A Guide to Essay Writing

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How to Write an Essay

The following guidelines will help you structure your essay into a clear argument.


  • Every good research paper or book, regardless by whom and on which academic level it was written, boils down to investigating one question or issue. What is the question you are going to investigate in your paper? If you only have a subject you want to write on, but not a question, you need to rethink before starting your essay.
  • You might (but don't always have to) say what your method of analysis will be; in other words, map out the journey your reader is going to have to take with you.

Keep the introduction as brief as possible. It shouldn't be longer than one page; one paragraph is better. Your essay will be more engaging if gets right to the point.

The body of your text:

  • The body of your text is the journey you undertake in writing: it is how you get from point A to point B, with the conclusion as the final destination. In other words: Derive sub-questions from your major question and have your text logically go from one to the next. You always need to know the next point in your argumentation, and drive your text there.
  • Keep your research question, as outlined in your proposal and reworked for your final text as a point of reference in editing your material.
  • A very important element of the body of your text is giving examples, working through them and analysing them. Always base your arguments on observations you make in the material you investigate! However, your body of text should not be merely an accumulation of examples and citations, but develop your own original argument.
  • It is about comparison and contrast; this is not the same as that, that implies not the same as this… Make clever juxtapositions that give nuance to your argument. It is useful to develop your essay from a disagreement you have with someone else's position, writing or work.
  • Descriptions are useful but don’t overdo the detailing:

Details are important when they give evidence either through their fact or poetry. Too many details however can be fatally distracting from your main point. Use them to enhance not derail your argument or research. Some details may actually be detours which unnecessarily complicate or obscure your argument; if you really need to go off track, put this information in a footnote as a ‘by the way did you know…’. In placing it there you don’t destroy the flow of your main text.


  • A conclusion is intended to recapitulate all of the information you have gone through in the paper. Conclusions answer, in a more general way, the ideas or questions raised in the introduction.

At this point you should be asking yourself: Did I answer the questions I sought to explore in my introduction statement (and my proposal statement)? Was I successful in going through examples or case studies to prove my point?

  • A conclusion can never introduce totally new concepts as part of its argument. That would mean that you haven't done your homework in the main text. Introducing a totally new concept as part of your conclusion is like telling someone that you are driving them to the cinema (introduction statement) and when you arrive you don’t let them out of the car but instead you drive off to a vacant lot. Needless to say that as a passenger this can be pretty irritating. Readers are also not very keen on this type of journey.
  • That does not mean that your conclusion might not raise particular questions, which are crucial to your conclusion. For example: “In seeing how meaning shifts in the way objects displayed, certain key questions arise about curatorial responsibility. It is clear that we must question how history is being constructed through the contextual and literal framing of objects.” Or: “In analysing these mechanisms at work we must ask the following: Who or what is being framed and by whom for what purposes?”
  • Do your conclusions have any relevance to you or anyone else? They should and you should say why. You should expand on the effect or implication of your research for your own work, as well as on the position you take within the larger debate on the subject you have addressed. This is the real point of the project report, and it should not be missed!
  • No paper, not even a 1000 pages book, will ever answer all questions about its central question. You will have to live with incompletion. Sometimes, it can be useful though to point to open questions or issues, in other words, left-overs from your thought process that didn't fit into the essay proper. Phrase these points, if you like, as open questions and potential directions of future research as an addendum to your conclusion.


Give credit where credit is due! Never borrow thoughts, quotes or even paraphrase without properly crediting the source. This is done through references and a bibliography at the end of your paper (a bibliography is optional). Accurate, clear referencing offers the reader the opportunity to engage in the process of your research, and to understand how your arguments and ideas have been initiated and developed. Other people may use your paper as a resource to learn more about its topic and pick up related literature from your references. It is also, of course, essential that you distinguish between your own ideas and arguments, and those of other people; the more clear you are, the better you can shape your own ideas.

Conversely, citations do not replace your own thoughts and ideas. Never use sources as unquestioned authorities. The fact that a certain opinion was voiced by a well-known scholar, artist or intellectual doesn't make it true – all the more in the field of media studies with its high amount of speculative (and sometimes half-baked) theories. Theories are there to show you things in a different light, but never to replace your own ideas and opinions.

Note: When referencing sources use the Harvard System which is described below.


Not properly referencing your sources is plagiarism. Plagiarism means to present work done by others as your own. While plagiarism has been tactically advocated and used in activism and experimental arts to question ideologies of intellectual property, not crediting your sources is unacceptable in course work because it is dishonest to your advisors and fellow students and prohibits others from using your paper as a point of departure for their own research of your subject. Plagiarism invalidates your essay and may result in further disciplinary procedure, including possible expulsion from the course.

Lay out for quotations

Short quotations can be written as part of the flow of the sentence, with quotation marks.

