There are no absolutely precise rules governing what makes a ‘first class’ essay at undergraduate level, and obviously you are expected to improve this skill as you progress through your degree. Nevertheless there are certain criteria that distinguish good essays from weak ones. Of the factors listed below, planning and presentation are a necessary feature of all written work but it is what you achieve in relation to relevance, substance and argument which will affect your grade the most. Students should note that although all of the factors below are important in all essays, the significance of the criteria may vary from essay to essay, depending on the nature of the question.
You must avoid plagiarism, which is the reproduction without acknowledgement of the whole or part of the work of another author. Advice on avoiding plagiarism and suggestions for good practice may be found here.
References are an integral part of an essay and allow you to show your intellectual debts. You should include references systematically, to indicate the sources of the arguments and evidence presented in your work. Give references as a matter of course for all quotations, but also for any important points or arguments that are based on your reading.
Most subject areas in SPS prefer the Harvard system, but check your course handbook or look in Learn for details of the appropriate referencing style to use. (there can be exceptions, e.g. Canadian Studies). You can also look at the University’s referencing guidance or try out Cite Them Right, an online referencing tool.
An essay will normally be followed either by a list of References Cited, or a Bibliography. References Cited designates a complete list, in alphabetical order, of only those sources cited in the essay. A Bibliography, again alphabetical, will normally include both works cited and any other works you have used in preparing your essay. You may want to check with course organisers about which (if either) is preferred.
Avoid prejudicial language. You should avoid such overtly sexist terms as the use of ‘man’ or ‘he’ when you mean to include both sexes. Alternatives are available, such as ‘people’ for ‘man’ and ‘s/he’ or ‘they’ instead of ‘he’. In general you should be sensitive to the assumptions embedded in language. For example, unqualified reference to ‘white’ and ‘black’ people may reflect unwarranted assumptions about the homogeneity of very diverse populations. Talk of ‘the poor’ or ‘the unemployed’ ignores the flows of people into and out of poverty or unemployment. Be careful not to pigeon-hole people into categories such as ‘the disabled’ or ‘the elderly’. Try to avoid expressions which may be patronising or offensive.
Spelling and Grammar
Pay attention to spelling and grammar. Poor spelling creates an unfavourable impression and bad grammar may make it difficult for the reader to understand your arguments. Accuracy and clarity are important aspects of effective communication and you should take steps to recognise and remedy any problems you have with spelling and grammar. If you have (or suspect you have) a particular difficulty, such as dyslexia, make sure you draw this to the attention of your Director of Studies as soon as possible, so that due allowance can be made. You can also seek advice and support from the Disability Office.
What makes a good essay? Points to bear in mind:
All essays should be researched and planned in advance.
- Work out what you want to say and how you want to say it before the essay is written. Bad essays tend to be written at the last minute, on the basis of inadequate research and with no forethought about structure and argument.
Does the essay answer the question?
- A good essay answers the question fully and concisely. All discussion in a good essay is relevant to the question. Bad essays answer the question not at all or only partially, and/or include a lot of irrelevant material.
- Make sure you understand and focus on the topic set.
- Think about the question, and how to answer it.
- When planning, writing and reviewing your essay, check the relevance of the material you want to use.
- Try to plan out what you want to say, and leave time for editing and if necessary redrafting.
Knowledge and Sources
Is the essay based on relevant reading?
A good essay displays a knowledge of relevant material gained from a variety of sources. This will include knowledge of both empirical facts (where appropriate) and the debates about them in the reading. There is a difference, however, between knowing facts and using them to help make an argument. Carefully select only those facts which back up and challenge your argument and then weigh them up. Bad essays include little and/or misleading material, are based purely on one source, or consist of a mass of factual material without any analysis.
- Demonstrate that you have read and understood the material relevant to the subject.
- Don’t be intimidated by the literature. Authors often disagree – and they can’t all be right! Authors also make mistakes. Be critical, but respectful.
- Remember that the essay is an opportunity to express an informed opinion – yours!
Are different views discussed in a detached way?
- Try to identify and understand different points of view. Do not present only one side of an argument.
- Have respect for positions you do not agree with.
- Do not prejudge issues.
- Be prepared to alter or modify your opinions.
- Aim to assess the strengths and weaknesses of arguments in the literature.
Argument and Evaluation
Are ideas and evidence argued clearly and evaluated critically? All essays should be clearly structured. A good introduction shows that you understand the context and significance of the question to be addressed, and helps the reader by explaining how you will answer it. Each paragraph which follows should be coherent in itself and in relation to others: pay particular attention to the first sentence of a paragraph. Your conclusion should be consistent with the material and argument you present. The best essays involve both clear and independent thinking (i.e., signs that you can weigh up evidence and think through and assess arguments for yourself). Bad essays are either purely descriptive (lists of facts, accounts of debates) or pure personal opinion (merely saying what you think with no supporting evidence or argument).
- Read actively from the start.
- Engage in a dialogue with your reading, rather than leaving the thinking until afterwards.
- Try to develop and express your own ideas.
- Look out for key evidence you can use to support or refute arguments.
- Use evidence judiciously but show all sides.
- Comment on key points and explain how you interpret the evidence and its implications.
Is the essay legible, logical, grammatical and fluent?
- Be clear and concise. Avoid jargon. Keep within the prescribed length.
- Write clearly and simply. Avoid using language which is either colloquial or grandiose.
- Identify key ideas and arguments, and construct your essay around them.
- Write your essay with an introduction, a middle and a conclusion.
- Set out the issues you discuss, and how the discussion is structured.
- Sum up the main points at the end.
- Use separate sections and sub-headings where appropriate.
- Make sure your discussion flows. Try reading your work aloud to make sure it makes sense.
- Check for spelling and grammar, and don't just rely on an automatic spell-check.
Are sources cited correctly and fully?
- Always give sources for the evidence and arguments you present.
- Use the system of referencing recommended above and always include a full bibliography (or references cited).
The University's Centre for Teaching, Learning and Assessment (DHFE Paterson’s Land, Holyrood Road: 651 6661) runs lunchtime sessions in study skills in the first semester. These cover note-taking, essay-writing, tutorial work and preparing for exams, as well as other more general problems. For details, check the notice-boards or get in touch with the Centre. Full information on the lunch-time study skills sessions and other resources for study and learning may also be found via the TLA website at http://www.tla.ed.ac.uk/services/effect-learn/advice.htm