Essays (English)

Hi there! Rhys and Mollie here, this year’s English parents. The whole purpose of this message (which we’ll keep as brief as can be) is to give you some general advice on essay writing. We appreciate that not everybody has had heaps of practice writing the style of essay expected of you here at Oxford — and that’s absolutely fine — so this is simply designed to give those of you who aren’t so sure some basic starting points.


There’s obviously no correct way of writing an essay, and everybody has their own individual style, so don’t take this as a strict guideline; these are simply a few things which we may have found useful to know in our first weeks on the course.


General Structure; the general structure of an essay includes three points, an introduction and conclusion. The main function of these three points is to develop an argument, which ought to increase with complexity with each point. It is useful if the argument explores a tension related to the question: for example, the first and second points may outline and discuss a particular tension, and the third will aim to resolve it or approach it from a new angle. Our tutor frequently told us that the third point should act as a kind of turning point in the essay, perhaps with the addition of a new argument, exploring a point of intrigue, or a new critical insight.


A quick example: Rhys’s essay on Dickens and childhood. The first point discussed Dickens’s portrayal of threat to children; the second discussed Dickens’s use of the imagination as a way of combatting this threat to children as a mode of escapism, and how effective this is in the real world; and the third critiqued George Orwell’s view that Dickens was concerned only with the children who reminded him of his own neglected childhood. There are obviously countless ways of approaching such a broad topic as this, but this kind of progression might give you some ideas on finding a general direction.


Finding your own style; the above example is intended only to outline a possible argument progression, but the main trick is finding your own personal style of writing and structure. As we said above, there’s no wrong or right way of doing it, as long as it works for you.


Read! It’s fairly evident by now, we hope, that reading is a pretty essential element of the course. This is a good thing! The more reading you get done for essays the better, to some degree of course. The more critical work you read on any particular topic, the more engaging and varied your argument may be — however, you don’t want to read too much and get too bogged down in criticism, with too varied an argument, full of the ideas of critics and no direction. Use the critics to further your argument as much as possible — they can sometimes be useful to disagree with!


— One of the most useful things we were told by our tutor last year was to ‘locate your own critical voice’ in essays. That is, engage with critical ideas in such a way that furthers, and not defines, your argument. The best essays generally have a good balance between primary material (the texts themselves), secondary reading (the views of critics), and your own individual voice which engages with both.


— ‘Make quotations work hard for you’, in the wise words of our tutor. This may be fairly obvious, but as you’re going to be sifting through a lot of textual material, and collecting lots of notes from pre-reading, you’re going to have access to lots of quotations, many of which will be directly relevant to your particular topic. The temptation is to use as much of them as possible, but spending time choosing the most effective ones, and the ones you can critique and analyse in the most depth, is definitely worth the effort.


Essay writing comes with practice (and you will certainly have plenty of it). As the terms progress, essay writing will become a familiar and rewarding process. We look forward to answering any queries you might have!