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10 Things to look out for about essay writing

by Adam David Morton on August 30, 2018

Across several of the political economy courses, or units, I teach at the University of Sydney the one set of issues often repeated to my students revolves around essay writing best practice. Rather than reciting these tips afresh from course to course, the following aims to outline some of the positive ideas to adopt, as well as pitfalls to avoid, when completing your assignments.

The advice, of course, comes with a few caveats. Certainly, one could extemporise at length about essay writing practice and deliver more than ten insights. This is meant to be a focused aide-memoire and nothing more. Equally, what one academic expects to see in a strong essay might differ from colleague to colleague. So the rollout of these pointers is not something that is advocated as applicable to all students and their teachers. Finally, putting something like this together for the benefit of students will hopefully provoke constructive commentary that will lead to improvement and the constructive honing of the content as part of a critical pedagogical-dialogical process. With this latter ambition in mind, the following are considered in my experience as the things to look out for when embarking on essay writing.

1) Stricture and structure

Whatever the word limit, you have to structure your thoughts in a fashion that is analytically meaningful so that you can display your absorption of a large amount of material and its dissemination in an original or engaging fashion. So the stricture of sticking to the word limit has to be allied with a mapped out structure. These features can only be achieved if you have engaged in extensive reading, thought independently about the issues, and then cohered your thoughts into a structure. Essentially you need a beginning, middle, and an end. This requires you to coalesce your points into something that makes sense. So a ‘plan’ for your essay needs to be drawn up before you even begin the writing process. Without such a structure or plan you will be in danger of waffling and bleeding marks for the lack of analysis. In writing anything (a blog post, a journal article, a book) such a plan is always my essential guide. Do not start your essay without one.

2) Research

Unsurprisingly, reading for a degree actually entails reading and lots of it. A common question lecturers face is “How many sources should be read for this essay?”. Yikes! Never ask that question. Never. The bare minimum is to cover the set reading for tutorials. Digesting that material will anchor and orient your knowledge for the course. But for an essay and/or revision you need to undertake much more reading. No quantitative advice can be given here. But you should be reading primary material, commentaries, and critiques to cover different angles and perspectives on a topic. At some stage you will reach a point where you say to yourself that you can answer the question with confidence. I call this the “saturation point” of research. But your intellectual curiosity should not stop there. A first-class essay (or high distinction) will not only be able to answer the question with some sense of novelty but it will also transcend the question. This means taking the parameters of the question into new areas by, for example, making interdisciplinary links; focusing on aspects that have not been covered in class; or weaving into the argument new empirical connections to a well-established theoretical debate or widening the optic of a theory to address cognate academic discussions unfolding elsewhere. Research and lots of it is therefore a prerequisite for a good essay.

3) Textual presentation

In terms of delivering your written text, the presentation of your essay should display some basic features. A consistent referencing system should be deployed. This can be in Chicago (numerical) or Harvard (author, date) styles. I tend to prefer the latter as it is easier to track your references if you edit and have to delete material to meet the word count. An absolute go-to text that will assist you in establishing this good practice is Kate L. Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. This reference book will give you all the basic advice on referencing and, crucially, how to reference unusual source material (e.g. radio programmes, interviews, websites, documentaries, films and a multitude of other sources). Your essay should display one consistent font. If the font changes regularly through the same essay then this is usually a giveaway that the author has been cutting and pasting from the internet, thereby ringing alarm bells on the issue of plagiarism. Finally, you should read through your own essay multiple times. The day after working on it, print it off, take it to a favourite location and read through it in relaxed fashion. A bit of distance from the text in terms of time duration will assist you in spotting grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, typos, logical inconsistencies, missing references or footnotes. Giving yourself time to correct these basic issues will ensure you do not lose marks.

4) Notes

As humdrum as it may seem, one essential aspect of good essay-writing is good note-taking. It is not rocket science. If you have read a journal article, a book chapter, perhaps a whole book you cannot rely on yellow highlighted sections (on the photocopy of the journal article) or underlined pencil marks (in books) as your notes. You need to write or type them out. In doing so you will be engaging in the process of intellectual absorption and then you will have a comprehensive document representing key points, quotations with page numbers, further reading to pursue (possibly gleaned from the footnotes and references that you have also consulted) and perhaps some notes of your own on what is missing or problematic about the argument in the reading you have completed. My note-taking now is exactly the same as my note-taking as an undergraduate. Before even reading a sentence I write at the top of my page the author, the title, the source (journal article, book chapter, or book), and details of publication (journal volume and issue number as well as page range or book publication location, publisher, and date). Then my type-written notes can act as an aide-memoire, to be re-read in preparing my plan, and consulted when engaging in the writing process. As a result, there is no last minute running to the library to get a book because the reference details are incomplete or because I have missed a page reference for a quotation. Equally, there is no need to be downloading or accessing material digitally. I have my notes as the crucial backstop. In re-reading Capital, Volume 1 recently such note-taking amounted to some 70 pages of typewritten material or some 30,000 words! For an example drawn directly from teaching one of my courses, students are required to read Neil Smith’s essay on ‘The Necessity of Uneven Development’. My own notes of that piece flow across three pages and some 1,000 words. These notes are the ones I then read through before class and actually carry to tutorials with me if we have to stumble through together some of the granular detail of an argument. Good notes are always your friend.

