You’ve been asked to write a 1500-word essay. You’ve panicked, moaned to your friends about the unfairness of it all, cried on the phone to your mum, and now it’s time to do some work. What is expected of you?
An essay is an argument in words. The ‘words’ bit of this definition is easy to understand, but the ‘argument’ part is more slippery. When you are asked to write an essay at university level, you are not being asked simply to regurgitate some facts. You are being asked to organise those facts in making an argument. That means putting forward a point of view which is based on evidence. In the social sciences, that usually means some kind of empirical findings: the kinds of knowledge that come from people doing experiments, conducting surveys or carrying out observations. Your own point of view might well be an important part of your essay (as we’ll see in a later post), but at some point in the process it has to be backed up by facts.
I’ll be talking more about how to use evidence in making an argument in later posts. We’ll also be talking about researching a topic, structuring an essay, working within word limits, considering points of view, and turning a stylish phrase. I’ll end this post by asking you to ponder why this thing has been sent to bother you. Why do academics want to spend their time ploughing through reams of paragraphs when they could be finding out what you know through multiple-choice exams? The answer is that essays are not only a great way of finding out what you know, but also of testing how you can use that information in communicating your knowledge and creating new knowledge. A fact in isolation might raise a nod of appreciation; a fact in the service of an argument is a beautiful thing.
Durham students can find more useful information (including feedback sheets, sample essays, notes on referencing style) on duo at Psychology Undergraduate Information > Course Information > General Programme Information > Guidance on essay writing and referencing.
There is also plenty of useful online information about essay-writing: see the links on the right. You may also want to try and track down the following books:
Smythe, R.T. (1996). Writing in psychology: A student guide. New York: Wiley.
Rosnow, R.L., & Rosnow, M. (2001). Writing papers in psychology. London: Wadsworth.