A good essay is generally characterised by the following features:
The essay has a clear introductory paragraph. This outlines how you are going to tackle the question. Remember that a good essay is analytical not merely descriptive. You can answer a question in a variety of different ways. In your introductory paragraph you will generally state how you are going to answer the question and provide an outline of the essay (e.g. which issues you will examine and in which order). This means that the reader knows what is going to be addressed and how. You may want to pose questions that you will answer in the course of the essay.
Body of the Text
The structure of the essay will be clear and one part will follow logically from the next. Your argument will be well supported by research evidence and/or other literature. You should include references to support statements that you make – unsupported generalisations or assertions are not going to earn high marks.
A good essay will make reference to wide ranging literature sources – preferably including those that you have found independently, which may well include contrasting and conflicting evidence and/or interpretation. All this will show that you have a good understanding of the key issues and literature relating to it.
The evidence can be of different types - theoretical or empirical, depending on the essay question. It is important that wherever possible you include a range of evidence. In social science research, as you will know, there are frequently problems with the research design, conduct and analysis of research. Thus if many research studies point in the same or similar directions, you can be more sure that there is some 'truth' to a particular finding. You need to be aware of shortcomings of different studies. Note that material reported in the press may or may not be accurate. Also you should be cautious about accepting government pronouncements as statements of 'fact'.
You should avoid simply describing theory, policy or practice; for a good essay you need to analyse the material presented.
Many questions require good knowledge of empirical research. Others may require a sound understanding of differing policy contexts – as conveyed by commentators. This you need to acquire through reading books, journal articles and high quality material from the worldwide web.
Your essay should seek to be unbiased in its presentation of different perspectives; it should question and it should show evidence of independent thinking. So you may be able to make inferences or deductions on the basis of evidence that you have examined, but you need to consider the strengths and weaknesses of all perspectives, including those you are most inclined to agree with. You need to be clear that you have made particular inferences - so you might say 'on the basis of the evidence reported it would appear that…'. Showing originality of thought is generally advantageous, but conclusions that you reach must be based on valid assumptions - they must be arrived at logically through a process of deduction. If you assume that the reader agrees with your own biases and perspectives, this will not generally result in a convincing argument.
In terms of the content of the essay, the following points need to be considered:
- say how you are going to interpret the essay question;
- try and ensure that the content is balanced, relevant and that there is adequate description (but not too much);
- make sure that you have answered the question asked or discussed what you were asked to discuss – not something quite different.
The conclusion will bring together the main points that you have addressed and will relate to your introductory paragraph and indeed to the question posed. It should take into account the different strands you have addressed, relate to the broad issue that is being discussed, and should not simply summarise the essay. You may be able to draw out implications for theory, policy or practice.
Text should be clear, readable, and follow standard academic publishing conventions. Your course organiser may request a particular style but here is a suggested format that you could use if no course-specific guidelines are provided:
- Times New Roman or similar small serif font
- 12 point font
- Line spacing at 1.5 or double
- Text left justified or fully justified