Students who fail to write a proper academic essay often think that they just have no talent for it. However, an essay is a genre with certain rules, which means that writing a good essay takes more intellectual discipline than talent. In addition, an academic essay is a naturally scalable genre. That’s why in certain academic traditions, essays are a key element in the study process: students write essays weekly. The thinking is that if students learn to write an effective five-paragraph essay, they will be able to apply this skill to larger-scale projects, such as a term paper, a journal article, or a thesis. IQ is publishing a detailed manual on how to write academic essays by Aleksei Pleshkov, Director of the Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities, and Olga Alieva, Associate Professor at the School of Philosophy and Cultural Studies. They explain some of the genre rules and share their recommendations on how to improve one’s writing. The text was first published on the website of HSE’s Greek and Latin Club, Antibarbari HSE.
1. What Is an Academic Essay?
1.1. An academic essay is not a creative essay
The word ‘essay’ may sound confusing, because in the case of an informal essay, it may denote a creative, free-style piece on, for example, literary, philosophical, or social issues. On the contrary, an academic essay has a rather strictly organized structure.
1.2. An academic essay is not a philosophical essay
A philosophical essay is a piece of writing in which the author expresses their own personal perspective on an experienced and described phenomenon, subject, or event. You’ll probably master this genre as well when the time comes, but please don’t go about trying to write a philosophical essay when your instructor is expecting an academic essay from you. (This is even more the case if you are submitting an academic essay as part of an application for a scholarship, exchange programme, etc). An academic text is no place for your personal experiences or feelings related to a given topic (though no one would object if you express your unique viewpoint through a clear articulation of evidence-based argumentation).
1.3. An academic essay is a short argument supported by evidence
An academic essay is a text in which you prove a certain argument — your thesis (see 2.2.3) — which is usually of a polemical nature.
Your task is to prove your argument based on a certain context and convince your reader of something. Or, at the very least, you must demonstrate that you possess the necessary skills of argumentation that are used in your discipline (and for that, you’ll need to at least be familiar with the basic literature on your topic).
Your key audience is your instructor or a reviewer; choose your arguments with this audience in mind. Do not act like you are writing for a wide general-interest audience. Remember that an academic essay, as well as any other academic text, is always a dialogue with your colleagues or with the researchers who have studied this topic before you. If you have no idea about the research field, most probably, you won’t be able to write the essay.
Nonetheless, what you are supposed to demonstrate in your essay is not how well-read you are, but your ability to judge on your own: you have a thought or an idea, which you are able to reason, so that any rational reader can relate. Sapere aude, ‘dare to know’, or, as Immanuel Kant interpreted this Latin phrase, ‘Have the courage to use your own reason!’
Thus, an academic essay is a short research paper, which is different from a term paper in terms of length and focus: while in a term paper, you usually address two or three interrelated problems (a goal and tasks that are needed to achieve the goal), and have two or three chapters to address these problems, an essay is usually an answer to one specific question.
2. Essay Structure
2.1. Basic Structure
An essay consists of a title (yes, your teacher gives you a topic, but as for your essay’s title – this, too, is a part that requires some skill), an introduction, a main body, and a conclusion.
2.2.1. Introduction Length
In a short essay, an introduction is usually the first paragraph (5-7 sentences that reflect the main idea of your paper). When necessary, the introduction may be longer, but mustn’t comprise more than 20% of your paper.
2.2.2. Introduction Structure
The easiest way to organize your introduction is in accordance with the funnel principle. Start by describing the general agenda of your essay, state its relevance, specify the area of studies and, finally, specify your own argument (see below 2.2.3). In your introduction, you can also use ‘hooks’ – information that you believe will catch the reader’s interest and make them want to continue reading. It may be a story related to the topic, a fun fact, or a joke. But remember that an introduction is not a comedy sketch: everything should be moderate and appropriate.
2.2.3. Constructing Your Thesis Statement
The main task of your introduction is to introduce your argument, which consists of two elements: your topic (what you are talking about) and your main idea (what exactly you will say about it). Both must be quite specific.
Your thesis statement does not have to be an announcement (‘my essay is about…’, ‘my argument is that…’). If you have a good argument and presented it convincingly, the reader will understand that this is your argument.
A fact is not an argument. A fact is what is true. An argument is a kind of judgement, which has to be proven true.
Do not appeal to a popular or a general opinion. This is simply not interesting.
Control both parts of your argument (topic + defining idea). If you accidentally replace either of these components with something else, you run the risk of making a logical error (thereby losing your thesis statement). If you do it intentionally, it is a logical trick (replacing the thesis).
2.2.4. What Else the Introduction Should Include
If the length of your essay allows it, the introduction may also include:
(a) Brief definitions of key terms and concepts—especially if you are using specific terminology, which is different from the metalanguage used in your (sub)discipline;
(b) Methods, if it is important for your study (if your key methods are synthesis and analysis, dialectics and comparison, however, you do not need to indicate them);
(c) Previous work in your field on the topic, but avoid describing all relevant studies from A to Z. You can emphasize two or three perspectives that are obviously conflicting, and outline your position in relation to them;
(d) Plan. Of course, if you are writing a two-page essay, a plan is excessive. But if your paper is lengthy, you can specify the points you will cover so that the reader has an idea of where you are leading them.
