Essay writing

An essay will not write itself. You need to research relevant materials in depth and base your essay on the research. This takes time, so start your research early. Plan your work and identify clear and attainable goals for each writing session.

For a complete guide to the submission guidelines for the department (including the house style for bibliographic references, etc.) see the section on Submission Guidelines.

Preparing it

The question itself

  • What is the question asking you to do?
  • How is the question phrased?
  • What are the implications of the question?
  • What ideas lie behind the framing of the question?

Getting to grips with the question

  • Put your initial responses to the question on paper
  • Try to sort these responses into a clear, logical pattern
  • Keep reminding yourself at this stage of the basic question/problem involved
  • You may find that a diagrammatic structure (a 'tree diagram', or 'stemma') will help
  • Do oppositions (such as for/against; before/after; cause/effect; hypothesis/evidence) help to frame your answer?
  • What evidence supports your argument?
  • What evidence contradicts your argument?

Now you are in a position to begin the research that will enable you to complete the task. You may find it helpful to work through the following stages while you are doing your reading/note taking:


  • Know your libraries and learning centres well
  • Be familiar with the University Library online catalogue (Aleph)
  • Make use of the University Library staff
  • Make use of bibliographies in Unit Booklets
  • Start by investigating the most recent sources
  • Start with general sources, work towards the specialist and detailed sources
  • Be selective about what you 'read' (it is sometimes useful to ask yourself what is the intended readership of a particular book)

Note taking:

  • Be systematic and methodical, good work habits are essential
  • Use a separate page for notes on each section, concept, topic
  • Carefully note the full reference for any quotation, book, article, example that you note (including the page numbers)
  • Structure your notes in a usable way: go over the notes you made in class and structure these, including diagrams if these are helpful to you (remember that a clear diagram can sometimes convey material more vitally than reams of text)
  • File your notes carefully and methodically for easy retrieval

Drafting it

Make a draft plan (outline) of the essay

  • Roughly itemise the projected contents
  • Attempt to organise these into a common-sense structure
  • A diagram may be useful here: group similar themes together (perhaps showing relationships as a 'family tree')
  • Consider the difference between 'similar themes' and those ideas that don't fit easily into your diagram: why don't they fit?
  • Consider the sequence of your argument
  • You may be able to plan your paragraph structure at this stage
  • Plan to work from the general towards the specific

Write a draft version, based on the plan

  • Remember that several drafts may be needed before you achieve your goal - NEVER HAND IN YOUR FIRST DRAFT!
  • If working on paper at first, you may find it useful to start each section on a separate page
  • When redrafting, ask yourself why this is necessary; what added value you are attempting to gain; whether your revision achieves this
  • Don't spend too much time on revising just a single issue; if things are not working out well, address a different issue instead, and then return to the first one; take frequent breaks
  • Amend text as you go along, but if working on computer, do not necessarily delete all previous drafts (store as separately-titled files, or in a different font for ease of recognition)

Writing it

Essays typically do the following kinds of things

  • Analyse: consider existing opinions; describe ideas and their inter-relationship; understand the foundations of their arguments
  • Compare: examine similarities and differences between ideas and interpretations
  • Define: give clear statements of fact, using terminology correctly and appropriately
  • Discuss: describe different aspects of the subject; relate particular examples to the bigger picture; show how certain elements are related, and others not; develop ideas in relation to underlying premises, evidence, interpretations; work towards a reasoned conclusion
  • Evaluate: examine different sides of the question objectively; appreciate the distinction between different aspects of the subject and between existing scholarly interpretations; appreciate the difference between facts, interpretations, opinions
  • Synthesise: present a concise and accurate overview of a topic based on examination of a range of evidence; draw together different strands of argument and/or interpretation convincingly
  • Summarise: outline the main points briefly (either as the essay proceeds, for the sake of clarity in a complex argument), or retrospectively at the end

Essays normally have three main parts:

  • Introduction, stating your proposed approach to the question; your understanding of the question; how you conceive of the problem, or issues involved; any important premises the reader will need to bear in mind; the content you intend to cover.
  • Main body, presenting your argument in a clear and logical manner, divided into a succession of paragraphs, each one containing a theme or topic, backed up by supporting statements, evidence, interpretations (including, where necessary, an evaluation of competing interpretations), examples and analysis, as appropriate to the topic in hand. The main body might usefully be subdivided into three parts: Thesis; Antithesis; Synthesis.
  • Conclusion, stating what the essay has accomplished; demonstrating the significance of your findings; rounding-off your analysis of the evidence presented; providing effective closure to the study. In an 'argumentative' essay, it may be helpful to conclude with a restatement, in summary, of the principal pros and cons, and the outcome(s).

Framing the introduction, conclusion, summary

  • how does your introduction relate to the rest of your essay?
  • does the introduction explain your approach?

