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Essay Writing Advice


Technical Support
Staff member
Sep 27, 2010
Sydney NSW, Australia
Before starting your essay make sure you have understood the question or title. In your introductory paragraph you should outline briefly how you will approach or interpret the question; you might need to define one or two of the terms being used, but you should do this concisely. Ensure you can ground your discussion within a specific understanding of the historical context of the topic and texts. You should plan carefully the argument of your essay to make sure that it is coherent and that it can be supported by the relevant texts. Think of two or three good quotations to illustrate your arguments, then check the text to make sure that these are really the best examples and that other parts of the text do not contradict your argument. Always give precise references (e.g. line numbers in verse works or page numbers for prose) for your quotations.

Use long quotations sparingly. If you find yourself quoting a number of lines you should draw the reader’s attention to words and phrases within the passage that you think are particularly significant. A quotation by itself will not establish your argument for you: you have to explain the passage’s significance for your argument which will be weakened if your quotations are inadequately justified. Quotations may also need to be put in context: ask yourself what the words you quote will mean to a reader who is unfamiliar with the longer passage from which they come, and supply any explanation that is necessary.

Consulting secondary sources (books, book chapters, journal articles etc. - avoid online sources that have not been pre-approved) is important, but it is essential that you explain in your own terms why you have found them valuable and that you acknowledge properly the source of the ideas you use. Avoid general references to critics (for example, ‘some critics argue…’ is too vague) and instead be specific about which critics express a particular point of view. Try not to be too reliant on secondary sources, however: the purpose is to show what you have decided about the topic at hand. This being the case, your lecturers will assume that everything in the essay that is not acknowledged as somebody else’s idea will represent your considered opinion. It is therefore unnecessary and obtrusive to use the first person voice prominently (e.g. ‘In my own opinion...’ or ‘I maintain that...’) although there is nothing wrong with using the first person at some points (e.g. in such ‘link’ passages as: ‘So far I have considered x; in the next section I shall go on to discuss y.’)

In structuring your essay ensure that you make links between its different sections to keep your argument coherent and fluent. All the points you make should be relevant to the question or topic; this may mean dropping a favourite point if it necessitates digression. You are not expected to say everything that might be said on the subject: it is better to develop a few major points in detail. Make small points briefly, and do not pad out points that you know to be weak or minor. Some description of plot, characters and/or theme will be necessary to make your points clear, but this should be presented as concisely as possible. In your conclusion you should do more than summarise what you have already established; try to draw out a strong closing point from the material discussed.

Final checking. Check your spelling and punctuation. Make sure you have followed the correct conventions for quotations and references as failure to do so could be construed as plagiarism and will result in disciplinary proceedings, deducted marks or outright failure.

Presenting Essays

All essays must be word-processed in size 12 font (Times New Roman) with double spacing. Beginnings of paragraphs should be indented. Leave no more than one blank line between paragraphs. The pages of the essay should be numbered. (Exact house rules may vary)

Titles of works cited.
Whenever you refer to a book, play, film, journal, or long poem, always italicise the title. Give the first date of publication in brackets after the first mention of any primary literary text, e.g. Heart of Darkness (1902). Titles of short poems, essays, or chapters should be put in single quotation marks without italicising: this distinguishes them from book titles that may otherwise be the same, e.g. the poem ‘North’ in Seamus Heaney’s collection North.

Presenting quotations and references in your essay

When referring to (or quoting) passages in the primary literary texts you are discussing give a line reference (from a poem or verse play), or author’s name and page reference (for prose), in brackets after your quotation.
Short quotations (one line or less of verse, thirty words or less of prose) should be run on as part of your own text, within single quotation marks.

Longer quotations (over thirty words), from either primary or secondary texts, should be placed after a colon, indented, single-spaced, and left without quotation marks:

It is sometimes said that the aim of the historian is to explain the past by ‘finding’, ‘identifying’, or ‘uncovering’ the ‘stories’ that lie buried in chronicles: and that the difference between ‘history’ and ‘fiction’ resides in the fact that the historian ‘finds’ his stories, whereas the fiction writer ‘invents’ his. This conception of the historian’s task, however, obscures the extent to which ‘invention’ also plays a part in the historian’s operations (White, p.342).​

Verse, including from verse plays, must always be quoted in lines, not re-arranged as prose. Quotations from verse plays should include Act, Scene and Line number(s) in brackets as in this example from an essay on Shakespeare.
In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Caliban shows his understanding of the relationship between power and knowledge when he tells Stephano and Trinculo to take possession of Prospero’s books:​
First to posses his books; for without them​
He’s but a sot, as I am, nor hath not​
One spirit to command: they all do hate him​
As rootedly as I. Burn but his books. (III. ii. 90-93)​

An example of how to quote dialogue from other plays is provided below from an essay on Strindberg’s Miss Julie.
Jean is less and less convinced that a romance between Julie and himself is a good idea. When Julie asks him to kiss her for a second time he is reluctant:​
JEAN (hesitates): I’d like to – but I daren’t. Not in this house – not again.​
Of course I love you – can you doubt it, Miss Julie?​
MISS JULIE (shy, feminine): Miss! Call me Julie! There are no barriers​
between us now (Strindberg, p.123).​

If you want to quote lines of dialogue from a film, use the same technique you would use when quoting from a play.
When you quote from, or refer to, an internet source in your essay give the author and year in brackets afterwards, e.g. (Brown, 2006)

The Bibliography

At the end of your essay you must give a list of all works you have consulted. The entries should be listed alphabetically by author’s surname, with surnames appearing first. After the name of the author, the translator (if there is one) appears, then the city of publication, the publisher and the date. Take care with punctuation: the commas, colons and so forth are an important part of academic referencing; do not use bullet points or ‘centre’ your Bibliography. You should take your information from the title page of a publication and not from the front cover. The examples provided below show you how to list various kinds of book, a journal article, a chapter in a book, a film and a web source.

Example Bibliography
Belsey, Catherine, ‘Love in Venice’, Shakespeare Survey 44 (1992): 43-56.
Conrad, Joseph, Heart of Darkness, London: Penguin, 1995.
Fuchs, Barbara, ‘Conquering Islands: Contextualising The Tempest’, in Peter Hulme and
William Sherman (eds.), The Tempest, New York: Norton, 2004, pp.265-285.
Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock, 1960.
Shakespeare, William, The Tempest, New York: Norton, 2004.
Strindberg, August, Miss Julie, trans. Gwynne Edwards, London: Methuen, 1997.
White, Hayden, ‘Introduction to Metahistory’, in Dennis Walder (ed), Literature in the
Modern World. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990, pp.341-346.
Wood, Robin, ‘Psycho: An extract from Hitchcock Revisited’ (1989), at (accessed 9/10/10).

For more detailed guidance on study skills for literature students: Julian Wolfreys (ed.), The English Literature Companion, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 20011.