Use your concept map or plan
Write your assignment using your map or plan to guide you. As you write, you may well get new ideas or think about ideas in slightly different ways. This is fine, but check back to your map or plan to evaluate whether that idea fits well into the plan or the paragraph that you are writing at the time. Consider: In which paragraph does it best fit? How does it link to the ideas you have already discussed?
For every paragraph, think about the main idea that you want to communicate in that paragraph and write a clear topic sentence which tells the reader what you are going to talk about. A main idea is more than a piece of content that you found while you were researching, it is often a point that you want to make about the information that you are discussing. Consider how you are going to discuss that idea (what is the paragraph plan). For example, are you: listing a number of ideas, comparing and contrasting the views of different authors, describing problems and solutions, or describing causes and effects?
Use linking words throughout the paragraph. For example:
- List paragraphs should include words like: similarly, additionally, next, another example, as well, furthermore, another, firstly, secondly, thirdly, finally, and so on.
- Cause and effect paragraphs should include words like: consequently, as a result, therefore, outcomes included, results indicated, and so on.
- Compare and contrast paragraphs should include words like: on the other hand, by contrast, similarly, in a similar way, conversely, alternatively, and so on.
- Problem solution paragraphs should include words like: outcomes included, identified problems included, other concerns were overcome by, and so on.
Some paragraphs can include two plans, for example a list of problems and solutions. While this is fine, it is often clearer to include one plan per paragraph.
Look at your plan or map and decide on the key concepts that link the different sections of your work. Is there an idea that keeps recurring in different sections? This could be a theme that you can use to link ideas between paragraphs. Try using linking words (outlined above) to signal to your reader whether you are talking about similar ideas, whether you are comparing and contrasting, and so on. The direction that your thinking is taking in the essay should be very clear to your reader. Linking words will help you to make this direction obvious.
Different parts of the essay:
While different types of essays have different requirements for different parts of the essay, it is probably worth thinking about some general principles for writing introductions, body paragraphs and conclusions. Always check the type of assignment that you are being asked to produce and consider what would be the most appropriate way to structure that type of writing.
Remember that in most (not all) writing tasks, especially short tasks (1,000 to 2,000 words), you will not write headings such as introduction and conclusion. Never use the heading ‘body’.
Writing an introduction:
Introductions need to provide general information about the topic. Typically they include:
- Background, context or a general orientation to the topic so that the reader has a general understanding of the area you are discussing.
- An outline of issues that will and will not be discussed in the essay (this does not have to be a detailed list of the ideas that you will discuss). An outline should be a general overview of the areas that you will explore.
- A thesis or main idea which is your response to the question.
Here is an example of an introduction:
It is often a good idea to use some of the words from the question in the introduction to indicate that you are on track with the topic. Do not simply recount the question word for word.
Writing the body:
- Each paragraph should make a point which should be linked to your outline and thesis statement.
- The most important consideration in the body paragraphs is the argument that you want to develop in response to the topic. This argument is developed by making and linking points in and between paragraphs.
Try structuring paragraphs like this:
- Topic sentence: open the paragraph by making a point
- Supporting sentences: support the point with references and research
- Conclusive sentence: close the paragraph by linking back to the point you made to open the paragraph and linking this to your thesis statement.
Here is an example of a body paragraph from the essay about education and globalisation:
As you write the body, make sure that you have strong links between the main ideas in each of the paragraphs.
Writing the conclusion:
This is usually structured as follows:
- Describe in general terms the most important points made or the most important linkage of ideas
- Do not include new information, therefore it does not usually contain references
- End with a comment, a resolution, or a suggestion for issues that may be addressed in future research on the topic.
Here is an example conclusion from the essay on education:
Every time I ask my students whether they have any questions about their upcoming essay submissions, without a shadow of a doubt I'll be asked (possibly more than once, in various forms) how many references they need to have.
It sounds like a simple question, and it has a simple answer: it depends.
But that's not a particularly helpful answer on its own, so in this article I'm going to set out a few different guidelines on when and why you should reference that should then allow you to know the answer to the question "how many citations is enough?".
If you came here for the number alone, the answer I come to a bit later is about one peer-reviewed reference for every 200 words of essay body, based on the body being 75% of the word count. That's a very rough and ready figure, and more importantly it's answering the wrong question. You'll do a lot better if you read on and find out why. The advice I'm about to give will probably push you up 5-10 marks, if you follow it in your next assignment.
1. Why you need to have references
Fundamentally, references are a way of acknowledging work that has been done before yours, as well as a way of showing where your evidence for a particular claim is coming from. A lot of students worry that citations are mainly a way of catching them out: that their lecturers or tutors or examiners are looking for places in which they've failed to read the things that they should have read, and to dock them marks accordingly.
