Writing and assessments

Maria introduces this section on writing and assessments

  • Video transcript

    Maria: Welcome to this section on writing and assessments. Writing is a major part of your university life. In these pages, you'll find techniques and strategies to support you in the essay-writing process. You'll also find example essay types and features of academic writing. Additionally, you'll find information on how to make the most of your feedback. Over the academic year, we also run workshops on academic writing, so keep an eye out for those. Remember, we're here to help you.

There are six topics in this section relating to Writing and assessments:

Critical essay writing (this page) | Reflective writing | Reports | Dissertations | Academic writing style, editing and proof-reading | Feedback | AI


A very large part of your time at university will be spent writing, since it is the main method of assessment used at Sussex. While essay-writing is an opportunity to show your tutor how much you have understood of your subject and how widely and deeply you have researched the question, this is not the main purpose of an essay. The most important purpose of an essay is to critically analyse the main ideas of a topic and to decide on your own viewpoint. You then present this viewpoint in the form of an argument, weighing the evidence for and against your proposition. So you need to develop the skills of analysing materials and demonstrating what is correct and incorrect about them, and synthesising materials, i.e. comparing and contrasting the many different sources and texts you come across.   

Therefore, it is important to develop your writing skills. As with all academic skills, you are not expected to have perfect academic writing when you arrive; it is a skill that you will develop as you practise it more and more. In these pages, we show you how to adapt your writing to different written assessments.


We also run workshops on academic skills throughout the year.
Find out about academic skills workshops and other support.


Ann Marie talks about her first essay assignment and how to get started

  • Video transcript

    Ann Marie: It's a very scary process. You would just sit to start writing and then completely shut off and you'd be like, 'I don't know what to do.' And then after a lot of times, there was once when I sat down to write it, I took the whole day and I didn't write even two lines. It used to be like, sit down, read certain things, go back again, have a cup of coffee or tea or something like that, come back thinking I'll make it, make two lines. But then it didn't happen. But then again, it's a process of again, going back to it, I guess. The problem is, the more you read, the more ideas you have, and then the more you don't know where to start. And you're so confused. And it was one of my friends, actually, I was probably, I just was so lost. And I probably spoke to one of my friends and he was like, 'You should just know when to stop reading.' And then sometimes, and my housemate, because she did a course at Sussex the year before. So she was really very helpful. So she said, 'Just write, just continue writing. Don't think about the word limit. Don't think about what you're writing. Don't think if there is a structure to it or if it's beautiful and it's what you want to present as final. Just keep writing. Put down your thoughts. Let it all be there on a paper, on a piece of paper.' And when you see it and then when you re-read it, you yourself can formulate it and structure it better. But if you just keep it in your head and not start anywhere, you're not going to get it out. So that was a good piece of advice, I felt. So then that's how I started. I just started writing whatever I wanted to, whatever I thought could be an answer. I didn't think about perfection at that time. Just went with the flow and then took a break, went around, came back, re-read it, reorganised it - it probably looked nothing like how I had started it off with, but then yeah.

What type of academic writing do you need to focus on?

There is a lot to think about and practice when it comes to academic writing. Look in at the six areas below and see which applies to you. You can go directly to the ones you want to focus on:

  • Have you been asked to write an essay and need help to understand what is involved?
    If yes, go to Critical essay writing below (this page) for a plethora of information on academic essays.
  • Have you been set a reflective writing assessment and are wondering what to do?
    If yes, head to Reflective Writing for more information (takes you to a different page).
  • Are you writing a report and trying to figure out its components?
    If yes, the section on Reports will help you out (takes you to a different page).
  • Do you have a dissertation to write and need some pointers to help start you off?
    If yes, good Luck! Click over to Dissertations to get the basics plus some encouragement (takes you to a different page).
  • Do you need some support with writing in correct academic English style or want help with editing and proof-reading?
    If yes, try looking through the information on Academic writing style, editing and proof-reading to check you are following the guidelines (takes you to a different page).
  • Would you like to know how best to collect feedback from your assessments and how to benefit from it?
    If yes
    , the section on Feedback has useful advice on the best ways to deal with this (takes you to a different page).

