Essay Writing Guide

I provide a lot of support to students of all levels, from undergraduate to postgraduate, all of whom have a similar difficulty – structuring an essay.  Here are some tips that can assist with the essay writing process, as well as writing in general. If you need any further help, then don’t hesitate to contact me at Safe Student Support.


Mark Twain is famous as a writer and undoubtedly could have written the perfect essay. It is timely to recall his observation that, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead,” when it comes to composing any written document. In the context of writing an essay, his observation is particularly pertinent.

The essay task entails expectations by the teacher, and objectives to be achieved by the essay writer, in order to succeed, with success equating to the achievement of a pass mark or better. These expectations and objectives relate not just to the subject matter of the essay topic, but to the formal parameters, such as the word limit and timeframe for completion, and acceptable style, formatting and referencing. For most students, working at compliance with the many facets of these expectations and objectives induces increased levels of anxiety, which can be manifested in a variety of physical and psychological symptoms, and, naturally, have flow-on effects on the ability of the student to complete the task well. Overcoming this anxiety is not always easy, but it is fair to say that with organisation and planning the task will become manageable and the writer will achieve his or her goal of a good mark for the essay.


An essay is a written response to a written statement, proposition or question, known as the topic. The proposer may ask the writer to discuss or answer the topic, or to argue in favour of, or against, the validity of an hypothesis. The first and fundamental step for the writer, therefore, is to read the topic as a whole, and then read each word or phrase separately, with a view to analysing and understanding exactly what is being asked. Unbearable disappointment and frustration can result when an essay is returned to the writer, with a low mark, and a comment to the effect that the writer failed to answer the question, or has missed the point.

The next essential is that the writer consider practical factors, such as the number of words to be written, the due date for submitting the essay, the hours available to devote to the task when other commitments are taken into account, and how and by whom the essay is to be typed, presented and copied. At this point, a timetable by which progress can be paced can be prepared.


The writer then focuses his or her attention on gathering the facts and researching matters relevant to the topic. Breaking the topic up into sections, writing headings, researching the sections in turn, and making notes in an orderly fashion ensures that gaps and leaps of logic are avoided when the time comes to string the information together and develop and the argument. It is, of course, essential to keep strictly to the timetable, and not to be tempted to garner more information than is necessary to answer the question.

The writer is then at the point of sitting down and creating the essay. The standard layout of Introduction-Background-Main Body and Argument-Conclusion works for almost every essay. As a starting point, the writer should assume that the reader has no prior knowledge of the topic. Each section can then be approached as follows:

  • Introduction: Start by citing the aim of the essay (i.e. The aim of this essay is to . . .), followed by the objectives (This aim will be achieved by . . .). Ensure you define any key concepts within the introduction.

  • Background: Moving on to the Background, the writer has the opportunity to set out the facts and history from which the development of the argument will commence.

  • Main Body: The Main Body of the essay is the section where the writer expands on the topic, reasons the propositions and arguments and lays the groundwork for the conclusion. Here, the writer needs all the skills implied in the quote from Mark Twain at the commencement of this article. Many people find it difficult to use language sparingly while at the same time advancing an argument concisely and clearly, avoiding repetition and ambiguity, and being consistent with what has been said, or is about to be said. However, the essay, with strict word and page limits, demands economical use of words and space, while not sacrificing the purpose and clarity of the prose.

  • Conclusion: The conclusion summarises the essay. Here it is prudent to relate back to the words of the topic, and to demonstrate that the set task has been completed. The reader, who was presumed at the outset to have no knowledge of the topic, should at this stage be satisfied that this void has been filled.


Throughout the essay, the writer is required to apply the English language to the task using correct and consistent grammar, punctuation and sentence construction, at a level of formality appropriate to the topic and the subject matter. To do so consistently challenges all writers at times, and presents particular difficulty for those of non-English speaking background, or for those studying in fields where writing is not an essential skill. The rewriting of material that has been gathered from internet sites and avoidance of any possible suggestion of plagiarism is a priority that can present additional challenges for inexperienced writers.

However, the writer must not overlook compliance with the formal requirements. The time-consuming tasks of quoting, attributing, referencing, end-noting and foot-noting, paginating and formatting, and compiling the bibliography, to name a few, if not done according to the appropriate Style Guide, can cause the best essay content to be marked down, or rejected altogether. Failure to deliver the essay on time, or to follow the correct procedure for seeking an extension of time, can result in the same consequences.

WORD OF ADVICE: Completing the essay with time to spare affords the writer the luxury of time to read it over objectively, not only to check for errors in spelling, grammar or punctuation, but to ensure that the argument flows well, and, most importantly, that all the questions posed by the topic have been answered. The writer has a chance to assess whether, if reading the essay for the first time, he or she would understand it. Furthermore, flaws in style and presentation will become apparent and these can be identified and corrected. The writer who finishes on this note should be relaxed and confident that the essay will earn optimal approval from the reader, and be marked accordingly.


Categories: Student Support, Writing/Publishing

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10 replies

  1. Great and helpful advice here Nicola, thanks.xx

  2. A useful guide for students. And definitely tips that can also be applied to article writing, thank you.

    One small thing I would add relating to the part when you say that you should assume the reader has no knowledge of the subject – when I was studying, this was phrased to us as ‘Assume you are talking to an intelligent but uninformed reader’. I think it’s important to keep the ‘intelligent’ bit in mind as well to ensure that the tone is pitched at the right level.

  3. You are so write, Vanessa – thanks for sharing – a very important point.

  4. paradigm shifts ???? what is it. And how does one write an essay on it ????

  5. Hi, I’m on my 3rd week of a Level 2 Counselling Concepts course and I’m about to write my first essay in the course. I’m very apprehensive but your tips are very helpful and I’ve bookmarked this section so I can refer back to it when I need to. Thank you for your help.

  6. I have been this problem with my students, as they come and tell me about the issues they are facing in writing an essay, letter or doing the comprehension, especially during assessments. Nicola you have just provided an outline to me as well. It would be of immense help for my students. Would it be alright if I share your article in my Counselling newsletter in school? Of course with your reference.

  7. Nicola, in one of our lectures a format was given out that is hard to work with, that is the headings were made from key words taken from the question. Also I find I have had to write first then find the evidence and quotes 😦

  8. I need to write about myself ….1 awareness of the nature of oppression and prejudice within society can you help also
    2 ability to be self critical and use both possitive and negative feedback

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