How to write essays
From : Aiming for an A in A-level Politics Sarra Jenkins
Deconstructing the question
First ask: What exactly is this particular question asking? It's too easy to skim-read the question and begin writing their answer without thinking about the question. Students are not being tested on what they know; they are being tested on their ability to use what they know to answer a speciﬁc question. Simply knowing ‘stuff’ is not enough for good marks students must be able to identify between answering the question set and simply writing everything that they know.
To deconstruct essay questions, a method recommended by many teachers and Sarah Jenkins is the C-F-L approach:
C — command word(s)
F — focus
L — limitation
The command word is the word that tells you what to do. In an
essay question, these are most commonly ‘analyse’, ‘evaluate’, ‘to
what extent’ and ‘how far’. But you must also be aware that essay
questions normally cover all three AOs, meaning you will also have
to deploy knowledge, analyse it and evaluate it.
The ‘focus’ of a question can include a number of words or phrases within a question, but in short it is the topic(s) of the question and the debate that you are being asked about. The topic(s) should be something you have studied and (hopefully) revised. It could be a broad topic, for example ‘Parliament’, which encompasses both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, or it might be more speciﬁc, for example ‘backbenchers’, which is only those MPs in the House of Commons who do not hold government positions.
The debate is the words or phrase within a question that tells you what argument you should be writing about. This is usually a more conceptual or theoretical phrase, such as ‘power’, ‘inﬂuence’, ‘reform’ and so on. Being clear on both of these will help to ensure that everything you write is tightly focused on the exact question you have been asked.
Not all questions have limitations, but you need to be aware of them just in case they do. A limitation is a phrase or word within the question that restricts what you can talk about in your answer. This may be an obvious limitation that restricts the individuals or time period you can discuss. If a question asks about ‘the Coalition’ or includes the phrase ‘since 1997’, then writing about other governments or examples from before 1997 will be worth few, if any, marks. In this sense, the difference between the focus of a question and its limitation is often minimal. More tricky to spot are the small, often unnoticed, words that give context to the question. These are phrases like ‘increasingly’, ‘now’ or ‘become’. All of these phrases suggest that a change over time has taken place which has made the debate more or less important. To gain top marks, recognising this is crucial as it may change a relatively simple ‘strengths and weaknesses’ debate into something more complex that requires explicit analysis of political circumstances. Not all questions will have clear limitations. Once you understand what you are looking for, you should be able to quickly identify limitations in a question — do not spend ages looking for one if it is not there.
Planning your essay
Now you know what the question is asking of you, it is important to take some time to plan your essay. If you are planning an essay that you are completing at home, your plan should take up no more than one side of A4 paper. This will make it easier to use once you do begin writing. A good plan will cover:
what will be in your introduction.
each point you plan to cover, including examples'
what conclusion you plan to reach.
Certainly, it is vital that you know what conclusion you plan to reach before writing. Knowing this will help you drop hints throughout your essay so that by the time your examiner gets to the conclusion, they already know what you are going to conclude.
Having written your plan, you can have it on your desk when you are writing your essay to ensure that you remain focused on the question and use the best examples you can to illustrate each point.
One of the most common mistakes that students make when essay writing is spending valuable time on an introduction that ultimately gains few, or often no, marks. Most students are aware they should write an introduction, but are rarely taught how to do so; even more rarely are they taught how to do so effectively. Yet, if you follow some simple advice it is remarkably easy to write a worthwhile introduction.
Why write an introduction?
Unless you know the reason why you are writing an introduction, writing one is rather pointless. Sadly, the most common answer students give to this question is ‘to introduce their essay’. Even worse is when introductions are nothing more than the question simply rephrased.
You should write an introduction for a number of reasons:
➜ It should show the examiner that you know what speciﬁcally the question is asking of you.
➜ It should highlight that you have some relevant knowledge.
➜ It should act as a minimal ‘contents page’ for your essay so the examiner has some idea what is coming.
➜ It should put the debate in context.
➜ It should give a hint about the line of argument you plan to follow.
That seems like quite a lot for an introduction, but actually it can be achieved concisely. Also, while marks are not allocated for introductions alone, it suggests to the examiner that you understand how to write an essay, debate and argue — all before they have even read one of your proper paragraphs.
How to write an effective introduction?
An effective introduction can be achieved in three simple steps or
the ‘three Ds’: deﬁne, discuss, direction.