Critical essay writing

Georgia talks about her first essay assignment

  • Video transcript

    Georgia: I think my first assignment was an essay for one of my modules. I found it quite overwhelming because it's just, 'Here's an essay topic - go away and do it.' Although I'd done essays before in A-level and I'd done psychology ones before, it wasn't to the same level, and I didn't have to do anywhere near the same kind of research. Doing research for the essay was probably one of the things that took maybe the most time, especially at the beginning. I used Library Search, which was fantastic, and that's what I still use to find most of my research because it's a great way to see what the university has access to and you can break it down into chunks for keywords for what you need for your assignment, and then it will just pull up everything that has that in it. Obviously, that's not something I knew straight away. And those were skills that I developed. But the first one was a lot of going through the marking criteria, going through research, trying to understand the research, trying to bring it all together and making sure I answered the question, which is quite important and it's very easy actually to derail from. Referencing as well was something that I'd done a bit of previously. I did an EPQ and I'd had to do referencing for that. So I'd had some experience, but figuring out the referencing style and things like that, which I used Skills Hub for. I also used referencing software and that really helped me and took a bit of the stress away from having to figure out how to do references and how to write long references. It put all my research into one place and kept it for me whereas I know lots of people who did research and then couldn't remember where they found that bit of information from. And so that really helped me with my first assignment.

For many students, writing critical essays will form the majority of their assessment at Sussex. Because setting out an argument is such an important part of academic work, learning how to do it well is fundamental for university success.

There are many parts to writing a successful essay. This list is a basic order, but most essays require moving back and forth between stages as you refine your thinking and writing, rather than following a strict linear path.

  • understanding the essay title or creating your own
  • planning for the length of your essay
  • researching the subject
  • creating a brief essay plan
  • developing the argument
  • adding counter-arguments
  • writing a detailed outline
  • developing the paragraphs
  • sticking to academic writing conventions
  • editing
  • proof-reading.

In order to get a good grade, your essay must:

  • prove you understand the topic
  • answer the question
  • show that you have read widely
  • demonstrate you have evaluated the evidence
  • display critical thinking
  • have a clear argument
  • contain relevant information to support your argument
  • be well structured and organised
  • conform to academic style
  • use consistent and accurate referencing
  • be professionally presented
  • be grammatically correct
  • have been proofread for mistakes.


The Academic Writing Guide is a Sussex resource that gives you information and practice opportunities as well as giving you key guidance to help you develop the skill of argumentation. It is used on the Foundation Year Programme but anyone can access the resource to develop their approach to critical essay writing.

Essay Questions

Feedback from tutors often focuses on students not answering the question. It may be that you know plenty of information about the topic and are keen to show off everything that you have read, but if you do not focus on responding to the question, you will lose marks. Take time to make sure that you have understood exactly what the question means, or composed a question that you can answer with precision.


Sara and Tavian talk understanding essay questions and structure

  • Video transcript

    Sara: So when I get a question, I really have to have a think about that because I know often times it's the case of when you write a perfectly good assignment, but you haven't answered the question. So I think I break down the question. I see what the keyword is. Is it 'evaluate', is it 'discuss', is it 'compare'? I think that is a key thing to look at. And then what they're actually asking of you and what you're answering. So when I'm writing my assignments, I always make sure when I'm done with the paragraph to read that paragraph back and see if it's actually adding to what the question has asked of me. And I think that's very important because you can be so invested in your work and just writing a lot, but then at the end you're not actually answering the question and you're not going to get any marks, no matter how good your writing is. So I think going back, reading it through and keeping the question in mind constantly really helps.

