Your guide to writing an Essay

How to write an essay

Essay writing guideWe have compiled this guide to essay writing skills, including structuring essays, reports and dissertations, to help you in planning and producing your essay. We hope that you find it helpful - please let us have any comments and suggestions you may have for improving this free study area.

On this page:

Evaluating the question

It is important to assess, before anything else, what it is you are being asked to do. The directives in essay questions are often very specific and require that you deal with the question in a particular way. For example, if you are asked to 'analyse' something, you should approach the question by breaking the issue into components parts, examining each critically and critically and minutely. If however you are asked to 'compare' a number of things, you will be expected to identify clearsimilarities and differences between each, and perhaps to reach conclusions about which is preferable.

A very good guide to these directives can be found in our essay writing area: Interpreting Essay Questions.

Sourcing and collecting material

Most universities will give you library access, which means you have a wealth of material available to you - your search should not be limited to books, but also may include journals/periodical collections, theses, videos, DVDs, e-books, e-journals, access to electronic resources and databases.

With so much material available to you, translating your essay question into a search strategy or statement is an important first step in tracking down the information you need. Your development of a search strategy must start with thinking about the kinds of words related to your topic that you might expect to find in books or in newspaper articles. A good search statement can be applied to whichever sources you might decide to use, such as specific computer databases or library catalogues.

The next step will be to decide, based on your formulated search statement, which will be the most relevant, appropriate resources in your subject area. For example, if your search statement was:

I want to find out about the consequences, harm, risk or side effects - of giving or denying the MMR vaccination, either as a triple vaccine or as three single injections, to children

You might be looking for:

  • ideas and opinions - expert opinion, opinions of pressure groups, public opinion, opinion of companies involved in trials, opinion of governments and other organisations, parents' concern
  • research results - medical experiments, scientific information
  • history - where the debate began and why, specific cases which make the vaccine questionable

Once you have a clear idea of what you need to know about your topic to deal with the assignment posed, you will be able to look more closely at the individual resources available to you, such as database, to see what information they contain. You will need to weigh up the relevance of the information you find, and develop a critical awareness of the positions represented in what you read - in some cases, authors may be explicitly expressing a particular viewpoint but in others there may be hidden bias, which can be misleading.

Don't forget that one of the best ways to source relevant material for your essay is to ‘snowball’ your reading: i.e. to use the footnotes and bibliographies of the books you already have to extend your reading list on a subject. Your reading lists will already include many of the most important writers; by checking their bibliographies and works cited in those articles, you will have access to the most up-to-date writing on the topic.

Reading, making notes and generating ideas

Your search for relevant information for your essay will undoubtedly generate a mass of material and so it is essential that you develop concise note taking skills. A good place to start is to make a document on your computer just for source material, but divide it into the parts of your essay (for example, if you are writing a dissertation, you may wish to include sections such as introduction, background, methodology, literature review, evidence, conclusion and recommendations). Into this, copy all good sections, quotes, statistics and other useful source material that you find, making sure that you note where you found each piece of information. Each source can be placed into the section (introduction, conclusion etc) where you are most likely to use it. This will give you a rough framework for when you begin writing and will help you form a direction of where your essay is likely to go, based on your findings.

Some key points to bear in mind when taking notes for your essay are as follows:

  • Write down anything you find that is good - and where you found it (including page numbers and search terms so that you can repeat your search if needs be). Don't depend on your memory!
  • If you are writing a balanced or comparitive argument, make sure your source document has both a 'for' and 'against' section so you can find appropriate material for both sides of your debate.

As you read and note sources, you may find that ideas and questions come to you which you may want to address later. Add a box to your source document for these so you can clearly distinguish them from other people's material.

When you come to analyse what you have found, take great care not to simply summarise the source material (i.e. Brown says that "MMR is absolutely safe and there is no evidence to the contrary" whereas Smith says that MMR is an "untested and dangerous vaccination". An essay which merely summarises other people's thoughts without analysing each opinion or finding will score very little marks. You need to develop your own arguments and use other people's findings and opinions to support them.

An excellent guide to notetaking for essays can be found online here: Notetaking Effectively

Referencing and Bibliography

There are two main methods of referencing articles in published journal and book publications. These are known as the Harvard (author-date) and Vancouver (author-number) reference systems. Many universities have specific variations within these general conventions and you should check with your university whether a specific referencing style is required.

There are two British Standards that outline referencing styles. They use an author-date format:

  • Recommendations for references to published materials: BSI, 1989. BS 1629
  • Recommendations for citing and referencing published material: 2nd Ed. BSI, 1990. BS 5605

You can download a free guide based on these British Standards here: Free Essay Referencing Guide (right click and save file as...). We have summarised this guide online here: Harvard Referencing Guide.

Spelling and punctuation

Most word processors have spelling and grammar checkers and so there is no excuse for poor spelling, grammar and punctuation! We have produced the following basic guides which cover some common problems that students experience with punctuation when writing essays:

However, if you would like a free lesson in English grammar, try the Grammar Guide Online at Grammar Station - this even has a grammar checker so that you can verify sentences of up to 25 words instantly.

