An essay is one of the ways in which your lecturer or tutor assesses your understanding of a topic and your ability to express ideas, theories, definitions and critical analysis in your own words. In your essay you will bring together (synthesise) ideas, theories, arguments, and evidence and analyse them to address a specific problem or question. An essay follows a particular structure (see section on planning and structuring), which will be different from other types of assessed work, such as reports, case studies, literature reviews, and so on.
The ingredients for a great essay are as follows:
Critical analysis and synthesis
A great essay requires critical analysis, or critical thinking, and the synthesis of acquired information.
When writing an essay, to synthesise means to combine information from sources you’ve read and present common ideas/arguments/theories, grouped together according to their relationships to one another, in order to develop and give weight to your argument.
Synthesis on its own is not enough. Critical thinking and analysis must be applied. Critical analysis is about appraising evidence (what you’ve read) and evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of arguments in order to come to well-reasoned conclusions and well-argued explanations. It is not about describing or accepting information or giving uninformed personal opinion. Key questions to ask are who, what, where, when, how and why.
So, we can say that critical thinking and analysis is a process of:
Evaluating information and assertions
We form judgements by balancing different approaches and points of view in an objective and rational way by applying reasoning and reflection as a guide. This entails:
Distinguishing between FACT and OPINION
Avoiding irrational and emotional appeals and
Evaluating the validity of information sources.
Critical thinking involves considering a variety of possible viewpoints or perspectives and remaining open to the merits of alternative interpretations, explanations or models. Applying critical thinking requires:
Asking questions and
Finding the best explanations
It is about considering the strengths and weaknesses of an argument. This involves the recognition of unstated assumptions, beliefs and values and subjective and emotive language. It also requires an awareness of bias, stereotypes, prejudices and distortion which may be presented as facts.
Another important aspect of critical analysis is evaluating the reliability of your sources of information before using them in your essay.
When using general Internet sources such as web pages or freely available online documents (rather than textbooks and scholarly journal articles), you can also use this slide and the links from it as guidance:
In order to be able to start researching and writing, you must understand your essay question. Please see the section called Understanding your question or topic, which explains terminology that may be used in the essay question or description, such as ‘consider’, ‘debate’, ‘explain’, and more.
For information on essay structure and paragraphs, please see the section on Planning and structuring your essay (above).
This section on writing covers writing styles, academic writing and reflective writing, some general tips and writing a paragraph.
Have any rules been set in relation to style, font and format?
What is the length?
What is the marking criteria?
Is any advice given on what voice should be used?
All of these should be in your module handbook or assignment area of WebLearn. Always ask your tutor if you are unsure about any of the requirements for your assignment.
Your lecturers want to hear your voice, not someone else's, so use your own ideas and words. You will need to back your ideas up with evidence from various academic resources such as academic journals, research and government reports, and statistics, but have confidence in your own expression of your ideas.
Follow the assignment instructions on whether you should be using an ‘active' or ‘passive' voice.
The active voice reads as follows: ‘I recommend ...'
The passive voice reads: ‘It is recommended that ...'
The active voice allows you to write short, punchy sentences. The passive appears more formal and considered, and may be more suitable for academic writing. Avoid mixing the two voices.
There are two main types of styles you will be asked to use for your writing for university:
Both are described below.
For most written assignments at university you will need to write in an academic style. Although you will develop your own personal style of academic writing, there are a few key qualities that are found in most academic writing.
Builds on what others have done (you will have to read what others have written on the topic and cite and reference their ideas and research in your work);
Is cautious (words like 'possibly' or 'likely' or 'may' are used instead of 'ought' or 'should' or 'must');
Is succinct (you should try to say exactly what you mean in as few words as possible);
Is impersonal (you typically write in the passive voice. For example, you would say, "It is surprising that..." rather than "I am surprised that...").
Reflective writing is evidence of reflective thinking and is more personal than other kinds of academic writing. It is a way to process your experience and turn it into learning. It integrates theory and practice. This means that you will read about, evaluate, and apply theories (as well as other evidence from scholarly research) to your practice.
In an academic context, reflective writing usually involves:
Looking back at something (often an event, but it could also be an idea or object);
Analysing the event or idea (thinking in depth and trying to explain, often with reference to a model or theory from your subject);
Thinking carefully about what the event or idea means for you and your ongoing progress as a learner or practising professional.
Reflective writing is less formal and tends to be written in the first person. So use of the active voice is usually permitted. However, as you are linking your experience to theories and evidence, it may be necessary to switch between an active voice (your reflections) and a passive voice (when talking about theories or research), and maybe even past tense (your reflections on the past event) and present tense (when referring to theories or research). Here's an example of how this might work in a piece of writing:
One objective of the session was to help the client to understand the connection between her thoughts, feelings and behaviours. This is an important aim of HSD (Bloggs, 2009). To achieve this objective the following HSD method was used ….. (Smith, 2006). At times during the session I was too directive and could have used more open questions to allow the client more opportunity to verbalise her understanding.
During the session the client stated… I wish I had explored this further.
To prepare for an assignment that requires reflective writing, keep a reflective learning journal. This will help you to record your experiences and observations at the time and reflect on them later when you come to start your writing.
Many courses ask students to write reflectively. There are many different reflective writing models. It is vital that you follow any guidelines given by your tutors.
This information provides general guidance only. Always follow the guidelines given by your tutor. Reviews can differ in style depending on subject area and also depending on whether you are reviewing a film, an image, work of art or a play.
About Book Reviews
Book reviews are usually up to a 1000 words long. Reviews are short and to the point. The review is an analysis of the content of a book and also a critical assessment of the content.
Common features of reviews
provide a concise summary of the content in the form of a description of topic or an overall perspective of the topic
highlights the main argument
outlines the purpose of the subject topic
focuses on opinions not the facts and details
Writing the review
Focus on purpose, content, issues and developments of the topic under discussion. Can you say whether the work has the following attributes?
Is it persuasive?
What is the main argument of the book?
Does the argument make sense?
Did it deal with the issues discussed?
Is the discussion balanced?
Is the approach to the subject analytical, topical, historical or descriptive?
Did it enhanced your understanding of the subject?