Essay Advice

I’ve been working on a handout that gives some broad principles and tips for essay writing, and I thought I’d share it here.  While some of it applies specifically to Cambridge, quite a lot I think applies to good essay-writing anywhere.  Thoughts are most welcome!  I’m also posting a PDF version on my Teaching page. 


Daniel Unruh

What We Expect

In general, what your supervisors expect from an essay is that it will be:

1. Well-Argued.

By this I mean that you have an opinion or point of view, that you present this point of view clearly, and that you support it with evidence from primary and/or secondary sources.

2. Well-Structured.

Your essay should be constructed in such away that it is easy to follow the argument. It should be clear how each idea you raise relates to the previous idea, and how they all come together to support your overall argument. I will talk much more about structure later in this handout!

3. Stylistically Clear

You’re expected to write in clear and idiomatic English: sentences that are easy to follow, correct spelling and punctuation, good usage of words. Don’t feel the need to use large words or convoluted syntax to sound more academic – your ideas are perfectly good if expressed in plain language.

4. Properly Cited

All quotations from, or references to, primary and secondary sources need to be cited. I don’t demand any particular style of citation. All I want is that whatever style you choose is a) consistent and b) effective.

By “effective”, I mean that I, as a reader, can find the thing you are referring to with a minimum of effort. For classical primary sources, that should be book and verse/chapter; for secondary sources, I need to see at some point in the essay the author, date, title, publisher or place of publication, and, for each reference, the page you’re referencing. See the handout on citation for further details.

The degree to which we’re looking for a specific answer will vary depending on the sub-field you’re writing for. In general, linguistics and archaeology will be more likely to have particular insights that they’re hoping to inculcate, while History, Literature, and Philosophy are more likely to be looking for interesting thinking about the question rather than any specific answer.


My experience is that structuring an essay is one of the areas in which students often find themselves most uncertain, and it’s what I’m going to spend most of the rest of this handout on. An essay will usually consist of three basic elements:

1. Introduction

In the introduction, you set out your understanding of the question, the aproach you will take to it, and give a brief sense of what your essay will look like. You don’t need to summarize your entire argument here, but giving a hint of where you’re going will make readers feel more comfortable that you have a sense of what you’re saying, and will allow them to put your arguments into context.

As a very stripped-down, basic example: “The question is, is it X or Y? In this paper, I will argue it is X, drawing on sources A, B, and C. I will be applying theory G, as devised by Academicy McAcademicface. I will being by discussing source A, move to source B, and conclude by addressing source C”

Introductions, quite frankly, are hard. I know classicists at all levels who struggle to get them exactly right. Some people find it helpful to wait until they’ve finished writing their arguments to write the conclusion. Even if you prefer not to do that, be open to rewriting the introduction once you’ve written everything else – arguments can often have a way of changing from what you originally thought they’d be.

2. Argumentation

This is where you defend your position, by citing primary and secondary sources, and making logical deductions based on them. When writing your argument, it’s really important to signpost how things connect. By this I mean, let your readers know how each new thought you introduce relates to the previous ones. If you think your statement supports the previous one, connecting words like “moreover, in addition, besides” will really help make this clear to your readers; if you think it contradicts it, connectors like “however, on the other hand, nevertheless” are similarly helpful. If you’re introducing a whole new thought, it’s probably best to start a new paragraph, to make sure that it’s clear that we’ve changed subjects.

3. Conclusion

This is where you remind your readers of your overall point and how the various arguments you have made support it:in the words of one Cambridge academic, “tying all the arguments into a nice bow.”Summarize briefly what you’ve said, then give us the overall point of your essay. You can also use the conclusion to talk about the implications of your argument: why does it matter that something is X and not Y?

A note on Cambridge questions:

It is a long tradition in the Classics here that questions are often to some degree flawed – e.g. they have unexamined assumptions or they posit false dichotomies. You are fully expected to critique the question if you think it is problematic (see the Open Ended Essay structure below for an example of how one might go about this).

