Essay Do’s and Don’ts

University level essay writing is not about being able to recall the summary of the set books for this term – it’s about demonstrating your understanding of the question and critical thinking processes that show your rigor and subject knowledge. So here are a few ‘Dos and Don’ts’ to get you going.


What’s the question again?

Are you sure you know what is being asked of you? Re-read the question and make sure you do! Find the actions that you need to take (e.g. analyse, compare and contrast, evaluate) so that you know the approach you will be taking to this piece of work. Talk to your tutor if in doubt – don’t leave it until the last minute and end up not answering the question.


Sorry I can’t do that tonight, I’m washing my hair

Make a plan of the work you need to do, schedule it and stick to it. Give yourself ample time to read, take notes and consider the relevant materials. And do not skip the proofing stage – build in enough time to finish the essay, sleep on it, re-read and proof it. If you can, ask someone else to read it (they don’t need to understand the topic specifically, just be able to understand your essay). Make sure you get the basics right – referencing, word count, grammar, spelling, layout, formatting – as well as writing in a straight-forward style. Yes there will be technical (subject/topic related) details, but your writing around that should be simple to understand.


Well, all of these ideas sound good to me

There’s no room for sitting on the fence. Don’t take anything for granted, and distance yourself from your own preferences. Demonstrating your critical thinking here can make the difference in your essay – it will stand out from the crowd and show how you understand the subject. Poke holes in those theories and materials – where are the flaws and shortcomings? Pull them apart and show their weakness! Those holes don’t have to be big, but pull them out into the light and dissect them.

That includes your own arguments – bring to the fore limitations and flaws, tease those out and counter those too.


How do I start, and where do I finish?

Don’t try and start with an introduction – work on that when you’ve finished the bulk of the essay. And don’t keep something new for the conclusion – it should already have been analysed in the body of the essay and not appear as a surprise revelation in the conclusion! Every word you write should be answering the question, adding support to your argument.

Read widely but relevantly on the subject, don’t just stick to one or two texts from the reading list. Visit Google Scholar and using key words on the subject you’ll find more articles relating to the topic. Checkout introductions and conclusions first so you know it’s the right content for your essay question.



With essay writing, practice really does hone your skills. You have to keep at it, and if you do, it will become easier and more natural – and is one of the truly transferable skills that will take you into your future career.


For more in-depth tips and guidance, there’s a brilliant blog you should read by Tim Squirrell.