Pass Notes: The British Academic Essay

This is intended for my students as a reference point for, and deeper explanation of, advice that I usually give in class. This isn’t an explanation of the King’s College London marking system, but gives my perspective on what an essay is, what makes for a good essay, and why academics like myself use them as a form of assessment.

The essence of a good essay is that it answers the bloody question.

If you are not familiar with the kind of essays set in British universities, this may seem strange: Why am I being told to read dozens of articles, books, and book chapters, only to be asked to answer a question that can often be written on a single line? Why, given all the various ways that I have pursued knowledge of a specific subject, am I being asked to corral what I have learned into two-to-five thousand words dedicated to one question? The variants of these questions are, in my experience, near endless. For many students, the British academic essay can be a shock — particularly the authoritarian nature of set questions in lieu of open-ended research papers. I am not going to engage on the merits of British essay questions versus open-ended research papers, but I do hope to convince you of the merit, and depth, of requiring students to craft a 3000 word answer to a question in the context of undergraduate or postgraduate study.

Let’s start with two related statements: 1) Academic disciplines are built upon questions, and 2) Answering important questions is hard.

Pretty much everything you read over the course of your studies is likely to be the result of someone, or a group of people, seeking to explain something about the world we live in now, or its past, or its future. In order to explain the world, or a theory or perspective on the world, people usually start with a question. Academics happen to be specialists at formulating and answering questions about the world. We’re not alone in this. Asking difficult questions is a core task of journalists, analysts, investors, etc. Academics seek answers to all sorts of questions, like “How old is the universe?”, “How hot will the earth be in 100 years?”, and “How do I know what I think I know?”. Some questions require thousands of people and particle accelerators to answer, other questions require a pencil, some paper, and a stack of books written by other people. This might seem basic, but it points to two things: questions are important, and academia is an accretive beast — our questions form in response to the answers that others have provided to their own questions.

So, when I’m asking you to answer the bloody question I’m not being a flippant dictator — I’m asking you to do what academics do, albeit in a limited/constrained form. If you think about an essay question as a directed research project instead of an intellectual straight-jacket, you are likely to wind up with better marks.

Onto point number 2: answering important questions is hard. This is an understatement — there may be no answer to some pretty important questions academics ask about the world, or at least none that we could feasibly locate within the predicted lifespan of the physical universe. For a relatively simple-to-explain example of this, try reading up on the three body problem and the Butterfly effect. From another perspective, historians constantly butt heads with the limits (and limitations) of information that can be used to explain past events in human history. People die, letters disintegrate, and selecting material to preserve in archives isn’t a neutral activity.

Set question titles are designed by academics (like me) to get you to think hard about questions that we (academics) think are important, or relate to core concerns of a given discipline. Importance is relative, in the sense that the importance of questions in theoretical physics and political theory are pretty much incommensurable. Nonetheless, in a given discipline there are likely to be important questions (“What causes wars?”), recurring questions (“Who or what caused World War 1?”), alongside sub-disciplinary topics or foci (“Can models and datasets predict the onset of armed conflict?”) and thousands of overlapping and inter-related personal academic projects. The point is that the person in charge of teaching you a given subject (eg, me) is meant to understand the relationship between the big discipline-defining questions, the ones that define subfields, and usually the important questions du jour.

A key part of undergraduate and postgraduate education (it becomes more important the further you go, and if you pursue further study you will have to retrace your steps) is becoming aware of disciplines, and their importance. For this reason, when I set questions, I’m not just looking for an answer, but I’m probably also forcing you to engage with some of the big questions, which will require you to read the relevant material, and therefore understand the context of the question.

This leads me neatly to general rule #1:

Before you answer an essay question, you should seek to understand who asks similar kinds of questions, and why they find that general class of questions important.

