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Essays

Essays come in many different styles, depending on the purpose and field of study. However, all essays follow the same general structure and include the same components. Effective essays are well-written, well-organized and well-argued. This guide outlines the basics of essay writing.

Types of essays

Essays are sometimes referred to as papers, research essays, research papers, and scholarly papers. The purpose of all essays is to develop ideas and/or theories using critical and analytical thinking and other strategies. Different writing situations may require a specific style of essay. The organizational structure and the content will depend on the purpose of the essay and its audience. Although the organizational structure may vary, the general components of the essay are consistent. All essays include the same basic parts (title page, introduction, etc.).

Tip: 

You may have been taught to write all essays with five paragraphs. This format will not work for all types of written assignments because essays come in different lengths and are written for different purposes. Students in elementary and high school are taught this format because it helps them to organize their essays in a logical fashion. Now, it is time to use different strategies to develop more complex essays. It still must be organized clearly and logically, but you can use more than five paragraphs.

Research essay

A research essay (also called a research paper) is based on research or evidence that you have compiled. All research essays have a thesis statement which is proven using that evidence. Many students believe that a thesis is the same as an opinion. A research essay does not focus on your opinion; rather, you develop and prove your thesis using evidence and critical analysis to support your theory. First- and second-year essays will likely use secondary sources. For some courses, you may also be required to conduct primary research. An advanced research essay may require specific components in addition to those listed here, such as an abstract, methodology or data collection, data analysis, and others. Check the library resources for more detailed style guides on writing advanced papers.

Tip: 

Ensure you do enough research, but do not get stuck in the research process.

Argumentative and persuasive essays

All essays have some form of argument, but persuasive essays are written to convince the reader to support your argument. In a persuasive essay, you take a position, build an argument and support your argument with evidence. Unlike a research essay, your opinion may be emphasized; however, the best method of persuasion is to support your opinion with research and clear analysis. The difference between an argumentative essay and a research essay is in its primary focus. In a persuasive essay, your opinion or idea (main point/thesis statement) and the way in which you provide information that supports your point is the central focus. In a research essay, your analysis of the secondary sources and primary research is the focus. In business and technical writing, you may be required to propose to a client or a manager how and why a new piece of technology will improve productivity or why new research should be conducted.

Cause-and-effect essay

A cause-and-effect essay requires you to describe and analyze the causes of a particular event. In other words, you determine whether or not a cause-and-effect relationship actually exists, and then analyze how and why it happened. This is called a causal analysis.

Questions to ask:

  1. What effect(s) resulted? (Specify, but keep separate from the presumed cause)
  2. What conditions existed?
  3. Could these conditions have caused the effect(s)?
  4. What are the possible explanations? What might have happened? (These are your theories)
  5. Did the presumed cause(s) actually generate the effect(s)? (You are testing your theories)

In this type of essay, you must be very logical; do not let your opinions sway you. The most straightforward way to organize a cause-and-effect essay is chronologically, presenting the cause before the effect. In some cases, you can use reverse chronological order and present the effect first. In complex situations, there may be multiple causes and effects. In this case, organize your paper around the importance of your points. Depending on how you organize your paper, your analysis of the issues will change. The central focus is to describe and analyze the relationship between the cause(s) and effect(s). In technical and business writing, causal analysis is very common. You may be required to analyze why a product or a business failed or succeeded (such as the rise and fall of Nortel), or why a catastrophe happened (such as the Chernobyl accident), and so on.

Comparison essay

A comparison essay examines two or more ideas, issues, or concepts that are connected with one another. In a comparison essay, you highlight the differences and similarities, as well as explain the ways in which the concepts are connected. In technical and business writing, you might be required to compare two or more possible solutions or products and come to a conclusion about which one should be recommended to a superior or client.

Review essay

A review essay usually analyzes and discusses an event or source. There are many variations of this type of essay. You may be required to review one book or article based only on your reading of it without additional research (this assignment may be a book review). Sometimes, you are required to analyze several books and articles on a particular topic (this may be a literature review). Sometimes, you are required to review an academic book, but with additional research that allows you to have a broader understanding of the book as you analyze it. You may also review a film, television program, radio broadcast, or internet resource.

Tip: 

How do you determine which type of essay you have to write? Read your assignment instructions carefully. At minimum, the name of the assignment will be the type: research essay, book review, case study, and so on.

Parts of essays

Tip:

The formatting and components of a technical or business report are very different than for an essay. Be clear about what type of assignment you are doing and follow the correct guidelines.

Title page

While some professors may not require a title page, many do - even if the stylebook you are following does not. Often, a title page is not required for shorter assignments, but is for longer essays. The title page is the first page of your work and typically includes: the title, the date of submission, the author of the work (i.e. you or you and your group members) and to whom the work is being submitted. You may also choose to include the course code and lecture section, in case the assignment is misplaced by your professor. However, there are variations in the details that should be included depending on which stylebook you are required to use. Some professors may want a title page that is formatted in a very specific way; check the assignment guidelines, and ask your professor or TA if you are unsure.

Tip: 

A table of contents is not required for essays.

Introduction

Every essay must have an introduction. The introduction tells the reader what you are going to discuss in your essay: purpose, thesis, and an overview of supporting evidence. Depending on the length of your essay, the introduction may also include an outline of the sections of your work. The introduction provides the reader with the theoretical framework of your writing, which provides the context for your arguments. Sometimes, it helps to write a draft introduction after you have written the draft of your body. Your introduction may change a few times as you rewrite your drafts and change your organizational patterns in your essay.

