Many students, perhaps returning to education for the first time in a while, struggle with academic writing. What advice would you give to a beginning student? Answer in the form of an essay.
I often encounter students, coming to the Open University after many years away from studying, who lament that they don’t know how to write essays. I believe it is possible to get around 60% in A111 assignments just by following a few simple rules even if, like me, you have not written an essay since forever. The origins of this essay began in a Facebook post in which a friend asked for advice on how to approach essay writing and we thought it might be useful to flesh out the details and share them more widely (Clown, 2022a). In this post, I will share suggestions on how to write a good essay, following the format that you might use in a tutor-marked assessment. I’ll explain how to start with a good introduction, how to prepare an outline and how to think about your audience. Finally, I will explore how you can go beyond these simple rules to get a grade that you are proud of. I will begin by introducing the Open University and my previous module: Discovering the Arts and Humanities (A111).
The Open University was founded in 1969 to bring the benefits of university education to a broad audience. Over two million students have studied with the Open University since its founding, the majority of whom study part-time while working (Open University, 2022a). Most learning is conducted remotely through online materials, printed textbooks and video conferencing. Students are required to submit periodic assessments including tutor-marked assessments (TMAs) which usually take the form of an essay (Open University 2022b). The structure of a TMA varies from subject to subject and, in this essay, I will focus on the structure required in the School of Arts & Humanities, and in particular, the introductory module: Discovering the Arts and Humanities (A111) (Open University, 2022c). In the next section, I will describe my own experience as a returning student.
When I began studying with the Open University in 2021, I had not written an academic essay since English Language O level in 1982 and I had several misconceptions about what was required. I will describe and correct these misconceptions below. Once I understood what was expected, I found it quite easy to write essays and even get good grades. To get a very high grade requires a little creativity and flair but I believe it is possible to get consistently over 60% just by learning a few simple tips and to get even higher grades with a little stretching. I’ll cover those simple tips first. I should note that while these tips work for me, you may have your own approach already. If what you are doing works for you — many students prefer to use the PEEL technique (Zakaria, 2022), for example — stick with that. If not, consider trying some of these ideas.
My first tip is that the introduction should be far more detailed than I had previously expected. Someone who reads your introduction should come away with a good understanding of the question that you intend to answer, what your answer will be and how you intend to demonstrate that your answer is correct. Even if they only read the introduction, your reader should already understand your main claim and what your argument will be. Don’t leave any surprises for later in the essay. I like to write the introduction first as it helps focus my mind on exactly what I want to say. After I have finished my essay, I go back and check that the introduction accurately reflects what I actually said. With the introduction done, I put together an outline of what I intend to write. I’ll explain how to approach an outline next.
Before starting on the main part of my essay, I draft an outline where each entry represents a paragraph. Prior to A111, my approach was to write, write, write until I get to the end. My tutor showed me how building an outline helps me stay under the word count and to decide what to chop if I run out of word count (I will explain the word count later in the essay). The outline also gives me the flexibility to restructure my essay easily if I find that I have written myself into a corner and need to rearrange things to get out of it (Tutor, 2021). Here’s an outline that I wrote for this essay.
- What is the Open University? What is module A111? What is a TMA? Who am I?
- Build an outline first (notes on word count and paragraph size).
- Who is the audience for my essay?
- How to write an introduction.
- How to respond to the question and what to leave out.
- When to quote and when to paraphrase.
- How and when to reference.
- Different kinds of essay for different disciplines.
- Alternate approaches and signposting.
- When my essay is too long.
- Write a pithy summary of my argument AND a conclusion.
Once I have an outline, I can eyeball it and figure out whether, with paragraphs of around 200 words, I am going to meet the word count. As I work on my essay, I often tweak my outline as I learn more about what I want to write. For example, if I have too many paragraphs, I can get rid of some of them or perhaps merge some together. There are several kinds of paragraph that are always required, whatever the topic of the essay. I have already described the introduction. The second paragraph should introduce important people, ideas and institutions and define any terms that may be unfamiliar to your audience. Understanding your audience is very important and I will explain this next.
