Good essay writing: techniques, tips and characteristics

As written work is a key part of the BA Graphic Communication course, this talk on essay writing provided a lot of support and guidance for Typography students, helping us understand what to expect from essay questions, and what tutors expect to see in our answers. We have written exams at the end of Part 1, and of course we’re all building towards dissertations in Part 3.

What does a good essay look like?

Students grouped together to come up with points they found particularly important when writing a good essay. Among these were:

  • Resources or references
  • Good argument or discussion
  • Academic writing
  • Clear and concise
  • Thoroughly researched
  • Legible
  • Planning

Planning and research

Some of the best essays are achieved due to sensible planning. Resources such as books and journals can support arguments. Photocopying can be useful for an important page, with notes also useful. Keeping careful record is vital, as it makes better references. It’s a lot easier to record at the time you read something, rather than trying to track it down again later. From experience, this is vital.

The longer the time you spend reading, the harder it becomes to accurately proof your own work. It’s useful to ask others to help out. There is a reason that most books have a separate author and editor. It is fundamental in planning that you fit enough time for proof reading. It is important to read widely and as much as you can.

Finally, sources need to be relevant and accurate, which can be particularly difficult if you do not know the topic. This can be aided through using the reading list, checking legitimacy within the source, such as looking into the author (are they referenced within books already in the reading list). Not all sources are equal, and we need to be critical when we read.

Original materials, through museums, galleries or archives are also important, and are especially accessible if they are exhibited or stored within the University.

Answer the question, and maintain a good structure

Referring back the question throughout your work will help us to stay focused. If you’re not answering the question, is it really worth writing? Clarity and structure of essays is important. The use of headings contrasts with what was taught during schools, but it helps organise the essay for the student as well as aid reading for whoever marks the work. The idea of using paragraphs and sentences seem obvious, but it is important to group related sentences together in a paragraph and it helps articulate the argument. The acronym of PEE (Point Evidence Explain) or PEA (Point Evidence Analysis) is a useful way of thinking about writing as it makes clearer and more concise argument.

Using imagery

Using (and properly referencing) images is important, as it not only provide visual support to an argument, but can also encourage analysis – for the author and the reader. Images need to connect to argument, and not be just decorative. This is especially important for student studying a BA in Graphic Communication! Images captions and effective signposting (eg. ‘see figure 1’) are also vital.

Referencing and bibliographies

Plagiarism is often not deliberate, but due to poor referencing. We need to provide references for the bibliography and footnotes, but there is no need to include references for books we read, but then dismissed. The bibliography should be in alphabetical order, by surname, which needs to be formatted correctly, such as the book title being italic.

What are the takeaways?

This was a really useful session, as it emphasised the importance of clarity in writing, as with clarity in design. This is particularly valued in the Department, as it’s expected that students take a natural interest in clear communication. The session emphasised how essay writing in University is different to A-level or college essays, and how to improve essay writing regardless of current experience.

More than anything, Rob’s session showed that an extravagant writing style full of flourish does not equal a good essay. A clear structure, with concise paragraphs and strong use of imagery, is far more impressive.