    Tavian: So the Skills Hub, I was mostly looking at the formatting of an essay because I hadn't really written an essay. As I mentioned, well reports are mostly what we do in the Business School, at least for my course in my modules. So it had been almost since first year since I'd written an essay, and so I just wanted to understand a little bit more, okay, what the difference was. You know, do you use appendices or not? Because reports are very appendix heavy. And so yeah, that was really helpful for me to understand then, okay, what's expected? And then I had to adapt my approach.

Essay questions at Sussex

There are different types of academic essays at university. You may start university with essay questions that ask for description and explanation. As you progress throught your course, there will be more focus on critical writing. See Critical Thinking for more details.

  1. Description

    A description is not intended to persuade the reader to agree with a view. You will be asked to give an account of a concept or a process. It should be accurate and factual. The aim of this essay type is to give the reader an informed understanding of what is being described.

  2. Explanation

    Similar to a description, the purpose of an explanation is not to convince the reader of a point of view. The aim of this essay type is to give explanations as to why or how something happens and to establish the meaning of a theory or argument. Unlike a description, it also includes causes, purposes and consequences.

  3. Critical argument

    The most common type of essay question. The aim of this essay is to state a clear position and present a persuasive line of argument in order to convince the reader of this particular view. An argument should consider alternative perspectives and be supported with evidence throughout.

Decoding your Essay Title

Here are some useful tips to help you understand the question:

  • highlight words which tell you the approach to take (the directive words)
  • circle the words which guide you on selecting the subject matter of the essay (the topic words)
  • underline the words which the question is asking you to focus on (the limiting words)
  • ask yourself what the essay is really looking for. Can you identify the central question? How many sections are there to it?
  • find the links between what you have learnt through reading or lectures and the title.

Cottrell, S. (2013)

Let’s look more at directive, topic and limiting words:

  • directive words tell you what you need to do
  • topic words show you what content you must discuss
  • limiting words provide boundaries for your essay.

Look at the example question below. Can you identify the directive, topic and limiting words?

Discuss critically how semantics and pragmatics both have a role in the understanding of meaning

Now look below to reveal the three parts that are indicated:

Directive = Discuss, critically, both

Topic = Semantics, pragmatics, the understanding of meaning

Limiting = have a role in


Now, practise by breaking down the following question into the three types of question words:

Review the evidence for links between cholesterol levels and heart disease, and evaluate the usefulness of cholesterol screening programmes in preventing heart disease.

Directive words

Making sure you understand the directive word helps to stay on task and answer the question.


Activity: Directive words

Use the Dialog cards below to reveal the meaning of some of the most common directive words (seven) used in essay questions (there is a text only version below the activity):

  • Text only version for the activity above

    1. Compare = Identify the similarities of two or more things.

    2. Criticise = Identify weaknesses and disadvantages. You should also point out favourable aspects, so it should be a balanced view.

    3. Evaluate = Assess how important or useful something is.

    4. Critically Evaluate = similar to evaluate / weigh up the arguments for and against / assess the strength of the evidence on both sides.

    5. Analyse = Break an idea into parts and consider how they relate to each other – investigate.

    6. Assess = weigh up how important something is – similar to evaluate.

    7. Contrast = similar to compare / looks at the differences.


The above are guidelines only. There are always slight differences between the disciplines. Go back to the assessment criteria if you are not confident you understand what the question is asking you to do.

Devising your own Essay Question

As you progress through university, there will be opportunities to devise your own essay titles. While this may seem to be a luxury at first, it soon becomes clear that it is harder than you think!

