Writing an academic essay can be divided into seven main stages:
- understanding what the title is asking you to do
- reading around the subject and making notes
- brainstorming; collecting ideas
- writing your first draft
- revising your writing
- completing the final draft, and handing it in!
If you try to bypass one of these stages, or you don’t give yourself adequate time to complete one or more stages, your essay will suffer and your final mark will be correspondingly low.
Let’s think about the essay title first of all. It’s important to know exactly what the essay title is asking us to do. First look at this essay statement and the four questions that follow it. How will the initial verbs influence your essay?
‘China today is totally different from the country that it was in 1970.’
- Justify this statement.
- Evaluate this statement.
- Outline the ways in which China has changed.
- Diagnose the main causes of change in China.
Although the content of all four essays will overlap, there will be significant differences. An essay asking you to justify a statement will be asking you to find evidence to support the statement.
An essay asking you to evaluate a statement will want you to provide arguments and evidence for and against the statement.
An essay title that asks you to outline events, reasons or causes will want you to show that you have a good grasp of what actually happened, and why.
An essay asking you to diagnose changes or the causes of change will seek to find out if you have a clear understanding of what occurred, and in particular, the causes and effects of different events.
There are a number of verbs that often appear in essay titles; the list of verbs below are particularly common:
- Analyse: investigate, consider in detail
- Compare: look at the similarities and differences
- Contrast: consider the differences between two things or ideas
- Criticise: outline the theory or situation and then state how you approve or disapprove; you can bring in other’s views too perhaps to support your argument
- Define: state clearly and logically the meaning of a word or phrase
- Delineate: give a broad outline of an idea or theory without going into great detail
- Describe: give an account of events, or experiments, findings or theories etc.
- Differentiate: distinguish between two events or theories
- Enumerate: list down the main points, features, factors
- Evaluate: outline the theory or main ideas and then state how you approve or disapprove; you can bring in other’s views
- Examine: look into a theory, a period of history, experimental results etc. in detail
- Explain: give reasons how or why something happened and provide an interpretation
- Explore: examine a theory or event (or series of events) very thoroughly, providing an explanation
- Illustrate: use examples to justify your argument
- Interpret: describe a series of events and provide an explanation
- Justify: give reasons/evidence in support for your argument
- Outline: cover the main points briefly; do not go into detail
- Relate: show how things are related to each other and in what ways they are similar or different
- Review: give an account that includes the main points but not necessarily all the detail; give differing points of view
- State: present a theory or set of beliefs in a clear way
- Summarise: cover all of the main points but not all of the detail.
- Trace: follow the stages in the development of a theory or of historical events from the past