If your essay attempts to achieve specific goals set out in the introduction, then

  • does the conclusion refer back to that introduction?
  • does it actually state what has been achieved in relation to the introduction?
  • is the conclusion strong enough?
  • can the conclusion realistically claim that, as a consequence of the investigations made in the essay, x...y...z have been shown to be true? untrue? valid? invalid? impossible to decide with certainty? variable over time? further developed? cast in an entirely new light?
  • avoid sweeping statements and over-generalisations in either introduction or conclusion

In some cases, you may find it helpful (particularly if the essay has dealt with a succession of complex issues) to conclude with a brief summary, or abstract. Useful models to follow are abstracts found at the end of articles in scholarly literature such as the Journal of the American Musicological Society and the Journal of the Royal Musical Association.

The main body

  • is the essay clearly divided into paragraphs (signalled by a blank line or an indented opening)?
  • does each paragraph contain only one main idea (but also have a clear beginning, middle and end)?
  • are your ideas clearly expressed and justified by examples?
  • are your ideas logically structured in a clearly unfolding sequence?
  • does each paragraph link with preceding or subsequent content?

Essay Checklist

Before printing-out the final version of your essay, check the following:

  • does it answer the question?
  • is everything you have written relevant to the question?
  • have you proof-read it thoroughly? (preferably, take yet another look through it now; read it out aloud to yourself)
  • make use of the spell-checker on your computer (N.B. beware of US-default spellings)
  • check your grammar and punctuation carefully (N.B. A computer grammar-checker is seldom able to cope with good formal prose)
  • are any musical examples and/or quotations you have made clearly related to your main argument?
  • have you included footnote citations for all quotations or other references used?
  • does your bibliography contain all the items referred to in your footnotes?
  • read your work through one more time thoroughly and check that you understand it yourself
  • finally - make a copy! Preferably, store your essay on two separate media, and keep them safe in case of emergency.

NB. you should include other writers' ideas and arguments, but you must acknowledge your sources, otherwise you risk being guilty of plagiarism.

Finally, read through your text and make sure you understand what you have written. If you can't understand it, how do you expect the examiners to do so?

A note on Academic Writing

The style of Academic Writing is much more careful and considered than the casual style of everyday writing (eg. in letters or emails). In particular, this is an idiom far removed from the spontaneity and colloquialism of everyday speech. A high standard of grammar is expected throughout, this being strictly necessary in order to present ideas and interrelated concepts (which are sometimes very complex) thoroughly and logically. Sentences are complete, including subject, object and verb; infinitives are not split; prepositions are not left hanging at the ends of clauses; possessives have apostrophes (except for its, which does not; note the difference between this word in possessive use, and the contraction, it's, meaning 'it is'). If you avoid contractions (it's, don't, isn't, won't etc.) you will know that "it's" is always wrong (because you will only ever write either 'its' or 'it is'). These are but a few of the subtleties that need to be observed in academic writing. While the list of features below is useful as a basic guide, it cannot claim to cover every eventuality. By far the best way to gain mastery of the academic style is to examine closely the scholarly writing recommended in Unit Bibliographies and use it as a model for your own prose style. Note that you will be penalised for written work that is of poor grammatical quality.

Academic writing tends to:

  • distinguish carefully and consistently between facts and opinions
  • avoid sweeping statements
  • take a constructively critical stance towards existing scholarship (ie. is sceptical, open to doubt, aware of alternative evidence and interpretations, aware of the provisional nature of scholarship and of its potential to be nuanced over time)
  • contain detailed references to existing scholarship, noting precisely in footnotes the sources of its evidence, ideas and interpretations
  • be objective rather than emotional (avoid 'I feel' or adjectives of disapproval or approbation)
  • be written in the third person singular rather than in the first person, and often in the passive voice (eg. 'it is possible to argue that...', rather than 'I think that...')
  • have a logical sequence and structure
  • be precise and accurate, defining terms carefully
  • make its claims cautiously, rather than provocatively, directly or boldly
  • make clear and careful links between ideas, evidence and interpretations

Developing Arguments

Academic writing is only partially concerned with reporting facts carefully and accurately (and with fully documenting their origins). Perhaps its most important quality is 'developmental'. Scholarship develops over time because researchers revisit existing scholarship, subjecting it (and its origins) to critical examination. Evidence is assessed, and interpretations offered. Therefore, you will need to cultivate a technique of writing that enables you not only (i) to state ideas clearly, but also (ii) to develop extended arguments in order that you can present your interpretations of factual evidence in a convincing manner. The list below is not necessarily comprehensive, nor will all of the features listed necessarily be present as an essential aspect of each and every essay that you write. It is intended as a guide.

Positive characteristics to include:

  • Explain your premises and assumptions
  • Outline the structure of your argument in advance
  • Work through the stages of your argument step-by-step to a logical conclusion
  • Link your ideas together in a sensible and recognisable hierarchy
  • Be consistent (this is important)
  • Illustrate your arguments with examples
  • Demonstrate why a particular quotation or example is significant
  • Carefully distinguish between fact and opinion
  • Acknowledge alternatives

Negative characteristics to avoid:

  • Basic premises and assumptions not explained
  • Sequence of ideas unclear or illogical
  • Later ideas have no relationship with previous statements
  • Contradictions between statements of fact or interpretation
  • Ideas introduced without explanation or context
  • Quotation or example introduced without connection to the surrounding context
  • Opinions used as facts without any critical comment
  • Alternative views or explanations ignored