Here are some key points to consider when creating your essay title:

  • check the marking criteria first. You’ll need to come up with a question that enables you to meet the criteria
  • consider the right kind of directive word for the topic. If there are two main competing theories in the literature, a compare and contrast essay might be suitable. If you want to explore an innovative approach, you might like to critically evaluate the evidence in support of and against it
  • some words are not suitable as directive words. Describe, for example, leads to purely descriptive writing. Analyse or Evaluate would be better alternatives
  • keep the title concise, and stick to just one question
  • you may choose to use a short quotation in your title, but make sure that it links to the academic debate you want to focus on. The quote may provide the topic and limiting words, but you might need to follow it with a typical essay question to focus your essay. For example:

There is not a brick in the city but what is cemented with the blood of a slave.’ (Bristol Annalist, early 18th century)

Critically evaluate this assessment of the impact of the slave trade on Bristol.

  • essay titles do not always use directive words – it’s up to you whether to use them. This title does not contain a directive word

        ‘In what respects was the debate over slavery fundamental to later history of the British Empire?’

  • ask a friend or family member to read your title to make sure it can be understood.
  • check that you can find research evidence relevant to the topic.


You can change your essay title during the essay-writing process if you realise you are answering a different question. As long as your essay answers the question, nobody minds if the title came first.

Planning and Structuring your Essay

Saira and Amelia talk about planning their essay structure

  • Video transcript

    Saira: For me, what I do is I first start with a plan, so I'll just have a general idea of what's my argument. Because for some modules or some degrees, I guess you might need to have a bit of a balanced argument, but I know for Law you need to be quite persuasive and you need to understand what it is that you're trying to argue and set that out in the beginning. A lot of people tend to think that you have to wait till the end to say what you want to say. But that's probably the worst way to go about it, because you're going to be lost while you're writing. So I usually just have a bullet-point plan with headings. What's my introduction, what are my middle paragraphs and what's my conclusion? And then I have a separate section where I think about what are my academic sources I'm going to use. How am I going to compare them? Do they show different points of views? And then I just make sure that I have all my referencing and things sorted out. And then I usually do about two drafts. So the first draft, I just write things in my own words. And then the second draft I go through and make it more formal and put in, you know, proper referencing and then make it look nice: 1.5 line spacing, edge to edge, Times New Roman size 12. And then, yeah, that's pretty much how I go through essays.

    Amelia: The biggest thing for me coming from high school into uni was analysis. In high school, a lot of the analysis was like, what was my personal analysis? And then I came to uni and they're like, no, no, no. Like, you can have an opinion, but it has to always be backed up by academic research. And so changing my analysis from a personal analysis to an academic analysis was hard and still is really hard. And like, it's not, 'What is your opinion?' It's, 'What is your opinion on the research?'

The planning and structuring of your essay goes hand in hand with reading and researching it. Usually, they both happen at the same time: as you read more and develop your knowledge and opinions on the subject, you start to picture the shape of the essay in your mind. And as the structure of the essay begins to become clear, you will know which sources of information you need to investigate more, and which you can leave behind. 

Basic Structure of Critical Essays

Critical essays have three sections: an introduction, a main body, and a conclusion (or a discussion for science-based essays). 

You can imagine an essay like an hourglass, with the introduction and the conclusion/discussion as the wide top and bottom parts, where the general context of the essay is discussed. The main body is the very narrow part of the hourglass, where the focus is on very specific aspects of the topic

Read the lists below of which features are found in the three main parts:

  • the hook - a strong statement or surprising fact about the topic which engages the reader
  • background information - some background information about the topic. For example, a brief history or an explanation of the context
  • a thesis statement – what your argument and position is. This is the most important part of your essay and what the essay can be reduced down to. All the other parts of your essay act as extra details to your thesis statement. 
  • signposting - tell your reader what you will cover.
Main body
  • topic sentences – the sentence in each paragraph which outlines its main idea. 
  • use of sources, explanations, examples and data to support your topic sentence idea. Most essays, and all science-based ones, need multiple sources per paragraph.  
  • critical analysis of the evidence and sources. (In science-based essays, rgis comes in the discussion)
  • concluding sentences – final sentences in each paragraph which sum up the idea and may link back to the next question or to the next point.
Conclusion (for non-science-based essays)
  • a brief restatement of your argument
  • a summary of your main points
  • a strong closing statement - perhaps a prediction or a recommendation.

