Frequently asked questions
What counts as 'original thinking'?
You’ve looked at the marking guidelines for your course, and under the top grade banding ‘original thinking’ is listed – but what on earth is that? It can be many things: drawing new theoretical distinctions, introducing a novel argument, collecting fresh empirical evidence, or making connections by applying a theory in one discipline to another. Nobody is expecting you to redraw the boundaries of your discipline in a single university essay, but you can stick out from the crowd by actively evaluating a question and coming to a judgement about it. Use my videos and exercises to practice critically evaluating each question.
My advice is not to stress unduly about ‘demonstrating originality’ – that can seem a mountain to climb – but simply focus on developing an interesting, persuasive answer to the question at hand.
How do I pick out essential information when reading for an essay?
I hate highlighters. They encourage you to underline sections of text mindlessly without truly taking anything in. A better way to pick out essential information is to take five minutes at the end to jot down the core take-home of each article you read in propositional form – that is, as one, two, or at most three grammatical sentences. You’ll find that you get more efficient at this as you practice. Like a lawyer, you’ll be constantly scanning the document for the main arguments – even as you zone in on particular details. See my Syllogisms and Summaries video for more advice.
What is the relative weight of evidence and theory in a brilliant essay?
This question is ‘how long is a piece of string’, because there is no single best way to balance theory and evidence. A top grade essay could be highly theoretical or a deeply-informed empirical piece. If your tutor has specific guidelines, obviously you should follow them. If not, step back from the question and consider what it is asking you to do. Have confidence in your own judgement.
I am anxious and feeling out of my depth at university. How will I cope with writing essays?
It’s perfectly normal to feel a bit anxious. You’re not alone. I promise you – we’ve all been there! I didn’t arrive at university already able to write brilliant essays (in fact, I think I only really cracked it towards the end of my undergraduate degree), and nobody is expecting you to write perfectly immediately either. It takes plenty of trial and error to get better, and that’s okay. Everybody is learning.
One of the things that can happen when you’re anxious is that you fall back on formulaic approaches from school (see my Losing the Training Wheels video for examples). But if you can loosen up a bit and actively evaluate each question, you’ll have a much more rewarding essay writing experience – and you may start to feel more confident in your own abilities.
How do I choose my own essay title?
It can be hard to know where to start when you're asked to create an essay title from scratch. Take advice from people in your discipline. Many tutors will allow you to modify existing course questions, or you could take a provocative quotation from the scholarly literature as your starting point (add ‘Discuss’ afterwards). Make sure your question allows you to use higher-order skills of evaluation and analysis, so don’t create purely descriptive questions. For inspiration, read a clutch of journal articles in your field, drawing out the research question each one tackles. What sorts of questions do scholars consider?
How many authors should I cite?
There is no hard and fast rule about how many authors to cite. One of the characteristics of a brilliant essay is that it is deeply informed by – and in conversation with – a range of scholarly literature, but since you have limited space you’ll need to make an intelligent choice about what to cite. It’s not just about name-checking. Think what each citation does for your argument: are you agreeing or disagreeing with these scholars? Do they introduce a theoretical distinction or empirical finding that helps you build your argument? Do they propose a counter-argument that you need to address? See my Using Evidence and Literature video for more advice.
Are examples better if they’re provided in the literature?
In short, no. There are no additional brownie points to be gained from using examples the literature cites. Of course, there may be good reasons why a particular example is frequently deployed in the literature – and those reasons may persuade you to cite that example too – but beware of mindlessly sprinkling your essay with examples plucked from the secondary literature simply because they feature in that literature. Better to make your own judgement about which examples are most appropriate for your purposes.
Who are you?
I am a Senior Lecturer in Politics at Royal Holloway, University of London, where I research and teach American politics. I took my MA, MPhil, and DPhil degrees at the University of Oxford, and taught undergraduate students there for five years. See my About Me page for more information.