The general idea of an essay
Writing conventions differ from one discipline to another. However, the basic principles of academic writing are the same irrespective of the subject area: critical reading, analytical interpretation of sources and data, and clear prose. In this section, you will find a general guide to writing a first-class essay in the humanities and social sciences.
Presenting an Argument
This sounds obvious, but it must be taken very seriously: you are not being invited to present a general series of meandering thoughts concerning the topic of your choice. Still less are you being asked to present a serious and in-depth discussion of something that interests you. You have posed a specific question, and you must provide a specific, clear answer, throughout the essay, that everything you are writing is contributing, in some way, to your essay. Critically assess everything that you write to ensure that it all contributes to strengthening the central argument of your essay. If you find that you have strayed from the objective of answering the question or that you are just writing generally about the topic rather than making a specific argument, you need to rethink.
Mastery of the Debate
It is important to get the right balance between your use of the literature and your contribution to the essay. You are expected to engage with academic literature in your essay, but not to reproduce it. The overuse of direct quotes confuses readers and disrupts the flow of the writing. You want your essay to be easy to read, and you need to guide the reader so that context, quotation, and commentary connect seamlessly with the quote. Whenever you refer to a source, you should make sure that you are using it. That is, you must either be deploying it critically to support your argument or making your critical assessment of the scholar or theory in question. A mere paraphrase or quotation without critical engagement is not sufficient.
This is fundamentally about two things: the structure of the essay and the analytical rigor of the specific arguments within it. Your essay should have an introduction, a series of paragraphs, each of which seeks to make one principal point, and a conclusion. The introduction should give a clear idea of how you are going to present your argument. The conclusion should review what you have done, indicating clearly the positions you have taken within the debate. It is best to use each paragraph to make one distinct point or to present one stage in your argument, and there should be a clear sense of how each paragraph contributes to your overall argument.
The first element of analytical rigor is consistency and clarity in your use of the concepts that compose your argument. The second component is the means by which you bring your concepts together to form arguments. The basic idea here is, whenever you are making an argument, to get as clear as you can about its formal components, which are your premises, and how you move from them to your conclusion. Almost any argument can be broken down into this format: we assert the authority of a series of premises, and then we argue that those premises, taken together, entail a specific conclusion. For example:
- P1. People do not deserve their natural talents.
- P2. The benefits of social cooperation should be distributed according to morally relevant criteria.
- P3. If an attribute is undeserved, it is not morally relevant. Therefore,
- C1. (From P1 and P3) Natural talents are not morally relevant, and
- C2. (From C1 and P2) The benefits of social cooperation should not be distributed according to natural talent.
This argument is logically impeccable – that is, it is valid, but nothing has been done, yet, to show that it is sound, i.e. that its premises are true. This brings us to the third component of analytical rigor: the provision of reasons. In order for you to believe that C1 and C2 are true, you must first believe that P1-P3 are true, and to show you that P1-P3 are true, I must provide substantive reasons. The three positive components of analytical rigor are conceptual clarity, logical rigor, and the provision of persuasive reasons. These combine with a clear and concise overall structure to produce a technically adept essay.
Originality cannot, obviously, be taught, though it should emerge through a comprehensive, thoughtful engagement with the literature on a given topic. The ideal here is to contribute to the debate that has not yet been made, but that will only happen rarely. Set aside the literature for a period and reflect on your argument. Think about it for yourself and really try to get a handle on your thoughts about it. It should be clear from the Mastery of the Debate section that there are key places in any essay where you can make your contribution to the debate.