Top Tips for Essay Writing, or How to make your Examiners Happy

8th March 2015 Clare Brant Study

It’s a big transition from A-levels to university study, and it can feel mystifying, especially in finding out what is expected of you in writing essays. Here is some advice!

The most important:


It’s theft. If you’re at university, you are bright enough to do your own work. Since universities adopted Turnitin software, every essay submitted online gets scanned, and examiners do check the results. Anything fishy is investigated further.  Remember that repeating material you have used in another essay counts as self-plagiarism; Turnitin catches that too.

Using full and correct referencing systems is part of learning the formal language of scholarship; it is also a courtesy to other scholars. Since you get credit for consulting sources, proper acknowledgement is a no-brainer. Most university departments supply style sheets: follow them. It’s a good idea to leave enough time to check your presentation so you don’t throw away marks with scrappy referencing or an incomplete bibliography.



The easiest way is to go over the word limit. Most institutions have a policy that knocks two marks off for every five per cent over the stated word limit. When academics write for publication, they often covertly assume they can slip in an extra ten per cent. But university marking loads are so huge that if every student exceeded the word limits, lecturers’ hours of marking lengthen into the impossible. Self-discipline about length is part of the exercise of essay writing, and lecturers think about word limits when they set tasks. Not all institutions have policies about penalising under-length work, weirdly, but avoid that too because it looks as though you are not interested or just lazy.

Not putting your candidate number on your work.

Not filling in a cover sheet properly.

In written tests, not indicating what question you are answering. Best practice usually is to write the question out in full at the top of your essay.


Write badly. In exams, write illegibly. Write so ungrammatically that your marker has to  waste time untangling every sentence. Throw in some spelling mistakes. Flout the rules of standard English. The most common errors I see are so basic they should shame anyone over the age of ten. It’s sadly the case that few schools teach grammar so you may not know what is right or wrong, but it is tiresome to lecturers to have to stop and point out really basic errors – for instance:

Every sentence needs a verb. Singular subjects should have singular verbs, with the possible exception of ‘their’ if you use it to free a pronoun from gender; in such cases, political correctness may override grammatical exactness. ‘The student did not think their lecturer was helpful’: you should really say his or her, but we let it go because it can be socially constructive to get away from gender, temporarily. Lynne Truss’s book Eats, Shoots and Leaves is a clear guide to punctuation; you can buy it for as little as £0.01p. Caroline Taggart’s My Grammar and I (Or Should That Be ‘Me’?) is equally helpful for explaining grammar. Both have amusing jokes and are well worth using.

Don’t make silly mistakes in chronology. Recently I read an essay that claimed Milton influenced Chaucer.

Sometimes I’m asked about using Wikipedia. We all do: it’s so convenient. But it isn’t always accurate, so any information you get from it should ideally be cross-checked against a scholarly source.


Use apostrophes and commas correctly. Some examiners will weep with joy if they read essays in which semi-colons are used properly. Good punctuation means an examiner can engage directly with what you say and not get distracted by confused expression.apostrophe

Leave time to read your essay before submission, for two reasons. One is to check all your references are in order; the second is to review the shape, flow and pace of your argument. Does it read smoothly? Do your paragraphs reflect the movements of your thinking? If you have overflow ideas you can always tuck them into notes – examiners read those too. Including page numbers is very helpful.

Examiners like curiosity! They don’t expect you to know all the answers, but you can signal you know there’s more to say by gesturing to big ideas in the form of questions.

Most examiners will be really pleased to learn things from you. If you venture beyond set texts and recommended reading if you show you are genuinely interested in the subject, lecturers feel their job is worthwhile.  It is inspiring to read excellent work. Good luck! Though you’ll need less luck if you implement these tips.

Professor Clare Brant

Department of English

King’s College London

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