reading, once you've done all your research you need to step back from it and decide what you're going to say.
Come up with your main line of argument, but plan your essay before you launch into the actual writing of the essay. That means that you need to decide exactly what your key points are. So you need a logical sequence of key points that actually build up your argument.
It's really important when you've arrived at your key points, it's really important to express them in complete sentences.
One of the mistakes that I often see students doing, and one of the things that makes plans a bit problematic for a lot of students, is that when they're coming up with their outline for their essay they just have a list of subject headings: First I'm going to be talking about this, then I'm going to be talking about that, and then last of all I'm going to talk about that.
And actually that's not a very good plan, because when you go down to write something you don't know what you're going to say. You know what you're going to talk about, but you don't know what you're going to say about it.
So the most important thing about the plan is to decide what your main points are and to express them in complete sentences -- not just what are you going to talk about but what are you going to say about it?
Once you've got that sequence of key points expressed in complete sentences you should have a pretty good summary of your essay. And that should be able to stand alone as an answer to your essay question.
Select your evidence
Once you've decided on your sequence of key points, then you can start to flesh out your plan by listing the evidence that you're going to include for each key point. What examples are you going to draw on? What pieces of evidence or empirical work or theoretical work are you going to use to actually support each of those key points?
Once you've actually done that you've got a really good framework for writing your essay: you know what your main argument is, you know what each key point is that you're going to use to support that argument, and in turn you know what key bits of evidence or examples or theories you're going to use to make each of those key points.
Review your choice of key points and evidence
One final point about the plans. If you look at your plan and you find that you've got nine, ten or even more key points then think again about whether they really need to stand separate from each other as different points.
In an essay, and even in longer essays like 4,000 word essays, you'll usually only need to have a handful of key points. Remember the main objective is to support the main line of argument that you want to present to the reader. That doesn't mean that you have to cover absolutely everything that you've read.
It may be the case that there will be material that you've read that really isn't relevant to the point that you want to make in this essay - so decide what the best pieces of evidence are to support the points that you actually want to make in this essay.
4. Ask someone else to read your essay
My next guideline for writing an essay is to make sure that you give it to someone else to read. It's really important to get a second opinion on your essay and sometimes when you've been working on an essay for a long time it can be really hard to adopt a fresh objective stance and look at your essay.
So find someone, maybe a friend that you can bribe to read your essay, maybe a family member, long suffering flat mates - whoever you can. Get someone else to read the essay and to try and extract the main points.
If you've done your job well -- if you started out with a good plan, with the key points expressed in complete sentences, and you based your essay on that plan -- then when you give that essay to someone else to read and you ask them, ‘Can you pull out the main points from this essay?', their extracted main points should look very similar to the main points that you had in your plan. So that would be a good sign that you've accomplished what you wanted to accomplish in the essay.
5. Show originality in your essay
OK, my final guideline for writing an essay concerns originality. You'll probably see in most of the assessment criteria for essays in different subjects across the university that originality is one of the markers of first class essays.
Can you show originality and flair in the way that you write your essay? Well, a lot of students often ask, ‘What do I do to show originality in an essay? Do I just say what my opinion is about the subject matter?' Well, partly -- but it's not just a matter of expressing your personal opinion without justification or rationale.
Originality in an academic essay is all about the way that you interrogate the material in front of you and the way that you put the material together. So, regarding the first of those points, if you are dealing with evidence, examples, theories, other people's writing - question it, adopt a critical standpoint, evaluate it, don't just accept it at face value.
Regarding the second point -- about how you put ideas together and how you put your points and evidence together in your essay -- that's a really important opportunity to show your originality. It's not so much about waiting until you get to the end of the essay and then coming up with - ‘well I think ... blah blah blah..'
But it's about how you put the argument together. That's where you can really show your originality. Have you taken these theories, these different bits of evidence, the different readings that you've done, have you put them together in an interesting and innovative way to answer the question? That's how a student shows originality in an essay!
Your tutor wants an essay that:
- answers the question
- shows you have read widely
- demonstrates you have evaluated the evidence
- proves you understand the question
- has a clear argument
- is well structured and organised
- contains relevant information to support your argument
- uses consistent and accurate referencing
- conforms to academic style and is easy to read
- is professionally presented
- is grammatically correct
- has been proofread for mistakes.