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Compass-vs Three steps to writing an academic essay:

Gold-One-s Understand the topic

Think about why the title has been set. The tutor wants to find out whether you know certain things that are important in the course, and whether you can make an argument that shows your grasp of the subject. It’s worth asking the question: what would my tutor write if he or she had to do this essay?

What does your tutor want you to know? You will have some idea from your lectures, and from the reading list. Many books and papers may have been written about the subject. You are coming to study the topic after many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other scholars have made their contributions. You have to try to get into the mind of the person who set the task and of the writers and scholars who have influenced him or her.

This means you can't be entirely original. Your tutor has not set the question just to find out what you think. She or he wants to know if you can think like an academic and analyse the information to make a rational and well structured argument. If you can make an original contribution to knowledge, that's great, but first you have to get to know the topic from your tutor's point of view. This means understanding the language of the question.

Let's assume you're taking History and have chosen this essay title:

How significant were representations of racial otherness in the construction and maintenance of nineteenth century colonialism?

You've been to lectures and you know that the course is about the British colonisation of India. Looking at the words of the assignment, we see some terms that are clearly important: “significant”, “representations”, “otherness”, “construction”, “maintenance”, “colonialism”. Do you know what these all mean? You will have to ask yourself some questions [in italics below] to check you understand what you are expected to do:

How significant...

[in what way?]

were representations...

[what kinds of representations?]

of racial otherness...

[what does this mean?]

in the construction and maintenance...

[what kind of construction?]

of nineteenth century colonialism

[what is colonialism?]

Use the Glossary to help you. Ask your friends. Ask your tutor. Begin to research the topic so you can see how other people have written about it.

You have to do this preparatory work thoroughly with every essay you write. When you're more confident that you understand the question, and what the tutor wants you to know, you can move on to step 2.


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