Melb Uni Essay Writing Guide

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Getting published Explore the issues and options of publishing your research.

How to prepare an annotated bibliography  This guide explains the purpose of an annotated bibliography and describes the process of creating one.

Literature Reviews An introduction to the Literature Review process and resources to help you to get started.

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What is an essay?

The word 'essay' comes from a medieval French word meaning to weigh or to test (cf. 'assay'). An essay is exactly what the term implies: the weighing or testing of an idea or hypothesis. A history essay will set forth an argument about an historical event or problem, and will support the argument with reference to sources, both primary and secondary. An essay will often insert the problem within its historiographical context, though it should not take a great deal of space to do so.

Essays are a major part of your written work in most history subjects. This section provides basic information to help you in writing essays; for further information you should consult one of the guides mentioned below.

Beginning an essay

Choosing a topic is the first problem you will confront. Make certain that you can sustain an interest in it and that you can obtain the required materials.

In many subjects, you may be given only broad indications of suggested areas for work, together with bibliographies. In this case, the topic should be formulated as a question, hypothesis, problem, or tentative argument.

In first-year subjects, in particular, you will usually be given a bibliography to accompany the question you have chosen. You are expected to do all of this reading. At other times, you will be asked to construct your own reading list. In this case, you should get the habit of using as many reference books and bibliographies as possible to be sure that you have also combed secondary works for further sources, both secondary and primary,and for a better understanding of your topic. You will then turn to primary sources  with a better idea of what you are seeking in them.

Citation style guide: The recommended referencing style of the The School of Historical and Philosophical Studies is set out in The Chicago Manual of Style. The latest edition is the 16th edition. There is a step-by-step guide on the Chicago Manual of Style Online web page. Please use the tabs towards the top of the page.

Taking notes

Taking notes is an art in itself. A good essay cannot be written from scrappy or unsystematic notes. Each writer, according to his or her subject, purpose and temperament will evolve an appropriate system of note-taking, but the following principles apply to most undergraduate essays.

A note is always taken for a purpose and the organisation of a set of notes should reflect the purpose for which they are taken. From the beginning of a project you should be selecting the information relevant to your question and indicating, by headings, marginal notes or a simple filing system, how each piece of information relates to the general topic. It is important to make your own notes, for in doing so you begin to think actively about the material, while piles of photocopies remain undigested. Well-organised notes in which you write out what you found useful in each text will put you half way to a good essay! Be selective about what you do photocopy and annotate your copies as soon as possible after copying.

Before you begin to take notes, you should spend a few moments sizing up the book or article: scanning the table of contents, index and preface, and making a preliminary assessment of its relevance to your topic. Whatever other notes you take from the source, be sure first to take the full bibliographical details - author, full title, number of volumes, date and place of publication, publisher, etc. - and to label each sheet or card of your notes with a short title. Above all, don't forget to note down the relevant page numbers as you make notes; there is nothing more annoying than to finish writing your essay and then to discover that you forgot to note the date or the page number of one of your references.

Learn to vary your reading speed and the detail of your note-taking. Some books merit only scanning; some have chapters that deserve closer study; some important texts will need to be read attentively more than once. You may read an introductory text to familiarise yourself with a subject and take no notes beyond the title and a brief summary. Another source may have just a nugget or two of useful information that you will carefully record. Remember that if you own a book yourself, or can easily retrieve it for further study, it may be sensible to summarise only the main points and note the location of quotations or detailed information for possible later reference.

You will usually need to take four main kinds of notes:

An outline or précis of the writer's main argument and of the sub-arguments or evidence by which it is supported

No piece of information can be considered apart from its context, and the purpose of making such a summary of a book or article is to provide a clear record of the writer's.

Overall design

Because such a summary is likely to run beyond a paragraph or two, many researchers find it easiest to make this kind of note either in a notebook or, preferably, on separate sheets of paper which can be held in a simple filing system.

Specific fragments of information relevant to your topic

Sometimes these will consist of quotations or summaries from primary sources or passages of primary source material quoted in secondary sources. With most research essays you will find it useful to take notes on separate cards or pieces of paper, so that each new source, idea, or fact may be consulted independently of all others. In this way, you will be able to digest the information yourself and not blindly copy the authors you are reading.

Your own criticism, questions, reflections, and hunches

Note-taking should be an active and critical task. Develop the habit of writing down the ideas that come to you in the course of your reading. Either use 'reminder cards' which may be inserted at the relevant place in your file of notes (being sure, of course, to distinguish your own thoughts clearly from those of your sources) or use a separate 'ideas' notebook. These will include suggestions about how your argument might be developed and documented.