The opening line of an introduction can be as simple as deﬁning the key terms within a question, but you do need to exercise some judgement here. There are certain common terms that do not need deﬁning — these tend to be institutions. For example, there is no need to deﬁne what a parliament is, or what an election is. However, if there is speciﬁc or conceptual terminology, deﬁning these demonstrates your knowledge and also helps to keep you focused on the question. For example, if a question includes phrases like ‘sovereignty’, ‘imperial presidency’ or ‘ﬁrst-past-the-post’, you might spend just a sentence outlining what these mean.
The discussion step should make up the bulk of your introduction. In the time-pressured circumstances of an exam, this means it is likely to be between two and four sentences. You should aim to outline the sides of the debate you plan to discuss, and even consider dropping in the name of an example you plan to discuss. This is the part of your introduction that is effectively the contents page for your essay, and what you choose to put in here should be the arguments that you believe to be the most signiﬁcant with regard to the question set.
The direction step is where you can begin to hint to the examiner the likely outcome of your essay. Your essays are a work of persuasion — you are not supposed to be simply describing everything you have learnt; you are supposed to persuade the reader that your answer to the question set is correct. This should be woven throughout your whole essay, starting with the introduction. The direction should be no more than a sentence, which hints at what you plan to argue and why. As this is an introduction, and you have not yet presented your argument, you must be careful not to conclude. Instead, use phrases that have some ﬂexibility in them such as ‘it seems’, ‘it appears’ or ‘it may be that’.
Writing an analytical and evaluative essay
With the introduction out of the way, you can now look to writing the main bulk of your essay. Unlike short-answer questions, your writing needs to be far more discursive and persuasive. Students who stick rigidly to a clinical formula will often produce work that lacks passion and persuasion.
First, you need to identify the points that you plan to discuss. You will need to decide which of these interpretations you believe to be stronger. In writing one paragraph on this point, you then need to show both interpretations, but analyse and evaluate to show which one is more persuasive.
It is important that you include both interpretations in your work. If you ignore one half of the argument, it suggests that you are unable to explain why one side is more persuasive than the other, or that you have not recognised that there are two sides. Either way, it makes the argument you are trying to make ﬂawed. Instead you must show both sides, but show why you believe one to be more persuasive than the other.
Structuring your essay
Having written one strong paragraph, it is important to understand how that ﬁts into the overall structure of an essay. From start to ﬁnish, your essay should be persuasive — your job is not to outline all of the possible arguments but to convince the reader that you are right, based on critical and analysis and evaluation.
A good essay structure will have a basic structure of:
➜ Main debate
However, how you structure the main debate is important to your line of argument. It is important that you do not see your essays like a sports match — you cannot evaluate which side of an argument is stronger by seeing how many paragraphs fall on either side. Instead, you must also evaluate the importance of each point that you have made. As long as you can show critical analysis and evaluation in reaching this judgement, it is still a valid approach.
Making your essay ﬂow
While each paragraph should be on a separate point, your essay should ﬂow naturally from one point to the next, highlighting connections. It should not read as though each paragraph is a mini-essay on its own. You can achieve these paragraph transitions through connective phrases such as:
➜ Despite this…
➜ In addition…
➜ It is also important to…
Additionally, you may be able to use some of the language or trends from your previous paragraph to help you open your new paragraph.
Conclusions are often a huge annoyance for students — they often do not know how to do them or run out of time in the exam to complete them properly. Unfortunately, for too many students, their conclusion is just one sentence — and this is not enough at all. The conclusion is crucial for top marks as it is your chance to answer the whole question rather than the individual factors that make up a question. If you read any of the exam questions, they are all asking you to make a judgement:
➜ Evaluate the extent to which the prime minister can control their cabinet. (30 marks)
➜ ‘Further constitutional reform in the UK is necessary.’ Analyse and evaluate this statement. (25 marks)
➜ To what extent do anarchists agree over the role of human nature? (24 marks)
The answers to these questions are not simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’. In your essay you might have dealt with speciﬁc factors relating to the question, but now you are at the end you need to stand back from these details and make a decision overall. A conclusion should be the direct answer to the question, with a justiﬁcation of how you reached your decision. It should put together the overall themes of your essay to reach a ﬁnal judgement.
Throughout your essay, you will have broken down the question into a number of factors and judged each one individually. Your conclusion should aim to reassemble these points so that you can reach one overall judgement. In this sense, it is a bit like the verdict in a court trial.
In this analogy, the jury has to reach a verdict of guilty or not guilty based on all of the evidence, not just some of it. This is the same as your conclusion — it should be an overall view, not simply restating each one of your paragraphs.
Writing conclusions is a tricky skill to master, but it is crucial for AO3 marks.