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Writing an academic essay

It's important to know how to write clearly, but as important is understanding the expectations of an academic essay. Writing an essay is a way of synthesising knowledge, and showing your lecturer than you are able to locate reliable information, analyse it and then apply it to a situation which tests your understanding of a particular aspect of the discipline you are studying. There are a number of strategies you must take in addition to clear and well-structured writing to ensure that you will create a convincing and effective essay.

Understanding the assignment

There are important things you need to understand about the assignment.

  • When is it due?
  • How long is it supposed to be?
  • What is the exact topic of the essay?
  • What are the types of sources your lecturer expects you to use to answer the essay question?

You should ask yourself these questions when the essay is assigned rather than when it is time to start working on it. By taking an early look, you will have a better sense of the scope of the project, you can plan you time effectively, and you can see how lecture and tutorial material contributes to understanding the essay topic. If you can't answer any one of these questions with certainty, speak with your lecturer or tutor and seek clarification.

Getting started

In most cases, your first look at the essay topic may be daunting. You may know little about the subject and feel anxious, worrying "what is it I am supposed to say?!#!" But, maybe you are in a better position, and already have a good understanding of the topic. Your first goal is to make sure you have a general enough understanding of the topic to know what you need to read to be able to answer the question competently and well.

Developing an argument

When you are assigned to write an essay, you'll be asked to look at information and take a position. What does this mean? It means that you will need to express or communicate something that you believe in and to convince the reader why they should believe the same. The argument is the position you are taking in your essay. It is important to identify a clear and sound argument because it provides the structure to the rest of your essay.

An simple argument consists of a claim, reason, evidence, alternative responses, and a warrant (Booth, Colomb, & Williams, 2008; Machi & McEvoy, 2009). A claim should include reasons to back up the claim along with sound evidence that supports reasons. Anticipate alternative arguments by including alternative responses as part of the argument. Finally, the warrant is the logic that links the evidence to the claim.


College students should eat their vegetables... (claim)
in order to feel better throughout the school day. (reason)
Doctor X (year) claims that (or a study supports) eating fresh vegetables are better for you than eating frozen vegetables which can lead to higher cognitive ability. (evidence)
Some studies support that pesticides often found in fresh vegetables can actually be harmful, but if students thoroughly wash fresh vegetables before consuming them, then they are quite safe. (alternative response)
By eating fresh vegetables each day, students will have a better attitude and will enjoy the school day which contributes to higher academic achievement. (warrant)


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

Machi, L. & McEvoy, B. (2009). The literature review: Six steps to success. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.