Writing the essay

Remember that basic research is only the first stage of essay work; the most important part comes when you put your notes into some sort of order, think about the question, and write the essay. Always try to allow enough time to do this properly. Finish the basic research at least a week before the essay is due. Allow yourself enough time to write more than one draft, to check points that arise in the course of writing, and to polish your final draft.

To get your argument clear in your mind and to avoid unconscious plagiarism (see the important section under this heading below), it is sometimes useful first to jot down the main points you wish to cover; second, to write up a detailed plan divided into two, three or four main sections with the main points listed for each section; and third, to write as full a brief draft as you can without any reference to your notes. This can then be developed, filled out and modified into the complete essay, incorporating your evidence.

Writing well

We are often asked if expression 'will count'. The answer is that a good argument is necessarily one that you express with clarity and forcefulness. For the reader, your writing is your thought. Essays should observe normal standards of written English. Good writing requires correct spelling and the correct use of words. Use a dictionary frequently to check spelling, meaning and usage. Strive for simplicity and clarity above all.

A short and very useful guide that will improve anyone's prose is William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style, third edition (Macmillan, New York, 1979). If you do not understand the need for clear expression of your ideas, read George Orwell's essay, 'Politics and the English Language', which may be found in Orwell, Inside the Whale and Other Essays (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1962.). The final authority on style is H.W. Fowler, The New Fowler's Modern English Usage, third revised edition by R.W. Burchfield (Oxford University Press, 1968). Fowler is an indispensable aid to serious writing. Virtually every word that may be misused has an entry. There are as well many general entries for principles of grammar and usage.

Here are some basic principles of expression:

  • The basic unit of expression is the sentence, and every sentence must have a verb
  • Use paragraphs to strengthen your argument. A paragraph is the statement, development and proof of an idea and its ramifications. Check each paragraph to see that it stands on its own two feet
  • State your ideas forcefully and positively; make definite assertions
  • Use the shorter and stronger word in preference to the longer and weaker, the concrete in preference to the abstract, and verbs and verb phrases in preference to prepositional phrases and nouns. (A preposition is a short word, such as at, on, by, to, with, since, or near, used with a noun to express a space or time relation. 'Because of the determinative role played by the intention of the accused in the charge of collaboration' could be rephrased 'Because intention determined the charge of collaboration')
  • Avoid the passive voice ('the move was opposed'). Of course it has its uses, but in nine cases out of ten you are hiding behind it. If you use the active voice ('X opposed the move'), you will tell us who opposed it and thus use fewer words to give more information
  • Avoid mixed or confused metaphors, like 'from this hope she draws her breath', and tired metaphors, such as 'pregnant with meaning'. A metaphor is supposed to render your thought more concrete; if you can't see the image or if it is contradictory, do not use it
  • Avoid splitting infinitives unless you have a particular reason for doing so
  • Avoid mixed or confusing changes of tense. Past tense is usually the most appropriate in a history essay

Guides to essay writing

In addition to a style manual, we recommend that you purchase, read, and consult regularly a good essay writing guide. Here is a list of useful guides you can obtain at the University Library or many bookshops.

  • Anderson, Jonathan, and Millicent Poole. Thesis and Assignment Writing. 2nd ed. Brisbane: John Wiley & Sons, 1994.
    A sound, basic guide recommended by Academic Skills
  • Barzun, Jacques, and Henry F. Graff. The Modern Researcher. 5th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1992.
    A classic and easy-to-read guide to the research and writing of historical work which also deals with more sophisticated questions of historical writing
  • Bate, Douglas, and Peter Sharpe. Writer's Handbook for University Students. Sydney: Harcourt Brace, 1996.
    A sound, basic guide recommended by Academic Skills
  • Campbell, William Giles, Stephen Vaughan Ballou, and Carole Slade. Form and Style: theses, reports, term papers. 8th ed, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1990
  • Clanchy, John, and Brigid Ballard. Essay Writing for Students: a practical guide. 2nd ed. Melbourne: Longman Cheshire, 1991.
    An excellent guide using Australian style; recommended by Academic Skills
  • Marius, Richard. A Short Guide to Writing about History, 2nd revised ed. New York: Harper Collins, 1994. We recommend this for ideas on writing history
  • Seyler, Dorothy U. Doing Research: the complete research paper guide. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993
  • Taylor, Gordon. The Student's Writing Guide for the Arts and Social Sciences. Cambridge and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1989. A good guide using Cambridge style

Academic Skills is the part of the University which provides advice and guidance to students in writing and studying. It offers brochures and workshops as well as individual counselling. Make use of this resource to improve your essay writing.

