A Guide To Writing An Academic Essay

Example question: “It is necessary to pay senior management large bonuses to incentivise performance. Do you agree with this statement? Give reasons for your answer.”
Introduction

You are expected to include an Introduction at the start of an essay. A good Introduction has four elements to it. First of all it provides some contextual information or background that shows the marker that you know why the question you have been asked is important. Take our example question about management bonuses. A good Introduction would include a few sentences about current news interest in banks, large bonus payments for ‘failed’ strategies and shareholder unrest in relation to remuneration packages. The next thing a good Introduction contains is a statement about the aim of the essay. In our example case the aim of the essay is to discuss the issue of senior management bonuses. It is really important to see the difference between the aim of the essay (discussing the issue of senior management bonuses) and the argument you are going to present, which is the next and probably most important element of your Introduction – the statement of the argument. Your argument is the position you take in relation to the question asked. In this example your argument might be something along the lines of ‘I will argue in this essay that pay has been overstated as a motivating factor for senior managers and a much more reliable indicator of performance is industry reputation’. The fourth and final element of a good Introduction is an indication of the structure of the essay, i.e. what major points of your argument will you be including, and in what order. 

You’ll notice that this Introduction is about 2/3 of a page when using 12pt Times New Roman font at 1.5 line spacing. This is about the length of Introduction one would expect to see for a 1500-word essay. Longer essays might need a little bit longer for an Introduction, especially if the context needed more explanation.

What happens after the Introduction?

The rest of the essay should contain paragraphs, typically between 100 and 300 words long, with a line break between each paragraph. Shorter paragraphs are unlikely to give you space to develop your argument with sufficient depth and rigour. Longer paragraphs are difficult to follow. Each paragraph should make a separate point that contributes to your overall argument. It is important that you consider different perspectives on the argument, and acknowledge positions that disagree with the argument you are making. You may find that you do not have enough space to include all of the points you could include. You need to decide which points are the most important for your argument and concentrate on those. It often helps to clarify your argument if you give relevant sub-titles to the different sections of your essay. It might not be necessary in shorter essays (1500 words) but longer essays (2500-3000 words) often benefit from at least a couple of sub-headings. If you are wondering how long this paragraph is to judge length on the page then we can tell you that it contains 184 words.

In terms of presentation you should choose a font that is easy for someone to read. Times New Roman, Palatino or Cambria are commonly used. These are called serif fonts (they have ‘bits’ at the end of each stroke that are supposed to make reading easier). Common ‘sans serif’ fonts are Arial or Helvetica. Ask the person who assigned the essay or who will be marking your work if they wish you to present your work in a particular font. Most probably will not have a preference about the font but will ask you to adhere to a recommended font size and line spacing because these things make the difference between an essay being easy to read or much harder to follow. It is in your interests to make the marking process as easy as possible for your markers.

In the basic essay form these paragraphs will be building up your argument. Remember we said in the Introduction that the most important aspect of your essay (and your Introduction) is the argument? The argument ties all the different parts of the essay together. It can be described in lots of ways – as a story that you tell from beginning to end that persuades the reader to your perspective on a question, as a logical laying out of evidence and theory that convinces the reader of your point of view, or as a series of connected points that leads a reader to share your argument. You will see that all these definitions stress the need for the points you make to be connected to one another. It is you as the writer of the essay that needs to make the connections for the reader. And it is also important for the points you are making to be in a logical order. What does the reader need to know first before they are told about the next point? Without an argument keeping the thread of the essay together it will read as just a random collection of ‘stuff’. The individual points you are making might be well researched and appropriate but without an argument they do not amount to an answer, and this will be reflected in the marks.

We have set out this essay template in a way that we hope makes it easy for you to make sense of visually. We hope, for example, that you are taking note of the average length or paragraphs and what they look like on the page and the fact that we leave an extra line space between paragraphs. And we hope it is obvious that when we write a paragraph we concentrate on a single issue at a time. For example, this paragraph is about what we hope you are noticing about the basic essay form. 

Conclusion

The length of this explanation is getting on for 1200 words at this point. If you were writing a 1500-word essay this would be about the point that you would conclude your essay. Your concluding paragraph should summarise the argument you have presented. That means that you will restate the argument that you presented in the Introduction. Our example argument for the question about bonuses was ‘I will argue in this essay that pay has been overstated as a motivating factor for senior managers and a much more reliable indicator of performance is industry reputation’. You can repeat it word for word or reorder it to make it sound different e.g. ‘The argument I presented in this paper was that industry reputation drives performance in senior managers more than bonus payments’. And you can remind the reader HOW you argued your case, e.g. ‘In the first section I established that a number of empirical studies had cast doubt on bonus payments as a motivating factor. So in the second section we looked at the evidence for competing explanations for senior management performance and this led to an exploration of … (etc. etc.)’. The most important thing to remember about Conclusions is that they should not tell the reader anything new (this is not the place to put any bits of evidence you had forgotten to include in the main part of your essay) and the argument should not have changed from the Introduction.

From the Management School, University of York

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