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How to write an academic essay

We asked academic Dr Claire Sedgwick to go through the basics of writing assignments for college or university.

Writing essays can seem daunting, especially when you’re starting from a blank page. This guide will provide you with top tips for tackling the essay, as well as links to other resources that are helpful.

Step One: Pick a question and make sure you understand what you’re being asked to do.

Usually, you’ll have a list of questions to choose from, read through the questions carefully and make notes next to them about:

  • What you know about the topic
  • How confident you feel about answering the question
  • Anything you are unsure about

Once you’ve decided which question to answer, go through it carefully and highlight/ underline key phrases. Write down in your own words what you think you’re being asked to write about. Usually if you can write it in your own words that’s a good indicator that you understand the question. Stuck or unsure? Ask your teacher. They would much prefer that you speak to them before writing to make sure you are on the right track, than to find out when they’re assessing your work that there has been a misunderstanding.

Don’t overcomplicate things by worrying that everyone is going to answer the same question, or by writing an essay on a topic you feel less confident about because you think people will pick other questions and you’ll stand out more. Your teacher will understand that some questions will be more popular than others - you shouldn’t be penalised for answering a question just because others have - so focus on answering it well!

Stuck or unsure? Ask your teacher. They would much prefer that you speak to them before writing to make sure you are on the right track, than to find out when they’re assessing your work that there has been a misunderstanding.
Step Two: Collect the information you need.

You will usually need to provide evidence to support your argument, and that means you’ll need to do some reading. Academic essays need reliable sources, usually from books and academic journals. Your first step should be to look at any reading list you’ve been given by your teacher. Make notes whilst you’re reading and keep a list of your sources as that will make it much easier to write your bibliography at the end! When deciding whether a source is reliable, it’s a good idea to ask yourself these questions:

  • Who wrote it? Does the author have expertise in the topic? Remember, anyone can publish on a website and they might not actually have expertise in the topic they’re discussing!
  • Does the source provide supporting evidence?
  • Is the source particularly biased towards a specific view point- does this impact on how fair the points being made are?
  • Is the source up to date or has new research or ideas made it out of date?

Your university or college library should have a catalogue that can make it easier to find sources, or you can use Google Scholar as this will show you academic sources. Another idea is to look at the bibliographies of the texts you’ve already been reading as that can be a good jumping off point for finding other relevant sources. If in doubt about where to look, ask a librarian - they are trained in finding information and are there to help. They can also help in hunting out accessible versions of sources where they are available.

Look at the bibliographies of the texts you’ve already been reading for the class as that can be a good jumping off point for finding other relevant sources on your topic.
Step Three: Make a plan

If you’ve made sure you understand they question, and you’ve read your sources and made notes on them, now is the time to plan what you’re going to write. Although it can be tempting to dive straight in and write the essay, plans are a good idea for a couple of reasons. Firstly, writing a plan makes it less likely you’ll find yourself staring at a blank page with no idea what to write. It’s a bit like the warm up you do before you exercise - it gets you ready for writing. Secondly, having a plan will make it much easier to structure your essay once you start writing it.

Generally, an essay should include an introduction where you introduce your key arguments and what you will be writing about, the main body of the text, where you make your key points and use evidence to support your points, and a conclusion where you sum up what you have argued. The University of Manchester’s Phrasebank is a great resource that includes key phrases you can use to introduce your essay, refer to sources and conclude your essay.

Step Four: Start Writing

You’ve made sure you understand the question, you’ve done the reading and you’ve made a plan, now it’s time to write! If you’re prone to procrastinating, then the Pomodoro technique might help. Set a timer (there’s loads of them online) for 25 minutes and try and write solidly during that time. Then after 25 minutes, take a 5-minute break, then repeat for as long as you want. Depending on how long the essay is, it might be a good idea to give yourself targets. For example, if I had a 2000-word essay to write, I might aim to write 500 words a day for 4 days. Breaking it down can help if it feels daunting, though of course you need to give yourself enough time to write, it’s harder to break it down into smaller chunks if you’ve only got a day to write it all.

A plan is a bit like the warm up you do before you exercise - it gets you ready for writing.
Step Five: Edit

Once you’ve written your essay, read it back to check it makes sense and flows well. It’s a good idea to read it aloud if you can, or use Word’s read aloud feature. You’ll notice small mistakes better if you can hear them as well as read them. If you have a friend or family member who’s willing to help, you can also ask them to read it to see if it makes sense to them

At this point, it’s also a good idea to make sure your referencing is on point. Check with your tutor what referencing style you’ll need to use. Websites like Cite Them Right allow you to check whether you’ve cited a reference correctly, and you can use programmes like Endnote to keep all of your references in one place.

Step Six: Submit!

Submit your essay, making sure you’ve included all of the information you need and it’s been formatted how you’ve been instructed to format it (e.g., make sure it’s double spaced if you’ve been asked to, or in a specific font). Your teacher should give you instructions about how they expect you to format your work at the beginning of the year or before assigning your first essay - if they don't, you should always ask.

Step Seven: Feedback

When you get your essay feedback, it can be tempting to just look at your grade and then shove the feedback in a drawer, but reading your feedback will help you work out what to do next time. Your teacher should be happy to go through feedback with you, especially as it can help you improve.


This resource is only a very rough guide to approaching essays - every subject, tutor, and system is a little bit different, but knowing some good questions to ask about any assignment is always helpful. You can find lots more resources on good essay writing, academic language, citations, and accessibility online, or through your library.