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Guidance on Essays

When writing an essay you should bear in mind the following points. (See the Undergraduate Handbook for further guidance on writing essays.)

1. Argue a case in response to the question

An essay is often better to the extent that it argues for a particular conclusion, explicitly setting out the argument for the position adopted. You should avoid writing that merely surveys the positions concerning the issue without defending a particular conclusion. In addition, you should ensure that the essay answers the particular question that is addressed. In some cases, the question may include certain technical terms, e.g. the ‘original position’, and these will need to be defined or discussed.

In making the argument you will no doubt refer to the work of various political philosophers and their critics. In doing so, it is desirable to expound and assess the view offered. How convincing are the arguments for or against it? Are there any relevant distinctions that the author ignores? Are the inferences valid and the premises of the argument sound? Note, however, that many of the thinkers you are writing about are very bright and have developed their views over a considerable period of time in light of the views of, and criticism from, other able political theorists. Thus, if you find yourself attributing to them views that seem absurd, incoherent or obviously wrong, assume that you have misinterpreted them (unless there is ample evidence that you have not).

Usually, essays are better if you take a stand on the issue yourself and argue for it as convincingly as possible. If this is not possible, because you are undecided on the issue, you should argue why neither side of the case is wholly convincing.

2. Structure

An essay should be clearly structured. It should include an opening section, in which the key terms are defined and, perhaps, the main features of the essay are sign-posted; a middle section, in which the arguments are developed, making the necessary distinctions, responding to possible objections, and criticising other positions; and a final section in which the original question is re-addressed and conclusions offered.

3. Knowledge and style

If certain empirical or historical information is relevant it should be accurately stated. In addition, you should describe the positions you examine accurately. In doing this, it is generally better to summarise the view in your own words, rather than to quote, because this reveals the extent to which you understand it. Thus, an essay should not consist merely of a series of quotations. If, however, something of importance does hang on the use of particular words then, by all means, quote and explain its significance. When summarising or quoting it is essential that you acknowledge and reference the source (see the Undergraduate Handbook for further information).

4. Communication

Express your ideas as clearly and sharply as possible. Always define any technical terminology. Essay writing requires thought about how best to communicate your ideas. It might be that the way in which you arrive at a view is not the way to present it in its most convincing manner. It can be worthwhile to ask someone to read a first draft and to write a final draft that remedies any obscurities or gaps in the argument, and takes into account any other comments of the reader.