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How to Write an Essay

Tips for writing and structuring your essays.

Academic Essay

Essay questions

An essay is usually based on a question. The first thing to be said about essay questions is that they do not usually have any simple and straightforward answer to them. In this way, they are not like the types of questions you will see on an exam eg. in multiple choice or short answer questions.

For example, the following factual question might appear as a question on an exam.

What is social networking?             (Sample short answer question)

To answer this question, you would just need to outline the basic features of social networking, drawing on the type of information you would find in a textbook, or which is presented in the lectures.

Essay questions, in contrast, have no simple answer, like the following question on a related topic.

Has social networking improved the quality of relationships in society?  (Sample essay question)

To answer this question you need to exercise your own judgment, and provide what YOU think is the best answer to the question. The answer you present in an essay is what we call YOUR ARGUMENT.


Question: Have a look at an essay question you need to complete this semester/study period What is the judgment you need to make about this topic?

What does an ARGUMENT look like?

In an essay it is important to present a clear ARGUMENT. Let’s think about possible answers to the ‘social networking ‘essay question above.  The following are two possible responses:

NO! Social networking has had a terrible effect on the quality of relationships

YES! Social networking has had a fantastically good effect on the quality of relationships

These ARGUMENTS represent more extreme positions, and while it is possible to argue either position, there would be a good deal of pressure placed on you to justify and support such a strong claim.

The more conventional way to go is to consider both sides of the issue. This however, does not mean you should go straight for the middle, intermediate position; that is to argue something along the following lines.

Social networking has had both positive and negative effects on the quality of relationships

This example is a bit of YES and NO option, and while it is possible to argue it, your lecturer may criticise you for going for the easy, ‘sitting on the fence’ option.

The better academic arguments are ones that consider both sides of an issue, but ultimately make some commitment either way. Such arguments are often structured around connective words like while, although, however, such as the following:

WHILE social networking has had a number of positive effects on the quality of relationships in society, these are outweighed by the problems that this new technology has brought.

ALTHOUGH there are certainly some problems associated with social networking, on balance this technology has done much to improve the way that people relate to each other.

These are just two of the arguments you could run. There may be other ways you could take the topic.  In the first example below, the ARGUMENT is focused on different ‘phases’ of social networking; in the second example, the focus is ion different ‘uses’.

In its early phases social networking clearly had a positive effect on social relationships. HOWEVER, in its more recent developments, particularly with its increased commercialisation, it is difficult to see any positive influence.

Some specialised uses of social networking have been most beneficial to people. HOWEVER the more common uses seem to have led to a deterioration in the quality of relationships.


Question: For the essay question you are working on what would be some possible arguments/ answers to the question?

How do I develop an ARGUMENT?

We do not want to suggest from the explanation above, that you just look at the question and then decide what your position will be. This would be violating a major principle of essay writing – which is that it is always based on wide and critical reading (see Table 1 above). It is through your reading on the topic that your argument will develop and begin to take shape. That is to say, in the case of the social networking question, you will look at research that has been done on this topic, and also read the ideas and views of some leading scholars in the field. It is your engagement with this material that will help you to develop the ARGUMENT you wish to present.

Some students however, find it useful to begin their research by adopting a PROVISIONAL position on the issue. This is the position that you intuitively have when you read the question. So for the social networking question, you may begin by taking for example, a generally pessimistic view of the effects of this phenomenon. This is in effect your hypothesis: that social networking has generally had a harmful effect on social relationships. Equally, though you could adopt the more ‘positive’ position.

It will be in the process of reading and thinking about material that you will decide what your final position will be. It is important when you come to writing and structuring your work that you have made some commitment to the ARGUMENT you wish to present.


Question: For the essay question you have chosen what would be a provisional argument?

How do I STRUCTURE an essay?

The conventional structure of an essay is usually given as:

  • Introduction
  • Body
  • Conclusion
  • List of references

On its own, this doesn’t tell us very much. We know we have to begin an essay with an introduction and finish with a conclusion (and also provide a list of the references we have used). The challenging part is developing a structure for the main part of the essay – the body.

It is important that whatever STRUCTURE you develop for your body, it is one that is going to allow your ARGUMENT to come through.

Imagine for example that you wish to present the following argument in your essay, one which is focused on the negative aspects of social networking:

WHILE social networking has had a number of positive effects on the quality of relationships in society, these are outweighed by the problems that this new technology has brought.

A possible structure for this work would be as follows:

  • Introduction
  • Background to social networking
  • Positive effects on social relations
  •         Positive effect #1
  •         Positive effect #2
  • Negative effects on social relations
  •         Negative effect #1
  •         Negative effect #2
  •         Negative effect #3
  •         Negative effect #4
  • Conclusion
  • List of references

This essay structure would clearly be appropriate for the negative argument to be adopted. We can see in such a plan there is a clear outweighing of negatives over the positives. If you were to adopt the view that social networking has mainly led to improvements, then the ‘balance’ in the plan would need to be tipped the other way.

Among other things, a clear essay plan can keep you on track with the number of words you need to write. If for example you needed to write an essay of 2,000 words, you could work out some approximate allocation of words as follows:

Introduction                                               100 words

Background to social networking              200

Positive effects on social relations           400-500

Positive effect #1

Positive effect #2

Negative effects on social relations         900-1000

Negative effect #1

Negative effect #2

Negative effect #3

Negative effect #4

Conclusion                                                      100

List of references*

*Not included in word count


Question: What is a possible structure for the essay you intend to write? How many words (approximately) might you devote to each section?

How do I REFERENCE material in my essay?

As mentioned above, your essay needs to be based on wide reading of sources, and your argument needs to be supported by relevant research, and evidence from these sources.  To do this you need to properly reference these materials in your work. This is done through the practice of citation.

At  Swinburne, we use the Harvard (or Author-date system) system of referencing. This requires that you include details about the author and date (and optionally the page no) in the text of your essay, and then provide full information about the publication in a separate list of references at the end.

The following are two examples of citations that could be found in the ‘social networking’ essay:

Nowadays as many as 43% of America teens report experiencing some form of cyber bullying (Patchin, 2008).

Nie (2005) explains that time spent on the internet actually ‘displaces’ time spent socialising, particularly with family.

You will notice that these citations take slightly different forms. In the first one, the citation (author –date) appears at the end of the sentence. In the second example the author is present at the beginning of the sentence.

Thus the two citations have the following forms:

Type 1           Information …….. (author, date).
Type 2        Author (date) …. information.

Both of these are acceptable forms, and you are encouraged to use both in your essays. Type 1 citations (information-prominent) are used when the focus is more on the actual information itself. Type 2 citations (author-prominent) are used when the focus is more on the ideas, opinions etc of a particular writer.

At the end of your essay you need to present all the publication details of these texts in a separate list of references. Thus, for the citations above the entries would be as follows:


Nie, N 2005, ‘Researchers link use of Internet, social isolation’, Stanford Report, 23 February 2005, viewed 10 March 2011

Patchin, J. W. 2008. Cyberbullying: An Exploratory Analysis of Factors Related to Offending and Victimization. Deviant Behaviour, 29(2), 129–156.

For full details about referencing your essay, you should consult the Harvard Style Guide provided by Swinburne.

A SAMPLE essay on the ‘social networking’ topic

©Language and Learning Lab, FHEL, Swinburne