Essay writing


Everyone's style is of course individual and should be capable of changing to meet the needs of scientific report writing. Nonetheless this fact-sheet provides some broad guidelines and some specific rules which should help you to write more effectively. The general qualities to aim for are Accuracy, Balance, Clarity, Completeness, Consistency, Interest, Order, Persuasiveness, Relevance and Simplicity.

The essay structure is critical. The structure should reflect the question. For example, if the question is ‘Compare and contrast.....’ then either each paragraph should contain a comparison and contrast of phenomena or the essay has two sections - one a comparison of phenomena, one a contrast of phenomena. Many essay questions can be answered with only 5-10 key points/facts. Where this is the case, each of these points should form a single paragraph. For each of these points, you should provide the reader with evidence of your statements; this evidence should include (a) citation of published ideas and/or (b) an example case study (also supported by a citation).

Adding references or citations within your essay, and hence ascribing key ideas and information to their authors/sources, demonstrates that you have undertaken some supportive reading. The most common method of citation can be illustrated with the following example:

The basic theory of this method (Macdonald, 1977) was developed by Macdonald and Pinkerton (1985) and applied by Pinkerton (1987a, 1987b) and Pinkerton et al. (1998) to many problems.

In the reference list at the end of the essay you should write the reference in full, i.e.,

Macdonald, R., 1977, Title. Journal, Volume number, start-page - end-page. [i.e., one author]

Macdonald, R. and Pinkerton, H., 1985, Title. Journal, Volume number, start-page - end-page. [i.e., two authors]

Pinkerton, H., Macdonald, R., and Heath, E., 1998, Title. Journal, Volume number, start-page - end-page. [i.e., more than two authors]

The references should be ordered in alphabetic order, then by numbers of authors, then by year. Note that ‘et al.’, as for all Latin words, should be either italicised (et al.) or underlined (et al.).

Sentences should be coherent and deal with one main idea. Long sentences can lead to rambling confusion or be too much for the reader to assimilate. Short sentences (max 25 words) are generally to be preferred. Too many very short sentences can lead to a jerky style, however. Try to vary the length of sentence. After two or three long sentences insert a short one to allow the reader to recover. An occasional very short sentence can be used for impact or effect. There must be a logic in the sequencing of sentences. Linking words (e.g. however, in addition) can give continuity but should not be overdone. Vary the sentence format ‘Subject - verb - remainder’ is the usual sentence shape but ringing the changes can make the text more interesting sometimes start with a participle e.g., ‘Being an undergraduate ES student it is ...’. Some phrases which can often be deleted. For example:From this point of view it is relevant to mention that’, ‘It is of interest to note that’, ‘In actual fact’, ‘In the final analysis’, ‘It is evident that’, ‘It is not necessary to stress the fact that’, ‘It goes without saying that’, ‘It must be remembered that’. Normally use the active mode for sentence construction, e.g., ‘Three weather stations have not submitted rainfall figures’ but the passive can give variety (e.g., ‘Rainfall figures have not been submitted by three weather stations’). Avoid ambiguity, for exampleMaps for sale by geologist with large chest’ or ‘The further the explorers climbed through the volcanic ashes, the hotter they became’. Antithesis and contrast can be pleasing for the reader, e.g. ‘Geomorphologists who fail to study the past will never understand the present’.

 Although some technical abbreviations can be expected in a report which is aimed at a strictly specialist readership, generally one should try to avoid abbreviations if possible. Any essential abbreviations should be written in full when first used and abbreviated immediately afterwards in parenthesis. For example, 'The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) has recommended that ...'. Try not to use Latin abbreviations such as op. cit. (in the work cited) or id est (that is or ‘i.e.’). The use of ‘etc.’ at the end of a list can be avoided by writing 'for example' or 'including' at the start of the list.

Punctuation marks within a sentence tell the reader to pause. The longest pause is indicated by the colon and then come the semi-colon and comma. A colon may also be used to introduce a list. The addition of punctuation can change a sentence's meaning, for example ‘Geologists, who still rely heavily on maps, are...' has a different meaning to ‘Geologists who still rely heavily on maps are...'. The first sentence suggests that all geologists still rely heavily on maps; the second specifies a subset of geologists with this addiction.

To calculate the Fog Index (Gunning, 1968) for a 100 words passage of text such as part of an essay you have written: (a) work out the average number of words per sentence, (b) count the number of words of three or more syllables in the passage (not counting proper names, compound words such as blow-hole or verb forms ending with 'ed' or 'ing'), and (c) total the two scores and multiply by 0.4 to obtain the Fog Index. If you are getting scores of over 13 you are in danger of stretching the reader's patience. To decrease the Fog Index and increase your 'readability' you should consider reducing the length of your sentences, using shorter words and being more concise.

Gunning, R. 1968, The Technique of Clear Writing. McGraw-Hill.


 ã N.A. Chappell, Lancaster University 2000