If you are an undergraduate, this means that you need to understand the academic disciplines that you’re working with, and the primary concerns/disagreements within the discipline. If you’re a postgraduate, this means that you need to understand how, and why, different disciplines and sub-disciplines approach the same question. This means understanding the relationships between different forms and styles of academic inquiry, as well as differing methods for assessing evidence or theoretical arguments. This might seem like a lot. It is. There’s no sugarcoating this: if you are not interested in how people differ in how they think about the world, then theory is likely to be tough going.

A second important consideration is that there are a couple of different reasons why academics like myself set essays. The primary reason, in my mind, is to see how you’re doing. The close second, at least for assessed work, is to give you a grade, which will later be totalled up with all your other grades as part of your overall degree. Some people really don’t like the second part, but for now, let’s stick to the first one.

Please believe me when I say that reading and marking student essays is, by far, the most time consuming part of teaching, setting aside module design. I’m pretty sure that if some academics could get away with giving you a tick for attending, they would. At the same time, essay writing (or timed essays in exams) provide a good, standardised, window into your progress and engagement with the course as a student. This means that if you don’t give your assessed work your best effort, then your lecturers (like me) won’t understand what they need to improve. Furthermore, your lecturers won’t be able to give you the best advice to stretch yourself and progress.

This leads to general rule #2:

Aim to complete any essay one week prior to the deadline.

Many people work well under pressure. I work well under pressure. I often produce my best work 1 month from a deadline as opposed to 3 months from a deadline. But I don’t know anyone who produces their best work on the deadline, myself included. That said, life happens. You may have work, or a chance meeting, or a family visit, or something else that doesn’t qualify for an essay extension (if something happens that gives you a good reason to ask for an essay extension, ask the office!). I have been marking essays for under a decade, but I’ve already lost count of the number of students who stated profound regret that they didn’t have an extra 24 hours to work on an essay before submitting it. This is about 4x as important for your dissertation at the end of your studies, so leave even more time between completion and submitting it.

Essay Writing: The Technical Parts

Essay writing is a creative activity. It is an art, not a science. That said, art involves craft and conventions. Whatever piece of contemporary art that the Daily Mail is sneering at this week exists, like an essay, in relation to a previously existing tradition, and is likely made by someone with far higher technical ability than it may first appear. Wherever you see creative activity, there is likely craft at work, and essay writing is no different. This applies to academic work across disciplines, but different disciplines and fields have different conventions. Understanding these conventions is important, and can be done by sight in many cases. The Department of War Studies generally draws its conventions from history, international relations, and the social sciences. Each course will have its own specific requirements (notably for reference styles) so pay attention to what your lecturers ask for. That said, there are three elements that transcend this: the technical elements of an essay, structuring your essay, and writing your essay.

Essays: The Technical Bits

Essays have technical elements. These are, in general, non-negotiable. The absence of technical elements is a signal to a reader that something is wrong. If your essay does not have a title page, the essay title at the top, consistent citations, and a bibliography, then the reader is likely to get the impression that you are unable to produce these basic elements of academic writing. These are not finishing touches, they are foundations. An essay without a title is akin to a front page news story without a headline. Inconsistent citations indicates that you are either unaware of the importance of citations, or unable — on a technical level — to use them. Essays lacking bibliographies indicate that you are either unable to produce one, or that your work on the essay is sloppy enough to forget to include one. Either looks bad.

Technical sloppiness is best compared to an unforced error. Time pressures aside, there is no real explanation for it in an academic setting, and, from experience, it is the shortest path towards a case of unwitting plagiarism, which is not where you want to find yourself at any point.

General rule #3:

Read your essay for technical mistakes before submitting it.

I advise reading your essay backwards, and from the bottom up (if using footnotes). Keep a copy of your bibliography separate and cross out an item each time you encounter a reference to it (and if it’s not there when you find a reference, make sure to add to the bibliography). Check for consistency at all points, particularly with citation formatting, spelling and grammar. I am not allergic to American English, but make sure not to mix British and American English in a single piece of work. Remember that quoted material should be quoted as-is, so don’t Americanise British authors, or vice-versa.

