1. An essay should

  1. answer the question set, concentrating on it and seeking to justify any (apparent) digression by reference to it.
  2. present a clear argument, working from premises via evidence to conclusion:  where appropriate the case both for and against should be outlined.
  3. define the terms of the question as clearly as possible, so that any conclusion can be compared with the terms in which the problem is set

2. Practical points

  1. For essays referring to particular literary or other textual sources, the answer should concentrate primarily on the relevant text(s), using it (them) as the chief source of argument and illustration.
  2. You may, and often should, make reference to a wider context (biographical or historical), while keeping the question firmly in focus.
  3. Write with a certain kind of reader in mind:  a person with an intelligent interest in the subject, but little or no specialised knowledge.
  4. Quotations should advance the argument, illustrate a worthwhile point, or focus attention on an important detail (e.g., a phrase or sentence which has given rise to controversy and conflicting interpretations).  Set texts should be quoted in the original language.  Direct quotations from secondary sources may be left in the original language where this is either English or the language of the department which has set the essay.  Do not quote for the sake of it.
  5. Quotations, in whichever language, must always be properly integrated into the text of the essay.  Where they do not stand alone, they should harmonise with the syntax of the surrounding sentence, as well as being themselves grammatically correct.
  6. Quotations from the text should be given with adequate page, line, scene etc. references, so that they can be quickly checked by any reader.  Quotations or derivations from secondary literature or other secondary sources must be fully ascribed, with author/editor, title, edition (year) and page number.  Any form of plagiarism will be severely penalised.  (See our separate advice on plagiarism.)
  7. Footnotes may be used to clarify a point, give further examples or details in brief, or suggest comparisons.  But if these elements are really important they should be part of your main text.  Otherwise, footnotes may be used to provide references for the source of quotations, ideas, etc.
  8. A bibliography should be given at the end of the essay, listing the texts used and the secondary literature consulted.  This in itself will not meet the requirements of avoiding plagiarism.

         See also ‘Layout and Presentation’ below for details of how to present footnotes, bibliographies and quotes.

3. Suggestions for writing an essay

  1. Make notes about the text(s) with the essay question in mind.
  2. Think, jotting down points, but without a particular order:  in this way fresh ideas and new connections may come to light.
  3. Write an essay plan or several plans, making sure that it is answering the question set, and is using an appropriate method.  This is the most important phase.  It is easy at this stage to spot a flaw and remedy it.  Once launched on writing an essay, a time-consuming and anxious task, it is very much harder to make adjustments to your plan, and well-nigh impossible to scrap what you have written so far and make a fresh start.
  4. Read through your essay afterwards, correcting any obvious errors (spelling, etc).  Grammatical accuracy in both English and your languages of study is an essential requirement.

4. What NOT to do

5. Layout and presentation

The following guidelines refer to most disciplines (literary, historical) taught in the School, but some disciplines – notably linguistics – have their own conventions. Where conventions other than those outlined below are required, unit directors will inform you in advance. If in doubt, take the presentation style of footnotes and bibliography in a modern academic source on a comparable topic published in the UK (for essays written in English) as your guide.

  1. The exact sources of all quotations and all information about ideas derived from secondary literature should be given in numbered footnotes.  These can, for the sake of convenience, be collected together at the end of the essay (as endnotes), or be presented on each page.  Equally, where a passage is borrowed and paraphrased, acknowledgement must be made.  It is necessary to give full details of the source only at the first mention; later references may be abbreviated (e.g. to author’s name or brief title).  It is essential, however, to give exact locations in every instance:  page numbers for prose works (primary and secondary); line numbers for verse; act, scene and (if possible) also line numbers for plays.  Bear this is mind when taking notes at the preparatory stage.
    Any form of plagiarism will be severely penalised.
  2. All titles mentioned in footnotes, and also the names of any other books and articles used or consulted, even if not directly quoted from, should be collected together in a bibliography following the footnotes.  Here it is best to list primary sources first (usually literary texts or original historical documents), secondary sources second, each section in alphabetical order of the authors’ surnames.  A bibliographical reference to a book should consist of: 
    1. author’s name in full
    2. title (underlined or italicized)
    3. place and date of publication;
    4. edition number and date in the case of books which have run to many editions, e.g., Friedrich Gundolf, Goethe, Berlin 1925, 12. Aufl. 1932.

    A bibliographical reference to an article should consist of:

    1. author’s name in full;
    2. title of article in single inverted commas;
    3. title of journal (underlined);
    4. volume number, year (in brackets), and first and last page of article.
      e.g. Chloe Power, ‘ “Die verkörperte Scham”:  The Body in Handke’s Wunschloses Unglück’, Modern Language Review 94 (1999), pp.460-475
  3. All titles - those in the body of the essay as well as in the footnotes and the bibliography - should be underlined or italics.  The exception is titles of individual poems, which should be in single inverted commas.
  4. Quotations of more than two lines in length should begin, after a colon, on a new line, and be indented throughout.  (Indenting means moving the left-hand margin in by about 5 spaces or half inch on a word-processor.)  Quotation marks in this case are unnecessary.  Shorter quotations should appear within quotation marks and be integrated into the appropriate sentence of the student’s own text.  This should be done without violence to the grammar or syntax of the quotation itself or of the sentence within which it is cited.  If necessary, alter, omit, interpolate or transpose words (or parts of them) in the quotation so as to avoid incoherence, always enclosing the modified units in square brackets and indicating omissions by three dots.

6. An essay written under examination conditions should be planned briefly and written with points 1. (a)(b)(c) and 2 (a)(b)(c)(d) in mind.