Essay Guide

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The second draft

General points

Once you have made your first draft, you can revise it to see that it matches your overall argument and topic and that each section carries your argument forward.

The first thing to do is print out your first draft. Does it look anything like an essay or does it still look like a collection of sentences and notes?

The second thing to do is to read it aloud to yourself. Have fun with this and do a bit of playacting. Imagine you are impersonating a famous professor and try to read with authority. Do you sound like you know what you are talking about? Do your sentences flow or are they jerky and disjointed? Are you stumbling over short phrases or getting lost in sentences that go on for half a page?

These questions are important. You are looking at the overall shape of your essay, checking that it makes sense and that the order of your argument is clear and natural.

Next, you should focus on the individual sections of your discussion. You should work through them systematically, rewriting them as necessary to make sure that each section is clear and contains all the relevant material. You will need to make sure that they are linked together and that your argument flows clearly and naturally. You should also start concentrating on style and checking for grammatical errors and typos.

Bring yourself in for questioning!

While you are working on your second draft, keep asking yourself: Have I answered the question? Have I answered all parts of the question? Have I included all the relevant material from my notes? Is there anything that should not be here, anything that is nice to have but not essential? Are all my points illustrated with examples? Have I missed anything?

Two really important questions to ask are:

If you’ve written “This essay will…” or “I will argue that…”, then have you?

Is everything in the best possible order?

Using feedback

The second draft is a good time to use tutor feedback from your most recent essays. Were there any comments that indicated why you lost marks? If there is a comment in the margin like “A good point but unsupported” check your new essay for the same error or errors.

Tone: Postmodernism is really heuristic, know what I mean?

You should start to pay close attention to how your essay is written. Is your tone consistent? Is it too chatty? Or is it overloaded with expert terminology? Or is it, like the title of this section, a meaningless mixture of the two? If you are using technical terms relevant to your subject, do you know what they mean and are you using them correctly? Remember: any reader should be able to understand what your essay is about and what you are trying to say.

However, students often worry about how to achieve the right tone. For example, how does one achieve a tone that is exploratory and tentative without sounding diffident? How can one achieve a tone that is confident without sounding dogmatic or even arrogant?

Exploratory and tentative

A tone that is exploratory and tentative without sounding diffident is best achieved by remembering that academic writing always involves elements of doubt and of testing assertions and assumptions through the discovery of evidence.

Let’s imagine that we’re writing an essay about the meaning or meanings of T. S. Eliot’s poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. We might start by saying something like this: ‘Eliot once drew attention to the error of thinking that there was a single correct interpretation of the whole poem. He asserted that the meaning of the poem could not be exhausted by any single explanation.’ We might go on to say something like this: ‘At first sight, this might sound like a deliberate ploy on the part of the poet to turn interpreters away from his poem. However, if we look at…’ We could then continue by looking at different images or sets of images in the poem, deciding as we go along whether they converge with or diverge from each other. At the end of our examination, we might be able to say whether or not we agree with Eliot’s comment. The point is that by the end of our essay we will have made a journey through the poem, gathering evidence and drawing a conclusion from it.


A tone that is confident without sounding dogmatic or even arrogant can be achieved by writing in a direct style that communicates with your readers. A confident tone is also the result of using a good range of material and actively engaging with it. The more you know about your subject, the more you will be able to say about it and the happier you will feel saying it. You will start to feel comfortable with your own knowledge.

If you quote from an expert in your subject, don’t just paste in a quotation and then move on. Respond to the quotation; try to explore its argument and to tease out the implications of that argument.
Do say things like ‘It’s clear from an analysis of Bloggs’s comment that…’
Don’t say things like ‘In my personal opinion, I think that Bloggs…’

A confident tone can also be achieved by reading widely. Are there authors on your reading lists whose arguments seem powerful and convincing? Read their work carefully and look at how they write.