Some basic guidelines
For the purpose of this summary, long writing tasks have been called the generic term ‘essays' and refer to the various styles of recounts, accounts, expositions, traditional essays, structured essays and any other form of long writing.
(1) Remember the reader. Do not forget that what you are writing has to be read by someone else and that it is important that your message is understood. Assume that the reader knows nothing about the subject. You must define terms very carefully.
(2) Write clearly in plain and simple Australian English but without using colloquial expressions. Use words appropriate to the subject (the technical language): rent, investment, capital are typical of Economics; weathering, morphology, agglomeration are used in Geography; History uses imperialistic, alliance, Entente; and all other subjects have their own special words.
(3) Use shorter sentences and straightforward syntax to explain your point. Convoluted sentences, which have many subsections to them, often confuse your argument rather than reveal it. Make sure that you give each sentence only one task to do.
(4) Tense - this is a particularly confusing area of essay writing. As a general rule History is always written in the past tense except when you are asked to consider documents (letters, extracts from books, posters, photographs, videos) when the present tense is used. This is logical since the usual definition of History is that it has already happened in the past. When you are referring to documents they are there in front of you so use present tense. The other areas of the social sciences often demand that essays be written in the present or even future tense. Geography asks you to describe conditions current in a particular part of the world. Therefore you must write in the present tense. Commerce asks about the steps which need to be taken to open a bank account. This, naturally, requires writing in the future tense.
Question - Why did the British Government decide to send convicts to Australia ? (Past)
Question - In what ways would an historian studying the war effort find the posters in Source D of value, but difficult to use. (Present)
Question - Compared with other media, is the newspaper becoming obsolete? (Present)
Question - What are the benefits of free trade? (Present)
Question - What does the future hold for 21st century India . (Future)15
(5) Start straight into the essay. Do not waste time telling the reader that is what you intend to do. The assumption is that you are writing the essay to answer the question so you do not have to tell the reader that at all. The reader will also assume that the ideas contained in your essay are your own, unless you footnote the particular piece of writing. Therefore do not start sentences with "I think" or "I feel" unless specifically directed to do such as in some Geography questions. On the other hand, in research essays where you must include ideas which are not your own, you must acknowledge the source of the idea in a footnote or endnote.
(6) Avoid repetition. Saying the same thing twice gives the reader the message that you are "padding out" the essay and makes your essay appear weak in detail. Be careful also of tautology - dead body, blameless innocence, ruthlessly unrelenting.
(7) Avoid generalisations. These are particularly annoying to a reader because they fail to convince. To say "The government was bankrupt" means nothing without a qualifying statement "because it ...".
(8) Use argument where possible. This follows on from avoiding generalisations. The simplest way to prepare argument is to ask yourself why you think this point is important enough to include in the essay. The answer is the argument. To take the example above. "The government was bankrupt". The answer is "because it had exhausted the finances by becoming involved in the war". This is now argument. A reason has been given to answer the question "Why?".
There are certain words and phrases that can be used to turn a statement or generalisation into argument when used with the answer to "why". Some of these are:
because, for example, however, on the other hand, despite, as a result of, instead of
and there are other examples of connectives to be found on this page
You can also turn a statement into argument by the use of nominalisation – turning the verb in the sentence into a noun. By doing this you are forced to finish the sentence by giving an example. Taking the above example
The government was bankrupt (verb). Simple statement.
The bankruptcy (noun) of the government … (the sentence is incomplete and you are forced to write on) … was the result of (causal connective needing explanation) the financial cost of the war.
Your writing has now gone from recount writing (telling the story) to account writing (argument) which is a much higher order skill.
(9) Definition of terms. It is very important that you let the reader know that you understand what you are talking about. What does "alliance" or "credit", "urbanisation" or "society" mean? You must be prepared, at all times, to define the terms you are using. In Economics the best place to define terms is in the introduction and this applies also to Geography and Legal Studies.
(10) Do not use words which, in the context of the essay, are meaningless. Words such as "some" or "perhaps", "probably", "possibly" and "type of" add nothing to your work.
(11) Do not be judgemental, particularly in History essays. Even when you are asked to "assess" you are not being asked to be judgemental but to provide a balance of ideas. Although you are often asked to judge the importance of something in Legal Studies, Geography and History essays it is always best to provide the relevant arguments to both sides so that the examiner/reader understands that you have considered both sides and have come to a conclusion. This is particularly important in questions which ask you to ‘discuss' an issue.
(12) When preparing to write an essay make sure that you have read everything on the page that could possibly refer to the way you should write the essay. This is particularly important when being given tables, maps, documents and other source material. There may be clues as to information which could be useful around the source material. Be careful.
(13) When you get a question in which a word is in inverted commas be very careful how you use the word so marked.
Question - Why was gold "discovered" in New South Wales in 1851?
This question is not asking why Robert Hargreaves found gold in that year - the answer to which would be because he had just returned to Australia from California and knew what to look for.
This question is asking "why was gold not allowed to be discovered before this date or why was it allowed to be discovered in 1851" and the answer is that the Government feared what the convicts would do if it was announced that there was gold in the country and because Victoria had found gold in 1850 and New South Wales did not want to miss out on the possible gold rush. Mention should be made that the convicts found gold before this but were made to keep quiet.
(14) Do not use abbreviations for ordinary words. Use only abbreviations which are shortened countries, companies, organisations or states. Do not use any abbreviations until you have mentioned the full name in the essay. For example if you wish to write about the U.S.A. and call it the U.S.A. or America you must write the United States of America ( USA or America ) first so that the reader knows what you mean by the abbreviation. After this first time in full with the shortened form you intend using shown in brackets afterwards you may then use the abbreviation. This is because not all abbreviations are common to everyone and there are some that are used that are the same and the context of the abbreviation then becomes essential.
(15) When answering questions which "use" resources (documents, letters, photographs, posters, films, videos) and you have those sources available to you or in front of you always make direct and specific reference to the resources. You must incorporate parts from them as quotations or references using all the sources and not placing more emphasis on one than the other. These quotations or references then become similar to quotations and you must state where they have been taken from. "Use" has specific meaning in these question. You must refer specifically to the resources or you will have failed to address the question correctly and fully. More ideas on this skill can be found on this page on Using Sources.
(16) When using numbers write the numbers one to eleven in words and any numbers after that in numerals. Dates may be written in two styles - either (1) 13/4/02 or (2) 13th April, 2002 (which is the preferred way). Do not write dates or large numbers out in words.
(17) "and" and "but" are conjunctions or joining words and are NEVER used to begin sentences in formal writing, both exam and research.
(18) Be careful with your use of commas. They do not appear before "and" except in very special circumstances. Commas are like brackets. What is contained in them should be able to be removed and still leave sense in the sentence.
eg. The dog, even though it was black and white, faded into the shadows in the bush.
Remove the words in the brackets and the sentence still makes sense.
(19) Words which you may wish to use from outside our language should be put into your writing in italics or, if that is not possible, should be underlined. Thus you would have
Oxygen is a sine qua non for life.
Sine q ua non is Latin which, literally translated, means "without which not" but, in this context, means "an essential condition or requirement".
Top | Return to Writing Skills Main Page