5) Interpretation by proxy

My teaching covers classic past and present texts in political economy. Whether it is ECOP2012 Social Foundations of Modern Capitalism or ECOP2613 Political Economy of Global Capitalism, the theorists covered include inter alia Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Polanyi, Ellen Meiksins Wood, Silvia Federici, Antonio Gramsci, Frantz Fanon, Henri Lefebvre, J.K.Gibson-Graham, or Maria Mies. A big no-no, for me, in coming to terms with classic texts is to engage in interpretation by proxy. This is a practice that Ellen Meiksins Wood critiques in her dismissal of caricatured evaluations of historical materialism. For Wood in The Retreat from Class it is noteworthy that critics such as Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy dismiss key elements of historical materialism not on the basis of quoting from Marx but from secondary commentaries on Marx. As students, therefore, whatever the thinker or theorist may be who is at the centre of your excursus you should make the effort to be generating your own reading of foundational texts. Likewise, if your sentence commences, “According to Karl Polanyi in The Great Transformation . . .”, then that sentence should have recourse to the correct Polanyi reference and not a secondary commentary on Polanyi. In my teaching across every semester and on every course the problem of interpretation by proxy makes an appearance. Equally, it is something that one witnesses in Honours thesis writing, PhD theses, and in academic peer review. The latter lose credibility for it. Students lose marks for it. Read Marx rather than lose marks could be the motto here.

6) Originality

Once again an essay at the top end of the marking range (a first-class or high distinction assignment) has to deliver the gold standard of originality. But what is that? Unfortunately, it is an imponderable. One of the most inspiring professors that it was my pleasure to teach with at Lancaster University and at the Universidad de la Américas (UDLA) in Puebla, Mexico was Cynthia Weber. She would always encourage students to “put themselves on the page”, meaning that you should reveal to yourself and your reader the politics at the centre of argument and your own ideas. A classic undergraduate essay is all too frequently structured around a strengths-and-weaknesses argument. A little bit of this and a little bit of that. But sitting on the fence is a terribly uncomfortable enterprise. Don’t do it. Develop an argument, a clear position, an intervention. One technique that might convey a sense of freshness is to forecast your argument with an epigraph at the header of the essay. On the perennial issue of the agent-structure debate (is it agents that shape history or structuring conditions?), I once wrote a finals exam essay with an epigraph from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

Men [sic] make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.

This was not left as a hanging thread that was undeveloped but rather was woven as a key issue throughout the remainder of the essay. You will come up with your own ideas of originality. Whatever they are, though, the safety of synthesis should be avoided.

7)  Thinking space

Already mentioned above is the need to let your ideas gestate, given them time to develop, and to give yourself a bit of distance from the draft text of an essay. An important prefigurative aspect to that process is to ensure that you give yourself thinking space to ensure that development. You have to be preoccupied by your essay. You have to “carry” it with you during your day-to-day activities while juggling the additional priorities of life in getting to campus, engaging in wage-labour, attending to family and friends. The university is not a bubble but firmly embedded in wider aspects of everyday life. Whether it be on the commute, taking a walk, in discussion over a coffee with friends, socialising, or carrying out mundane daily duties you should be pondering your essay. This means thinking about how you will link ideas, overcome problems of logical flow and connection in your argument, considering what is missing and how you might address it, or provoking yourself into action to address core weaknesses. An idea might come to you at an unusual moment, so ensure you have a notepad with you. To provide one example from my writing process that is shared regularly in class, there was an event organised by the late Alex Danchev at the University of Nottingham. He had invited the former British Ambassador to Moscow (1988 to 1992), Rodric Braithwaite to speak in the seminar series. This was not my usual cup of tea! But with my intellectual curiosity I set aside some evening time to read Rodric Braithwaite’s Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979-1989. The talk was brilliant and the book a gripping account of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. With an interest in popularising the event and considering the contemporary import of the book in light of more recent geopolitical interventions in Afghanistan, my task was to produce a blog post that became The Disasters of War in Afghanistan. The “hook” for the introduction (juxtaposing Afghanistan in 1982 during Braithwaite’s account and 2012 during my time in the then present­) as well as the conclusion (linking the catastrophes in Kabul from the infamous 1842 retreat, to 1982 and the mujahedin insurgency, to 2012 and the Taliban insurgency) all came to me while on the busy morning commute to work. The reading of the newspaper on the bus, about opium farming in Afghanistan, while simultaneously pondering how to structure my blog post (the same length as a short essay assignment of 1,000 words) led to this association of 1842/1982/2012. Carrying your thoughts with you about your essay and generating thinking space is therefore essential.

