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Camilla's rules for essay writing

I am currently spending my every waking hour (ok, that is an exaggeration, but it does not feel like one) correcting essays. While there are glimmers in the darkness, this can sometimes be quite an aggravating affair. Especially when it appears all my helpful advice has fallen on deaf ears earlier in the semester.

Now, I know most of our regulars have finished their stint in undergraduate hell, but as some are taking it up again and there is a youthful contingent somewhere in the murky depths of the commentary fields, I decided to present you with 7 helpful tips that (if followed; ah, there's the rub) should magically cause good grades to appear. If you don't care about grades, please think of the poor person forced to suffer through it all when she has a lot of other stuff that she really, really ought to get on with.


  • Start writing the essay early so that you can put it to one side and look it over with fresh eyes before handing it in (and still have time to make adjustments).

    Read the essay question properly (all of it!) and make sure you do what it tells you to do. Sometimes important information is hidden in a second sentence on the same line as the first sentence (or at the bottom of a paragraph); that does not mean it is less important.


  • Learn the rules of punctuation and use them properly. They are there to help the reader make sense of the text. Think of it as a courtesy. Semi-colons are not colons. Use en-dashes (–) or em-dashes (—) for parenthetical thought if you have to use dashes. Do not use the simple dash (-) except as a hyphen. It is almost always better, however, to use commas.

    While split infinitives and prepositions at the end of a sentence can be perfectly good language, you should avoid colloquialisms. This does not mean you should find the most difficult word you can in order to impress your reader. You should aim for clairty.

  • 3. TEXTS

  • Make it clear what (part of the) text you are talking about. This is best done in the introduction. Even where the text has been given in the question.

  • 4. PLAN

  • Remember to include both an introduction and a conclusion to your argument. The reader is not supposed to be left guessing. An essay is not a detective novel.

    Give a plan for your argument in your introduction. Tell us what you want to show and how you intend to show it. This allows the reader to follow your argument more easily, but it has the added advantage of forcing you to make a coherent argument (because you can easily see whether your argument makes sense when you have to summarise it in a few words). The aim of your essay is to make your argument clear, not to surprise the reader with your conclusion.

  • 5. SOURCES

  • When you use secondary sources, discuss them. What do they mean? Do you agree with them? Why? Why not? This applies to both quoting and paraphrasing.

    Make sure you do not misrepresent your sources. While the aim of your use of quotes should be to further your argument, don't do this by quoting so selectively that you compromise the source of your quotes.


  • It is so simple, there is no excuse for not doing it right. Follow the style guide. The Department Style Guide is there to help you. Consult it when in doubt. Remember that different departments may follow different styles.

    If your word formatting program breaks with the style demanded, turn off the auto-formatting. Above all, don't let your word formatting program dictate your style.

    Remember to cite sources, include a list of works cited and number your pages.


  • Read and take on the feedback you get on your essays. It is there to help you improve your particular essay writing skills by making you aware of what needs improvement in your essay. Having to repeat the same advice every time makes a tutor cranky.

    There. Now Calcuttagutta's readers should all get As. Provided you've read your stuff.
    Ragnhild likes this


    Tor,  28.10.10 09:48

    When I was a student, I felt that making to much of a fuzz about the details of style and formating got in the way of the important bits. In particular, I was a TA on a course with some other people who spent a lot of energy complaining that the students didn't know whether the table text should be above or below the table (I still don't), which I thought was a bit weird, as I found it much more annoying that they didn't know physics.

    However, I always made a fuzz when people gave me horrible looking reports written in Word, when they wrote reports in the active voice rather than the passive or when they had gramatical errors. So I'm probably not less fuzzy, only fuzzy about different things.
    Tim,  28.10.10 10:34

    F- for you, Camilla.

    (Also, we generally just call it "spelling".)

    And the idea of Tor discussing how fuzzy he is makes me smile. Can I suggest you practise pronouncing the sound [z]?

    is that it is the easiest part of essay writing. There is no difficulty in getting it right, and so it is a very good measure on whether a student cares. Bad spelling and wrong formatting suggests inattention.

    I am spending my time (which I could spend on other things) trudging through their essays. Not only does uniformity make that easier (essays formatted with single spacing, for example, are a nightmare to correct because there is no place to write; a single style of citation makes it easier to check up on their sources), if they grow up to be academics knowing how to follow a style is part of writing papers for journals.

    This is why I tell people to read through before they hand in. I confess it is one of those things I have never been able to do. It is still good advice. And while "spelling" would do the job, I wanted emphasis on the correct spelling part.

    Because it's funnier that way.

    Also: I will teach you about these things called "jokes" if you would like.

    Camilla: I sympathise. I like your rules. You should print a copy for each student in your tutorials.
    Camilla,  28.10.10 19:02

    Rebekah: I fully intend to.
    Kristian,  29.10.10 21:10

    "However, I always made a fuzz when people gave me horrible looking reports written in Word, when they wrote reports in the active voice rather than the passive or when they had gramatical errors. "

    I always found it strange that the chemistry department recommends bad style. Also I wonder, was the experiment performed by robots or witchcraft?
    Ragnhild,  01.11.10 19:32

    Camilla, could you add something more about how to easily achieve a certian level of structure to an(y) academic text? I am writing a "prosjektbeskrivelse" (thankfully in norwegian), quite enthusiastic but still unstrucktured as always.

    But the key is to structure it precisely according to your argument rather than according to something else, like the progress of a poem, for example (I can only talk of what I know).
    Ragnhild,  01.11.10 19:51

    I guess I was waiting for a magical answer, but you are completely right. My argument is partially hypothetic dependent on my empirical data i hopefully will find and produce...
    Last edited by
    Camilla, 28.10.10 13:38