Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership

Presbyterian and Reformed Christianity

Writing Essays

1.    What is the actual question you are trying to answer?

  • One way to clarify this is to translate the question asked into the question you are answering and then checking you have got it right.

    Some essay topics require you to choose a topic, say "Discuss the legacy of one of the Reformers".  In that case the question you are answering is not "Discuss the legacy of one of the Reformers" but "Discuss the legacy of <the Reformer you have chosen>".

  • A topic is not the same as a question - if you are starting with a topic, you need to ask a question about that topic. For example if your topic is John Calvin, you don't just head up your essay "John Calvin" - you formulate a question such as "What was Calvin's understanding of the eldership?"

  • Look for key words in the instructions and check what they mean. Do not just look for familiar words and just write everything they bring to mind.

  • Discuss the question with somebody else - anybody else!

2.    Good effort is good.

  • After  you have an idea about the question, and you have rewritten it in your own words, look up the books, read the articles, work out your lay out, prepare a bibliography, and talk about the assignment some more with others.

  • Of course you must write your own work and you should not exchange written material, but it  important  you that you are able to talk what you are doing - so discuss it as much as you like!

  • Use different types of sources together, such as books, the web, articles and conversations.  The bibliography should indicate books and articles you have made use of other than the Bible, together with material from the world wide web, and a list of key people you discussed the assignment with. If appropriate it should list the documents and collections from the archives you consulted. It should have a good number of entries (One item per 100 words is a rough guide).

  •  Expect to have to print out an assignment several times before it is revised sufficiently for presentation.

3.   Make it attractive, but don't worry about pretty.

  • Tidy and readable work is easier to mark. An opening paragraph saying what it is about creates the impression you know what  you are doing. If it is difficult to read it may be returned.

  • Watch your word length. Assignments should be close to the specified word length. Word-lengths do not include footnotes.It is easier to make something shorter. Having too much to say is not an excuse, cut out adjectives, stick to the main story. You can say something worthwhile in any specified length from 10 words to 10,000.

  • Unless it is very bad you won't be marked down for grammar and spelling - provided you have made an effort and it is clear what you are trying to say. However attention will be drawn to problems in this area and signs of effort and improvement are expected.

  • Essays have a beginning, a middle and an end. Begin by summarising the question in your own words and indicating how you intend to answer it.

  • Do not write in pencil.

  • Use A4 size paper only. If you have problems check your computer default page size is not letter. Margins should be about 2.5-3cm, clean-copy, one and a half or double spaced unless handwritten which should be single-spaced. Do not print in capitals. Use one side of the paper only.

  • Avoid over use of personal pronouns. An essay should not be emotional, though it may have an emotional effect on the reader. Do not preach, do not be angry, surprised or indignant. Do not be sarcastic, but gentle irony shows sympathy with human foibles you are not blind to. You may disagree, even strongly, but show you understand where people you disagree with are coming from.

  • Try and find some point of special interest for you in the question and allow that to shape your reading and thinking - but do not let it dominate. A small personal reference is OK, but these are usually best kept to discussion even though the current trend is to encourage personal comments in "objective" writing.

  • Follow a recognisable bibliographical style such as Chicago (see their Quick Guide), and try to be consistent even though most of us find that difficult. Your bibliography should be in alphabetical order and does not need to be numbered.

4.    Factual Accuracy: Try and get your facts right.

  • While the emphasis is not on remembering information, you need to write as if you know what you are talking about - which is not the same as trying to be impressive.

  • Use reference books like a Dictionary of Church History or an Encyclopaedia or Wikipedia to get the essential information about people, places and movements. Build on that with more difficult books and articles.(In my view Wikipedia can be really helpful, but because it can be edited by anyone, it should not be treated as an authority on its own. You need to use it alongside other sources.)>

  • Sometimes there will be a contradiction between different sources. Make a decision that seems reasonable to you and if it seems to be important, make a note of the difference in a footnote.

5.    Coverage of Points is simple - all you have to do is think of everything!

  •  In fact none of us have time, so identity the main points and start writing straight away - try to write every day.

  • Get a framework of an answer written out as soon as possible using just your basic references, then build on that using wider reading.

  • Your answer will be adequate if it covers the main points, but ask yourself whether there are other aspects to the question you could say something about.

  • Avoid ague statements about dates, people, places. You might start with them when you write from memory, but if you can make these specific you will increase the authority and quality of your writing. So: "The Free Church of Scotland was formed at the Disruption of May 1843" is more specific than "There was a serious split in the Scottish church in the 1840s" but it could be made more specific still by looking up information that is not difficult to locate.

  • Have you really satisfied yourself? Try and make sure it is as good as you can make it before you hand it in (note that when you are talking with your friends my advice is just the opposite: talk about it when you have no idea what the topic is about or how you are going to attack it)

6.    Dig deeper. Think about it  - then dig deeper still.

  • What is really going on here?

  • What are the issues?

  • How does one part affect the others?

  • What are different perspectives and why?

  • Is there another way of looking at this?

7.    Put yourself into the story - just a little

  • Imagine your self in the historical situation. What would you think? What would your mood be? What would you think was happening? - test these ideas.

  • Thinking about what you are writing, about what things mean, about their significance.

  • Don't get too personal, but don't be totally detached either. Some issues are about life and faith: they matter. Some of that should show. If you are not sure how much reflection in the light of your own traditions and concerns is acceptable, check it out with the lecturer.

  • Make use of the knowledge, experience and questions you already have.

  • Never assume that the only “correct” answers are to be found in the library. There are wrong answers as well as helpful ones in many places not just on the internet. People say the library has greater quality control. In theory that may be, but in practice the same effort at making common sense judgements is required. Develop your own judgement. Identify reliable authors and sites

8.    Show a bit of flair

  • Take a different approach.

  • Ask a different question.

  • Look at it sideways.

  • Take a little risk - you can always check it out if you are not certain about it.

    9. Clarify the expectations of the lecturer and check how others understand what you are being asked

  • Talk to other students about how they understand the question, what books they recommend, and what ideas they have for working at it.

  • Again, use material from a range of sources in the one assignment, including where possible some primary sources

  • Evaluate alternatives

  • Exercise critical judgement in integrating material from different areas.

  • Check and make sure you really are answering the question (A surprising number of people don't.) – if necessary see if you can change the question.These days few lecturers are interested in trick questions designed to trip you up, but you still need to be seen to be trying to get it right.

    10. Use Book Reviews


It is often helpful to look at book reviews on Amazon and in journals and also browse other things a particular author has written. Published book reviews vary in quality. A good book review covers the following

  • What was the author was trying to say?
  • How well did they succeed in what they were trying to do - that is, how successful were they in their own terms?
  • How well did they succeeded in terms of other criteria (which may need to be indicated in case they are not obvious to the readers)?
  • Discuss some of the key issues raised directly or indirectly by the book.
  • Who is the book intended for and how well does it addresses the concerns of that audience?

John Roxborogh