Essays: The Structural Elements

On a structural level of an essay, boring is good. Every essay that you write will contain an introduction, your argument, and a conclusion. For essays of 3000 words in length, I advise that you make your argument over at least 5 paragraphs.

The Introduction

Your introduction should be a maximum of 500 words or so. That’s the maximum. The best way to think about this limit is that every word in your introduction is one that can’t be used to make your argument. That said, there’s a good reason introductions exist. Your introduction should inform the reader of your line of argument (more on that later), how you are going to explain your argument, and where you are drawing your terms and definitions from.

A second way to think about your introduction is that it serves as one big car park for every contentious issue that relates to your answer, but is unnecessary to discuss in depth for the purposes of answering the question. You don’t have the space to explain and explore every single theoretical argument that is relevant or important to your answer, but the introduction is where you park every theoretical argument that doesn’t need further exploration. You will be able to read advanced forms of this kind of activity in peer-reviewed articles, and the first chapter of most academic books published by university presses. Even though you might not be in a position to comprehend the range of issues that an academic parks by the end of their introduction, or first chapter, the process is similar to what is required of you in an academic essay, even at undergraduate level.

At this point you may be (rightly) wondering how you are meant to do in 500 words what your tutors do in at least a thousand words, if not many multiples for that figure. If you read academic articles, the introduction serves multiple purposes. A good one will usually identify a gap in existing literature of a given subject, an important research problem associated with that gap, and propose a way of investigating that problem. That’s a lot of heavy lifting that you don’t necessarily need to do. Your title is, in essence, a research problem served to you on a plate. You’ll have to identify why it’s important, and the parameters for answering the question, but longer introductions are unnecessary unless you have a long essay (5000+ words) or your dissertation. In those situations you’ll need a longer introduction, but you’ll get explanation of that from the lecturer, or from the training you’ll get for the dissertation component of your degree.

The Argument

You will present your argument in paragraphs, roughly 5–7 of them. I use the imperative here, because if you don’t present your argument in paragraphs, then you are going to have a very bad time. The first sentence of your paragraph should identify the argument that the paragraph will make, with reference to your overall line of argument, and the last sentence should connect the paragraph to the one that follows it. Everything in between those two sentences should be evidence about the point that the paragraph is making.

The line of argument in an essay is yours. It’s your answer. I can’t tell you what you’ll be writing about, but I can tell you that it’s usually expected to be logical and coherent, even if engaging with the worst excesses of post-modernist philosophy. Your line of argument is your answer to the question, and therefore the opening line of many of your paragraphs are likely to address the essay title itself. A good way of testing your line of argument is to read your introduction, and then the first and last sentence in each paragraph, and then the conclusion. If the result doesn’t sound vague or gibberish (twin demons of academic work), and the conclusion is convincing based upon what precedes it, then the chances are that you have a decent line of argument.

While the introduction of an essay differs a fair bit from academic articles, the point about a line of argument doesn’t differ as much. Try reading 3–4 articles in this way, and you’ll get a feeling for what I’m talking about. It’s particularly important to read case studies this way, before you include them in essays. You will need to be using evidence in an essay, not describing it. There is a world of difference between the two, and the easiest way to understand that difference is to read an article using case studies in International Security or Security Studies, and compare that to a descriptive account of events that you might find in a general history of the topic.

Your reader (me) will also need to know the limits of your argument. Set your argument up, then knock it down — what remains it likely to be its most defensible form. Above all, don’t think that ignoring major objections to your argument is in any way persuasive. The best way to avoid major issues is by framing your argument in the introduction (see above), however contentious points need to be addressed. How you address them, and the evidence that you use to do so, is what will get you higher grades. Remember: you’re being marked on your ability to provide a reasoned argument with evidence that displays your underlying knowledge of the subject matter, it’s not an election or similar rhetoric-heavy exercise.

One last point:

  • Don’t write essays in bullet points.
  • Ever.
  • Because they don’t connect.
  • And they read like crap.