Longer quotations (three or more lines) should be separated from the main body of the text by means of indention. In this case quotation marks are not needed. For example:

“I agree with Hal Foster when he says:

I supported a postmodernism that contested […] reactionary cultural politics and advocated artistic practices not only critical of institutional modernism but suggestive of alternative forms of new ways to practice culture and politics. And we did not lose. In a sense the worse thing happened: treated as fashion postmodernism became démodé. (Foster, 1998, p.20)

Going further from this point, I would suggest that theory, a key feature of the postmodern enterprise, became démodé only after becoming convention…” - Be careful not use too many block quotations in your paper. Your should never write a text which just consists of short remarks between block quotations!

The Harvard System of referencing

The Harvard System of referencing works within the text itself and not in footnotes or endnotes. Whenever you quote, or refer to someone’s words (directly or indirectly), or use someone’s argument, or refer to a source, you should use the system described below.

Whenever you quote you write the surname and the date of publication in brackets. When you quote directly, you should also add the page number:

In studying the anatomy of brains of early man, some 19th century anthropologists came to a conclusion which one writer reminds us was ‘at the time considered highly provocative but which is now obvious to every anthropologist’ (Wendt, 1974, p.12).

If the name of the writer is part of the sentence itself, put the date in brackets after the name: Wendt (1974, p.12) reminds us that the conclusions of some 19th century anthropologists were ‘at the time considered very provocative’.

The same applies when you are not quoting directly:

Wendt (1974) reminds us that the conclusions of some 19th century anthropologists were considered very provocative when they were published.

Sometimes, you find a useful quotation from one author in a book by another. In such cases, reference like this:

Johnson sweeps aside this argument: ‘His expressed view of the world has more style in it than sense – or evidence’ (quoted in Mason, 1990, p.44).

In this case, you are quoting Johnson from a book which you have not read and which you therefore cannot quote directly. So the reference is to Mason’s book, which you have read.

You will sometimes need to refer to more than one book or article by the same author, each published in the same year. In this case, put a letter after the date to show which of the publications is referred to in this instance:

Peterson (1989b, p.45) was risking the wrath of her profession by suggesting that ‘there is more to be gained by restraint than by rushing headlong into open debate’.

list of references

At the end of your text, you should list alphabetically all sources you have used. They are normally set out as follows:

Surname, initials of author(s) (date) Title, place and name of publisher


For example the complete reference for a book will look like this:

Gilbert, S and Gubar, S (1988) No Man’s Land New Haven, Yale University Press


When referring to an article in a journal, you should put the title of the article in quotation marks, and the journal title should be underlined:

Rollerton, F (1989) ‘Wordsworth’s Secret Dreams’ in Citations Vol.12, No.4 (pp.113-124)

If you are citing an article from an author from a book edited by a different author, the reference works as follows:

Silvershum, P (1978) ‘Fellowship Societies’ in Donaghue, P. (ed.) The Roots of Masonry Sidney, Outback Books

The list of references or bibliography should be in alphabetical order.

When you refer to more than one work by the same author, these should be set out in chronological order.

When you refer to more than one work by the same author from the same year, they should be differentiated by adding ‘a, b, c’ to the dates: 1989a, 1989b, etc.


The reference list should include only those works you have cited in your text. There may, however, be reasons why you would wish to offer a list of works which have informed your general thinking. If you want to cite works in addition to your references, this should be done in a separate list headed ‘bibliography’.


If you use illustrations of work by others or by yourself in your text, make sure you use accurate referencing. Referencing for illustrations will normally include (elements of) the following:

Name of the artist, title of the work, date, materials, size

For example:

Pierre Huyghe, Sleeptalking, 1998, 16mm film, 15 min.

You may add if appropriate:

Site, exhibition, collection or commissioner; place

For example:

Pierre Huyghe, Sleeptalking, 1998, 16mm film, 15 min. Installation at Manifesta, Luxembourg, 1999.

Fiona Banner, Le Bar du Peuple, billboard, Marseille, 1995.

Document formatting

Please submit your essay as a PDF file. Its first page should be a sheet stating its title, your name, the name of the institution and the course, the thematic project, the date. All pages should be numbered. Footnotes should be continously numbered throughout the whole document.

If one adds all requirements for referencing, quoting, citations, footnotes, page numbers etc., it is hardly possible to complete an academic paper in a Wiki, in plain ASCII, in HTML or a similar basic text format. The standard software recommendations are therefore either a traditional word processing program such as OpenOffice.org Writer or a markup/text formatting system for academic writing such as LaTeX or DocBook XML. (The Linux program LyX provides an easy-to-use word processor interface for LaTeX.) You are advised to choose the system that is most straightforward for you to use and interferes the least with your writing.

Further reading

For guidance on writing essays and good research practice, you are advised to consult: Tom Davis, How to Write an Essay, http://www.unask.com/teaching/howto/essay.htm http://www.unask.com/teaching/howto/essay.htm. For a more advanced introduction, read Rob Barnes, Successful Study for Degrees, Routledge, 1992, chapter 6, p. 64-87. (This book can be found in the course library.)

A good overview of different types of references and how to cite them, have a look at: https://library.aru.ac.uk/referencing/harvard.htm