Writing Academically

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What is an Essay?


An essay can take many forms and require different facets, depending on which subject or discipline you are studying. Broadly, an essay is:

  • A piece of writing that adheres to a set of standards or conventions, for instance, structure and layout
  • Written in a formal, academic style, as a continuous piece of prose
  • A development of a set of ideas, arguments or viewpoints in response to an essay question
  • A means of conveying field evidence in order to support, supplement, refute or contradict different perspective
  • Essential to your development of critical thinking, and engagement with key debates within your subject area
  • A means of assessing your subject synthesis or your ability to take what you have learned or researched, and apply it

The Importance of the Essay Question


Your essay always starts with the essay question. This may be an obvious statement, but it is easy to overlook the importance of the essay question, particularly when deadlines are looming, or the assignment appears to be straightforward.

Taking some time to read and interpret the essay question can be very beneficial to the quality of your essay. Not only does it equip you with a deeper understanding of what you’re being asked to do in the essay, it also outlines the structure that should be followed.

Reading the essay question carefully can save a lot of time and effort, in that it can focus your reading and improve your essay argument.

Interpreting the Question

This is the first step in deciding how to tackle your essay. You need to identify the main concepts you are being asked to explore and note the structure you will have to implement in order to address these. This is also a useful checklist if you having to create your own essay question. Here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Read the essay question carefully several times
  • Underline or highlight the key words and concepts
  • Remind yourself of the essay title and the key words throughout the writing process
  • Identify any instruction words
  • See your module leader for guidance if you are unsure

Concept, Topic and Focus 

You might see these words floating around in any guidance on essay writing, so this page will help you differentiate them, and identify them in the components of your essay question.

Concepts – key terms or ideas that are used within your subject. These can be disguised as everyday terms, or blatantly expressed in subject-specific language. Either way, they will relate directly to your field of study.

Topics – the broad picture or area that you will be writing about in your essay. This will help to illustrate the context of your essay. 

Focus – the specific areas that need to be covered in your essay. You will never be expected to list everything you know on a topic in an academic essay; the focus will help you narrow down, and indicate the areas for reading. 

Essay Instructions

These are the words that your assessor will use to indicate exactly what they would like you to do in your assignment, and the type of thinking and writing you will have to conduct. It is essential that you understand these instructions in order to provide a complete and well-researched response to all part of the question. Click here to download a list of common essay instructions, with explanations.TAKE HOME TIP 1

Example Essay Titles

One of the most common pieces of feedback given to students about their essays, is that their essay did not answer the essay question! It is easy to get sidetracked when reading for your essay, and give preference in your writing to interesting material, rather than relevant material. In interpreting the question, you are setting up criteria for your academic reading, which will guide your reading. This ensures that if it doesn’t answer the essay question, then it doesn’t get included in the essay.

Below you will find some genuine examples of essay titles that have been set at Universities within the United Kingdom. Go through each one and identify the essay instruction(s), the key concepts and the context of discussion, to find out what is being asked. You can find our interpretation here.

  • Discuss the relation between narrative style and moral judgement in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (University of Sussex, 2018)
  • What is the importance of imitation in early child development? (University of Leicester, 2018)
  • Outline the difficulties facing the tourist industry today. (University College Birmingham, 2018)
  • Compare and contrast the consequences of blindness and deafness for language development. (Loughborough University, 201


Page References

Greetham, B. (2013). How to write better essays (3rd edition.) Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Loughborough University. (2018). What does the question mean? [PDF]. Retrieved on 26 November 2018 from https://www.lboro.ac.uk/media/wwwlboroacuk/content/library/downloads/advicesheets/question%20A4.pdf.

University College Birmingham. (2018). Essay writing [webpage]. Retrieved on 26 November 2018 from https://www.ucb.ac.uk/handbook/academic-matters/essay-writing.aspx.

University of Leicester. (2018). Introduction to an essay: example [webpage]. Retrieved on 26 November 2018 from https://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/ld/resources/writing/diagnostic/p/pintrotoanessay.

University of Sussex. (2018). Example Essays [webpage]. Retrieved on 26 November 2018 from http://www.sussex.ac.uk/skillshub/?id=282.

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