This page offers some advice on writing essays. It is general advice: not all of it is relevant to all modules or subjects; it does not give any advice on problem type questions.
There are many books and resources that can help you. Some of these are designed for law students, eg: Legal Skills by Emily Finch and Stefan Fafinski (OUP 2017). There are other guides which are intended for a range of subjects: eg Cottrell, Stella The Study Skills Handbook (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); Du Boulay, Doreen Study Skills for Dummies (John Wiley, 2009), etc. See the further reading page for more.
Expectations. Familiarise yourself with the University, Faculty, School, module expectations in terms of essay writing, marking etc. These can be found in module syllabi and school and university documents. Rely on guidance in those texts in preference to the general guidance on this page.
Essays: Essay Writing Advice
TOPIC · 1. Select a topic. ·
2. Interrogate the question. ·
3. What to look at. ·
THINKING · 5. Identify and assess the issues. ·
8. Writing style. ·
9. Quotes. ·
11. Web refs. ·
12. Technical Legal Language. ·
13. List of sources. ·
14. Presentation. ·
- Always consider the question carefully.
- Never accept or repeat anything uncritically.
- Rely on your own understanding of primary and secondary materials.
- Plan your essay. It should be structured to present a clear argument and not meander over different issues.
- Think of your reader.
- Re-read everything.
- Draft early and re-write
This document only indicates some of the pitfalls to be avoided in writing an essay.
1. Select a topic.
The topic should be one that you can research adequately, given the time and word constraints. Usually it is better to go for a narrow, rather than a general, topic. A narrowly defined question is much more likely to provide the basis for an in-depth analysis.
2. Interrogate the question.
Look at the question. What is it asking you? Can you define it yourself? What do you think it means? This is not the same as ‘what is the question about?’ (Finch and Fafinski 2009: 291).
Establish the parameters of the question – but be flexible about them; you may need to change them in the light of your reading and thinking.
Now go and research.
3. What to look at:
Research based on primary sources is always more impressive than research based just on secondary literature. Primary sources in legal research can include:
- statutes, secondary legislation,
- other legal texts;
- case law.
Depending on the subject you might also need to include:
- ‘soft law’
- academic work that is itself an original contribution;
- parliamentary debates, official reports, etc;
- some works of authorities, and some especially reputable commentaries.
Secondary literature (Law)
However you must not ignore the secondary literature – you must try and engage in the debate over the relevant legal issues. Secondary literature includes:
- researched articles; (academics place a high value on these at least where they appear in peer reviewed journals)
- NB: Always check ZETOC and Google Scholar to see if there are recent examples of secondary literature you should use.
Be thorough in your research. If you are (eg) writing on the right to life in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, you would be expected to refer to the article in ICCPR, but also any relevant general comments, observations or jurisprudence of the Human Rights Committee, and any relevant secondary literature.
You can and should consider using various non-legal sources in your work (historical, philosophical, psychoanalytical, etc.) in your work. Insights from these disciplines should be tied appropriately to the point of the question.
4. How to find material?
One option is to use the Library Catalogue, Library databases, LEXIS, ZETOC, WESTLAW, Google Scholar, etc. This is comprehensive, but throws up a HUGE amount of material.
Start with your module syllabus – what primary and secondary sources have been identified by your tutors as required reading or further reading? If there are relevant sources in the syllabus then your tutors will expect you to use them.
You will need to go beyond this and demonstrate some further research. For an essay you may find it more useful to read through the recent journal articles, cases, etc. in the relevant areas and make notes of all the sources they mention. This gives a more manageable list, an idea of what issues are considered important, a clue as to which works are considered reputable. Keep a full list of the cites.
Once you have an idea of what is relevant to your essay and what not, then you should trawl through the various databases (especially at more advanced levels). Be sure to be comprehensive – check out LEXIS as well as Westlaw and Current Legal Information, and remember that even then you will not have found everything. Remember to use the ‘Browse’ ‘Subject’ etc. options to the full.
