Four common essay writing errors
This handout is primarily concerned with philosophy and social science essay questions where there is controversy among experts in the area: they do not all agree about what the answer is. The handout presents errors: things not to do.
1. Not answering the exact question set. For example, consider the question, “Are democracies unlikely to go to war with one another?” Someone might well choose this question yet answer, “Are democracies unlikely to go to war?” and forget about the “with one another” part of the question.
(Generally you should answer the exact question which has been set. Unfortunately, there are rare occasions when the examiner does not set precisely the question which they had in mind. Then you have to use a bit of common sense. I have seen sample examinations where the examiner forgets to ask you to evaluate! You always have to evaluate.)
2. Having an introduction which provides a lot of background information. In the UK, an introduction to a philosophy or a social science essay should usually be quite small, e.g. no more than half a page. It should do two main things: (i) it should state your position on the question – the position you will argue for; (ii) it should state the order in which you will proceed, e.g. first I will do X, then I will do Y, then Z. You can use ‘I’, by the way.
Generally do not include sentences such as “This question has been discussed for centuries; it has captivated the minds of great thinkers; it has divided them; it is one of the deepest questions in the field of political thought,” etc. You also often do not need to say why the question matters. You can find an example of an introduction here. (For some questions, it may be necessary to present some background information. You can do that after the introduction.)
3. Presenting the case for, the case against, and then having a small paragraph at the end expressing your opinion. This structure is obviously unsuitable for some questions. But even for questions where it seems suitable, the marks above 60% are usually for evaluation – for evaluating where the balance of evidence/reasons lies – so if you adopt this structure, you will only start evaluating in the small paragraph at the end. You need to be evaluating much earlier.
In many cases, you should structure your essay as if you are speaking for one particular position within a debate. (Note: the position that it is impossible to determine the answer to the question is also a position.)
‘But how can I be fair then?’ you might be wondering.
Be fair by choosing to support the position which has the strongest arguments in its favour.
Be fair also by considering the strongest objections against this position, if there are any, only to show that they do not work.
4. Weak arguments. Even essays which get high marks sometimes pursue arguments that can easily be objected to. A neutral reader who is open to the possibility of being convinced could easily and compellingly object to the essay’s argument. It is worth considering how your argument might come across to them. Would they have a strong objection to it?
Apart from these four errors, watch out for:
Beginning paragraphs with author X says. This is not always an error, but you may well be doing something wrong if, in a single essay, you are regularly beginning paragraphs with what an author says, e.g. ‘Locke says…’, ‘Berlin says…’, etc. Here are some examples of sentences that are good ways of opening a paragraph:
‘Before arguing that democracies are unlikely to go to war with one another, it is essential to briefly define what a democratic state is.’
‘One good argument for the view that democracies are unlikely to go to war with one another is…’
‘An objection to this first argument, which I do not think succeeds, is…’
Sentences like these clearly indicate the role that the paragraph has in the overall case that you are making. But there is no strict rule here and various other openings can work as well – these ones may be slightly clunky for more refined writers.
If you know what you are doing, you can probably depart successfully from a lot of this advice!