Discussion (for science-based essays)

  • a brief summary of your argument
  • critical analysis of the evidence and sources
  • a strong closing statement - perhaps the implications of your argument on other parts of the discipline, or a recommendation for more research.

Remember! Stating that 'more research is needed' is not a very useful recommendation. Be specific about what the research should be on and what it should attempt to find out. 

There is more information on each of these sections below.

Planning for length

Planning starts with understanding your task, how much time you have, the number of words you have to write and what direction you're going to take.

Before you embark on research, give yourself realistic goals for the amount of material you need by sketching out a plan for length. This helps to breakdown the task into manageable sections, and to focus your reading.

Access this YouTube video talking about 'Planning for length'

Writing an essay outline

Elena talks about the structure of her science essay

  • Video transcript

    Elena: Once we have the essay topic - I found it also at the beginning very hard to just start writing. So what I do is I just write down thoughts or some bullet points of what I think I want my essay to go into. What I want to discuss, what the topics I want to include are, maybe some details, some of my thoughts. So I write that down first and then I actually don't have a structure I don't start with the introduction or I don't start with the conclusion. I usually start with what I feel most comfortable. So I take one of those bullet points that I jotted down. I do further research into it. Well, this is because it's also scientific, so it's a bit different. So I do research into it. I write notes, and I continue writing notes on what I find, and I just put that all into the document. Then once I have that, I begin to structure it. So I do the structuring later so that I have all the information that I want to include already in the document. So I structure it. And then what we have in scientific essays that's really important is the abstract or something that resembles an abstract, where in the introduction you have to include a summary of what the essay is about and the conclusions also. So then I work on that so that I have something that clearly defines what my essay will be about. So I work on that, and then I go into the body and then into the conclusions. And as a scientific essay or scientific topic, we always appreciate further research - like a little section of further research. So I develop that into the conclusion. And yeah, slowly, slowly it takes time. Editing, re-editing, maybe even proofreading. Having someone to proofread your essay is also very important.
    And yeah, like a student mentor. In first year, I would always go to student mentors to discuss my essay, how I can Improve it, how like critical opinions are always appreciated and what I did good as well, both negative and positive feedback.

After you have planned for length, you can start your research.

Before you plan the content of your essay, you need to decide a clear position on the question (e.g. you disagree with the question's statement, or you have identified the main reason for the phenomenon mentioned in the question) and think about a line of argument (i.e. how are you going to persuade the reader that you are correct?) You should identify evidence to support your argument, and find at least one counter-argument.

Next comes the writing! But starting an essay can be daunting, because you may not know exactly what to write about and in what order.  So, an easier step is to create a outline. It will also help you to stay on track throughout the process.  

An essay outline is like the skeleton of your essay. You include the essential information, and can play around with the order until you are happy with it. This is the experimental phase of your writing. Don't worry about writing full sentences or including every reference. Correct spelling and grammar aren't important in this phase. It's only after the essay outline is complete that you can start writing full sentences. You won't need to worry about wondering what each paragraph will be about or where to add a particular reference - you've already decided all this in your essay outline. 

 Your essay outline can be more or less detailed depending on what helps you. Some things you could include in your outline are:

  • a word count for each section
  • your thesis statement (main overall argument) in the introduction
  • topic sentences describing the main idea of each main body paragraph
  • concluding sentences for each main body paragraph
  • citations and references.

Experiment with how much detail works for you in your plan. It is almost impossible to write well without planning something beforehand, but it is also easy to overplan as an excuse not to get writing!

Access this blank PDF Essay plan template: Structure of an essay.

Access this YouTube video talking about 'Planning for content'

Your essay outline may change as your reading broadens. This is normal.

