The Seven Deadly Sins of Essay Writing

Date: 16.01.2011

Patrick Mulrenan writes:

There are many guides to writing essays. All of them will tell you what to avoid, so I have summarised them into the seven deadly sins of essay writing:

One: the sin of covetousness. Many students are puzzled about academics’ obsession with plagiarism. But it remains one of the mortal sins of university life. Stealing or passing off someone else’s ideas as your own is seen as a serious offence- as serious as smuggling notes into an examination. Although you will be using the work of other people, the work must be your own. All universities will have guidance on this issue on their website- but if in doubt ask your lecturer.

Two: the sin of ignorance. One of the most common reasons for failing essays is not reading the question, and missing elements of the question out. You should sit down with no interruptions and spend at least 30 minutes reading the question carefully. Put yourself into the mindset of the person setting the question- what do they want?

Three: the sin of pride. If you don’t understand the essay question, there may be a very good reason- it might not be clear. And it’s likely that other students feel the same. So don’t be too proud to ask the person who set the question. And if you fail the essay, make sure that you get full feedback from the person who marked it. Not good for your pride, but very good for making sure you don’t make the same mistakes again

Four: the sin of omission. Don’t forget to put in an introduction and a conclusion. It’s simple- the introduction tells the reader what you are going to say, the conclusion summarises the main arguments. You should not include any new materials in the conclusion- it should be based on what you have covered in the essay. Doing an introduction and conclusion helps you check the essay makes sense- and also really helps the person reading it. As a final check, read the introduction followed by the conclusion- does it read well without the middle bit?

Five: the sin of sloth. You should never leave essay writing to the last minute. Some people produce their best work under pressure but there are several stages to the process- reading the question, doing the reading, doing an essay plan and then a rough draft. And you should take up any offers from lecturers to read draft work. Can you do this in a couple of days? Work out the stages and diarise them

Six: the sin of gluttony. If you don’t read the question or do an essay plan, you will end up consuming vast amounts of information, but not finding what you want. Always do a plan- it will guide you to the reading you need to do. In an information age, there’s unlimited information out there- you don’t need to read it all

Seven: the sin of list. OK- it’s lust, but you really need to check your spelling, as well as grammar and punctuation. Carry out a spell check- but this is not enough. If necessary, get someone else to check the essay- spotting mistakes in your own work is very difficult.

If you follow these rules, you might not get to heaven, but you will avoid the hell of handing in work again and again.

Patrick Mulrenan
Course leader MA Housing and Inclusion, Foundation Degree Community Work