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Guidance on Writing Essays

Essay Writing Checklist

Here are some of the things you need to think about in preparing an essay. Few of them are iron rules. Good essays come in many forms, and a good essay writer will sometimes ignore some of these guidelines. But to become a good essay writer you would probably do well to start by following them.

Please remember that writing an essay involves skills of discussion and argument which differ from those that might be used in the informal setting of a seminar. In the first place, argument and analysis in essays will usually have to be more carefully structured than the comments you might make in a seminar or tutorial discussion. In essays, you should demonstrate awareness of more than one argument, acknowledge differences in the views of historians, and adopt a critical appreciation of evidence and its sources. You should also provide the necessary scholarly underpinning for your analysis by showing the sources of your information and arguments in bibliographies and footnotes.

On questions of presentation, footnoting, etc. you should follow the advice given in the MHRA Style Guide.

1. The Essay Question
  • Have you really answered the question?
  • Have you thought what might lie behind the question, e.g. if it asks 'Was the First World War the main cause of the Russian Revolution?', have you thought about what alternative explanations might be suggested?
  • Is each paragraph clearly related to the overall question, raising a new topic and moving the argument forward?
  • The ultimate test is that if you left the title off the top of your essay, could a friend guess the question from your answer?
2. Your Analysis
  • Have you made an argument or is the essay simply relating what happened?
  • Is your argument logical, coherent and clear?
  • Are you contradicting yourself?
  • Are you using appropriate evidence to back up each part of your argument?
  • Are you aware of counter-arguments?
  • Have you combined evidence and ideas from several different sources at each stage of the argument, or are you merely summarising what your sources say one by one?
3. Your Research
  • Have you done enough reading? Six books/article/chapters is suggested for a short essay; ten or more for a long one.
  • Are you up to date on the historical debate? Do not rely only on the older texts.
  • Have you listed in the bibliography all the sources you used, and only those sources?
4. Presentation
  • Is it legible? Is it double-spaced with wide enough margins for comments?
  • Is the essay written simply and fluently, so that the reader does not have to read sentences twice?
  • Have you numbered the pages? In typing comments, it is useful for tutors to have page numbers to refer to.
  • Is it too long? Almost every essay would be better if the same things were said in fewer words. Recommended word lengths are a maximum, not a minimum.
  • Have you given footnotes and page references for any direct quotations or ideas that are not yours? Are these set out properly, in accordance with the Style Guide?
  • Are your punctuation and your spelling correct? Use the spell check function on your word processing software.
5. The One Iron Rule

Please be aware that plagiarism (using someone else's words or ideas without acknowledgement) is a serious offence, and is taken seriously by the Department and the University. To avoid doing this by mistake always put inverted commas into your notes around any passage you copy out, and keep a record of the source.

Please also note that self-plagiarism is also a serious offence. You may not submit work at Warwick that you previously submitted at your home institution.


  • For questions about a specific essay or module, contact your module tutor
  • For general questions about essay writing in the UK (especially regarding how it might differ from your previous studies abroad), contact Tim Lockley, Director of Study Abroad Programmes.