The Conclusion

Your conclusion ties everything together. Think Star Wars not The Sixth Sense. You should remind your reader of your answer to the question, why your answer to the question makes sense and is supported by the available evidence, and maybe you can add a few lines of “Where next?” — e.g. why your answer is important or where it could be continued. Don’t throw curveballs, twists, a ton of new evidence, or a lot of material that contradicts what you have just spent 2,800 words arguing (keep your conclusion short, 250 words tops). Think of the nice warm fuzzy feeling you get while watching John McClane hug Holly McClane at the end of Die Hard 2, rather than the bleak “What happens next?” of The Thing and The Italian Job. Leave your reader thinking “What a good essay” and not “WTF?” Also, never, ever, watch re-makes and re-boots. They suck. If you ask me, Netflix should be forced to buy more classic films, but not musicals (except The Blues Brothers). If you’re thinking “Where the hell did all this advice about movies come from?”, well, that’s what the person marking your essay will be thinking if you start going off on a tangent at word 2930 of a 3000 word essay.

Essays: Writing, a.k.a Pruning the Weeds

There is a famous quote by General James Mattis that goes “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.” For present purposes, this can be reworked as “Be clear, be concise, and have a plan to kill every hyperbole in your essay.” It is always better to demonstrate the relative importance or merit of a given point with use of comparative figures or evidence than it is to resort to pointless adjectives. You may not notice this in your own writing, but all those adjectives, adverbs, and asides add up. If I was to arbitrarily reduce the word count of your essay by 5% you would probably complain — why don’t I get a fair chance to answer the question? — but if every fourth or fifth sentence includes a needless aside or statement, then you’re doing that to yourself.

Writing is a very personal exercise, so I’m not going to give you a long list of do/don’t items. However, you need to be aware of your own writing style. Do you use run-on sentences? Is your page littered with enough adverbs to make Stephen King weep? Are your paragraphs so dense that they could stand in for the obelisks in 2001 AD? The way you get to understand your own writing is by drafting your essays. Please believe me when I tell you that it is trivially easy to identify essays that haven’t been redrafted prior to submission, so you’ll need to write, read, redraft, repeat until an essay is done.

You will have to a couple of different hats while you read your own work. One is that of a sculptor, armed with only a hammer and chisel. Keeping in mind the argument that you are trying to make, you will need to work through your whole essay and hack off anything that doesn’t contribute to your answer. It might be interesting, it might be funny, it might be an extra detail that don’t seem as necessary on the second run through. Cut it, throw it away. Be brutal, but don’t take it to heart — consider that professional authors sometimes junk entire books or articles.

The second hat that you need to wear is that of the detective. Your essay is a lie, and it is your job to prove it. This is slightly different from attempting to disprove your own work. In this mode of reading, assess each point that you make on its own merits — does that figure back up that statement? — and so on. You’ll quickly find points that need a little more evidence to back them up, or unclear statements that need tweaking for clarity.

Third, you need to be a surgeon, and not just any surgeon, but the kind that excels in grafting humans back together after slicing them apart. After you’ve hacked away at your essay, and backstopped any weak points identified above, you might then need to move elements around to keep things in working order. If a minor point suddenly grows in size, or if a major paragraph is now half its previous length, then you’ll need to get your scalpel out. This is the sole situation in which you should be cutting and pasting material around in your essay. Once you have made structural alterations, you will need to re-draft your essay. It is all too easy to turn a perfectly clear point into a head-scratcher by moving it elsewhere, or surrounding it with a lot of new (hopefully related) material.

For technical books on the craft of writing, I suggest Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering The Craft, Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating With the Dead, and Stephen King’s On Writing. I realise that I should be pointing you towards books on writing non-fiction, but those send me to sleep, and I refer to the above, most of the time.

Conclusion

This (long) post has covered pretty much everything I have to say about writing essays. There is not much left to say, except try to write something every day, and try to write it by hand. If you’re a student of mine and you’re still having trouble, feel free to arrange to see me in my office hours.

Mirrored at Medium.com