Developing your argument

Imagine that you want to change the brand of coffee that you buy for you and your flatmates. By reading and researching, you have investigated the different options, and with critical thinking, chosen the one you want to switch to. You now decide to gather your flatmates together and persuade them that the coffee you want to get is better than the coffee you all currently drink.

Coffee cup


 “Stylised coffee mug” by freesvg.org is licensed under CC0.


Just like for a critical essay, in order to win them over you’ll need to develop your argument. It might be best to write down all of your the reasons for changing and deciding which ones are most likely to be persuasive:

  • there are both caffeinated and decaf varieties
  • the company has a carbon-offsetting scheme
  • I really like the flavour
  • it’s cheaper than the current choice
  • it reminds me of my holiday in Italy
  • it’s fair-trade.

You can probably cut out the personal reasons to persuade your flatmates because there isn’t any objective evidence for them. You are left with:

  • there are both caffeinated and decaf varieties
  • tthe company has a carbon-offsetting scheme
  • it’s cheaper than the current choice
  • it’s fair-trade.

Next, how are you going to group these points? Carbon-offsetting and fair-trade are both about sustainability, so your argument will be clearer if these two points are kept together.

  • there are both caffeinated and decaf varieties
  • the company has a carbon-offsetting scheme and the coffee is fair-trade
  • it’s cheaper than the current choice.


Now think about the order they should be in. Which one of your reasons packs the biggest punch? All of your flatmates want to save money, so this is probably the best reason to put first. Decaf coffee isn’t drunk very often in your flat, so this one can go last.

  1. it’s cheaper than the current choice
  2. the company has a carbon-offsetting scheme and the coffee is fair-trade
  3. there are both caffeinated and decaf varieties.


Your flatmates are going to want proof of what you say, so make sure you include evidence to back up each of your reasons for wanting to change coffee. 

  1. it’s cheaper than the current choice. Show them a receipt
  2. the company has a carbon-offsetting scheme and the coffee is fair-trade. Open up the company website
  3. there are both caffeinated and decaf varieties. Bring them some examples!


You’ve also found a counter-argument to swapping brands: Your coffee is only available in two shops in town. Let’s bring this up last of all since it isn’t really related to price, sustainability or varieties of coffee. To make sure your flatmates don’t agree with the counter-argument, you need to explain why it isn’t such a big problem. Put the counter argument at the end. 

  1. it’s cheaper than the current choice. Show them a receipt
  2. the company has a carbon-offsetting scheme and the coffee is fair-trade. Open up the company website
  3. there are both caffeinated and decaf varieties. Bring them some examples!
  4. the brand is only available in two shops in town. However, one shop is on the bus route back from campus and you are happy to pick some up when needed.

Of course, you’ll start and end explaining that you want to change coffee brands.

You might not succeed in convincing your flatmates to switch what they put in their lattes, but you have succeeded in developing an argument. The process is the same for developing an argument in an essay, but with a bigger word count and more complex topics!


Complete the checklist to make sure you have done everything you can to develop the best argument possible.

  • I’ve decided on my position
  • I have a number of reasons for my position
  • I’ve selected the reasons that are most persuasive and I have evidence for
  • I’ve put the reasons into groups that are connected in some way
  • I’ve ordered the reasons/groups of reasons, putting the strongest ones first
  • I’ve attached my evidence to each reason
  • I’ve thought of some counter-arguments to my position and I have included their weaknesses in my essay.


Access this excellent YouTube video on 'How do I develop an argument?'

For extra resources, look at Making an Argument.


Students are often concerned about being original in their argument. “How can I have anything new to say about my subject?” This is not something to worry about. You are not expected to come up with an argument that no one else has thought of. When you think critically and develop a good argument which is well-researched with strong evidence, your work becomes original, even if your position is the same as many other thinkers.

Main Body Paragraphs

If your essay is a sandwich, and the introduction and conclusion are the slices of bread at the top and the bottom, then your main body paragraphs are the filling. This is where you will put the main flavour to your essay – the arguments, the details, the evidence, the examples etc. Get this right and the rest of your essay becomes much easier to write.

