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Essay

 Writing  Skills  
The  section  that  follows  outlines  some  of  the  main  skills  required  in  essay  writing  but  
many  of  the  points  made  here  are  equally  relevant  in  report  writing  and  other  written  
work.  

What  are  the  aims  of  essays?  

• To  organise  your  thinking  geographically.  


• To  bring  a  wide  range  of  material  to  bear  on  a  given  geographical  problem  or  
issue.  
• To  respond  critically  and  with  your  own  ideas  to  the  geographical  issue.  
• To  select  and  use  information  to  support  an  argument.  
• To  present  this  argument  in  a  clearly  structured  and  literate  way.  

These  are  ambitious  aims  and  none  of  this  will  happen  at  once.  Try  to  see  your  essay  
writing  as  a  continuing  process  of  learning  and  improvement.  Pay  attention  to  the  
feedback  you  receive.  Try  to  work  out  what  your  weaknesses  are,  and  try  to  engage  with  
them.  Reading  other  students’  essays  can  also  be  a  useful  way  of  thinking  about  your  
own.    

Preparation  

• Make  sure  you  spend  time  thinking  about  the  question  –  what  are  the  key  words  
in  the  question?  What  needs  defining  in  the  title?  What  concepts  might  underpin  
the  question?  It  may  be  worth  rewriting  the  essay  title  in  your  own  words  if  it  is  
at  all  complex  or  confusing?  You  might  want  to  incorporate  this  into  the  essay,  
defining  the  terms  and  drawing  out  the  overall  meaning  of  the  question  in  your  
introduction.    Think  also  about  any  built  in  assumptions  in  the  essay  title.  For  
example,  ‘To  what  extent  have  transnational  corporation  (TNCs)  become  

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increasingly  ‘placeless’  over  the  last  few  decades’  almost  invites  you  to  agree  
with  the  assumption  that  TNCs  have  become  increasingly  placeless.  You  may  
think  they  haven’t  –  remember  that  you  can  disagree  with  such  assumptions,  or  
treat  them  critically.  Your  argument  will,  of  course,  have  to  be  well  supported  
with  evidence  and  rational  argument.    
• Read  widely  and  try  to  compare  the  views  of  different  authors  on  a  topic.    Be  
critical  of  what  you  are  reading  but  make  sure  you  can  justify  your  critique.    Make  
sure  that  what  you  are  reading  is  relevant  to  contemporary  debates  –  often  this  
means  reading  recent  journal  articles  but  in  some  cases  will  mean  searching  out  
older  seminar  papers/texts.  The  important  thing  here  is  not  to  get  bogged  down  
in  the  reading  and  become  overwhelmed  by  the  material.    You  can  do  this  by  
breaking  up  the  reading  process  into  stages,  and  by  keeping  your  purpose  in  mind  
as  you  read.    
o A  step  by  step  approach  to  the  reading  may  be  useful.  Start  with  the  
general  text  books  and  review  articles  for  factual  background  and  an  
introduction  to  the  geographical  debates.    Move  on  from  these  to  more  
specialised  journal  articles  and  books.    
o After  your  initial  general  reading,  it  is  often  helpful  to  note  down  a  rough  
plan,  perhaps  just  a  few  headings.  What  will  your  main  lines  of  argument  
be?  In  what  order  might  they  appear?  
o As  you  read  in  more  detail,  use  the  essay  title  and  your  rough  plan  to  
direct  your  note-­‐taking  but  be  flexible.  Don’t  be  too  restrictive  in  your  
ideas  of  what  may  be  relevant  to  the  essay.  Be  prepared  to  change  your  
rough  plan,  sometimes  radically.  The  reading  will  develop  and  deepen  
your  understanding  of  the  essay  title.    

The  key  point  is  that  you  should  not  start  to  plan  your  essay  after  you  have  taken  all  
your  notes.  You  should  be  planning  it  while  you  are  taking  notes.    

