Advice on essay and research writing

©Denis Hayes, May 2008

The following advice is offered on the understanding that the project that you are undertaking has accompanying explanatory notes about the specific requirements that relate to the particular piece of work you are being asked to produce. Consult them carefully!


Deciding a title:


Bad titles often lead to bad essays. Inappropriate titles frustrate readers. Expect to modify your title (perhaps several times) before you finalise it. Make the title plain and informative rather than subtly worded or lyrical. Try to keep it under about 15 words in length.


General advice:


§  Aim to embark on a detailed and engaging project that grips the reader’s interest and attention.

§  Do not be tempted to make premature claims without evidence or decide what you intend to find before you have found it out!

§  Make an appraisal of the worth of another author’s viewpoint in the light of its usefulness rather than your emotional response to it; even if you do not agree with a viewpoint, you can acknowledge its existence and (perhaps) merit.

§  Keep raising “Why?” and “Yes, but…” questions in your mind about what you have written and claimed.

§  Be transparent: say why you have done things a certain way; acknowledge the limitations of your work; be true to yourself.




·        Begin with some vivid or compelling (but not exaggerated) opening sentences that make your reader alert and alive to the issues you will explore.

·        Tell the reader what the project is about and (briefly) how the thesis, article, paper or dissertation is structured.

·        In an abstract, summarise your main argument(s) and findings.

·        In a preface, include clauses such as: “I hope to discover …” or “I will advance the proposition that …” or “This research seeks to illuminate…” or “This essay will help to establish that…” or “I intend to show that…”


Structuring the work

Think of the work like following a forest trail:

§  Check the map beforehand and find out about the area (context/previous work)

§  Go to the starting point (introduction/motivation for doing the work)

§  Be alert to the signposts indicating stages of the walk (structure/informing the reader)

§  Observe the features and diversity of the countryside (descriptions/ dilemmas/ surprises/ challenges)

§  Reflect on where you have been and what you have seen (analysis)

§  Consider how far you’ve travelled (summary/conclusions)

§  Think about next steps (further research/recommendations/implications)


The Introduction


§  Introduce the topic and state why the topic is important

§  Highlight areas that merit further exploration…which you will address with reference to themes and issues that other authors have raised

NB It’s not the number of authors you quote but the depth of your understanding and significance of their work

§  If you have not done so in a preface, say how the assignment/ thesis/ article etc will be structured

§  Give the reader a ‘taste’ of what follows but don’t show all your cards!

NOTE: The introduction should be amended last, when you know what follows. Always make such amendments your final task before submission.


Literature review


·        Other than in exceptional cases, there is always too much literature to handle, so be selective

·        Don’t pretend to understand complex ideas that actually baffle you!

·        Explain what an author believes or found or claims in your own words as much as possible, rather than finding a ‘good’ quote or two and using them out of context

·        Refer to the possible implications of your literature search for the present study

·        In some instances it is appropriate to use a ‘model’ that an author has published to explain a phenomenon as a vehicle for your own research. After conducting your research you can make suggestions about how the model could or should be modified, its limitations, usefulness, and so forth

·        Make particular note of contrasting views about the same issue


Analysis of data


§  Data is always ‘partial’, so you can only make claims on the basis of what you have found—not what you would like, ideally, to have found.

§  Approach your findings in one of 2 ways: (1) Take comments, extracts, observations, documentation and build a hypothesis; or (2) State your tentative hypothesis first and see the extent to which it can be supported or has to be modified in the light of your findings

§  Regardless of how you analyse the data (software/highlighter/extracting key words and phrases…), acknowledge its limitations

§  Analysis is not a mechanical process…always keep in mind your research question and how your own beliefs, bias, assumptions etc may have affected the outcome


Utilising data


·        Don’t just describe what you have found.  Draw out issues; link them to the literature and to wider debates.

·        Point out contrasts and similarities between your findings and the findings of others.

·        Use your findings to establish the strength or weakness of arguments/ perspectives.


Presenting arguments:


Use the categories from the analysis as a framework for your arguments


Allow your ‘voice’ to emerge as you present your arguments: show the tensions within arguments; evaluate them; weigh them up and tell the reader how you have reached a decision.