Remember that for each main idea, you need a new paragraph, for example one effect of a situation; one reason why you agree with the question; one event in a timeline. Putting all the reasons why you agree with the question in one paragraph is too confusing for the reader, and will probably be a very long paragraph. Likewise, splitting paragraphs by the different sources that you have found (e.g. Paragraph 1: source 1 says this...., Paragraph 2: source 2 says this....) is also not a good idea if both sources are talking about the same concepts. It's better to put each of the concepts that they both discuss in individual paragraphs, showing the reader that you have synthesised their opinions.

The structure of a paragraph

Paragraphs tend to follow a general structure. You can adapt it to your needs but always keep in mind the main shape:

  • start with a topic sentence, which tells the reader the main idea of the paragraph. This main idea should of course fit with your argument
  • next, you can give more detail on the main point. What does it mean? What are the ins and outs? What are the reasons for it? What are its implications? Why is it important? What examples are there?
  • you need to include sources (usually more than one) to back up your main point, or the details of the main point.
  • a good way to include sources - especially in science-based essays - is to use the fact:citation sentence pattern. This is a paraphrased fact, followed by the citation of the source. Keeping to this sentence pattern makes it easy for the reader to follow your argument and not get distracted by your referencing. 
  • avoid starting or ending paragraphs with a reference.
  • to round off, write a concluding sentence which summarises the paragraph or links to the question or the next paragraph.

You may also find this structure called the PEEL model of paragraph writing.

Let's look at an example of a paragraph:

  • If we break it down into parts, we can see it more clearly:
    Paragraph sectionExampleEffect
    Topic Sentence With the British election of 2005, there is consensus that the Iraq War cost the Labour party votes, partly by diminishing perceptions of Blair’s character. The reader understands that this paragraph will explain the negative effects of the Iraq War on the Labour Party votes, focusing particularly the perceptions of Blair’s character.
    Details Tony Blair did not enjoy the same level of unity within his own party as Bush. A detail about the negative effects on Blair of the war.
    Example Cabinet member and former foreign secretary Robin Cook resigned, along with two less prominent members of the government. An example of a negative effect of the war on the internal politics of the Labour party. This effect is more serious than the next one, so goes first.
    Example Moreover, the House of Commons vote witnessed the largest rebellion among the backbenchers of a majority party since the repeal of the Corn Laws in the mid-19th century. Another example of a negative effect of the war on the Labour party inner workings, so is immediately afterwards. Important to include in the essay, but less significant than the previous, so it goes second.
    Example Just 56% of the British public backed the war in Iraq when it began, even with a rally effect. Another example of the effects of the war. The writer feels the public view is less relevant to the main point than the issues within the Labour party, so this goes third.
    Link (plus source) In addition, the British media questioned the justification for the war (Goddard, Robinson and Parry 2008). A final example to back up the main point that Blair’s character was damaged by the Iraq War. This sentence includes a source for the assertion and is in fact a link to the next paragraph which discusses the media response to the war.
Students often try to include many ideas per paragraph. You should stick to one for each paragraph, and it should be developed and supported with evidence.

Using Evidence

The quality of evidence you have in your essay depends on how well you’ve done your reading and note-making. How well you present the evidence depends on the quality of your plan.
In each main body paragraph, you have a main point, and further details you want to address. Select relevant evidence from your notes during the planning stage so that you know which evidence belongs to which point, and weave it into the paragraph to support your argument.
It can be very tempting to include material that isn't relevant because you’ve worked hard to collect it and it's interesting. However, if it doesn't fit with your argument, leave it out.

