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Preparing for your coursework: What makes a great essay?

Preparing for your coursework

Introduction to what makes a great essay

What is an essay?
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:
Diagram containing text describing the ingredients of a good essay. Text reads: Is made easier by prior planning; Makes it clear how you are going to address the question, where you are going and why; Sets out your main ideas clearly; Makes it clear how the main ideas relate to each other; Takes the reader through your answer in a logical, progressive way; Helps the reader to remember what you said; Organises groups of related information in paragraphs; Uses connecting words and phrases to relate each point/idea to earlier and later points.

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. 
Image showing key questions to ask when thinking critically for your essay
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.
And then: what if, so what and what next?
To put this into context, here's what we're doing when we're asking these questions:
Bloom's Taxonomy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License (CC BY 2.0) by the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching and reflects the 2001 revision of the original taxonomy. 
So, we can say that critical thinking and analysis is a process of:
  • Questioning
  • Evaluating information and assertions
  • Developing arguments
  • Forming judgements
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:
  • Weighing evidence
  • 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.
Please see the section called Can you use this in your coursework? 
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:  


Note book open at pages covered in writing with a pencil resting diagonally across the pages.
"hard work"by Steven Perez is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 
Before you start
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.
Assignment requirements:
  • 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 ‘voice'
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.
Writing styles
There are two main types of styles you will be asked to use for your writing for university:
  1. Academic writing
  2. Reflective writing
Both are described below.
Academic Writing
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.
Academic writing:
  • Is formal;
  • 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...").
Reference: Hampton, M. (2015) Written assignments: academic writing style. Available at: (Accessed: 22 February 2023).
The University of Manchester have created a huge Academic Phrasebank which you may find helpful when getting to grips with academic writing.
Now have a listen to what your fellow students think about academic writing:
Available at:
Reflective Writing
Reflection of brown and green tree trunks in small section of water that looks blue, with ripples in the water's surface
"IMG_7015xv"by kloniwotski is licensed under CC BY 2.0 
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.
Reference: University of Reading (2019) Practice-based and reflective learning. Available at: (Accessed: 14 January 2020).
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. 
Recommended reading
Cottrell, S. (2014) The study skills handbook. 4th edn. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. Available at:
McMillan, K. (2013) How to improve your critical thinking and reflective skills. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited. Available at:

Tips on writing a book review

Writing a book review 
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.
Photo of a book display in the Library
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?
  • Would you recommend the work to others?
  • Is the work original in focus or theme?
  • Does it contribute to knowledge?
Open book with pair of glasses on top and a coffee next to it.
Photo by Oziel Gómez on Pexels.
Structure of a Review and Content headings 
  • Provide details of the author’s name, book title and the main theme
  • Provide some background on the author’s expertise or specialism
  • Does the author outline their framework or standpoint
Summary of content
  • Keep your points short and concise and highlight the main points using only brief descriptions
  • Use specific details to illustrate the main arguments
Analysis and evaluation
  • How is the argument structured?
  • Does the argument or issues discussed make sense?
  • Organise the argument by theme(s) or method of research
Focus on your analysis regarding the book topic in your conclusion by:
  • Concentrating on evidence you have used for your argument
  • The conclusion needs to balance the book’s strengths and weaknesses as well as your overall evaluation.
Adapted from: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and modified by Carmel Carroll, Academic Liaison Librarian in January 2020. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

Report Writing - An Overview

Overview of Report Writing 

This information provides general guidance only. Always follow the guidelines given by your tutor.
Reports are produced for many reasons on different topics, to different audiences but usually have a common structure and layout.
This guide provides a useful overview on report writing and how it differs from an essay: Mitchell, A (2012) A quick guide to report writing. LearnHigher.
Reports are written to:
  • deal with practical business matter or problems
  • evaluate situations and make recommendations
  • analyse situations and recommend solutions
  • provides a framework for policies
Reports are required to help with: 
  • business decision making
  •  business planning
  •  highlighting a problem 
  •  problem solving – offering solutions 
  •  future business planning
  •  information update
  • consolidating information 
  • providing new information
Do you Know Your Report Brief?
Is it for:
  • market research
  • management reporting
  • risk management 
  • Analysis of competitors, markets or brands
  • overviewing
  • forecasting: Annual/monthly/weekly reporting
  • budgets/expenses/financial sales
  • monitoring 
  • reporting incidents or problems
  • status of a project 
  • strategy
Recommended reading
Basics of report writing: Reid, M. (2012)Report writing. Basingstoke: PalgraveMacMillan. Available at:
Dissertation or project level: Cottrell, S. (2014) Dissertations and project reports: a step by step guide. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan. Available at: