What is an essay?

The word ‘essay’ comes from the old French ‘essai’, meaning ‘trial’, ‘attempt’, ‘effort’. This might seem rather appropriate. After all, essays are an effort, as anyone who has ever written one will know. But they might be a different kind of effort to the one that they are often associated with. They are a trial, for sure, but if they are done in the right spirit, they might be seen as a trial of ideas and imagination, rather than a trial of endurance, commitment and sanity.

So, to essay something is to test, to weigh, to try out, to challenge…

The notion of an essay as a piece of writing on a particular subject begins with the work of a French writer called Michel de Montaigne (1533–92), who published his first book of essays in 1580. These had been written, it seems, partly to compensate for the death of a good friend, with whom he had enjoyed many evenings of lively discussion. In a sense, Montaigne’s essays were attempts to carry out arguments with himself, to exercise his brain, to think things through. The personal tone of Montaigne’s essays is something which is often discouraged in modern academic essay writing, but the importance of wrestling with ideas and carrying out an argument remains.

What is a good essay?

Here are three key things that you should remember when writing an essay:

  • An essay is not a report
    Make sure that you focus on analysis and debate, not the literal reporting of facts.
  • Stick to the brief
    Your essay must meet the specific requirements of your chosen brief. A topic that is relevant to the module as a whole may not necessarily meet the specific brief, so make sure that you read the brief carefully and understand what it requires of you.
  • Research first
    You will not be able to plan and write a good essay unless you have explored the subject thoroughly, which includes looking at a range of other texts.

Essential aspects of good essay writing are:

  • Relevance to the brief
    Make sure that every paragraph clearly contributes to the aims laid out in the brief, and that your conclusion responds directly to your stated aims.
  • Evidence of appropriate research
    It is a good idea to refer directly to source texts. Make sure you choose sources that are appropriate academic texts such as journal articles and books. The reading list is a good place to start. Remember to reference all sources.
  • Evidence that you understand and make appropriate use of source materials
    Show that you understand the texts that you have read. Demonstrate how they are relevant to your aims, and how they relate to other texts on the same subject.
  • Adherence to appropriate essay conventions, including:
    Presentation/formatting, referencing, properly captioned illustrations.
  • Good communication
    Use a spellchecker and grammar checker (available in Microsoft Word). Use formal English, and avoid ‘chattiness’, slang, and vague subjective words like ‘boring’ and ‘fantastic’.
  • Structure
    Begin with an introduction and end with a conclusion. Make sure that your paragraphs flow logically from one to the next. Present your arguments prominently.
  • Clear arguments
    Make reasoned arguments in response to your research. Make sure your arguments are appropriately conceptual and analytical, and that they are presented clearly.
  • Understanding of contexts
    Show that you understand the broader context of your arguments, and their wider implications. Demonstrate a knowledge of how your essay topics are relevant to the wider field of art, design or media practice and criticism.
  • Providing analysis
    This might mean critically evaluating selected artefacts, products, films or architecture, for example, or the work of a practitioner, and supporting every point you make with good quality criticism by respected experts. The bulk of your essay therefore will be analysis, and you should plan with this in mind.

Things to avoid include:

  • Writing historical essays
    You need to provide some basic factual information and a sense of the context of your topic, but keep it short and only include what is relevant to the question. A technical account of CGI is not relevant to the relationship between fantasy film and social change in the 21st century, for example. Don’t include information just because you have it!
  • A heavily biographical approach
    It might be interesting to know that F.W. Murnau liked to paint his earlobes with bat’s blood, or that Peter Jackson keeps a family of rare insects in his beard – but are these facts really relevant to the work?
  • Generalisation and waffle
    Focus on specific aspects of the examples you discuss, and concentrate on criticism, analysis, evaluation, interpretation, argument, rather than simple survey and description.
  • Relying on what you already know
    If you don’t research and build your knowledge and understanding, you will not write a successful essay.
  • Plagiarism
    Plagiarism is the attempt to present another person’s work as your own. At best it is a sign of bad practice, at worst it is cheating and deception. It is avoided by following good practices of note-taking and adhering to academic conventions of quotation, referencing and bibliography. (See sections on Referencing and Academic Conduct)

Doing the groundwork: preparing to write your essay

Tackling an essay at degree level means doing some initial planning and developing habits of good practice. In the long run this will save you time and improve the quality of your essay. Before we look in detail at planning your essay, there are some key things you can do to help yourself:

  • Read the brief and/or essay question
    If there is a selection of questions to choose from, you must discuss this choice with your tutor. Not all questions suit everyone! Similarly, if you are coming up with your own question, you need to talk this over with your tutor.
  • Attend every session
    Even if you don’t think that it is directly relevant to your essay, you need to be there to understand the broader context of your topic and what is required of an essay at this level. It is impossible for a student with poor attendance to write a good essay. If you fail your essay and your attendance is poor you may have to repeat the whole course next year in addition to your other work – don’t risk it!
  • Use StudyNet and check your email regularly
    The module website contains lots of information, including the module booklist and lecture notes. Email is likely to be your tutor’s only way to contact you, so if you don’t check it you will miss important information.
  • Manage your time – and don’t leave it all until the last minute!
    Students are expected to start planning and researching their essay topic immediately. Working backwards from the submission date, you should allow:

    • 1 week to proofread, format, present, print and bind your essay
    • 1-2 weeks to write it (Levels 4 and 5)
    • 3-4 weeks to read and research the topic and plan the essay
  • As you can see, this takes you almost to the beginning of your module. So, don’t put it off…
  • Make use of tutorials and other offered support (e.g. dyslexia support)
  • Tell your tutor at once if there’s a problem
    S/he can’t help you if you don’t!
  • Back it up (and then back up the back-up!)
    Back everything up regularly and make sure you print a hard copy at every stage. Use the UH U-drive or Google Docs remote storage to store your work as well as a memory stick or CD. If you need a reminder to do this, click here!
  • Use the Study Skills Guide

Two key ideas: argument and critical analysis

Core to successful essay writing (and to other kinds of academic work as well) are the concepts of argument and critical analysis. Tutors will often talk about these, and they tend to feature prominently in assignment briefs, learning outcomes, assessment criteria and feedback on work. So, what are they? Here are some notes:


An essay must develop a line of argument. This is likely to be formed from a series of smaller arguments, each of which should contribute to meeting the aims set out in the brief. An argument is a discussion based on evidence which is intended to make a particular case clearly and persuasively. It should be:

  • Informed by research
    Respond directly to source texts and artefacts. Don’t present an argument as if it is personal opinion.
  • Fair/Balanced
    Consider alternative perspectives, even (especially!) if you are going to argue for a particular case.
  • Supported by evidence
    Without evidence, your argument will come across as speculation and waffle.
  • Based on critical analysis…

Critical Analysis

When you present an artefact (artwork, media artefact, etc.) or text, you should not simply describe it. Don’t accept it at face value. You should explore its meaning and contexts, and show its particular significance to your essay. The question to ask is not so much what the thing is but why it is what it is.

Consider the following:

  • What does it tell us?
    Does it reveal anything about its subject or a wider context?
  • What ideas does it represent?
    What philosophies, opinions, beliefs, prejudices, etc. underlie the artefact?
  • What are the artist’s/author’s motives?
    Why did (s)he create it, and what message did (s)he intend to communicate?
  • Audience response
    How might difference audiences react to the artefact?
  • What is the wider context?
    Does the artefact reflect a particular movement? Does it respond to anything that has come before?
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