Posted by: Gillian | February 11, 2010

Essay writing tips for adults

Going back to university or college and having to write essays again raises all sorts of anxieties in most adults.  Here are a few practical tips to ease the pain.


  1. Answer the question that is set not the question you thought you might like.  It is very unlikely that you will get a question that says, “Write all you know about organisational behaviour.”
  2. If a friend reads your first paragraph and has to guess which question you are answering, something is wrong!
  3. The only time you use ‘I’ in an academic essay is when you are writing a reflective learning log/journal.  Everything should be in the third person e.g. “It can be seen that…”
  4. Academic essays select evidence to support the point you are trying to make.  It is very unlikely that you will need every theory in the course and the best marks go to those who select the right theories/examples/authors and use them well.  (Just mentioning them is not enough.)  If you are used to writing management reports that make a point and move on, you may need to revise your style to make sure you have included all the relevant theories, etc.
  5. Just because it is in a textbook, an idea is not necessarily right in all circumstances! Select with care.
  6. You can argue the earth is flat (if you really want to) just as long as you provide evidence.  It is not enough to say, “The earth is flat because I say so,” or, “I think the earth is flat.”  Useful phrases include:
  • According to X (where X is an academic author)…. so/but……
  • Using Y’s theory of….
  • In contrast to Z’s theory, the case study shows….
  1. Alternatively, – and often more elegantly – you can introduce an idea and immediately make it clear which academic source you are using e.g. “Theory Y (McGregor, 1960)  suggests that….”

Structuring the essay

  1. Your introduction needs to explain what you understand as the key points of the question so a good starting point is to underline the main words including the ones that give the style of the essay you are being asked to write (e.g. compare, outline, explain…)
  2. Many people write the middle of the essay first, then go back to write the introduction and finally the conclusion.
  3. Some people sketch out essay plans with ease as neat, logical lists.  If this is not you, try writing out the essay title (vital) and the paragraph headings (or even whole paragraphs) then cut them out. Place the title at the top on your dining table or floor and move around the remainder underneath that until you can see exactly how each section relates to the title and to the paragraphs either side.  You should come away from this stage able to complete four sentences for each paragraph:
  • This paragraph relates to the keywords in the title because…..
  • This paragraph follows logically from the previous paragraph because….
  • This paragraph develops my argument by…….
  • This paragraph will help the conclusion because…..

It is perfectly normal to find a pile of leftover paragraphs at this point.  They go in the bin.

It is not a sign of weakness to use the spelling and grammar checkers in Word.
Apostrophes and contractions
Apostrophes indicate ownership or mean some letters have been missed out.  They are not needed in plurals.  So:

  • Gillian’s book
  • In the 1850s
  • Two workers stayed

The biggest confusion surrounds the common exception: it’s
Its = belonging to it
It’s = It is
This becomes very easy when you remember that spoken contractions such as doesn’t or hasn’t or it’s have no place in an academic essay!

Referencing and plagiarism
Just in case you have not yet found it, in the Word toolbar there is a References tab.  Click on that and set the style to APA or whatever is appropriate for your School.  Use the Word tutorial if you need more help on the mechanics of inserting citations and bibliographies.  More complicated is deciding what and where.

  1. You do not need to put the full reference in the body of your essay – the full reference only goes at the end, in the bibliography.
  2. The aim of the game is to make sure that your essay is readable and that your reader knows exactly which ideas you are referring to.  Most of the time, just referring to the book or paper is enough but if you are linking several times to a course textbook you need to give the exact page references so that people do not get lost.
  3. Adam Smith may have written The Wealth of Nations in 1776 but it is unlikely you read the original. Link to whatever you really did read – the latest Adam Smith edition or the textbook/journal article in which you found him.  If you did not read ‘Adam Smith’ but read ‘Adam Smith as described by Bloggs’ you have used what is known as a ‘secondary source’.  Some courses require you to list these separately.  Whether or not you have to list them separately, the reference in the bodytext will look something like this:
  • Using Adam Smith’s principle of the division of labour (Bloggs, 2007), the company decided….
  1. Some courses require authors and dates to be put in brackets at the end of the relevant sentences but this can become unwieldy if you have done a lot of extra reading and does not make life easy for your audience.  The usual APA style is to put the author and date in brackets immediately after the related idea (see the example above).
  2. Quotations are fine if they help make your point but it is rare for you to need to include more than a short sentence.  Your tutor is marking your ideas, not someone else’s so it is the way in which you select information and put it together to support your argument that is important.
  3. All quotations should be in inverted commas and properly referenced.  If you have a huge pile of notes taken from various textbooks, do be sure you know what is a quotation and what is a note that you wrote yourself.  Most universities these days use online tools to check essays for inadvertent (or deliberate) copying and it is surprising how much they can find.  Proper references save embarrassment.

Internet references
Your bibliography should include the full web address and, usually, the date on which you last accessed it.  Write the month as a word or abbreviated word, not a number, so that it is obvious to people from other countries whether you are talking about 02 June or 06 February.
There are some excellent websites and some excellent articles online but be careful what you pick as it has not all been academically peer reviewed.  Wikipedia is frequently cited as a ‘bad’ source but there are some very good, detailed articles on Wikipedia and you can find out who wrote them by checking the page history. However, at university level you will not impress your tutor by using that as your source.  Instead, use the references given in the article as a starting point for your own library research.
Newspaper references
As with internet references, it can be easy to fall into the trap of accepting what is written in newspapers as fact.  It may be; but equally the journalist may have been selective in their use of data in order to present a particular opinion.  If you are basing your argument on newspaper reports, be sure you check data and account for bias.
If you have used the citation tool in Word properly, the bibliography should write itself but you do need to check it for duplication and odd ordering of unusual references.  Also, if it is in the bibliography, the work should be cited in the text – use the copy and search functions to check.
Check each paragraph: does it contain evidence or just opinion?  If it links to theories and readings, it is probably good; if not, it is probably heading for the bin. Be especially careful if you are writing about an organization you know well as “We’re brilliant/rubbish at X” is not objective evidence.  Where could you look for supporting documentation?
In your final read-through, look again at your question title and the underlined keywords.  Have you really answered the question that was set or have you drifted off into answering something different?  If the question said, “Use an example to explain…,” did you use an example right the way through from the beginning of the essay or did you write an essay and then add on a bit about an example at the end?  If you were asked to compare and contrast, you need at least two items (examples or theories).  If the course is organisational behaviour, detailed analysis of the corporate accounts may be interesting but is not likely to answer the question.


  1. This is a wonderful blog post! I love it.

  2. Thank you so much. I will be back. I love your tips.

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