Documentation and organisation

A generalisation alone will not convince anyone; it requires supporting evidence and arguments. A note, on its own, is not proof: it tells the reader where to go to check the source of your statement, but the paper itself must make clear to the reader why you argue as you do.

An important part of historical analysis is to put the source in its context. You should always be aware of who the writer or speaker is and of the circumstances in which he or she writes or speaks. This, of course, does not require you to supply a biography of each author as he or she appears, but where identity of the source bears closely upon its value as evidence, you should explicitly take account of this in your interpretation.

As you make the effort to prove your points, they will gain weight. Your first, tentative formulation of a point will lead you to search for supporting or contradicting evidence. You may find the idea contradicted and discard it in favour of another; or it may be strengthened and developed as you work it out.

One such coherent idea, or set or ideas, should serve as the basis of the essay. The essay will then be the consistent exposition of an idea, proceeding logically and never leaving the reader in the lurch. If you do not know what a paragraph contributes to your argument, leave it out.

Quotations

Use quotations sparingly. Weaving a short phrase into your text, especially if it is characteristic or powerful, is the best way to quote. Quotations are useful for purposes of illustration, but generally do not constitute proof, which will be found in the construction you give of the evidence.

The most frequent justification for quoting is that the way in which something, usually from a primary source, is said constitutes part of your evidence; how a source articulates a point is often as important as what it articulates. In such cases, you will do best to give your quotation down to the essential position you wish to analyse and to follow it closely with analysis. Avoid long slabs of quotations.

Never assume that the quotation makes its point by itself, without your analysis. Resist the temptation to quote frequently or at length: an essay which consists of long quotations linked by short passages of connection prose wearies the reader and defeats its main purpose, which is to convey the writer's own thoughts on the subject. Sometimes you may quote especially important phrases from secondary sources, but remember that quoting historians or other secondary sources does not provide evidence for your arguments.

Errors that may seem erroneous to the reader should be indicated by [sic] (Latin for thus, that is, 'it really is so') in square brackets, eg "Gibbon's erudition are [sic] amazing."

Surround any words interpolated in a quotation with square brackets [], not round (), eg "Many men's cynicism amuses; Voltaire's astonishes" could be quoted thus: "Voltaire's [cynicism] astonishes."

If you omit any words from a quotation, indicate the omission by ellipsis, the insertion of three dots; eg 'The peasants fought hard, but . . . the lords had greater force on their side.' (In this case the ellipsis stands for the phrase ‘they were doomed because'.

Footnotes

The argument of an essay must be supported by exact reference to authorities. In the writing of history, these should take the form of footnotes. References in the text, such as the author-date or Harvard system, are not acceptable in history essays. Footnotes should always be placed at the bottom of the page of the essay to which they refer. [If your word processing program cannot do footnotes, end notes are acceptable.] Students are often uncertain how elaborate their footnotes should be. The following rules are a reasonable guide.

  • Common information that is obtainable in any standard work does not need a footnote, but unusual or curious facts do
  • The source of all quotations must be given
  • The source of all important or controversial opinions must be given
  • If you wish to quote primary material that you have found in a secondary source, you should state where it came from originally, and where you found it
  • Footnotes may be used to qualify, amplify or make incidental comments on discussion in the text of the essay, but this should be done very sparingly. Footnotes should not contain arguments that properly belong in the text
  • References in the text, such as the author-date or Harvard systems, are not acceptable in history essays. There are a variety of different citation styles in use; scholarly journals and academic presses may use their own particular style

Bibliographies

Your essay should also include a list (bibliography) of the works you have used in preparing the essay. Sometimes your lecturer will ask you to follow each title with short critical comments, of one or two sentences in length. This is called an annotated bibliography. These critical comments offer an opportunity for you to indicate briefly the influence that the work in question has had upon the development of your own ideas and its special value or limitations as a source. Comments such as 'useful' are themselves of little use; instead you should explain specifically how and why the work was useful.

In setting out the bibliography of works used in the preparation of the essay, list primary (contemporary) sources first, then secondary sources. Within each section works should appear in alphabetical order, with the surname of the author or editor first. Anonymous or composite works bearing no author's name should appear in the alphabetical order of the title.

You must give complete information about each book, including the author's (or editor's) full name, the full title, the edition, and number of volumes where applicable, and the place and date of publication.

As in the following examples, place chapter and article titles in inverted commas, book and journal titles in italics. (Underlining in a handwritten or typewritten work is a substitute for italics in printing; this custom developed because underlining was used to show the printer that italics were needed and was taken over for the typewriter, which could not type italics. Now that word processors usually have the possibility of printing italics, use italics.)