But that's not what they're for. Yes, there will be instances in which there's some seminal work in a field that you probably ought to read, but it's not always your fault if you don't know that it exists and therefore haven't cited it. It's not plagiarism if you come up with an idea on your own which someone else has come up with before. Instead, the reason that your examiner is going to point out where something has been said before is so that you can benefit from others' work by reading what may well be a more nuanced and fleshed-out version of the argument that you're making (after all, someone probably got paid to write it).
That means you should have references where you've used someone else's work to inform your own ideas.
In addition, you should have references when you're making an empirical claim (one that is based on observations about the world) and you need to back that claim up. For example, you might make the claim that there are a thousand chickens stolen from farms around the world every day. It would have to be common knowledge for you to be able to say that without a citation. Because it's unlikely to be common knowledge, you should have some kind of source that you're drawing upon. That means that someone who came along and read your work and wanted to scrutinise the argument that you were making could then go to that source and find out if it says what you claim it does.
2. "What if I'm building on their ideas?"
Now that I've told you that you need to cite other authors when you've read their work and used it to build up your own argument, you might well ask whether that's still necessary if you used their thoughts but now you're going further and creating your own ideas.
The answer is yes, and indeed the answer is that this is probably the optimal way to use a source in most essays. This is because rather than just saying "Jones (1999) claims that chicken theft is a significant issue in agricultural communities", you can say all that followed by, "I go further than Jones, showing why this is not just an issue in farming communities but in all communities, even in countries that are not reliant on primary sector industry." That shows not only that you've read the literature, but that you're using it to inform your own argument.
So, you should reference an author even if you're going beyond what they've said.
3. Make sure the references are doing work
When people ask how many references they ought to have, what they're really trying to ask is often "how much reading do I need to do?"
If that's not the question you're asking, and you genuinely think that markers just go through your bibliography and count the number of sources as a heuristic for the quality of your grade, then I'm here to tell you that you're mistaken. You shouldn't just be dropping references into your work if they're not doing anything. You don't need to reference the Oxford English Dictionary in order to define every single word (or indeed any word - seeing a dictionary reference actually activates the gag reflex in most lecturers). Likewise, you don't need to add in a gratuitous number of references from different people saying the same thing. The exception to the latter rule is if you're trying to demonstrate the multiplicity of work in an area. For example, if I wanted to say that I was building on the existing chicken theft literature, I might say "(e.g. Jones 1999, Smith 2005, Bloggs 2010)". Otherwise, stick to using them when they're relevant to what you're saying.
4. Quality and quantity both matter
With the above said, the real question we're trying to answer here is how much reading you need to do for an essay.
Obviously there are a few factors at play here. Is it 1000 words, or 1500 words, or 2000 or 2500 words? As the numbers go up, the amount of effort you need to put in to reading for it probably increases. Ditto for how much the essay matters: if it's formative, you probably don't need to worry as much as if it makes up a significant chunk of your final grade.
With that said, let's say that you spend 10 hours reading in order to write a 2500 word essay. How much can you do in that time? You could probably read a couple of books, maybe 10 articles in depth, or you could read 10-20 if you skimmed some and close-read others. In addition, you're probably going to supplement that peer-reviewed material with some newspaper articles and grey literature, especially if you're trying to make a lot of fact-based claims or your essay has contemporary relevance.
I would argue you should prioritise journal articles over book chapters, and book chapters over whole books. The former generally allow you to get a similar feel for an argument, but will take far less of your time and you can cover a lot more ground with them. In addition, prioritise any of the above over newspaper articles. If I see a bibliography which primarily consists of opinion pieces from the Guardian, I can tell the essay is unlikely to be high quality, no matter how much I might like Owen Jones.
So let's say that you find and read 10 journal articles in depth, and you use all of them. Given that all the references are likely to come in the body of your essay, and that takes about 75% of the word count, then you're probably looking at one peer-reviewed reference for roughly every 200 words, based on a 2500 word essay. I'm pretty comfortable with that as a figure, but I'm going to caveat it in the next paragraph.
5. Quality of engagement matters most of all
Honestly, it doesn't matter that much how many authors you cite. What matters is what you do with those references.
What does this mean?
You should be critically engaging with the works that you cite. Rather than just throwing in an author and a date, you should be asking yourself (and then answering in your essay) why that supports the argument that you're making. If you're citing an author so that you can disagree with them, what about their argument do you disagree with? Why? Those few simple questions, if you answer them, will vastly boost the quality of your essay because they'll show that you're thinking about the literature and the subject that you're engaging with, rather than trying to string together an argument and then sprinkling in some citations to make it look "academic".
To sum up:
Make sure you're reading a reasonably broad range of high quality material.
Think about why you're citing someone, and where a citation is necessary (to back up a claim, or to acknowledge where your argument has been preceded by or influenced by another author).
Engage with the material that you're citing.
I hope you found this explainer helpful. If you did, why not check out my other guides on how to write better essays?
How to Write Better Essays v1
How to Write Better Essays v2
How to Write Better Essays (video edition)
Five Common Essay Mistakes to Avoid
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