Common essay problems

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Common essay problems – Relevance

1. Straying off the subject in question is a common problem. There are several simple solutions.

2. Always write out the question accurately and in full on both your notes and your essay script.

3. Plan your essays carefully, consult the wording, and relate each part of
your argument to the topic(s) in question.

4. At each stage of the argument, you should keep asking yourself ‘Is this relevant?’, ‘Am I answering the question?’, ‘Does this relate directly to the subject I have been asked to discuss?’

5. Each paragraph should contain just one idea or topic which is announced in its first sentence. This idea or topic should be directly related to the question or the subject you have been asked to discuss.

6. If you introduce a separate issue in order to illustrate some part of your argument, make sure that you return to the original subject as soon as possible. Part of your discussion should explain why and how this secondary issue is relevant.

Essay problems – Signposting

1. Unless you have been asked to do so, there is no need to ‘signpost’ your argument.

2. That is, you do not need to use expressions such as:

‘Later in this essay I will be discussing…’
‘Let us now go on to consider…’
‘As I demonstrated earlier…’
‘We will now turn to evaluate another example…’

3. Just state clearly the point of your arguments and leave them to speak for themselves.

4. In a well-planned essay, this progression should be self-evident from the
arrangement of your work.

5. A sound essay plan and a coherent structure will reveal the logic of your argument and the relationship of its parts.

6. Each new topic should be clearly identified or defined as soon as you begin dealing with it. This statement will provide all the indication needed of your intentions.

7. If you wish to some light indication of structure, it is perfectly acceptable to use formulations such as:

‘The first reason … The second…’
‘On one hand … on the other…’
‘However, the main argument against this is…’

8. The conventions on signposting may vary slightly from one subject to another. In some of the sciences it is necessary to announce in advance what you will be writing about.

Essay problems – Commenting on the process

1. Your essay represents the results of your efforts. There is no need to comment on the manner in which you have worked.

2. Your tutor doesn’t need to know in what order you assembled your evidence, or what difficulties you encountered during its composition.

3. You might wish to argue that the question raises a certain number of difficulties or crucial issues. This is acceptable – so long as you say what they are.

4. You should then go on to discuss their relevance to the subject in question, and maybe even suggest some answers to them.

Essay problems – Posing questions

1. Do not present your argument in the form of questions.

2. Remember – you are supposed to be answering a question.

3. Avoid formulations such as:

Was she so overwhelmed at the thought of a ‘new brave’ husband that she shot him? In considering his cowardice, had Macomber removed his weapon – his weakness?

Essay problems – Your own argument

1. Do not use quotation from the text as a substitute for your own argument.

2. That is, don’t present your answer to the question as a mixture of your own remarks, woven together with quotations.

3. Here is an example:

The poem describes a journey ‘from rich industrial shadows’ through crowded urban environments to a place of ‘loneliness’ where ‘silence stands/like heat’.


1. Quotations from a text should be followed by page references – as in the following example:

These literary devices include simile, such as the description of the lion as ‘like some super-rhino’ (p.94) and the…

2. You should not include the reference as part of your text, as in the following example:

These literary devices include simile, such as the description of the lion on page ninety-four when it is described as ‘like some super-rhino’ and the other instance on page fifty-six when it is…

Essay problems – Creating structure

1. Essays should have a clear structure. This should be created in a firm essay plan.

2. Good structure is a persuasive or logical sequence of the parts in an essay.

3. The order of parts is often determined by the nature of the subject. This order might be created by:

  • logical progression
  • increasing significance
  • equal significance
  • chronological order
  • narrative sequence
  • category groupings

4. You can generate the parts of your essay by deciding which topics you will cover in your answer.

5. Each of these topics should be discussed separately – usually in at least one paragraph on its own.

6. If there is no natural order for your topics, you could deal with the smaller, less important items first. This leaves the larger, more important issues until the end of the essay.

© Roy Johnson 2004

Essay writing links

common essay problems Writing Essays

common essay problems How to Write Critical Essays

common essay problems Writing Essays 3.0

  • Writing Essays 3.0 (.html)Writing Essays 3.0

    Writing Essays 3.o covers every aspect of essay writing – from note-taking and making essay plans to referencing and avoiding plagiarism. Learn how to write good introductions, use quotations effectively, and construct persuasive arguments. Suitable for all students in further and higher education. Includes a wide range of sample essays in humanities and social sciences. […]

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