Other Useful Essay Writing Resources:

  • How to write an Essay: This guide asks 'what is an essay?' and 'why write in this way?' It offers guidance on developing skills in professional essay writing, collecting material, reading, making notes and having ideas, creating the bibliography and styling references, planning and structuring, and good presentation.
  • Basic Guide to Essay Writing: This useful site discusses choice of topic, creating essay outlines, writing the thesis, body, introduction and conclusion, and adding finishing touches. It also has sample essay writing.
  • How to write an essay: tutorial: This friendly guide looks at essay writing skills including research, developing the proposal, compiling notes, planning the essay, writing the essay and analysing the finished product. It suggests the extras that make essays stand out and gives examples of good and bad essay writing.
  • Essay Building:This guide looks at the essay introduction and supporting paragraphs, and editing/publishing essays. It examines the types of essays by classification and description, and looks at skills such as comparing, contrasting and evaluating material.
  • 10 Easy Steps to Essay Writing: This site provides a step by step guide to essay writing including analysis, brainstorming, thesis, outline, introduction, paragraphs, conclusion, MLA style citation and works cited, and language (clarity/style/grammar).


This guide provides a detailed overview of the essay writing process with tonnes of practical advice to help you attain a better grade for your academic assignments. We've presented the chapters below so you can delve in and out at a point to suit you - but the easiest way to read the guide is to start on the first page and use the walk-through links to access the rest of the pages. You will notice that we have split some of the chapters into more than one part to make them more manageable.


Our essay writing resources provide a wealth of information on the writing process, evaluating materials, punctuation, grammar, referencing and those all important final essay checks before you hand in your work.

Essay writing tips and advice

Essay writing overview - Essay writing walkthrough - Choosing a research topic - 24 brilliant essay writing pointers - Types of essay overview - Essay advice - quick tips for a better grade - Sources of help - Essay writing basics - Creating an essay abstract - "It's too difficult!" A little encouragement - Simple essay writing guidelines - College essay writing guide - College paper writing guide - Ideas for a better essay - Some thoughts on essay writing software - Essay writing excellence - Four powerful essay writing tips - More essay writing tips - Top 10 essay tips - Writing essays for cash - Good writing books - What is an essay? - Classification essays - Fact vs opinion - New to writing? Here's how to write! - Narrative essay example - Sample research paper proposal

You may also like to review our guide to different types of essay - click here.

Essay writing skills

Writing to length - Writing with impact - Evaluating the essay question - Using argument and persuasion - Creating cohesion in your writing - Writing creatively - Critical evaluation - Interpreting essay questions - Writing your conclusion

Brief essay writing guide

A brief guide to the essay writing process with examples of good writing.

Start - What is good writing? - An essay - function and purpose - Important facets of writing - sentences - Important facets of writing - punctuation - Important facets of writing - consistency - Phraseology and style of writing - Presentation - Good essays demonstrate ... reading - Good essays demonstrate ... planning - Good essays demonstrate ... focus - Evaluation of others' efforts - an introduction - Evaluation of others' efforts - a main body - Evaluation of others' efforts - a conclusion - Conclusion to essay writing guide - References

Study skills and idea generation

Brainstorming - College essay ideas - Developing ideas for your essay - Effective notetaking - Making notes - Generating ideas - Creating an outline essay - More on note taking - Essay topic ideas - Essay planning - More thoughts on planning - Essay planning basics Tips when studying - Finding a topic - How we learn - the learning process

Advice on essay source materials

Online essay banks - Collecting source material for your essay - Information quality

Don't forget to check out our huge collection of completely free essays, dissertations and coursework: Free Essays.

Grammar help

Who and whom - Who, which and that - Whoever and whomever" - Words that need watching - Prepositions - Modal verbs - Hedging - 100 most common spelling mistakes - Abstract vocabulary - Adjectives and adverbs - Confusing words and homonyms - Dictionaries to choose from - Fragments - Impersonal style and passive verb construction

Punctuation help

Using apostrophes - Using brackets - Using capital letters - Using colons - Using commas - Hyphens and dashes Terminating marks

Essay referencing help

Why reference? - Creating a bibliography - More on your bibliography - APA referencing - BMJ referencing - Chicago referencing - Harvard referencing - Legal citations - MHRA referencing - MLA referencing - OU referencing - OSCOLA referencing - Oxford referencing - Turbian referencing - Vancouver referencing

Essay presentation help

Formatting your appendix - Writing your appendix

Essay advice for particular subjects and types of essay

Writing Biology essays - Writing business essays - Writing computer science essays - Writing health essays - MBA admissions essay tips - Writing a college admissions essay - Writing an evaluation - Dissertations - Tackling law problem questions - Writing reports - Writing a song - Writing historical essays - Writing a business essay - Writing an internal memorandum

Research paper writing help

Research paper writing guide - Biology - Business - Computer science - Cultural studies - Health - History - Information technology - Literature
Management - Pyschology - Pyschology (example) - Social work - Sociology - Education - Research paper vs. term paper

Term paper writing help

Term paper writing guide - Ideas for your term paper topic - Biology - Business - Computer science - Education - Health - Information Technology - Management - Pyschology - Social work - Sociology

Before you hand in your essay...

Getting a first - Carrying out a final evaluation of your essay - Evaluating your learning - Checking your essay when it is finished - Avoiding cheating and plagiarism - Marking scheme - Top essay mistakes