When performing searches, remember that different databases have different search conventions so familiarise yourself with these. Also remember that databases are not intelligent: they will not understand that if you are interested in an article on ‘forced labour’ that you are also interested in articles on ‘compulsory labor’ so make sure to try similar terms and alternative spellings. Further, remember to search not just for keywords but also for relevant authors.
5. Identify and assess the issues.
The internet, with its micro-blogs, wiki-entries, RSS feeds, facilitates speedy access to information. This is useful, but university work requires the more time intensive skills of deep reading and critical thinking.
Points to think about when reading and thinking:
- What are the issues?
- Adopt a critical i.e. ‘questioning’ approach. Do not assume that something is obvious to the reader, and do not repeat someone else’s opinion uncritically.
- Do you have an opinion / conclusion to offer on them?
- Structure a plan so that it deals with these in a clear, convincing manner.
- You must always give reasons for your positions and conclusions, (at least on any of the key issues).
- Think carefully about what sort of position/opinion/conclusion you defend:
- Why is this your position – what is the evidence for your position?
- Is your position consistent?
- What are its weak points? Assess them and deal with them.
- What are the strong points of anyone putting forward an alternative or opposing view? How do you deal with them?
- Do your conclusions take account of all the relevant primary sources?
- Do your conclusions engage with the debate in the secondary literature?
See the further reading page for some guides to critical thinking.
Knowledge, understanding and evaluation.
Finch and Fafinski cite work done by Benjmain Bloom on different types of skills. (Finch and Fafinski 2009: 303)
These skills are (in ascending order):
- Knowledge – does the student know the facts, etc?
- Comprehension – does the student understand them?
- Application – can the student apply the knowledge to a situation?
- Analysis – can the student break the issues down?
- Synthesis – can the student make connections?
- Evaluation – critical judgements
Try to make sure your essay demonstrates higher order as well as lower order skills.
A first class?
Finally, a first class essay is distinguished by:
- the insightful nature of its thought and convincing, reasoned opinions,
- its use and understanding of primary sources,
- its engagement in debate with secondary literature,
- its willingness to look at alternative and diverse sources,
- and its clear, coherent, convincing structure.
At more advanced levels you will be expected to discuss the thinking that goes into your writing in a more explicit and sophisticated manner. This requirement might be introduced as the ‘theory’, ‘methodology’, or a ‘theoretical framework’ for a research project or dissertation. Check out the further reading page for some guides to methodology.
Do not delay too long to start working on a draft!
It is important to produce an early draft so that you can have time to re-draft and edit your work. Get something down on paper early; don’t wait until it is perfect. For most people quality will come from constant re-writing, drafting and editing.
6. Structure, Introduction and Conclusion.
The structure must deal with all the points in a clear manner.
Remember to take particular care over the introductions and conclusion as these are the first and last thing the reader takes in.
The introduction should inform the reader as to what the essay is about, how you are going to deal with the issues raised (a road map), and what your conclusions are.
Include ‘signposting‘ or linking language.
Make sure that you include only relevant material. As you write, bear in mind the title. When you are done writing, read your title and introduction carefully to make sure you are focused on a clear topic, and then read the entire paper carefully to ensure that everything is relevant.
To put this in context: your marker may be reading several hundred thousand words of assessed papers during an examination diet. There is no worse way to put off a marker than to produce a poorly structured paper.
7. Opinions, claims, arguments, conclusions.
You must always give a source for any opinion. An opinion may be either
- someone else’s – in which case cite him / her;
- your own, in which case you must back it up by reference to
- a reasoned argument which
- makes use of the primary sources and secondary literature, and
- deals with both your own weak points and the strong points of your opponents.
Though you will often need to refer to what others have said, your essay should not be a repetition of what others have said. If your tutor wants to know what (eg) Curtin thinks of EC citizenship law, then the tutor will read Curtin (and probably already has)!
You should come to your own understanding of the topic, and present that. Think of it this way. Supposing a tutor were to present you with your essay, and ask you the details of the claims you make therein. Would you be able to answer for yourself? (Be especially wary of relying on just one source for your claims.)
8. Writing style.
This must be clear, precise and interesting. Do not be afraid to liven up the material with judicious use of metaphors, analogies or quotes, but these must be appropriate!
