Essays - Two popular types of assignment

Success in Academic Writing - Trevor Day 2018

Two popular types of assignment

French writer and philosopher Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) was among the first to use the term ’essay’. In 1580, his bookEssais (English translation, Essays) contained short self-reflections and longer philosophical discussions about human nature. Today, in academic circles, a non-fiction essay is usually taken to be a piece of writing between 500 and 5,000 words in length, structured into paragraphs. Depending on disciplinary and staff preferences, it may or may not have sections and subsections. It might be written for coursework or during an examination. Here we will focus on essays written for coursework.

Typically, an essay has the following broad structure:

✵Introduction (5-15% of the whole)

✵Body (70-80%)

✵Conclusion (5-15%)


The introduction to your essay should encourage your reader to read on. It should also manage your reader’s expectations about what is to follow. Commonly, the introduction includes some or all of the following:

✵It reveals why the topic or theme of the essay is of interest.

✵It defines or interprets relevant technical terms.

✵It explains how you have interpreted the essay title.

✵It asks questions that you mean to answer or sets aims that you intend to meet.

✵It establishes the limits of the essay (what will be included and excluded), perhaps with justification as to why you have made that choice.

In addition, it may:

✵Explain the approach you are taking, e.g. ’I give greater weight to those studies that report on the voice of the practitioner.’

✵Include a thesis statement (one or two sentences that summarise the conclusion that will be reached).

✵Outline the structure of the rest of the essay (particularly if it is a long one).

A plan for an essay’s introduction

In response to the 2,000-word essay assignment:

There is no universally agreed definition of sustainable development. Discuss, with examples, how the diversity of interpretations of the concept can be seen as both adding to and undermining its usefulness.

A plan for the 200-word introduction might look something like this:

- Why the concept of sustainable development is important. Its influence on international development policy and practice in the last 30 years.

- Origins of the concept of sustainable development (e.g. Bruntland Report, 1987). Deconstructing key elements of initial definitions and their interpretation, e.g. ’development’ and ’needs’.

- The diversity of interpretations is based on how key words are conceptualised and expanded upon by different governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and transnational agencies.

- The rationale behind the essay’s chosen examples.

- A statement about the nature of the analysis and the conclusion to be drawn (thesis statement).


The middle part of your essay normally makes up 70-80% of the whole. It gives the line of reasoning that connects the various parts of your argument. The body will include:

✵a series of paragraphs, each of which contains one idea or a closely related set of ideas and is likely to be less than 250 words long; and

✵transitional words or phrases that connect one paragraph with another and explain to the reader at which point in the overall argument the paragraph lies.

The body may include:

✵headings and subheadings that signpost the reader to different stages of the argument; and

✵images or other kinds of material, e.g. graphs or tables, that complement the text (see Chapter 8).

A plan for an essay’s body

In response to the 2,000-word essay assignment:

There is no universally agreed definition of sustainable development. Discuss, with examples, how the diversity of interpretations of the concept can be seen as both adding to and undermining its usefulness.

A plan for a 1,600-word body might look like this:

- Unpacking further the Bruntland Report’s (1987) definition, and its focus on alleviating poverty internationally.

- On the international scale, however, interpretations of SD vary according to the nature of the

organisation and their remit. Compare for, example, interpretations by the World Bank, the World Wide Fund for Nature and the World Health Organisation.

- What are the socio-economic and environmental assumptions that underlie these different worldviews? And do these interpretations depend on whether you are members of a developing or developed nation? For example, the UK government’s recent definitions of SD, despite their wording, are interpreted so as to focus more on national needs and economic growth. Contrast with, say, Sri Lanka.

- Examples where differences in interpretation and emphasis by industrialised and developing nations have held back progress.

- Despite differences in interpretation and emphasis, industrialised and developing nations can collaborate to effect change which has a demonstrable effect on the global environment and human quality of life. Use the example of the Montreal Protocol (1987) and Kyoto Protocol (1997) and subsequent agreed action to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

- Nevertheless, the imbalance in the power to effect change exerted by industrialised as opposed to developing countries remains. Use agreements within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as examples.


The conclusion typically makes up the final 5-15% of the essay’s length. Overall, the conclusion should relate well to the expectations set up in the introduction.

Being the last part your assessor reads, the conclusion performs several vitally important functions. A conclusion typically:

✵reminds the reader how the essay has interpreted and responded to the essay title or the assigned task;

✵summarises the main points in the argument; and

✵includes a final judgement based on evaluation of evidence and reasoning.

In addition, it might:

✵state the limitations of the analysis of evidence and reasoning;

✵suggest related areas for further work; and

✵give recommendations.

If you can, finish on a final punchy sentence that captures the theme of the essay, perhaps alluding to a key statement made in the introduction.

Does an essay’s conclusion contain something new?

This depends. Many assessors prefer that the conclusion of an essay draws upon only what has come before. However, I occasionally come across an assessor who says, ’You might want to introduce a new piece of evidence or an idea into the conclusion, to add a twist.’ If possible, find out from your

assessor if this is acceptable. Doing so can certainly add punch.

An example of an essay’s conclusion

Here is a long conclusion to a 2,000-word essay titled ’Is the writer Sid Chaplin underrated?’

The North-East English writer Sid Chaplin is less well known than other ’angry young men’ authors of the 1950s and 1960s - among them Stan Barstow, John Braine and Alan Sillitoe - who Chaplin had inspired through his short stories in The Leaping Lad (1946). Some literary critics have dismissed Chaplin as a ’regional writer ’, with only a short entry in The Oxford Companion to English Literature (Birch & Drabble, 2009, pp. 823-833). However, his most acclaimed novel, The Day of the Sardine, is seen by some as ’the definitive novel about a young working class lad growing up in an industrial heartland’ (Nelsson, 2011). In terms of plot, narrative, characterisation, dialogue and contemporary social themes, it ranks well against books by other English social realist novelists of the time. The Leaping Lad and the critically-acclaimed novel, The Thin Seam, both feature the gritty working lives of miners and their families - subjects that may not have wide popular appeal. His tight regional loyalty and commitment to authenticity meant his characters spoke in Newcastle (Geordie) and other local dialects, which may not have endeared him to readers unfamiliar with these strong speech patterns. However, his lack of popular literary success is probably due to misperceptions about his public persona, and bad timing. According to Stan Barstow (2004), ’Chaplin was a man of warmth and sincerity, with a lack of pretentiousness which could be misleading ...’. He was underappreciated by literary critics.

The vehicles for his writing -while invariably set in North-East England- were varied, including episodes in two ground-breaking TV series, When the Boat Comes In and The Wednesday Play (IMDb, 2017). But his landmark Newcastle novels came too late - The Day of the Sardine in 1961 and The Watchers and the Watched in 1962 - when film-makers were beginning to tire of screening gritty northern novels. Tellingly, unlike the more famous contemporaries he had inspired, none of his writings were turned into feature films. This conclusion brings together what has been discussed earlier in the essay, but in a concise and engaging manner. Unusually, the conclusion does incorporate new ideas: that the way a writer’s work is perceived may not just be attributable to the quality of the writing, but how fashionable and appealing the topics they write about are and, indeed, the public persona the author projects. And serendipity.

What kind of essay?

Some writing specialists classify essays into different kinds, for example: technical, review, theory­based, argumentative, critique, issue-based. The problem with this approach is that different disciplines interpret the meaning of words differently, as do various lecturers within the same department. Also, there are overlaps between the categories, and an essay may have a blend of approaches. You need to become aware of the precise interpretation of an essay description as used by your assessor.