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• Once  you  have  finished  the  reading,  you  should  draw  up  your  essay  plan  in  detail.  
Avoid  the  temptation  to  skip  this  stage  and  get  on  with  writing.  The  plan  will:  
o Allow  you  to  write  more  quickly,  and  to  concentrate  on  developing  a  more  
fluent  style  
o Focus  your  thoughts  on  the  essay  question  
o Give  you  a  chance  to  think  through  and  develop  your  arguments  
o Help  you  avoid  repetition  and  confusion  
o Tell  you  whether  you  are  ready  to  write  or  not  
• In  its  simplest  form,  you  are  aiming  to  produce  an  essay  structure  that  lays  out  
the  main  points  in  your  argument,  in  the  order  that  you  intend  to  make  them.  
This  might  be  paragraph  by  paragraph.  How  much  detail  you  go  into  in  planning  
inside  each  paragraph  is  up  to  you.  It  depends  perhaps  on  the  complexity  of  the  
essay.    

Get  Critical    

Before  ever  sitting  down  to  research  and  write  your  essay,  it  is  important  to  realise  that  
at  university  level  it  is  not  enough  to  repeat  what  you  hear  in  lectures,  or  read  in  books.  
You  must  learn  to  think  for  yourself  and  criticise  others.  While  critical  thinking  is  
something  we  all  engage  in  to  manage  our  day  to  day  lives,  the  word  ‘critical’  is  
commonly  thought  to  have  quite  a  negative  meaning,  for  example  finding  fault  with  
someone  or  something.    At  university,  however,  ‘critical’  has  a  broader  meaning:  being  
critical  involves  making  judgements  and  evaluations.    Making  judgements  can  involve  
distinguishing  between  fact  and  opinion  or  evaluating  the  validity  of  information  
sources  or  the  validity  of  particular  theories  and/or  their  application  to  particular  
situation.  These  judgements  need  to  be  well  grounded  in  research,  wide  reading,  and  
include  consideration  of  all  possible  viewpoints.  Critical  thinking  in  this  sense  is  based  on  
a  synthesis  of  a  number  of  factors,  and  is  not  just  uninformed  personal  opinion.  

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You  must  learn  how  to  build  arguments  using  new  concepts  and  theories.  You  must  
learn  how  to  collect,  use  and  evaluate  evidence.  You  must  learn  how  to  communicate  
with  clarity,  accuracy  and  precision.    These  are  al  important  skills,  which  you  should  
endeavour  to  develop  through  your  first  year  and  the  remainder  of  your  degree.  When  
working  through  geographical  problems,  there  are  a  range  of  standards  which  you  
should  aim  to  reach  to  check  the  quality  of  your  reasoning  about  a  given  problem  or  
situation.    

• Critical  thinkers  are  by  nature  sceptical.  They  approach  texts  with  the  same  
scepticism  and  suspicion  as  they  approach  spoken  remarks.    
• Critical  thinkers  are  active,  not  passive.  They  ask  questions  and  analyze.  They  
consciously  apply  tactics  and  strategies  to  uncover  meaning  or  assure  their  
understanding.    
• Critical  thinkers  do  not  take  an  egotistical  view  of  the  world.  They  are  open  to  
new  ideas  and  perspectives.  They  are  willing  to  challenge  their  beliefs  and  
investigate  competing  evidence.    

What  should  your  essay  include?  

• Make  sure  you  think  about  arguments  and  counter  argument  –  a  good  essay  is  
one  with  a  logical  and  coherent  argument.  Everything  in  your  essay  must  work  
towards  the  argument  you  are  trying  to  make  (don’t  go  off  on  a  tangent  or  use  
long  case  study  type  examples  that  are  only  partially  relevant).  Any  
argument/assertions  that  you  make  in  your  essay  should  be  supported  by  
evidence  in  the  form  or  either  ‘facts’  or  citations  from  sources  of  reading.  
• Make  links  to  both  conceptual  and  empirical  materials.  
• Make  sure  you  go  the  original  sources  –  don’t  rely  on  ideas  cited  in  other  texts.    

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Conceptual  Content:  

For  many  students,  the  focus  in  many  questions  on  concepts  rather  than  ‘facts’  is  one  of  
the  most  significant  differences  between  A  Level  and  University  level  essays.  Concepts  
are  the  more  ‘abstract’  elements  of  research-­‐  they  are  the  elements  that  shape  how  
people  do  research  and  include  theories,  assumptions  and  ideas  of  the  researchers.  
When  you  are  reading  need  to  consider  what  the  concepts  are  that  shape  someone’s  
research  and  how  this  may  shape  the  outcomes  of  that  research.    The  concepts  that  
influence  geographers  have  changed  over  time  and  over  the  next  year,  you  should  
become  aware  about  what  those  concepts  are,  how  and  why  they  have  changed.    

Aim  to  have  progression  in  your  argument  

You  should  aim  to  have  progression  in  your  argument  so  that  you  build  on  ideas  as  you  
write.    Start  with  the  simpler  ideas  and  then  build  on  these  to  develop  more  complex  
themes.  Avoid  the  temptation  to  simplify  everything  –  the  world  isn’t  that  simple  and  
you  should  be  trying  to  get  across  the  idea  that  the  world  is  ‘messy’  and  complex.    Your  
essay  should  demonstrate  an  awareness  of  the  subtleness  of  the  arguments  in  the  
literature.    

Essay  structure  

• The  introduction  should  be  concise,  direct  and  grab  the  attention  of  the  reader.  It  
should  contain  a  general  idea  of  your  understanding  of  the  question.    It  should  
outline  the  argument  you  intend  to  adopt  in  the  body  of  the  essay,  and  how  this  
relates  to  the  existing  geography.    IT  should  also  briefly  state  how  you  intend  to  
develop  this  argument.  Don’t  go  into  detail  about  what  is  tom  come,  or  deluge  
the  reader  with  lots  of  information.  
• The  main  body  of  the  essay  should  contain  a  number  of  logically  connected  
paragraphs  and  arguments.    Do  not  just  summarise  your  notes.    You  must  select  

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those  ideas,  points,  and  facts  that  are  relevant  to  the  question  and  put  them  
together  to  form  a  logical  argument.  You  need  to  give  this  a  good  deal  of  
thought.  Consider  alternative  ways  of  ordering  your  points.  Are  there  any  
weaknesses  in  the  structure  you  have  provisionally  settled  on?  
• The  conclusion  should  refer  back  to  the  question  and  restate  your  main  
argument.  Ideally,  it  should  also  add  some  concluding  remarks.    If  you  have  spent  
some  of  the  essay  attacking  a  particular  view  or  geographer,  you  could  state  
whether  there  is  anything  you  still  find  valuable  in  that  view.    Or,  having  
discussed  a  subject  in  some  depth,  you  could  suggest  the  sort  of  research  that  
would  allow  a  fuller  answer  to  the  essay  question.    

Finishing  the  essay  ...  

• Always  give  yourself  time  to  write  the  essay,  read  and  then  improve  it.  Make  sure  
the  reader  knows  why  you  are  including  pieces  of  information.  Be  explicit.  Try  to  
use  the  model  of  ‘statement,  followed  by  reasons’.  Don’t  be  afraid  to  leave  
something  out  if  it  doesn’t  fit.    Make  sure  everything  you  write  is  relevant,  
accurate  and  clear.    
• When  you  read  through  the  first  draft  of  your  essay  think  about  how  you  could  
improve  the  structure  and  style,  check  whether  the  essay  is  too  long  or  too  short  
and  correct  any  mistakes.  In  particular,  think  about:  
o Have  you  answered  the  question?  Have  you  done  what  the  introduction  
said  you  were  going  to  do?  Have  you  made  links  back  to  the  question  in  
the  main  body  of  the  essay?  
o Is  the  logical  progression  of  the  argument  clear  for  the  reader?  Do  your  
paragraphs  flow  from  one  to  the  other?  

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o Have  you  integrated  ideas  from  your  reading?  Avoid  having  one  paragraph  
outlining  what  one  person  says  and  then  another  listing  another  person’s  
view.  Are  your  arguments  supported  by  evidence?  
o Are  there  any  errors  of  grammar  or  spelling?  Could  the  style  be  improved?  
o Has  anything  important  been  left  out?  
o Do  you  have  a  lively  introduction  and  conclusion  to  your  essay  and  does  
the  conclusion  show  how  you  have  answered  the  question?  

Further  guidance  

• Bonnett,  A.  (2001)  How  to  argue:  a  student  guide.  Harlow:  Pearson  
• Kneale,  P.  E.  (2003)  Study  skills  for  Geography  Students:  a  practical  guide.  
London:  Hodder  Arnold  
• Look  also  at  the  section  on  Essay  Writing  on  the  University  of  Manchester  
website:  
http://www.phrasebank.manchester.ac.uk  
• Faculty  of  Humanities  Study  Skills  Website  
http://www.humanities.manchester.ac.uk/studyskills  
 
 
 
 

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