The Basics of Essay Writing
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The Basics of Essay Writing

Nigel Warburton

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eBook - ePub

The Basics of Essay Writing

Nigel Warburton

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About This Book

Nigel Warburton, bestselling author and experienced lecturer, provides all the guidance and advice you need to dramatically improve your essay-writing skills.The book opens with a discussion of why it is so important to write a good essay, and proceeds through a step-by-step exploration of exactly what you should consider to improve your essays and marks.

You will find help on how to:

focus on answering the question asked

research and plan your essay

build and sustain an argument

improve your writing style and tone.

The Basics of Essay Writing is packed full of good advice and practical exercises. Students of all ages and in every subject area will find it an easy-to-use and indispensable aid to their studies.

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What’s the Point?

Writing essays

Essay writing is at the heart of education. Whatever you study, at some point you will be asked to write an essay. And if you aren’t, then you probably won’t ever weave together the different strands of what you’ve learnt. In humanities subjects – Literature, History, Philosophy and so on – students are judged on their essays. If you can’t write good essays, particularly under exam conditions, then you will never succeed in these areas. Some students fail to achieve their potential simply because they don’t understand the basic principles of essay writing. They can be convincing in discussion and know the subject well, but when it comes to writing an essay they fall apart. Talking about what you know isn’t enough (though it may be an important part of the learning process): you need to be able to make a clear and well-argued case in writing, based on appropriate research. This remains the most effective way to demonstrate your understanding of your subject and your ability to use what you know.
Many students, even those studying practice-based subjects, such as Fine Art or Photography, also have to write a dissertation. So do students in the sciences and social sciences. This can be daunting if you are not used to writing. But it needn’t be. The same principles of good essay writing apply to longer pieces of work. And these principles can be learnt. The process of putting together a coherent essay, short or long, is not a mystery, nor is it particularly complicated: you just have to build a good case for your conclusion and structure your whole essay around that aim.
Some people seem to have natural writing talent: they can write well without putting much effort or thought into the process. But most of us have to devote time and energy to this activity. Nearly everyone can make significant improvements. Writing skills are transferable, so progress here can have an impact on your whole academic career. The skills of clear writing, and of developing and supporting an argument, are fundamental to all non-fiction writing and will probably be relevant to your professional life after college. If you turn to creative writing, many of the principles apply there too. But beyond that, writing can be a pleasure, particularly when you are in the flow of it, when it suddenly seems simple and all the ideas fit together almost by themselves.

Writing is thinking

Don’t make the mistake of thinking of an essay as copying out something you’ve already thought through in great detail. Some people assume they can’t begin to write until they have an almost perfect essay worked out in their head, or at least a sentence-by-sentence essay plan. This is usually a mistake. For most of us, writing an essay is not a matter of listening to an internal voice dictating a pre-imagined essay. Getting down to writing is very important. It is often in the act of writing that the subject comes into focus for the first time. I’ve had the experience in the middle of an examination of suddenly understanding the connections between different parts of a syllabus in a way that eluded me throughout my revision. Writing is a kind of thinking.
When you have to defend a position in writing, to argue using your own examples, or to reason to a conclusion drawing only on relevant material, then you are forced to grapple with your subject in a new way. Don’t be tempted to put it off for too long. Not that planning is a bad idea. Most writers make at least sketchy plans before starting to write – a few headings, a few keywords, some arrows, perhaps, linking ideas, and a conclusion. Think of the plan as part of the writing, though, not as something separate from the writing process.
What begins as vague and unfocused gradually emerges as sharp and clear. Or at least that’s what it should feel like if you’ve got into the flow of planning. As you write, you should start to see where you need to do further research before you can say anything that is interesting, accurate and true. It really does make sense to say that you may not know what you think about the topic until you have tried to write about it.

Cultivate good habits

Skills are built on good habits. Habits are patterns of behaviour that you don’t need to think about, usually because you’ve practised them many times before. Once you’ve got into a good habit, life gets easier. But getting to that stage usually requires self-discipline. There are no guaranteed rewards for practising something badly. Repeating bad habits over and over only makes the habits harder to break. But even a few minutes a day of the right kind of practice can transform your ability. The secret of effective practice is to practise the right things and practise them well: you won’t be rewarded in proportion to the hours you put in. You might even reinforce bad habits; high-quality practice, however, always brings about improvement.
If you want to play a musical instrument, you will have to learn the basics and practise them until you don’t need to think about them. Then you can concentrate on the structure and interpretation of the music and stop worrying about where to place your fingers. This is true for even the most talented musicians. The same holds for sports. When you see someone who kicks a football without any effort, or is a graceful swimmer or dancer, you can be sure that they have put in many hours of practice to achieve this. Some people start with natural advantages; but we can all progress. If you want to play football for your country or win a major tennis championship, you will have to have a combination of in-born talent and a willingness to work on basic and advanced skills. Essay writing is no different in this respect. Learning to write well involves developing good habits until you no longer need to think about them. The best writers have natural advantages, but if you can read and understand this book, you can certainly bring your writing to a level adequate for university study.
At first you might find it tedious to be considering some of the aspects of essay writing that I cover here. You might even feel that you know all about the basics of essay writing already. Perhaps you do. If so, you don’t need this book. But most writers have areas they can improve, and following the guidelines given here could save you many hours of wasted effort. By the end of this book I hope you will recognise that good habits and solid basic skills are the keys that will unlock your potential.
Remember that no one writes perfect essays. Nor is there a single right way to answer any essay question. There is always room for improvement; even the most brilliant writers can improve. You are reading this book, so presumably you feel that you need to work on some aspect of your own writing (unless someone forced you to read it ‘for your own good’). Even a small improvement here can have an impact on the grades you receive; it can also greatly enhance your enjoyment of the process. It is very satisfying to produce a well-crafted piece of writing, both because it makes sense of the subject matter, and also because of the pleasure of putting words together in a skilful and creative way. Your best hope of achieving this pleasure is to cultivate good writing habits.