When I wrote my first essay, I assumed that I was writing for my tutor. This assumption was incorrect. I should be writing instead for an intelligent person who knows nothing about my topic. Other guides advise that you should write simply, as if for a 12-year-old but I disagree. I recommend aiming for an intelligent, adult audience who is hearing about your topic for the first time. In the next section, I will describe the importance of staying on topic.
I still find the gnomic TMA questions difficult to interpret but interpret you must. The Open University has a useful guide that explains key phrases such as compare and contrast or discuss and evaluate. Each phrase is an instruction to write a certain kind of essay and it’s important to understand what the question requires (Open University, 2023). These phrases remained mysterious for a long time, even with the cheatsheet, but I eventually became comfortable with them. The next skill to master is understanding what the topic should be. I still struggle with this and am often filled with dread as I submit my TMA because you don’t get credit for any writing that is off-topic. Fortunately, the guidance notes for level one TMAs provide very good hints but interpreting the question is a skill you will need to learn for higher levels. Especially at level one, you have a very restricted word count and you must be relentless about staying on-topic. It is best to delete off-topic writing—even if it is excellent—to preserve your precious word count for more relevant material. I’ll explain referencing next.
Academic essays require you to acknowledge your sources for three main reasons: firstly, it provides a useful guide for your readers if they want to investigate your topic further; secondly, it is polite to acknowledge the sources of your knowledge and to credit the contributions of the authors on whose shoulders you stand; finally, good referencing will protect you from accusations of plagiarism. You are encouraged to use information from other sources but you must always provide a reference to show where the information came from. The Open University takes plagiarism very seriously and providing references will help avoid possible disputes. There are two parts to a reference: the reference list at the end of your essay provides the title of your source material, the name of the author and the date it was written. The format varies with the type of media that you are referencing (book, website, video, etc) and the OU Harvard guide (Open University, 2014) provides a handy guide. Unfortunately, there is a lot of variation in what different modules — and even different tutors within a module — expect when it comes to referencing so, if you are not sure, you should check with your own tutor. In A111, tutors are usually quite forgiving as you learn to reference but you will need to master the technique for higher-level modules. The second part of a reference is an in-text citation that points your reader to the correct reference at the bottom of your essay. You should add a cite for every item of information that you learned elsewhere; if you are in any doubt as to whether you should cite, you should probably cite (Tutor, 2022). If I have several, consecutive points derived from the same author, I usually add a single cite at the end but you should check with your tutor to see what they prefer. Some students prefer to add their references once their essay is complete but I prefer to reference as I go along. If I am in a hurry to get a thought down I will write (CITE) in bold to remind me to come back to anything that requires a reference. This section described how to reference; the next section will explain how to include the material that you are referencing.
My memories of essays from my school days told me that I should quote an author directly and then explain the quote but I soon learned that this approach is not appropriate for academic essays. When you include information from another source be sure to rewrite it in your own words: don’t be tempted to copy-paste text from elsewhere and don’t simply rearrange the words from the original text. I do quote text occasionally to emphasise a point but, unless I am writing an essay about a poem or other literature, I limit myself to just one or two quotes per essay. If you use a quote, you should explain what the quote means and why it is relevant to the point you want to make. Don’t assume that your reader will figure it out on their own. In the next paragraph, I will explain signposting.
Signposts are hints that you should add to guide your reader through your essay. Your introduction should include a preview of what the essay is about but you should also leave little hints to say what the next section will be about when you change topic. Another occasion for signposting is when you make a point that you will explain later. You can avoid red ink from your tutor by letting them know what to expect. Finally, it helps to relate any points back to your argument to remind your reader of what your essay is about (Queens University, date unknown).