Questions can also be amazingly broad – e.g. “What does Medea tell us about ancient women?” In that case, it is perfectly acceptable to focus on more specific subquestions. Make clear that’s what you’re doing, put a sentence or two explaining why this is a significant or interesting aspect of the question, and then discuss it.

Finally, ther are the “Discuss” questions: “Medea does not deserve to be considered a feminist icon. Dicuss.” In essence, you’re being asked to agree or disagree with the statement (which, in line with Cambridge practice, will probably be overly dogmatic and potentially have problematic assumptions).

Some Sample Essay Structures

These are by no means the only ways to structure essays, or the only types of essay one can write. They’re merely ways in which you might approach structure if you find yourself unsure of how to approach a topic. It’s also worth noting that while in some of these there are a lot of steps, the steps aren’t necessarily very time-consuming; in some cases, only a couple of sentences may be needed.


Argumentative Essay

To be used when you’re presented with an either/or question, and you have a strong sense of which option you agree with

1. What’s the question?

What do you understand the question to be? Are there any terms in it that need defining? What assumptions are behind the question?

This is quite important to articulate – your readers will have a hard time following your argument if they don’t know what you’re trying to answer. And remember, although your supervisor may have set the question, they don’t necessarily know your precise take on it, so it’s important to let them know.

2. How will you address it?

What primary sources will you be drawing on? Will you be using any particular theoretical approach? What is the broad outline of your argument?

These first two sections will generally constitute your introduction.

3. What’s the wrong answer?

It’s important to make clear what you’re arguing against. Be as fair as you can – give the arguments and evidence in favour of the wrong answer, and cite any scholars who support it.

4. Why is it wrong?

Explain why the wrong answer doesn’t work. Possible reasons could be, it doesn’t take into account all the evidence; it doesn’t interpret the evidence correctly; it uses the wrong theoretical approach; it doesn’t make logical sense.

5. What’s the right answer?

Give your answer and explain why it answers the question better than the wrong answer, supporting it with primary and secondary sources

5. Conclusion: Why does it matter?

Summarize your argument. What are the implications of you answer?Does it change how we look at similar or connected topics?


More Open-Ended Essay

To be used when you feel like there is no clear single answer to the question. Cambridge questions are often written as deliberately flawed or ambiguous, so this is something you may well be called on to s

1. What’s the question?

More or less the same as in the Argumentative Essay, but with perhaps greater emphasis on problematic assumptions and ambiguities.

2. How will you address it?

Pretty much the same as in the Argumentative Essay.

3. What is one possible answer?

Essentially the same as for “What’s the wrong answer” in the argumentative essay.

4. Why doesn’t it completely work?

5. What’s another possible answer?

6. Why doesn’t it completely work?

7. Why does no answer work (or, what’s wrong with the question)?

Is the question flawed? Does it rely on false assumptions? Are the possibilities it presents really opposed, or can they be combined with each other? Is there a third possibility that the question does not allow for? Does the evidence not allow for a conclusion to be drawn?

8. Conclusion: Why does it matter?


Compare and Contrast Essay

These are less common in Cambridge than in other universities; nonetheless it is possible you will be asked to compare, contrast, or compare-and-contrast two different things. It may also be a good way of approaching a question that is worded as “discuss A with reference to B.”

1. What are you comparing?

Briefly introduce the two things (written works, works of art, languages, etc.) that you’re comparing/contrasting.

2. How/why are you comparing them?

Is there a particular aspect of the two things you are going to compare? Are you hoping to illuminate a particular point by this comparison?

3. What is thing A?

Describe the first topic, including its context, period, audience, etc.

4. What is thing B?


5. What are the similarities between thing A and thing B?

6. What are the differences between thing A and thing B?

7. Conclusions

Are the similarities or the differences greater? What does comparing the things tell us about each thing? Why do these similarities/differences matter?


3 thoughts on “Essay Advice

Add yours

    1. Sure. I’m pretty sure I stole your Prac Crit handout, so go ahead.
      If you want to say it’s adapted from my stuff on the handout, that’d make me happy 🙂


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