Essay writing guide
Version: Thursday, Aug 1st, 2013.
Author: Jamal Shahin.
This document is heavily based on a previous text written by Marieke de Goede, in addition to insights from from lectures and feedback from students over the years.
Whatever the word limit, you will probably think that is is not enough. It is. Just think carefully about what you want to argue and how you will structure the essay. Please adhere to the document submission guidelines that are written in the course outline, and stick to the deadlines!!!.
In most cases, you are free in your choice of essay topic and may use the cases presented or questions raised during the course as the basis for your essays: if suggestions are made for topics, please make use of them. They are not just for ‘effect’ and are generally structured well-enough to ensure that a good essay can emerge from this. Should you choose your own essay title/topic, there is a chance that the essay will not be substantial enough to be awarded a decent grade.
The essay topic needs to be related to the themes of the course and must make use of the course literature. You are strongly encouraged to use additional literature that you have found in the (digital) library. In principle, the essay has to be in English as the course is run in English.
An essay contains a research question, which specifies a particular topic and identifies a problem which you wish to analyse. This problem may be empirical, policy related, or more abstract. A good research question will drive you to address issues in literature as well as ‘reality.’ Good research questions will not simply require a narrative description to be answered.
Always address the following concerns when thinking about your research question:
- What am I writing about?
- Why am I writing about it?
- WHAT IS MY RESEARCH QUESTION: in every question, there are a million others. Focus on your subject.
Short guide to successful essay writing
A good essay will have:
- a good structure (including a clear introduction and conclusion)
- a coherent and persuasive argument
- good presentation of factual material
- proper referencing and a bibliography
- correct spelling and grammar
How to structure your essay
A good structure of your essay is as important as the content.
- make a structure for your essay (i.e. how you will present your argument) before you start writing.
- make sure you have a clearly defined introduction, section(s) and conclusion.
- make sure your essay has precise references, page numbers and a bibliography.
Sample essay structure
A well-structured essay could look like this:
In which you state essay (research) question and outline how you will address the question. The introduction must clearly show why your topic is a problem which needs to be thought about.
state your essay topic
outline how you will answer your question
use an example to introduce your topic: try to draw the reader in. Try NOT to write:
- ‘the EU is increasingly important to Europe’
- OR ‘European integration is complicated and difficult to explain’
- ‘the recent financial crisis in Europe has illustrated the importance of sound supranational control over European economies’ (if you do think it!)
- OR ‘The changes to EU foreign policy in the Lisbon Treaty have given scholars the opportunity to spill plenty of ink’ (ditto).
Body: Section 1
- be sure to frame your essay in a context, be that theoretical or historical. Each essay should show how it ‘stands on the shoulders of giants.’
Body: Section 2
- your essay should generally provide some empirical evidence to prove its point. This could be a (historical) case study, or contemporary material in the form of a case (or a set of mini-cases).
- alternatively, your essay could challenge the framework you have set up by discussing rival theories.
Body: Section 3
- any decent essay will look critically at your framework. It will do so by testing it; either by relating to the empirical evidence, or balancing two frameworks together (e.g. supranationalism/intergovernmentalism, rational choice/post-positivist). You may choose to provide a critique of theory, add your own analysis of empirical data or suggest a synthesis of discussed theories
- you should take this opportunity state your own opinions: which theorist you agree with and why, or which parts of certain authors you agree / disagree with and why.
- finally, you should use the conclusion to repeat what you have argued: ‘this essay has argued that’ ‘this essay has shown that…’
- make sure the reader knows where you stand on the issue
- if you wish, it is possible to conclude with an ‘agenda for further research’.
Developing your argument
Make use of topic sentences. These are the first sentences of each paragraph. They should express clearly the point of the paragraph. Elaborate the point in the rest of the paragraph. Try to argue one point per paragraph. All topic sentences in one section should read like a logical story. Try to cut and paste the first and last sentences of every paragraph into a new document: does your (new, shorter) essay still make sense?
Presenting factual/empirical material
Make use of tables, figures and other graphics to prove your point. Do not only use resources curated from the WWW. Make intelligent use of these, but if you need quantitative datasets, look for these on the websites of national statistical agencies or International Organisations: OECD, UN, Eurostat, etc. Another good source is The Guardian’s Big Data datasets.
Referencing and bibliography
For a standard referencing guideline, please refer to the European Studies thesis manual. Consistency is key!!
Splelling chckers and proofreading
Make sure you use one. But do not entirely rely on it. You must read your paper threw at list three times.
- To realise what you have achieved
- To make sure the paper sounds logical and coherent
- To check for little errors in spelling, formatting and presentation.