Guide to writing an academic essay

This guide is intended for undergraduate students at The University of Edinburgh, especially for those in their early sociology years. However, students from other semesters, other social science majors, and other universities may also find the content helpful.

Two weeks before starting to write

  • Choose your essay question. A good tip is to choose the topic you are most familiar with or the topic you are most interested in learning about. However, I would leave the latter for projects in which you have more time available.
  • Do ALL the key readings. Your course organisers included those texts in the list for a reason; if you ignore them, your arguments will inevitably have serious gaps and, therefore, you will get a poor mark. Then, based on the references in these texts, as well as by searching the library system or Google Scholar, find additional sources that engage in the debate around the essay question.
  • As you read, take note of the main arguments and the evidence the authors use to support them. Besides, identify relationships between the readings: What do they have in common? How do they complement each other? How do they contradict each other? What methods do they use? What silences do they keep? How do they acknowledge their limitations?

Just before starting to write

  • Write in one or two sentences your argument, which is your answer to the question. Booth, Colomb and Williams (2008) consider that arguments —even those we use in our daily conversations— are constructed from answering to four main questions:[1]
    • What is my claim? Your answer, a sentence that states something and needs to be sustained.
    • What reasons support my claim? Sentences that support a claim, usually connected to it with the word “because”.
    • What evidence supports my reasons? The data on which your reasons are based.
    • Do I acknowledge alternatives/complications/objections, and how do I respond? This is your anticipation to questions and scenarios in which your claim may be contested.[2]

Graphically, your argument would look like this:

  • Now that you have your argument, think about the structure of your text. How should you organise your essay to develop your argument? You must take the reader by the hand from the beginning to the end. Thus, your text should follow a logical flow in all its sentences and paragraphs. Booth, Colomb and Williams (2008) suggest thinking of the organisation as if it were a “storyboard”:

Writing your text

Once you are convinced of your structure, it is time to start writing. To make this process easier, I will divide the guide into the introduction, the main part, and the conclusion.

  • Introduction
    • Your introduction should clearly state what your argument is and the content of your text. You are not writing a mystery novel and you do not want to be Michael Scott — your readers need to know what your answer to the question is and how you support your argument.
    • If you consider it pertinent, establish the context for the question. Avoid phrases like «For centuries sociologists have been intrigued by…» Rather, use the readings and briefly mention why the topic is a debate amongst social scientists. Perhaps it is because of the contrasting research results, because of the methods used, because of the lack of work in certain contexts… Reasons are many.
  • Main part
    • The content of your paragraphs should revolve around a topic sentence. Following the example of Booth, Colomb and Williams (2008), this sentence would be, for example, your Reason 1. You do not want to use the text of your Evidence 2 in the paragraph of Reason 1. Do not mix 20 different discussions in a single paragraph — keep it simple.
    • For any research question, there is no possible explanation without description. However, you must find the ideal balance. Do not only repeat what the authors argue but explain and question the reasons and the evidence they provide. Be critical with your readings while also making sure you are understanding the arguments and concepts (for which, of course, you need to provide a clear definition).
    • Since most of your undergrad essays do not require empirical research on your part, the evidence for your work will come from documentary sources, from your readings. For this reason, it is essential that your sources are academic and not websites of dubious legitimacy. Journalistic information is also often valid as evidence, but you should think about its limitations and the way it connects with your academic claims.
    • Generally, I advise the use of subheadings to my students because they help in guiding the reader along the line of your argument. However, their usefulness varies from case to case, and there is no clear way to determine if you need them.
  • Conclusion
    • Your conclusion should be a summary of what you have already discussed. In this section, you need to reiterate your argument and briefly mention what elements you addressed in your essay. In this way, the conclusion reflects a part of the content of the introduction.
    • Do not add new evidence here. However, do be explicit about the limitations of your argument and, if it is the case, bring up new questions or discussions that would be worth exploring in other essays.

Other fundamental considerations for your entire essay

  • Never forget that an academic essay is not about your opinions, feelings, personal beliefs or the things you like. An academic essay is a forum for your arguments and the evidence you use to sustain them.
  • Remember what your course subject is (sociology, for most of my students). It is tempting to use resources from other sciences but doing so has a considerable degree of difficulty. If you are in your first years of uni, avoid drawing from other perspectives. You will be able to do this later in your career once you have learned more about the epistemological coincidences and contradictions between different sciences.
  • Always cite when you use someone else’s ideas. It does not matter if it is just a sentence. CITE, CITE, and, in case you missed it: CITE. To make the handling of your references easier, use free tools like Zotero or Mendeley.
  • Do not talk abstractly about “the people” or “most people”. Rather, explain which social groups you are considering in your argument and, of course, provide the evidence to support those claims. Social life is very complex and multiple cultures have very different practices. The same question can have substantive differences in its answer depending on the context in which we do research. For the same reason, normative judgments about how something ‘would be better’ are often easily contested.
  • Do not use very long direct quotes. Rather, paraphrase the claim and cite accordingly. Something important to remember is that paraphrasing is not the same as exchanging a couple of words for synonyms — it involves fully understanding the idea, explaining it in your own terms (without modifying the key concepts) and citing the author.
  • Finally, avoid gendered pronouns and make use of inclusive language.

Once you finish (the entire process will inevitably take several edits to your first draft), proofread your text and make sure you have not exceeded the word limit. Done! You are ready to submit your essay.

References

Booth, W., Colomb, G., & Williams, J. (2008). The craft of research (Third ed.). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


[1] In the original text, the authors actually refer to five questions, but in this guide only I will only focus on the first four since the fifth might get a bit tricky at this point in your career.

[2] Although some parts of the guide summarise excerpts from Booth, Colomb and Williams (2008), I widely recommend reading pages 108-116 and 130-131.