The essay should be grammatically correct and free of spelling errors.
Use spell checkers and grammar checkers, but use them with care: sometimes you will need to ignore a suggestion from a grammar checker or a spell checker. Many spelling miss takes will not be cot buy a spell chequer sew reed the paper carefully yourself.
Where possible ask a friend to read the text.
Remember that legal language can lead to very important consequences, so be precise in what you say.
Be concise. Avoid words or phrases which are unnecessary or too lengthy. Avoid verbiage.
Tredinnick advises that you avoid changing verbs into abstract nouns. ‘The judge examined the evidence’ is shorter and clearer than ‘The judge engaged in an examination of the evidence’.
Avoid overusing the passive voice. Avoid saying ‘It is thought, it is said, it is argued’. Indicate the subject who thinks, says, argues.
Avoid rhetorical questions: you should be answering questions. If you find yourself posing a rhetorical question, then sit down and think what your answer is.
Generally avoid Latin gadgets unless they say something more concisely and precisely than the English equivalent, or if they have a technical meaning that is essential in the context.
On some matters there is no agreed approach but it is important to be consistent. Be consistent about whether you put footnote references inside or outside punctuation. Be consistent about using single or double quote marks.
There are books which give guidance on writing style, and specifically legal writing style, and you may wish to consult these; some are listed on See the further reading page. A classic guide to writing style is
- George Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’ Collected Essays, (London: Mercury, 1961), p. 337; also in In Front of Your Nose (New York: Harcourt, 1968), p. 127.
A briefer set of tips is this one from Steve Pinker:
Above all else do not engage in rhetoric to the detriment of reasoned argument. You must try to convince the reader, not just persuade her. In particular avoid grandiloquent claims (- legal doctrines rarely display ‘true glory’), claims without any qualification, or simplistic and potentially misleading categories (World legal orders are not ‘divided into common law and civil law’).
You probably already have a dictionary and a thesaurus but you should also invest in some guides to grammar. These will help you with some common mistakes.
Examples of common mistakes:
- Apostrophe usage
- Capitalisation. Do not randomly capitalise ‘important’ words – there are grammar rules about what gets capitalised. ‘In different countries, supreme courts are given different names; the UK one is called the Supreme Court’ is fine – the first reference to ‘supreme courts’ is not referring to the name of any court.
- Its and it’s. ‘It’s’ is a contraction for ‘It is’. ‘Its’ indicates possession.
- There and their.
- Principal and principle. ‘Principal’ means the ‘main’, while ‘principle’ refers to a value.
- Judgment and judgement. The first refers to the court’s decision; the second to a person’s exercise of intellectual powers.
- Proscribe/prescribe. The former means to prohibit; the latter means to require.
You should not quote just for the sake of quoting. Quote only where a phrase or sentence is (eg) important for your argument, or particularly well-expressed.
Where you do give a quote, always consider whether it is adequate to just write it, or is it necessary also to explain it (after all you must show your reader that you understand it!).
When quoting a foreign phrase, you should always quote it in the original and give a summary or translation (preferably by a professional translator) in a footnote (or vice versa).
10. Comprehensive, Full, Precise and Consistent Citations.
When reading material always keep a note of the proper citation of what you are reading. Make sure you include pinpoint page or paragraph numbers. Make sure that if you write down direct quotes in your notes that you use quote marks (or later you might forget the words are someone else’s and inadvertently commit plagiarism).
You may find it useful to use a bibliographical reference manager like REFWORKS, ZOTERO or ENDNOTE to manage bibliographical details. These are especially useful for large research projects or if you intend a career in academia or research. If you decide to use one, check that it can handle footnote references, legal sources and if possible OSCOLA referencing.
There is no official citation system for legal sources, but the OSCOLA systems is increasingly used: http://www.law.ox.ac.uk/publications/oscola.php There is a great one page summary which you should keep to hand when writing.
It is important that you cite any source you use.
Do not say ‘Someone says’, ‘academics think’ ‘It is thought;, etc. Say (eg) ‘Chalmers and Anderson argue that …(fnref)’.
Citations must be full and they must be precise.
