Writing the essay

Remember that basic research is only the first stage of essay work; the most important part comes when you put your notes into some sort of order, think about the question, and write the essay. Always try to allow enough time to do this properly. Finish the basic research at least a week before the essay is due. Allow yourself enough time to write more than one draft, to check points that arise in the course of writing, and to polish your final draft.

To get your argument clear in your mind and to avoid unconscious plagiarism (see the important section under this heading below), it is sometimes useful first to jot down the main points you wish to cover; second, to write up a detailed plan divided into two, three or four main sections with the main points listed for each section; and third, to write as full a brief draft as you can without any reference to your notes. This can then be developed, filled out and modified into the complete essay, incorporating your evidence.

Writing well

We are often asked if expression 'will count'. The answer is that a good argument is necessarily one that you express with clarity and forcefulness. For the reader, your writing is your thought. Essays should observe normal standards of written English. Good writing requires correct spelling and the correct use of words. Use a dictionary frequently to check spelling, meaning and usage. Strive for simplicity and clarity above all.

A short and very useful guide that will improve anyone's prose is William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style, third edition (Macmillan, New York, 1979). If you do not understand the need for clear expression of your ideas, read George Orwell's essay, 'Politics and the English Language', which may be found in Orwell, Inside the Whale and Other Essays (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1962.). The final authority on style is H.W. Fowler, The New Fowler's Modern English Usage, third revised edition by R.W. Burchfield (Oxford University Press, 1968). Fowler is an indispensable aid to serious writing. Virtually every word that may be misused has an entry. There are as well many general entries for principles of grammar and usage.

Here are some basic principles of expression:

  • The basic unit of expression is the sentence, and every sentence must have a verb
  • Use paragraphs to strengthen your argument. A paragraph is the statement, development and proof of an idea and its ramifications. Check each paragraph to see that it stands on its own two feet
  • State your ideas forcefully and positively; make definite assertions
  • Use the shorter and stronger word in preference to the longer and weaker, the concrete in preference to the abstract, and verbs and verb phrases in preference to prepositional phrases and nouns. (A preposition is a short word, such as at, on, by, to, with, since, or near, used with a noun to express a space or time relation. 'Because of the determinative role played by the intention of the accused in the charge of collaboration' could be rephrased 'Because intention determined the charge of collaboration')
  • Avoid the passive voice ('the move was opposed'). Of course it has its uses, but in nine cases out of ten you are hiding behind it. If you use the active voice ('X opposed the move'), you will tell us who opposed it and thus use fewer words to give more information
  • Avoid mixed or confused metaphors, like 'from this hope she draws her breath', and tired metaphors, such as 'pregnant with meaning'. A metaphor is supposed to render your thought more concrete; if you can't see the image or if it is contradictory, do not use it
  • Avoid splitting infinitives unless you have a particular reason for doing so
  • Avoid mixed or confusing changes of tense. Past tense is usually the most appropriate in a history essay

Guides to essay writing

In addition to a style manual, we recommend that you purchase, read, and consult regularly a good essay writing guide. Here is a list of useful guides you can obtain at the University Library or many bookshops.

  • Anderson, Jonathan, and Millicent Poole. Thesis and Assignment Writing. 2nd ed. Brisbane: John Wiley & Sons, 1994.
    A sound, basic guide recommended by Academic Skills
  • Barzun, Jacques, and Henry F. Graff. The Modern Researcher. 5th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1992.
    A classic and easy-to-read guide to the research and writing of historical work which also deals with more sophisticated questions of historical writing
  • Bate, Douglas, and Peter Sharpe. Writer's Handbook for University Students. Sydney: Harcourt Brace, 1996.
    A sound, basic guide recommended by Academic Skills
  • Campbell, William Giles, Stephen Vaughan Ballou, and Carole Slade. Form and Style: theses, reports, term papers. 8th ed, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1990
  • Clanchy, John, and Brigid Ballard. Essay Writing for Students: a practical guide. 2nd ed. Melbourne: Longman Cheshire, 1991.
    An excellent guide using Australian style; recommended by Academic Skills
  • Marius, Richard. A Short Guide to Writing about History, 2nd revised ed. New York: Harper Collins, 1994. We recommend this for ideas on writing history
  • Seyler, Dorothy U. Doing Research: the complete research paper guide. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993
  • Taylor, Gordon. The Student's Writing Guide for the Arts and Social Sciences. Cambridge and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1989. A good guide using Cambridge style

Academic Skills is the part of the University which provides advice and guidance to students in writing and studying. It offers brochures and workshops as well as individual counselling. Make use of this resource to improve your essay writing.