How to Essay; a guide for new and returning students.

There are a few kinds of different essays you may be asked to write when you’re involved in higher education, but since I can only speak with confidence of the arts and humanities I’m going to focus specifically on the types of essays they will present you with.

Recognising Essay Questions

Very rarely will you be told explicitly the type of essay you’re expected to write; generally it is assumed you will be able to deduce from the format and tone of the question whether the essay should be comparative, explanatory, biographical, or argumentative. If you’re not well-versed in dissecting essay questions there are something you should look out for.

Comparative essay questions are the easiest to spot as they will generally have the words “compare” or/and “contrast” in the make up. For example, “Compare and contrast the kingships of Henry VII and Henry VIII”, but as you progress to higher levels of education you might find they become more subtle. For example, “Was Alexander III a more effective ruler than his father?” or “Which theories of criminal behaviour best fit case studies X and Y”.

Explanatory essay questions are unlikely to be found above a certain level, or if they are they will most likely involve a composite element which requires you to do more than just explain. Nonetheless they can be recognised by the presence of words like “how”, “what”, and “who” at the start of the question. For example, “what events led to the Treaty of Versailles?”, but of course by the time you reach University/College level these questions are more likely to look like this, “What political event were most formative in the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, and how did this shape the view of the outcome in contemporary periodicals?”

Biographical essays are most common in history, and tend to focus on themes like kingship, religion, and the balance of political power. You will recognise them, of course, by the focus upon a specific individual, for example, “The rise of Shaka Zulu”, or “The Virgin Queen: the Personal Reign of Elizabeth I”. As you progress in your academic studies it will often not be enough to simply give a timeline of their life, but it will instead be necessary to choose an angle from which to approach it. For example, “The importance of Kin over Kingship in the rise of the Wolf of Badenoch.”

Argumentative essays are the most common and numerous, and will always focus upon a belief or statement that you should prove or disprove; it is not recommended to specialise in fence-sitting. Look for phrases like “To what extent…”, but remember that, once again, it may not always be so obvious. Argumentative questions can take almost esoteric form; “The environment and economy in Medieval Europe were so linked as to be inseparable, discuss.” is an invitation to write an argumentative essay which agrees or disagrees with the statement.

The Document Report/Literature analysis is one unique to the studies of history and literature, as far as I am aware. This is an essay which focuses solely upon a single historical document or artefact or text, and the idea is to evaluate the value and use of the item in regards to the period in which it comes from and/or concerns. For example, you might study John Knox’s The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, James I’s Demonology, or the effectiveness of Great Expectations as a window into the period of time depicted.


The sources

The most important thing when writing any essay is to have the information you need before you begin writing; gather what you think will be the key texts required for your essay and read the relevant sections thoroughly. I’d recommend putting page numbers next to any notes you make so that you can return to verify information (plus some institutions prefer that your references feature page numbers).

Read each source once before you begin note-taking, and once you’ve finished be sure to check the bibliography of these sources for other possible texts and sources that could help you.


Getting started

A rough plan of action never hurt any essay, believe me, so even if you’re in an exam take a few minutes to think about the best way to go about your argument and jot it down (just be sure to section it away from your essay and note that it is a plan).

Make a note of your main points as briefly and concisely as you can and keep these next to your while you write. I’d recommend starting to write when you can continue through to the end, but this is just a personal preference as I find it easier to follow through when moving from point to point without a great deal of disruption.


The structure

Unless explicitly stated by the essay question or tutor assume that you should follow a thematic structure as these are a) much more professional/sophisticated when read, b) easier to get right, and c) less messy than a chronological structure. If you’re doing a document report this might look like this;


Author and Background,



Problems and Issues,



For a comparative essay regarding two kings it might look like this;



Relations with Nobles,

Economic developments,


Foreign relations,

Personal reputations,



This will not only give your marker a clear path to follow, but it will show that you can organise your knowledge effectively. You CAN do well with a chronological essay, but thematic structures consistently net higher marks for a variety of reasons.


Edit, proofread, and polish

It’s hard to find the motivation to get your essay done anything other than the day of submission, but do try; even a morning in which you can calmly re-read and edit your essay, check the references, and polish some of your points could make the world of difference to your marks.



If you want to further up your Essay game you can check out some of these great essay writing resources;

How to Write Conclusions

How to Structure Essays

Understanding the Question

Reading Medieval Scripts (for you History students out there) and reading medieval texts in translation

Royal Literary Fund’s Essay Writing Toolbox


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