8) Fireworks

So your essay is almost completed and you have “just the conclusion” to finish. What do you do? Is the conclusion just a summary of everything that has preceded? ¡No! You have to save something back for the conclusion. My term for this is finishing the essay with some “fireworks”. To be clear this is not about adding something new, previously untouched, into your discussion. By saving something for the conclusion and ending your argument with some vim what is meant is adding something that cascades out of or flows from your prior analysis or discussion but equally extends it into a further domain to consolidate your argument, confirm your stance, or rebut the position you have critiqued in the body of your text. Look at a journal article you have recently read and, yes, you actually like! Most frequently, it will deliver a conclusion that is not a regurgitation but delivers some exhilaration in the closing words about the contribution to the discipline, transcending the boundaries of enquiry, how the argument can be related to new domains that may have been previously overlooked. Energy, excitement and appeal are what is sort in the conclusion alongside an affirmation of your argument. This is the magic of delivering fireworks towards the end of your essay!

9) Signposting

Somewhat more relevant for longer pieces of work is the key structural feature of signposting in your writing. An Honours thesis or PhD thesis chapter as much as an undergraduate essay, though, will necessarily feature such signposting. How is this achieved? Again you can learn from the good scholarship that you read and garner clues and tips on how to incorporate that mode of articulation into your writing practice. For example, at some stage in the structural organisation of an essay/article/book chapter you will come across key signposting phraseology. “To address the racialised political economy of uneven development, two main sections provide the scaffolding to this argument. A first skein covers key insights engaging with Robbie Shilliam on Race and the Underserving Poor (2018) and Gargi Bhattarcharyya on Rethinking Racial Capitalism (2018) while drawing in wider relevant commentaries on raced markets”, could be one example to convey the idea of delivering that signposting. Another is, “The first section will, therefore, briefly impart key writings on how neoliberalism can be understood through a raced market frame of analysis. A second skein proceeds with these insights to corroborate the viewpoint that [blah, blah, blah]. . .”. Then in such a signposting paragraph you might also consider a sentence such as, “A consideration of racial capitalism and raced markets is therefore crucial, by way of conclusion, to uncovering the everyday material and ideological practices of neoliberalism in the constitution, reproduction and extension of racism”. Often such signposting is evident in the first few pages of an essay or thesis chapter. If there are subheadings or section breaks in your text then this is the key moment to return back to your signposting to convey to the reader where you are taking them and what your analysis is. Without such signposting you will not know where you are going, your reader will not know where you are going, and the journey will be like driving a car without concentrating on the road ahead.

10) ¡Enjoy!

Like with anything in life, if you see the task as a drudge then drudgery is ensured. The final message, then, is that you should regard essay writing as an enjoyable exercise. A writer such as the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes once said to me in an interview that every time he sits down to write with his typewriter he still faced the “anxiety of the white page”. That is from someone who produced more than 60 works including novels, short stories, essays and plays. For us, it might be the “anxiety of the blinking cursor”. Writing therefore is not easy for anybody. At the same time we all need to push through the anxiety, avoid the delaying tactics that surround getting a manuscript finished (or even started), and establish regular rhythms of writing and thinking space to realise a successful essay. The key in setting ourselves this challenge is therefore to make it an enjoyable process. My hope is that some of the above advice brings that realisation to fruition.

Adam David Morton
Adam David Morton is Professor of Political Economy in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney. He is author of Unravelling Gramsci: Hegemony and Passive Revolution in the Global Political Economy (2007); Revolution and State in Modern Mexico: The Political Economy of Uneven Development (2011), recipient of the 2012 Book Prize of the British International Studies Association (BISA) International Political Economy Group (IPEG); and co-author of Global Capitalism, Global War, Global Crisis (2018) with Andreas Bieler. He co-edits Progress in Political Economy (PPE) with Gareth Bryant that was the recipient of the 2017 International Studies Association (ISA) Online Media Caucus Award for the Best Blog (Group) and the 2018 International Studies Association (ISA) Online Media Caucus Award for Special Achievement in International Studies Online Media.

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