NB! Phrases such as ‘was born…’, ‘lived…’, or ‘died…’ are often seen in (weak) introductions. Only rarely are such biographical details justified. You are not writing a Wikipedia entry.
2.3. The Body
2.3.1. Strong Paragraphs
The body of your essay presents specific evidence that proves the argument you have outlined in the introduction. A good essay does not include any ‘fluff’: each paragraph fulfills a specific purpose that is clear to the reader.
Try to write in strong paragraphs. Of course, in come cases, avoiding strong paragraphs is logically or rhetorically reasonable. But while you are a student, try to write in strong paragraphs as a rule.
(a) A strong paragraph is a micromodel of the essay itself.
(b) The topic sentence is a micro-argument of the paragraph. It should contain the topic and the defining idea: it is a supplementary argument that is connected with the argument of the whole essay.
(c) Evidence or concrete information that supports your claim; not casual reasoning on the topic.
(d) Details (such as a quotation) and examples are always subordinate to the argument and the evidence.
(e) The conclusion notonly summarizes the paragraph (in this sense, it should obviously be connected with the topic sentence), but allows you to transition to the next paragraph as a meaningful unit (for example, via keywords).
NB! Sometimes, you have a quotation or an example that you believe provide ideal support for your argument. Do not simply include the quotation or example without any explanation or contextualization: you’ll need to prepare a strong paragraph for them, which means to present a topic sentence and evidence, and then add a conclusion.
2.3.2. Text Consistency
(a) Make sure your essay has logical sequencing and transitionsas well as general consistency. But don’t try to replace transitions with ‘empty talk’: remember that a good essay avoids not only excessive paragraphs, but even excessive sentences and words.
(b) Don’t lose track of the argument of your essay. Losing it is an error or a trick (see 2.2.3), and in addition, a threat to sink the essay in empty talk (see 2.3.1).
(c) Use transitional words (first, second, furthermore, however, consequently, on the other hand etc). Transitional words are important markers of your reasoning.
2.3.3. Topic and Focus
There are some simple techniques that help achieve consistency in a text. For example, there is a Topic and Focus rule: a sentence consists of the information that is already known (topic) and the new information (focus), which, as the argumentation develops, also becomes the topic. Thus, a certain pace of narration is set: something new is becoming known + something new is added, and then again, something new is becoming known + something new is added, and so on.
The topic and the focus must not grammatically be the subject and the predicate. For example, in the sentence ‘This topic is surprisingly under-studied’, the new information is added by the adverb and adjective ‘surprisingly under-studied’.
The ‘focus’ in this equation usually, but not always, follows the ‘topic’. A criterion that determines the topic and the focus can be the question that can be asked to the sentence.
A topic is not always a known piece of information. Sometimes, it is something new, but usually, suggested in an earlier context (‘zoom in’ effect).
(a) Repeat the main argument of your essay. If you haven’t lost it (intentionally or not) in the course of the text, it’s a good start!
(b) Sum up your key evidence. It is an evidence-based essay, and your reasoning is the main contribution.
(c) Do not add any new information in the conclusion. If while writing the conclusion, you have a new idea or a new reason, it deserves a place in the main part of the essay. In this case, revise the structure and find a place for it there. The conclusion is not for new information; it is for concluding.
(d) Express yourself concisely. Your reader has made it to the end with you. Show some courtesy.
(e) Your conclusion should give your reader a notion that the essay is over. It doesn’t mean that you should announce it (‘thus, I finish…’): a good conclusion speaks for itself.
3. Formatting the Essay
Formatting requirements may differ, so we’ll outline only the most common principles.
3.1. Quotation and Rephrasing (Quotation Marks and References)
(a) When you use someone else’s words (direct quotation) or ideas (indirect quotation or rephrasing), you must always indicate that these words or ideas are not yours. Even if you’ve contracted a large amount of someone else’s text into one short paragraph (which is, of course, a serious and creative job), you must add a reference and attribute the ideas to the original author. The text does not become yours only because you thoroughly processed it.
(b) References to books or whole papers, if you are using a specific phrase or idea is not enough: specify the specific page or page range.
(c) With rare exceptions, scholarly and scientific texts do not originate on the internet. Providing a reference to the online version of a text (without page numbers) when there is a print version of the text (with page numbers) is unprofessional.
(d) Here is a video (in Russian) about quoting ancient authors.
3.2. Proper Grammar and Punctuation
For starters, get a grammar reference book and use it whenever in doubt. Beware of paronyms!
3.3. Formatting the Text
Key errors in text formatting are described in this article by Antibarbari HSE (in Russian).