Synthesising evidence

In order to develop an argument, you have to consult and refer to a variety of different views. This shows the reader that you have read widely, and you have presented a balanced, non-biased argument. It’s very likely that you'll need to use more than one source per paragraph in order for your argument to develop. Putting these different sources together, or synthesising them, is an important academic skill. It can show that there are multiple people with the same view on a topic, or can help highlight the nuances between different schools of thought.


Read this example of a main body paragraph using synthesis of two sources:

The first topic sentence tells us that the paragraph will look at fabrication being a part of psychotic behaviour, and the second sentence gives more detail on this. The third and fourth sentences synthesise what Elphick and Mitchell write, since both have similar opinions. Note the synthesising language:

  • and this viewpoint is also found in
  • both Elphick and Mitchell see fabrication as
  • albeit to varying degrees (This phrase acknowledges that there are some differences between Elphick’s and Mitchell’s work).

There are many more phrases that can be used to synthesise different sources! Keep an eye out for them when you are reading and note down useful ones.

Refuting Counter-arguments

Including counter-arguments in your essay shows that you have considered views that contradict ones which you have presented but have decided that they are not strong enough to sway your opinion. Using the synthesis table above, include a main idea that does not agree with your thesis and find some sources for it. Using your critical thinking skills, make sure to demonstrate why these main ideas are incorrect or refute them

Some counter-arguments may disagree with a small detail of a paragraph. In this case, it is fine to include them as one or two sentences towards the end of a paragraph. Other counter-arguments may disagree with a main point, or an entire section of your essay. If so, they deserve a paragraph or more dedicated to them. Read this example of a paragraph addressing and then refuting a main counter-argument.

This section of the essay is in support of Kernohan’s theories, but it would lose marks if the student did not mention some opponents of Kernohan. The topic sentence makes clear that this paragraph will introduce some counter-arguments, with more details in the second half of the sentence. Bayliss’ position is summarised, and then the rest of the paragraph explores the weaknesses of Bayliss’ argument.

Note the specifical language for refutation:

  • however, Bayliss’s research did not take into account
  • while it is true that (This is a concession that Kernohan’s work is not perfect, but the student then shows why this is not a big problem).

Like synthesis, there are many more phrases that can be used to refute counter-arguments, and you can collect them while you are reading. Look at this Academic Phrasebank for some great examples.

Writing Introductions, Conclusions and Discussions

While you are reading, pay attention to how the introductions and conclusions/discussions that you come across are written. Are the introductions similar to each other? Does each conclusion/discussion have a comparable structure?

Introductions should:

  • introduce your topic, giving some background information such as a brief history or the current context
  • explain how you have understood the question, in particular any terms that may have multiple interpretations
  • include your position - your thesis statement. For example, do you agree or disagree with the essay title topic?
  • list the issues you are going to discuss. Why are these the important ones? List them in the same order they appear in your essay
  • be roughly 10% of your word count.


Triangle pointing down with text. Read text version below

  • Downward triangle (text version)

    A triangle is overlaid in text going down the triangle to signify the scope, starting wide at the top and becoming narrower at the bottom, we have:

    1) the background, history/context

    2) definition of terms

    3) the specifics of the topic in question

    4) a thesis statement and position

The best introductions start general and then become more specific.

Conclusions/Discussions should:

  • restate your position
  • summarise your main points
  • make it clear why your conclusions are important or significant
  • include a strong closing statement. This could be a prediction for the future, reference to further research, or a suggestion for a way forward
  • be roughly 10% of your word count.

Triangle pointing down with text. Read text version below

  • Upward triangle (text version)

    A triangle is overlaid in text going down the triangle to signify the scope, starting at the pointed top and becoming wider at the bottom, we have:

    1) restate position

    2) summarise main points

    3) strong closing statemnet


The conclusion of an essay should have no new material. Do not use any citations, and don’t include details that you have already presented. Summarise the information instead.
Other topics in this section relating to Writing and assessments:

Critical essay writing (this page) | Reflective writing | Reports | Dissertations | Academic writing style, editing and proof-reading | Feedback