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An essay is the means by which you demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of a topic to your tutor. It is a formal exercise which allows you to show your abilities at assessing the requirements of a question and then carrying out the necessary research and presenting, discussing and evaluating the material that you have gathered. The process of essay writing demands a structured approach. Some of the tips that follow may seem obvious to you. Yet, experience over the years has shown that essay writing is an area where students often fail to demonstrate their full potential and consequently receive lower marks than they might expect or that the work they have done in preparation deserves.

A successful essay has the following main requirements:

• demonstration of relevant knowledge of the topic as set;

• cogency and coherence of argument;

• a measure of originality; good literary style;

• adherence to basic standards of presentation in terms of legibility and correct procedures for footnoting and referencing.

Whatever you write, it is of crucial importance that you answer the question set. This does not mean that you cannot display your knowledge but it does mean that you must be aware when you are digressing. Keep asking yourself: 'Is this really relevant?'; 'Does this really help my argument?'

It helps at the outset to look for key words and phrases embedded in the original question. The key words in a question have specific meanings and will be an important guide to how you should structure your answer. It is vital, therefore, that you recognise these so that you can respond effectively.


• 'Discuss': Investigate or examine by argument; weigh up and debate different possible interpretations giving the case for or against these. For example, you might be given a design critic’s opinion on some topic, and asked to discuss or comment on his/her view. (e.g. 'John Ruskin's ideas about the machine were an important influence on later Victorian design'. Discuss). You must consider the evidence supporting the argument and other alternative interpretations. You will also need to discuss one of these alternative views/judgements in depth and come to a conclusion about which one works best and explain why you think this is the case.

• Compare: Analyse the similarities and the differences.

• Contrast: Examine opposing evidence to bring out the differences.

• Explain: Explain what happened by considering why and how.

• Account for: Give the various possible reasons for the matter in question, assessing their relative importance and the relationship of the numerous factors to each other. Come to your own conclusion(s) about the most likely reasons.

• Assess: Estimate/measure/or place in an order of priority the evidence and analyses concerning an issue.

• To what extent ... (or) How far… :

Both of these beginnings involve an attempt to measure success or failure or effects. In such essays avoid writing all you know on the wider context of the subject at issue, and confine yourself to assessing the validity of the interpretation offered by setting it against other possible interpretations. Again, the relative importance of different reasons must be considered.

Your answer will also invariably involve analysis. This is vitally important. Practically all essay questions will be concerned with the analysis of an event or issue rather than a description of what happened. Rarely will a strictly chronological or narrative account of 'what happened’ be the best way to answer a specific question. We assume that you know the facts and have read the books, what we want to see is how you well you understand and can interpret them!