Jamal Shahin » Teaching » Essay writing guide

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.

Essay information

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.

Research question

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:

Short guide to successful essay writing

A good essay will have:

How to structure your essay

A good structure of your essay is as important as the content.

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.

  1. state your essay topic
  2. outline how you will answer your question
  3. 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’

DO write:

Body: Section 1

Body: Section 2

Body: Section 3


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.

  1. To realise what you have achieved
  2. To make sure the paper sounds logical and coherent
  3. To check for little errors in spelling, formatting and presentation.