By full that means the reader needs to know:
Book: author, title, year of publication and the publisher
Article: author, title, year of publication, name of journal, volume of journal, page reference within journal
Case: name, Neutral Citation, year, volume, law report, page within the report.
By precise I mean that if you refer to a source in your text, give the exact page or paragraph where the author or judge or whatever says what you claim s/he says. (Always think of the reader – is it possible for the reader to doubt this claim? Then give him/her the precise page or paragraph where he/she can find support for the claim.) This is called pinpoint referencing.
Where someone does not provide a full or precise citation, the marker may assume that s/he has not really read that source, but is just taking it from somewhere else. (See below: Plagiarism).
Make sure to use a consistent citation system. (There are many different styles which differ according to discipline, country, even journal!)
11. Web references.
Bear in mind the difficulties Web pages have as sources: anyone can publish on the web, and can always alter, or remove their document afterwards! Consider carefully who has published the web page! There are cases of extremist groups producing websites which look like academic or news media resources.
Check the approved style guide in your University for guidance on how to cite web pages, or check OSCOLA. When giving a web reference, always give the full URL address, the author of the document, its title, any proper paper reference. You should also give the date that you read the material. If you have a choice between a source on the web and the same source on paper in the library, you should use the latter.
12. Technical Legal Language.
Some foreign technical phrases are simply not capable of being translated. These you must leave untranslated, but you must explain what they mean (Eg the French concept of cause in contract law.)
Different legal systems have different case, statute and other citation systems! In such cases you should use the foreign system, and perhaps add something for the UK reader.
13. List of sources (Bibliography)
This must include all the sources which you rely upon in the text – and only those sources. A marker will not be impressed by a long list of sources which you do not use in your essay.
Check to see if there are formal presentation requirements specified by the module or School.
The presentation of an essay should make it easier for the reader to find his or her way around the text – use headings and sub-headings if you think that helps, but do not overdo it.
Avoid elaborate displays which may simply make the reader wonder if it is an exercise in show not substance.
Make sure the text is easy on the reader – produce a type written text, font size 12 (times new roman or a sans serif font), with spacing of at least 1.5, and generous margins.
Minor points: Put page numbers on the pages. Use the word count facility to count the number of words and put this on the paper.
Before handing an essay in, always reread it, and try to consider, critically, every claim, argument, phrasing, use of words, etc.
Try to get someone else to read it to offer her opinion.
Review your institution’s definition of plagiarism. Plagiarism involves passing off someone else’s work, words, ideas as your own. In its most obvious form this means copying material but it is not limited to this. It may happen inadvertently.
Plagiarism is extremely serious and is regarded as being dishonest. It is an academic offence and must also be reported to the professional legal bodies.
If you like an idea or an argument from a book or an article, do not copy it as if it is your own. Either put it in your own words it and credit the author, or quote it. Plagiarism is cheating and if caught plagiarising one may face disciplinary procedures.
Using words or phrases which are recognisably someone else’s (even though you may have modified them slightly). Either use direct quotes, or explain entirely in your own words. In either case, footnote the reference.
Citing sources which you have not read yourself but which you have taken from someone else. In this case please indicate both sources: (eg) See BGH, 1952, 657 as cited in Markesinis, The German Law of Obligations, p. 456.
Citing someone else’s idea as your own. Make it clear which ideas are your own and which you have got from someone else. Footnote any idea you have got from someone else.
NB. Avoid the temptation to paraphrase material (changing the words only slightly). Be very careful when ‘summarising’ what others have said. Is what you have written recognisably yours, or someone else’s?
There are useful on-line tutorials on plagiarism for students. See, for example: http://library.acadiau.ca/sites/default/files/library/tutorials/plagiarism/.
The best way to avoid accusations of plagiarism is to maintain good practice in keeping notes, using citations, writing in your own words.
15. What can you learn from the essay post-marking?
Check through the essay, the comments, and advice. If you are unhappy or unclear about some of the comments, then go and talk with the person who marked it.
Usage: © Rory O’Connell, 2017. Please feel free to link to this page or make use of it for teaching purposes provided the source is acknowledged.