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Preparing and Writing Essays

A basic key to producing good essays is to start early and work steadily over an extended period. Build in time for distractions and problems (e.g. illness or disk failure), and allow for deadline bunching. Plan to complete well before the deadline to allow yourself some leeway. As a rough guide, you might allow three weeks for work on a course essay. The deadline is intended to help you with time management - make sure you adhere to it. Reflect on the feedback obtained on your previous essays. What strengths and weaknesses were identified? Think about how best to overcome the weaknesses.

For example, if your essays have been criticised for limited knowledge of the literature or lack of depth, this may indicate that you need to devote more preparation time and increase or change the breadth and depth of your reading; if criticised for poor structure or limited relevance, you are likely to benefit from spending more time on careful planning and editing/reorganising the final draft. Using course essays to work on your weaknesses can help you produce a better essay as well as help to improve your general writing skills.

Do some preliminary reading to help you choose an essay topic. The reading lists for the essays provide guidance on sources of preliminary reading. Generally, it is useful to choose the reading that is relatively recent, this is likely to include a summary of earlier work, some of which you may explore in more detail later. It can also be helpful at an early stage to make use of EconLit and the Library catalogue to check on the availability and nature of supplementary reading on a topic.

As should be obvious, you should try to choose a topic that you find interesting. This will help motivate you to work on the essay and is also likely to make the end product more interesting for the reader/marker. Note that interest tends to increase as you work on a topic, providing you don’t leave it all to the last minute.

Once you have chosen a topic (or even to help you choose from a short-list of topics), use your initial reading to produce a draft outline plan of your essay. The general advice on what makes a good essay, set out below, should help you to produce an effective plan. A basic plan would typically divide the essay/dissertation into a series of logically ordered sections. This skeleton structure can then be filled out by fitting ideas, relevant references, work and information required, into the planned sections (making use of references from preliminary reading, EconLit etc.)

Taking time to construct an effective annotated outline plan should help you to:

  • Produce a well-structured and coherent essay.
  • Organise the subsequent work on your essay/dissertation and plan your study time more effectively. 
  • Read actively and more effectively - making you think about how further reading fits into your plan and, possibly, adapting your plan in response to new information or ideas. Although the ingredients of a good essay can vary between courses and topics, the following broad guidelines are generally applicable.


  • Ensure that your essay/dissertation has a clear logical structure. 
  • Use the introduction to motivate the topic, set it in perspective and outline the structure of the body of your essay to help the reader follow the argument. 
  • Use the conclusions to draw together the argument, provide an overall assessment and, possibly, indicate areas that might be developed further if space allowed.

General content:

  • The primary focus should be on analysis, not description or presentation of information. 
  • Make it clear that you have a good understanding of the relevant basic literature. But avoid devoting too much space to repeating standard textbook material. Generally, you can make clear that you understand the basics in the context of presenting a more advanced or deeper analysis. 
  • Be innovative - think of an interesting and different angle on the topic; draw on ideas from other courses (including non-economics courses) or general reading; go beyond the standard literature by making good use of EconLit or other reference sources; be prepared to challenge standard approaches. This is likely to make the essay more interesting to you and the reader/marker. 
  • Remember it is your essay, it should reflect your informed thought and judgements on the topic, not simply reiterate or paraphrase the views of others.

Analysis and models:

  • The appropriate mode of analysis can vary between courses and topics. In the vast majority of cases, economics essays will involve the use of an explicit model or models. Formal models help to provide a clear logical structure, which is a major reason for their use in economics. 
  • When presenting a model, you need to make clear that you understand the model. This involves more than simply copying a set of equations from an article or book. To signal your understanding you might for example: provide an intuitive explanation of the overall model or key steps in solving the model; work out some steps in a model’s solution explicitly, when (as is often the case) this is not done explicitly in the original source; develop and work through a variation of the model not developed explicitly in the reading; compare and contrast the model with other related models; assess the assumptions used and the limitations they pose; apply the model judiciously to a particular situation.

Presentation and style:

  • Grammar and spelling matter. Leave plenty of time for editing the final draft to improve grammar. Use a spellchecker, but remember that spell checkers do not pick up all mistakes. Incorrect spelling of names and jargon can be particularly irritating. 
  • Be precise and concise. Conciseness allows you to include more within the word limit. 
  • Think about how to present data or information effectively. Tables or figures can be useful presentational tools. 
  • References should be presented accurately and consistently. See the lists of preliminary readings for a suggested standard style.

Citations and plagiarism:

  • Quotations should be used judiciously, if at all, to support or illustrate an argument. The source of any quotation should be clearly stated, including the page reference. 
  • Data sources should be clearly cited.
  • When summarising or describing someone’s work the source or sources should be clearly stated. 
  • The University of Edinburgh’s Undergraduate Assessment Regulations state: “Plagiarism is the act of copying or including in one’s own work, without adequate acknowledgement, intentionally or unintentionally, the work of another. It is academically fraudulent and an offence against University discipline.” 
  • The University of Edinburgh’s Guidance on the Avoidance of Plagiarism for Undergraduate and Taught Postgraduate Students states: “Plagiarism is the act of including in one’s own work the work of another person, without adequate acknowledgement of having done so, either deliberately or unintentionally.” 
  • The Undergraduate Assessment Regulations add “The innocent misuse or citation of material without formal and proper acknowledgement can constitute plagiarism, even when there is no deliberate intent to cheat. Work may be plagiarised if it consists of close paraphrasing or unacknowledged summary of a source, as well as word-for-word transcription. Any failure adequately to acknowledge or properly reference other sources in submitted work could lead to lower marks and to disciplinary action being taken.” 
  • The three preceding bullet points avoid plagiarism, by properly acknowledging sources (but would not, on their own, constitute a good essay or dissertation).

Most study skills books contain further advice on essay writing. The Main Library Reading Room has an extensive collection of study skills books, which contain advice on essay writing.

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