How to write a good undergraduate essay, part 1 – Getting started, by Dr Nuno Nodin

How to write a good undergraduate essay, part 1 – Getting started, by Dr Nuno Nodin

Writing an essay at university can seem quite daunting, especially at the beginning of your undergraduate programme. Although there is no one single template on how to write a good essay, there are some simple suggestions that may make essay writing much simpler. Here we review some of the key aspects to consider before writing a good essay: Addressing the assignment, reading and outlining the essay.

 Address the assignment

The very first thing to do even before starting to read key sources is to carefully go over and ‘unpack’ the assignment question or topic. Make sure that you understand what the question is asking, what elements the question includes, and what the assumptions behind it are. Is the question asking you to discuss a certain idea or quote? To critically assess a theory or concept? Each of these formulations will require slightly different approaches to your background research and to the write up. For example, if you are asked to critically assess theory X, then you are expected to find evidence and arguments that question the validity of theory X, discuss them in a coherent way and to reach some sort of conclusion about the theory. If, on the other hand, the assignment is asking you to discuss how theory X may be useful for the understanding of phenomenon Y, then it is expected that you look for literature that connects theory X and phenomenon Y in order to answer the question.

The assignment brief can (and should) be used throughout the process of writing an essay for quality control purposes. It is useful to regularly go back to it to make sure that you have not side-tracked and ended up including some fascinating arguments or pieces of evidence which are ultimately irrelevant to the essay.

Do the readings

There is no way around this one. In order to start writing anything meaningful, you will need to have reviewed at least some key references (i.e., core readings), sources or authors. This will be useful because it will allow you to have a good sense of the relevant and important topics to include. Reading some key references should also give you some insight into the relevant criticisms or debates in the field, which you may want to consider including in your own discussion. It is a good idea to write a summary of each paper, book or chapter that you read, along with any reflections or critiques you have. This will come in handy later so that you can quickly identify where each piece of evidence came from.

Consider going beyond the core readings to find additional relevant sources, which may help you enrich your essay and make it stand out. If used well, including additional sources will increase your odds of getting a better mark, as it demonstrates initiative and originality.

Outline your essay

Once you have a good grasp of the topic after reading to some extent about it, it is always a good idea to draft an outline of your essay. This can be a simple skeleton list of the key topics and subtopics that you think should be included in your essay, written in a suitable order. These can later be used as subheadings for different sections of your essay or simply as placeholders so that you have a sense of what should go where as you start writing your essay. The outline should be used flexibly enough so that things can be moved around later if your initial thoughts on organisation do not quite work as expected.

The organisation of topics in your essay should follow a narrative that will guide the reader through sometimes quite complex discussions. What is the ‘story’ that you are trying to tell? How will you help the reader to make sense of how the different points are connected? When going from one paragraph to the next, try to include clear links and connections between them. Useful narrative devices may be, for instance, to keep on coming back to a key question, author or source throughout the essay, as to keep a sense of coherence and connection.


This should help you getting started when planning and preparing the early stages of writing your essay. But there is more! In following blog posts, we will cover other relevant aspects of writing a good undergraduate essay: Writing up and Building your argument, so make sure to check those as well.

Happy writing!

By Dr Nuno Nodin


See also:

How to write a good undergraduate essay, part 2 – Writing up

How to write a good undergraduate essay, part 3 – Building your argument


Recommended essay-writing resources: