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Essay writing

At university, students' learning is often assessed primarily through written work. Students may also be asked to make oral presentations or display their knowledge through a poster but the emphasis is on written assignments such as essays, reports and examinations. These writing tasks are designed by lecturers to help students learn to think about the social and physical world in particular ways. Although certain ways of thinking are generally valued by academics across the university it is important to remember that each discipline has its own requirements and expectations attached to written tasks.

In their professional lives very few people, except academics, write essays. However, at university they are one of the most common writing tasks. Essays are widely used by academics because they are a good way of assessing students' thinking skills and in particular what we call ‘higher order' thinking skills. Essays allow students the opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of the material they have been taught. They require the ability to see relationships between concepts and to impose a logical structure on material gathered from a range of different sources.

An academic essay must have the correct structure (PDF 368KB)

A guide to The Process of Writing is freely available online from the La Trobe University Library.

An essay must have an argument

A student essay at university is an extended piece of writing which presents an argument based on current research. An argument is made up of a thesis statement (PDF 76KB), which is usually placed at the end of the introduction, and a set of main points.

The thesis statement (PDF 76KB) is the most important sentence in the essay. It tells the reader the position taken in response to the question or task. The thesis statement is often introduced with the words, 'This essay will argue …' or 'In this essay I will argue …' (Note that this is one of the few instances in which the first person is used in academic writing). A thesis statement always asserts something. It is more a description of what the essay will do. 'This essay will outline the major factors responsible for unemployment in contemporary Australia' is not a thesis statement because it does not assert anything. 'This essay will argue that government policy is the major cause of unemployment in contemporary Australia,' is a thesis statement because it states a position. The rest of the essay must then demonstrate research into unemployment that supports this assertion.

Writing the introduction

An essay is written to convince the reader that the argument it contains is intellectually justifiable. The reader is the most important person in the essay writing process and this is reflected in the introduction (PDF 153KB) which must provide the reader with an incentive to read the essay, a clear and detailed map of what is in the essay and a statement of the writer's position.

To achieve these functions, your essays should have the following parts: 

  • begin with one or two sentences which draw the reader into the essay by stating the importance of the topic or issue. Giving historical background is one way of doing this. If the essay will only deal with some aspects of a topic it is usual to tell the reader. This shows that you have a broad understanding of the issue but can only deal with part of it within the limited space of a student paper.
  • the next group of sentences in the introduction set out the main point which will be used to support the thesis statement. Each one is usually dealt with in a separate sentence rather than crowded together in a list.
  • the last sentence is usually the thesis statement.

Two sample essay introductions with self-tests (PDF 153KB) demonstrate the components of an effective introduction in a step-by-step style.

Main points and paragraph structure

Essays are built up of a series of paragraphs which all contribute to establishing the writer's purpose. At university, paragraphs are the basic unit or building block of extended pieces of writing.

Successful essays depend upon building up the overall structure, through paragraphs which have a clearly identified main point. The main points of the paragraphs are the main points outlined in the introduction. A paragraph in academic writing frequently consists of a main idea which is explained, amplified, supported and sometimes illustrated. Paragraphs in formal university work are characterised by increasing specificity. That is they move from the general to the specific thus increasingly refining the reader's understanding.

The following paragraph demonstrates these points. The sentence in italics states the main point. The sentences in normal font amplify and explain the point and the sentences in bold support the point by providing evidence.

Australia is a society where economic inequality is pervasive and deeply entrenched. Familiar generalisations about Australia’s unique ‘egalitarianism’ do not match with the factual picture. The social dynamics at work, and the levels of inequality resulting, are much the same as are found in North America, Western Europe, and middle ranking capitalist economies elsewhere. For example studies of income and wealth distribution show that the top 20% of Australians hold 72% of the wealth (Dilnot, 1990) and the top 10% of households receive 40% of total income (Raskall, 1993).

A common structure for paragraphs in academic writing is as follows:

  • Main Point - the main idea of the paragraph is expressed as a generalisation
  • Explanation, Amplification - the main idea is elaborated and its meaning explained
  • Illustration - the main idea is illustrated or supported by example, data or quote.

Writing conclusions

Finally a good essay has a conclusion which restates the argument, reminds the reader of the two or three points which provide the most important support for the argument and then draws the essay to a close.