I mentioned the word count earlier. Each essay has a limit, known as a word count, and, in A111, these are usually quite low. You will usually be allowed to go 10% above or below this limit. Anything you write over this limit will not be marked. I usually find that I am way over the limit on my first draft but this gives me an opportunity to tighten up my sentences and remove any sections that are off-topic; sometimes I delete whole paragraphs. Most of my essays are in need of a trim after the first draft and I can often lose 100 words just by removing unnecessary adjectives or filler words and the writing becomes tighter as a result. I usually review my essay four or five times making changes each time until I am satisfied and then I leave it for a day to allow the words to settle before reviewing it again. Despite my best intentions, I am a chronic procrastinator and I need that deadline to encourage me to get started. I usually start on the Friday before the deadline so that I have the weekend to get the essay done and leave a day or two to make any edits. I will now collect some final thoughts before my conclusion.
I was surprised to find that you can get a very acceptable grade for an essay just by following some rote rules and staying on topic. However, to get a very good grade, you need to write more critically. In philosophy essays especially, your audience wants to hear your opinion about the topic and you need to explain why you have that opinion and justify it with clear, logical arguments. To get the highest grades, you need to provide counter-arguments to your own opinions and—even better—explain why those counter-arguments are wrong. You can get a good grade without these extra steps but they are useful skills to acquire for when you reach the higher levels.
I’ve written about how I approach writing an essay but different students may have a different approach. It’s important to find an approach that works for you and, importantly, that works for your tutor. Essays in the humanities are quite different from essays in the sciences and require you to include more of your own ideas and critical analysis. Even within the humanities, different subjects will have different requirements. For example, some subjects frown on the use of the first person while others, philosophy in particular, encourage it. Philosophy essays also have a particular shape that is different from that of other subjects. However, one rule that applies to almost every subject is that the conclusion should not introduce any new ideas; it should succinctly summarise your main points and, essentially, be a reflection of your introduction (Tutor, 2022). I have written a more specific guide to writing philosophy essays (How to Write a Philosophy Essay (Clown, 2023)) as philosophy is my preferred subject and the module that I am studying now (Clown, 2023).
I wrote this essay to provide a guide to new students or people who have been away from studying for a long time. To summarise the most important points: your introduction should provide enough information to give your reader the gist of what you plan to say without reading the whole essay; it helps to build an outline; use lots of signposting and provide references for any ideas that are not your own. By following these tips you should be able to obtain a respectable grade for your TMAs in A111 and, with a little flair and creativity, get a very good grade. Good luck!
Clown, R. 2022a. on Facebook Group: TheOpenUniversity https://www.facebook.com/groups/TheOpenUniversity/posts/10162379554614522/
Open University, 2014. OU Harvard guide to citing references. Available at: https://learn1.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=15025 (accessed 4th July 2022).
Open University, 2022b. About The Open University. Available at: https://www.open.ac.uk/about/main/ (accessed 4th July 2022).
Open University, 2022c. Course Assessments. Available at: https://www.open.ac.uk/courses/what-is-distance-learning/assessment (accessed 4th July 2022).
Open University, 2022d. Discovering the arts and humanities. Available at: https://www.open.ac.uk/courses/modules/a111 (accessed 4th July 2022).
Open University, 2023. Preparing assignments. Available at: https://help.open.ac.uk/understanding-the-question (accessed 4th July 2022).
Queens University, date unknown. Signposting. https://www.qub.ac.uk/graduate-school/Filestore/Filetoupload,597684,en.pdf (accessed 4th July 2022).
Tutor, A. 2022. Email to Ragged Clown, 1 March 2022.
I started this a couple of years ago. What can I say? I am a chronic procrastinator.
I’d write it differently now. I tried writing it to follow the structure of an A111 assignment. It seemed like a good idea at the time but I am not sure it worked out as well as I had hoped. If I were to start over, I’d probably just write it as a straightforward how-to guide.
I wrote an simplified version of this guide specifically for philosophy essays here: