Chapter 1: where to begin an essay

If you are looking for a basic understanding of an essay and how to approach it, this is the right chapter for you to start your reading. That's because this first chapter breaks down the differences in writing techniques, skills, and expectations at all levels of university life as well as explains the concept of essays, how the general essay writing process should work, and what types of traits define the successful essay writer. Even if you think you know all of this already, this chapter can still help you because it is packed with numerous tips and tricks designed to make your essay the best.

Here’s the full contents for chapter one of this online essay writing guide:

Chapter 1

1.1: Writing at university level

You most likely have done some writing prior to entering university as essays and research writing is being introduced at a younger age so as to prepare you for what lies ahead at university and beyond.  Or, you may not be sure how an essay differs from other types of writing you may have done, such as a story, diary, letter, email or even text message!  Writing at the university level is entirely different – not to scare you or anything, but it is! You will have lectures and you will need to take notes from these discussions and from your reading. You may be part of online discussions and seminars where you will also be writing and collecting information.

Most importantly, you will be receiving course assignments at the university level that involve writing over many weeks and that count as a large chunk of your final grade for each class that you take. Much of your notes from lectures and reading suddenly become very important because they often become the foundation for these course assignments. And, not to create any stress for you, but all of that is important but not as critical as the final product you actually turn in and that gets the mark that often determines your grade for that particular class. No pressure, right?!

And, while it might seem like since it is so important, you, as a student, would have been given all the tools and know-how to do it correctly, most students do not have a clue how to approach or do essay writing. That is because the type of writing you did as a student leading up to that point was entirely different and not structured to lead you toward what was ahead at the university level, unfortunately. All your writing has been to this point has basically been about how to read words, form sentences, and put together a story or a brief composition. Everything you wrote was more about encouraging you to use your imagination and express ideas on paper as a discovery process versus an analysis or critical thinking process.

Toward the end of your school career prior to university, you may have started to explore how to analyse topics and argue a particular point, but once you arrive at university, you then experience the 'sink or swim' option when it comes to writing essays and taking care of this major part of your coursework. Here's how it changes.

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1.1.1: Undergraduate essay writing

You've arrived at university and may feel that was writing was easy – maybe even fun – previously.  You might have been at the top of your class there but now you may quickly realise that you are just one of hundreds or thousands of students.  What had once been acceptable in terms of writing and basically summarising your notes into paragraphs no longer will work. Essentially, all you are doing is playing a new game, and that game relies squarely on how well you can do at essay writing.

Now, undergraduate essay writing requires that you go deeper with a subject and incorporate what seems like mountains of reading and information while also providing your own opinion rather than regurgitating what you learned.

Here's what else is different:

  • You will need to know how to take a reading list, figure out what is the most important to incorporate into your writing, and make it your own.
  • You will have to develop critical analysis of the material you cover in class and in your reading. This goes beyond just the basics of compare, suggest, and contrast. It is about creating an argument where you use existing evidence to prove a stance or side to a particular issue and include relevant examples to solidify that argument.
  • You will be asked to then take what you learn and have analysed and turn it into something that would illustrate insight and application.

This does not sound easy, and it is not something you will just get overnight. It is a process that will develop over time. From this ability will come a solid essay driven by research, critical thinking, and writing skills, which also take time to develop. From there, you will be able to get a bachelor's degree and continue toward a career or, if you feel you need more education, work on your postgraduate degree.

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1.1.2: Post graduate essay writing

And, if you plan to continue onwards and upwards toward a postgraduate degree like a master's degree or a PhD, your essay writing will become even more complex.  Suddenly, the amount of research and analysis reaches monumental proportions in terms of the expectations around detail and insight let alone time spent on expanding the body of knowledge on a particular topic. This type of essay writing is typically known as a dissertation or thesis.

If you are working on your PhD, the level of expectation moves to a focus on original research in which you fill in gaps identified in previous research and writing in which you are positioning yourself as an expert on a specific area. This type of essay writing must be about original thoughts and ideas that others can then use and analyse themselves to continue expanding the knowledge available on a subject.  With this level of responsibility comes the fact that you must spend months and even years, familiarising yourself with the body of research already available and then writing about it in a way that does not re-use any of these ideas or concepts in a similar way.

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1.2: Understanding the concept of an essay

With some of the expectations that come with university down, the next step is to really get a better handle on the concept of an essay as it is a generic term that seems to become a catch-all for many as writing of all sorts for university. In fact, it does have a somewhat narrow scope to its definition. It is a genre all its own and far removed from other types of writing like reports, blogs, articles and creative writing.

First, essay writing is not creative writing – far from it! An essay does not need imagination or stories; it is based on fact and argumentation that uses those facts to make a point or take aside. There is a strict structure and formal language requirements not found in the creative writing process. Essay writing is a formula; know it and follow it and you will do well. In contrast, creative writing is more subjective and does not require a strict structure of paragraphs and information.  Essay writing, on the other hand, requires that you refer to other experts on a particular subject rather than guessing and making up the words. While there is room for interpretation in what you can do with an essay, it has to be tied to others' ideas and research as well as referenced properly.

Second, essay writing is not like a newspaper article or a blog post. Tied to the journalism genre of writing, articles and blog posts do require facts there is still a lack of formal structure and still room for greater creativity than an essay. For example, when it comes to structure, an article or blog tries to get as much information into the headline (or title) and first paragraph to get the reader's attention. An essay starts out from general to specific and tends to put the most important information in the middle or at the end.  This is because the professor or tutor will be reading the entire essay, so they are looking more for staging and a clear direction to follow from start to finish rather than a quick read. That means that the entire essay must contain relevant and important information rather than to stuff it all at the top like an article or blog. Your intent when writing the essay is different than a journalist as well – you are not seeking to entertain; your mission is to inform and prove. However, it does not mean boring the reader either!

Style differs from the concept of an essay to that of an article. With a short time to churn out an article or blog post, the writing can be short and snappy with simple language rather than longer, complex sentences that often require more sophisticated and often technical language. More time is allotted for an essay in order to create logical flow between paragraphs rather than just simply introducing ideas. Another thing that an essay tries to avoid is appealing to emotion even if the intent of the essay is to argue a particular point and create a credible conclusion based on hard evidence. Like with creativity writing, articles tend to be more subjective, which is something that is not allowed in essays.  Instead, it is all about objectivity.  That is also why an essay must reference expert research rather than quote individuals that cannot be verified such as a newspaper article often does. While articles are intended to be factual and informative, because of the risk for bias in the subjectivity and slant toward an emotional response from the reader, essay writing is clearly not in the same category.

Third, essay writing is not like a report despite having more similarities than the other types of writing we have talked about here.  Reports are written in the same style as an essay in terms of being focused and objective with logical flow and reference to other research. Typically, though, a report requires some different and additional components from an essay, including an abstract, table of contents, literature review, methodology, findings, discussion, and appendices in addition to the components shared with an essay – introduction, conclusion, and list of references.  In contrast to an essay, all of these components are also formally numbered and divided with the use of headings, subheadings, and other obvious signposts. In contrast, essays usually skip this part unless it is very long and some subtitles might appear to break up the text.

Now that you know what an essay is not and how it differs from other types of writing, it is a good place for us to switch gears and introduce the very basics of essay writing stages all of which are expounded upon throughout this online book in great detail.

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