Body of essay

The body of your essay consists of the content. This is the meat of your essay. The body of your essay is where you express ideas, theories, and concepts, as well as providing an analysis of other people's work. Although headings can help you organize the body of the essay, few, if any, headings should be used in most academic essays unless the essay is very long. Instead of headings, use solid transition sentences to help the reader follow your argument. Check your assignment guidelines or check with your instructor or TA to see if headings are required or accepted.

Tip: 

Technical and business reports normally require headings throughout the report. Essays and research papers normally do not use internal headings.

Each section and each paragraph in the body of the essay should have a main point that relates to the thesis statement of the paper. Each paragraph should have a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning should introduce the main point of that paragraph, followed by discussion and analysis of (supporting or refuting) the main point, and ending a statement about how the paragraph relates to the paper as a whole and how the next section or paragraph is connected. You should include work, ideas, and concepts that go against your argument. Doing so helps the audience to understand the issues and allows you to show why your argument or theory is better. It shows that you have considered all perspectives of the issue. As you move from one idea, concept, or issue to the next, use transition sentences so the audience can understand how the ideas are connected.

Tip: 

Each section of your essay does not have to be only one paragraph. The five-paragraph essay has been left behind! See the research process, the writing process, and the editing process for more help.

Conclusion

The conclusion of your essay brings together all your ideas in a concise manner. It is a synthesis of your ideas, not a summary of what you just said. Do not add new information in the conclusion. If it is important, go back and revise to ensure all new information is included in the body of the essay. Although your conclusion will reiterate what has been said, it should not be the same as the introduction. Your conclusion should address any implications or limitations (if this has not already been done) and discuss the importance of your topic or issue.

Tip: 

Every time you make a point or an argument, ask yourself: So what? If you can answer this question, you will have a strong topic and argument.

Proper Documentation

Proper documentation in all essays and reports is essential. Documentation, including both citations and references, allows your reader to see and check the sources you have used in your essay or report. If you do not provide bibliographic information for all your information, you will be penalized for plagiarism. Different documentation styles have different rules, but all styles include some form of citation and a list of references at the end of the paper. Do not forget to include a citation and reference whenever you paraphrase, summarize, or quote someone else. The only time a citation is not required is when discussing facts or ideas that are common knowledge. Common styles of documentation include APAMLAChicago Manual of Style (CMS)IEEE, and CSE, among others.

Getting started

Narrowing your topic

Make sure that your topic is not too broad; such a topic might be the history of cars or the development of aviation. Trying to write about such a broad topic will lead to a very general, descriptive essay, with little analysis or critical thinking. You will likely miss important information. It is better to focus on a narrow topic that can be examined in more depth. At the university level, you must go beyond summarizing broad topics.

Using credible sources

Using sources that are valid, reliable, and current is essential to writing good essays. By using credible sources you help to maintain academic integrity. Assessing your sources, including books, articles and websites, requires you to determine, among other things, the qualifications of the author and the reliability of the author's research method. One trick is to check the sources used by that author and to see what other researchers in that field say about the issue. Using credible sources demonstrates that you are thinking critically about the topic or issue.

Tip: 

Do not use encyclopaedias, dictionaries, personal websites, or other non-academic sources. You are expected to use peer-reviewed journal articles and academic books in your research.

Including direct quotations

Direct quotations can be effective when used properly. However, many students use too many direct quotes or use them unnecessarily (e.g. to repeat an idea already expressed). Quotations are intended to place emphasis on your work. Quotations should be used sparingly and only when they add quality to your own work, such as when you cannot express someone else's idea as eloquently in your own words. If you quote generic statements and ideas or string together many quotes, your essay will not show off your own ideas, critical thinking, and analysis. You should always try to put your research into your own words; that is, you should paraphrase or summarize what you have found. As long as you understand the idea, you should have no problem putting it into your own words. All quotations, paraphrases, and summaries require documentation (a citation in the body of the essay and a reference at the end). There are formatting rules for both long and short quotations, so make sure you follow those rules according the style (APA, MLA, CMS, IEEE, etc.) you are required to use.

Tip: 

All documentation styles require a page number for direct quotes. All direct and indirect quotes require documentation: a citation and a reference.

Writing formally

Most university essays and reports require a formal tone and structure. However, every professor will have different standards. Some professors may allow you to use the first person when talking about your research: “In this essay, I argue that ….” Other professors will require that the whole essay be written in third person: “In this essay, the author argues …..” Always avoid slang and common sayings (colloquialisms), such as “dude” or “he put his foot in his mouth again.” Many of the expressions that you use in casual conversation or everyday speech are not acceptable in formal writing. What are some common errors?

Tip: 

This website is written in an informal tone using personal pronouns. Essays and reports are different!

Providing analyses

In any essay, you will need to analyze the topic or issues. When you analyze something, you are asking questions about the whole issue (and its parts) to gain a fuller understanding. Develop your own analysis of your sources by questioning what you are reading and writing down your thoughts about what each author or source is arguing. Your analysis of a topic, issue, or concept is the way that you think about and understand it. Your essay is the medium that you are using to express those thoughts and understandings.

Tip: 

The more you write, the better at it you will become.

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