For the organisation of a lengthy bibliography, including manuscript, official and other sources, consult the Style Manual, §9.55 and pp. 428-431, or a recent monograph in your subject.

Reflective essay

One aspect of assessment which can be puzzling is the distinction between the two main types of essays you will be asked to write, the research essay and the reflective essay. A number of students have confirmed that they are not completely certain what a "reflective essay" is, and how it differs from a normal research essay. Of course, individual lecturers often state their own expectations of the essay form, and these will in all cases over-ride the general comments offered as a guide here. We can, however, offer you these general pointers, and leave you to apply them with discretion.

Writing on a "horizontal" axis: an overview of the course

First, if you think of a research essay as a "vertical" axis (delving quite deeply into a quite narrow field of inquiry), then the reflective essay works on a more "horizontal" axis, attempting to range quite broadly over the whole course and, consequently, not trying to go into as much detail as you might for a research essay

Telling the reader what you make of the topic

The topics of reflective essays are often much broader, and more general, than those of research essays. This is a deliberate ploy to open the course up as widely as possible to your speculation. Nonetheless, the greater breadth can be a problem, and can put you at risk of writing a very general and vague essay. Far more so than a research topic, the reflective essay question usually puts the onus on you to state what you have made of a general topic, and to explain to your reader how you intend to address it. Look out for deliberately vague terms such as "political" revolution and "social" revolution, or "conservative" and "radical". They are open invitations for you to weigh in and do some purposeful personal definitions

A (relatively) decreased emphasis on substantiation

A corollary of this is your substantiation. In a research essay, you are trying to prove that you have read and understood the texts on a set list of readings: you have to put them on an extensive bibliography, and you have to footnote extensively, if only to demonstrate that you have really read them. These readings are extra readings, in addition to tutorial readings. In a reflective essay, you are not expected to do extra reading, although you may do so if you wish to. You are really responding to work you have already done in the course, so in a sense you may take it as "read". True, if you refer to a reading, you should do so clearly by author and title, so that your reader knows exactly to whom you are referring. You would not be expected to footnote extensively unless you quote directly from the author's text, in which case you are obliged to do so. Your lecturer might tell you to put only a minimal bibliography, or none at all

The secret of revision: "trawling" through your notes

A reflective essay might require some ingenuity, as well as some basic revision. It is true that, in many historical studies subjects, you could write a basic sort of an essay using only the readings from the final weeks of semester, but a truly excellent essay would seek to engage with the course as a whole. In a sense, you are trying to throw a broad net over the whole course,both in terms of addressing the large themes that run through it, and in terms of mentioning some of the key readings

Demonstrating your intellectual mastery of the readings

You should also try, however, to tie in some of the more specific articles, and you should learn to refer to an important article in one short, deft statement which demonstrates that you have understood the essence of its argument or historical significance. This does not mean that your essay should become one monotonous review of every reading: you should weave these references meaningfully into the overall line of reflection you are pursuing. In a sense, you are giving a "cameo sketch" of a piece of scholarship, showing that you have a command of its broad significance, and that you have now reflected upon how that unit of meaning fits into a broad reflection on the period of study. One of the most painless ways of doing this is to cruise back through your book of readings, perhaps also your tutorial notes, maybe even your lecture notes, and you will be surprised how much information, both factual and analytical, will come flooding back to you. With so much information ready at hand, you will find that your mind will be free to concentrate on the more difficult part of the exercise, which is that of pondering the broad themes and significance of the period of study

Setting up time-frames

Remember that because you are pondering the broad span of an historical period, rather than the highly specific time-frame typical of a research essay, it might be useful to set up a distinction between the short term and the long term

Showing awareness of the changing meanings of key terms

One of the most useful distinctions you can draw is a linguistic one: remember that it might be relevant to take key words from your field of study - words which are so common as to have a fixed, universal meaning - and to do a subtle analysis of how they had radically different meanings a) between different social types and b) at different times

Demonstrating a sense of the definition of social class

As in a research essay, remember to avoid vast social categories which can be meaningless. Remember that a category that is too broad can lead you into a statement that is absurd. If you are doing a course which involves writing about a social class, try to "nail it down" before you get too far into your essay: try to give a quick little definition of who they are and what sorts of people you are talking about. Remember that in the vast majority of cases, the terms we use to describe classes, such as 'bourgeoisie' and 'working class' are woefully inadequate to capture their full complexity, so you can impress your reader with a sense of real accuracy and sophistication by setting up clearer definitions and distinctions

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