I taught English literature to undergraduates for just over five years, and I was often asked for advice on how to write an essay. Whenever an essay deadline approached, I’d share with my students the text below.
These notes are intended to offer some guidance about how write an essay, how to avoid common grammatical errors, and how to ensure that your written expression is precise.
Many of these points are cribbed from Strunk and White‘s guide to style, a text that remains hotly debated. Though its insistence on grammatical rules might now seem dated, the book always encourages me to pause and reflect on my phrasing and word choice, even when I choose not to follow its orders.
Some context: the notes below were written in an English context, for undergraduates working in the humanities, but hopefully they can help students in most fields to learn how to write an essay.
Remember that rules are made to be broken. (That’s a cliché. Avoid clichés.)
How to write an essay: Signposting
State in your opening paragraph what your argument will be. Explain how you understand any particularly loaded terms in your title or question. Indicate the direction in which your essay will move.
In subsequent paragraphs, signpost the reader through your essay: remind them of where you are, and where you will go to next. Use the active voice and first person singular pronouns (‘I’, ‘my’, etc.)*.
Active and Passive Phrasing
Active phrase: Someone does something.
Passive phrase: Something is done to something else.
Generally, and certainly when stating what you will do or are doing in your essay (i.e. signposting), you should aim to use active phrasing. Active phrasing tends to be more concise and precise.
So don’t say: ‘Symbolism is used by Eliot in ‘The Waste Land’…’
Say instead: ‘Eliot uses symbolism in ‘The Waste Land’…’
Similarly, avoid the following types of expression:
‘It can be argued that…’ (Passive. You need to make that argument now)
‘Arguably…’ (Sounds unsure)
‘Linear narrative has been identified as a characteristic of the realist novel’ (By whom? Attribute critics’ argument to them, or engage with critical consensus, ‘Linear narrative is a characteristic of the realist novel’).
‘…the novel becomes almost tragic’ (Why only almost? Be assertive)
-Ing Verbs and Dangling Modifiers
‘Walking into the classroom, I saw the students.’
In the example above, ‘walking’ has no clear subject — that is, no clear person who is doing the walking. It might be that the ‘I’ walks into the room and then sees the students, or it might be that the ‘I’ sees the students as they walk into the room.
Similarly, in the examples below, the ‘-ing’ verbs have no clear subject. Such examples are known as dangling modifiers. A subject needs to be added.
Don’t say: ‘I will identify how Eliot portrays post-war London as a waste land, focussing on the monotony of bourgeois life’.
Do say: ‘I will identify how Eliot portrays post-war London as a waste land and how he focuses on the monotony of bourgeois life’. (Other variations are possible).
Don’t say: ‘Lawrence uses pathetic fallacy, expressing the connection between the landscape and the characters’ moods.’
Do say: ‘Lawrence uses pathetic fallacy [to express/, which expresses] the connection between the landscape and the characters’ moods.’
‘This’ at the Start of Sentences
Try to avoid beginning sentences with an isolated ‘This’. The reader might not recognise to what the ‘This’ refers. Be specific about what the ‘This’ indicates.
Don’t say: ‘So-and-so uses such-and-such in the text. This shows something-or-other.’
Do say: ‘So-and-so uses such-and-such in the text. This technique shows something-or-other.’
‘Hence’ and ‘Therefore’
‘Hence’ and ‘Therefore’ can be very awkward at the start of a sentence. It is generally better use them in the middle of a sentence, to demonstrate a causal relationship between the preceding idea and the following one.
This isn’t A-Level: don’t rely on ‘Therefore’, ‘Hence’, ‘Moreover’, ‘In contrast’, ‘Similarly’, ‘Furthermore’, etc.
‘As’ and ‘Because’
Remember that ‘as’ and ‘because’ do not always mean the same thing. To be safe, use ‘as’ to represent time, and ‘because’ to represent causation.
‘Within’ and ‘In’
Generally, things like plots and stylistic techniques happen in (not within) a text. Things tend to happen within boundaries: within a certain length of time; within a city’s limits; etc.
Don’t say: ‘Within Mrs Dalloway, Woolf does such-and-such.’
Do say: ‘In Mrs Dalloway, Woolf does such-and-such.’
Possessive apostrophe: when something is possessed by someone or by something else.
Jack’s house, uncle’s car, a good day’s work, the company’s policy.
Plural nouns that do not end with ‘s’ are treated as below.
Men’s trousers, children’s toys, mice’s tails, people’s charter.
Singular nouns that end with ‘s’ have ‘ ’s ’ added to them.
The boss’s temper, Thomas’s illness, the mistress’s house.
Plural nouns that end with ‘s’ have only the apostrophe added to them.
Her parents’ caravan, the members’ clubhouse, the girls’ futures.
Contraction apostrophe: to make a contraction of two words.
Aren’t (are not), isn’t (is not), she’ll (she will), weren’t (were not).
Generally, contractions are too informal for essay-writing — best to avoid them. You do, however, need to remember that the possessive form of ‘it’ is ‘its’, and that ‘it’s’ is a contraction of ‘it is’. Remember also that ‘who’s’ is a contraction; the possessive form is ‘whose’.
Do not simply drop (or ‘parachute’) a quotation into the middle of a paragraph or sentence. Quotations need to be introduced, usually with the author’s name and perhaps with some context. Often, you can introduce a quotation as simply as: ‘So-and-so writes, …’.
You may choose—if it is very obvious from where the quotation you are using comes—to introduce it with a colon. Use colons to move from an argument to evidence for that argument. If you do move from a statement to a quotation with a colon, be sure to end the sentence after the quotation.
The first time you mention an author or a critic, use their full name; thereafter, use just their surname.
Titles of novels and collections of poetry should be italicised, but not in inverted commas; titles of poems and essays should not be italicised, but should be in inverted commas.
Choose a style and stick to it. I have no preference which style you choose; guides for each can be found online. Don’t italicise quotations. The best way to check your referencing style is to compare it to a book or article that uses the same.
Finally, serif fonts (Times New Roman, Garamond, Bell MT) tend to look more elegant than sans serif fonts (arial).
Essays submitted in Comic Sans will be destroyed.
So, now you know how to write an essay. Frustrating as it can be, it’s worth continuing to improve your written style — it’ll be useful in later life. I’ve made a career of it…
*You might want to check this with your tutor, especially if you’re a GCSE or A-Level student.