·        Take great care over the way that you phrase things: “It would appear that…” or “The evidence tends to support…” or “There is little evidence from findings to…”

·        Do NOT say ‘it is obvious that’ unless it most certainly IS obvious to the reader that…!


Identify contrasts – between two or more ways of considering an argument or issue

§  What are the different perspectives on this issue? A situation is rarely clear-cut. Even statistical data are open to interpretation.


In making claims

§  What evidence supports them? Where are they still tentative?



In advancing your claims use expressions such as:


§  This argument is supported by …

§  My assumptions have taken account of…

§  Another way of viewing this evidence is… 

§  These claims are tentative in as much as …

§  However, nevertheless, yet, and yet, conversely, in spite of, even so…

§  The proposition is strengthened/confirmed by …


Making connections with other work:

Refer back to key literature. Other work may provide a backdrop for, or confirm or oppose or illuminate your claims. Don’t just use work that supports your findings/hypothesis

Use expressions such as:

§  This perspective is given weight by Bloggin’s study about…

§  In the same way, Bloatworth (2004) suggests that …

§  Ticklebottom (2006) argues in a similar vein; thus:

§  Equivalent findings are drawn from the work of…

§  There is overwhelming support for this stance in ...

§  Zhivago (1999) is not alone in adopting this view …


But also, perhaps…

·        My findings contrast sharply with those of Cluedo (2003) who…

·        Gerty’s original hypothesis is not supported by data from this present study…

·        My research findings shed some light on the merit of the differing views expressed by Scooby-Doo (1994) and Tophat (2000) about the effectiveness of the technique in as much as…


Writing a conclusion:

The main parts of a conclusion consist of:


1.   Restating the main premise

2.   Accurately summarising the arguments that you have employed

3.   Referring to your literature review or key references/theories

4.   Suggesting ways forward and areas to be further explored

5.   Depending on the research area, you may also want to offer implications for practice


And in a PhD thesis: What is new and distinctive about your findings?


Using quotations (quotes)


Always introduce and discuss quotes; be explicit about how the quote supports or conflicts with the arguments you are advancing or examining.

When introducing quotations use a variety of verbs rather than constantly repeating ‘says’; for example:










Points out






If you start a sentence with ‘This’, always follow it with a noun or noun phrase, not with a verb; for example:


‘This indicates a possible way forward’ is not as clear as ‘This result indicates a possible way forward’ or ‘This set of results indicates a possible way forward’. The same rule applies when a sentence begins with “These”.

Similarly, the use of “it” in the middle of a sentence probably refers to something mentioned earlier in the sentence or in the previous sentence. It is far better to be specific about what “it” refers to.



Are you sure you’ve got the apostrophe in the correct place?!

Summary of points


Make sure that the title reflects the content. Keep the title fairly short and explicit.

Don’t make assumptions about your reader’s knowledge. Instead, introduce and define key notions and summarise essential information and provide background information.


Question everything!  Don’t simply quote legislation or quotations or extracts or ‘sound bites’ as if they are the truth.


Support your conclusions with empirical evidence (‘hard’ data) rather than wishful thinking or imagination or sentiment.


Constantly direct the readers: remind them what your key argument is and tell them how it supports the main thesis.


Finish the assignment one week before the deadline for about every 5000 words of length. Put it to one side for a couple of days then read it through closely. In other words, a 10,000 word dissertation should be completed 2 weeks ahead of schedule and an 80,000 word thesis some 16 weeks ahead of the deadline—assuming you are doing it ‘part-time’. (Yes, four months!) The reason for the long run-in time for theses is their complexity and, especially, the time it takes to check references, spot glaring errors that have become ‘invisible’ through over-familiarity and re-phrasing ambiguous statements…plus the practicalities of binding, etc.


Get a trusted friend to read through sections of your work.

Read sections aloud. Think about the ‘flow’ of ideas from paragraph to paragraph. Always remember your reader. Things that are ‘obvious’ to you may not be to the person responsible for assessing your work. Don’t be obsessive about providing signposts so that it becomes annoying but DO structure your work in such a way that surface features (clear font, well spaced, use of sub-headings, larger size main headings, etc) make life easier for the reader.




Aim high­ ­– there is no such thing as an average student, only average expectations




Dig deep. Think hard. Be clear in your own mind before you try to explain to others.