Key points

  • Essay writing is at the heart of most academic study.
  • Writing is a kind of thinking.
  • It is important to form good writing habits.
  • The best way to improve is to put in high-quality practice.

Start writing

Overcoming psychological obstacles

Writing is a strange activity. If you have an essay to write, it is amazing how easy it is to find other things to do. Writer’s block – a total inability to write anything at all – is very rare. But the urge to do something other than write whenever you have writing to do is extremely common. Give someone an essay to write, and suddenly they will remember a list of urgent chores they have to perform before they get started on it. They might ‘need’ to eat or drink, tidy their desk, or go to the library, go shopping, do the washing up, or surf the Internet for suitable materials. As I’m writing this, I’m feeling a very strong desire to have a nap or at least to go and get myself a coffee to give myself more energy. But I know that this is largely my mind’s bid to get me to do something else – almost anything else – rather than write. Luckily I’ve made it to my word processor, and the words have started to come. But if I’d fallen asleep I would have taken a lot longer to get started.
Professional writers are well aware of their own avoidance strategies, and of those urges to do something – anything – other than write. But these urges aren’t always excuses. Perhaps you do genuinely need to do some of these other things. For instance, to write well I know that I need energy. If I just took that nap now, perhaps I’d write much better. There is a whole series of books that tell business people they need to take a ‘power nap’, the short sleep in the middle of the day that refreshes you and allows you to return to your work with a new vigour. It may be true that you need to do more research before you write that final version of your essay. However, the skill you need to acquire is the skill of beginning: the skill of getting to your desk, or wherever you work, and making a start. What I mean by this is that you should make sure that you at least begin to plan and write your essay. You should get in front of your computer screen or blank page of paper and make the first moves even if you feel that there are many other things you also suddenly need to do. Once you’ve started the process, writing usually gets much easier and you may find your tiredness evaporating and your urge to do all those other things diminishing.
For some reason, once you recognise the existence of this pattern of writing-avoidance, it is much easier to find strategies for getting down to work. Also, once you have something on paper or on the screen – even just a few words – everything starts to become more manageable. The task seems less daunting.
Try some of these strategies and see what works for you. Give yourself rewards. Start with small, achievable goals, like writing for ten minutes or completing a paragraph, and then have a cup of coffee, a snack or a break. Perhaps play music while you work; use headphones if you are likely to disturb other people. It is completely up to you to decide what to play, but one option is to listen to the same music whenever you write so that it works at the level of a psychological association. Another is to play whatever appeals to you at the time, so that you associate writing with pleasure. This is also a good way of reducing the effect of irritating noises from outside. If you are feeling sluggish, play music that energises you; if you are stressed, choose something more relaxing. I wouldn’t recommend listening to a radio station or anything else that is talk based. It is probably too easy to be distracted from the words you are writing when you are listening to someone speaking. Don’t believe teachers who say ‘You can’t possibly write with your headphones on’: it’s just not true – indeed, some people write better like that. One of the best strategies is to listen to music you know well: that way you are less likely to be distracted by what you hear. The only worry is that if you become too dependent on music you might have difficulty writing under examination conditions, or in libraries or wherever it is difficult or forbidden to listen to music.
Here’s another strategy from a highly respected teacher of creative writing:

Avoid the weight of unfinished business

A good reason for getting down to writing as soon as possible is that having an unfinished assignment hanging over you can have an unpleasant effect on most aspects of your life. Poor time management...

Table of contents

Citation styles for The Basics of Essay Writing
APA 6 Citation
Warburton, N. (2020). The Basics of Essay Writing (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2020)
Chicago Citation
Warburton, Nigel. (2020) 2020. The Basics of Essay Writing. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Warburton, N. (2020) The Basics of Essay Writing. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Warburton, Nigel. The Basics of Essay Writing. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2020. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.