Essay Writing Guide

For an example of a well presented Theology essay please see the Theology Essay Model (PDF)

What is an essay?

In the various essays and other written assignments which we will set you during this programme, we are looking for evidence that you are able to join in the ongoing conversations about theology and religion. The mark you get will reflect how well you are managing to join in.

Imagine walking into a room where a conversation is already going on. Even if the conversation is about a topic you already know something about, you would begin by listening carefully. You would slowly pick up on the different perspectives and approaches being proposed by the speakers in the room. You might begin to join in by saying to one or other of the participants, ‘So, are you saying that…’ and then trying to put their thoughts into your own words – trying to make sure you’ve understood where they are coming from. Eventually, you might feel confident enough to make your own positive contribution to the conversation, to state your own case: ‘Well, I think that…’ You wouldn’t be joining in, though, if you simply shouted your opinion and left: the others in the room will want to know your reasons – they will want to know how what you say relates to what they have said, and why you differ from them. And when you have given your arguments and cited your evidence, they may well come back at you, suggesting different interpretations or coming up with counter-arguments. Before you know it, you’re in the thick of the conversation.

Keeping something like this image in mind can help a great deal when writing an essay, even though many of the voices you’ll be arguing with will be in the books you read, rather than in the room around you. A good deal of what we are looking for is your ability to listen carefully to a range of authors, and to pick up on some of the different approaches and perspectives that exist. Part of what we’re looking for is therefore a clear, fair, balanced account of the ‘conversation’ that has already been taking place.

We want you to go beyond simply listening, however: we want you to join in. We’re not interested in you simply shouting your own opinion and then running away – that’s not how joining a conversation happens! Rather, we’re looking for you to build upon the kind of careful, fair listening just described, and then make your own relevant contribution: citing evidence and giving arguments designed to sway the other participants in the conversation. You can ask yourself, as you make your own contribution: how might the people I’m arguing against respond? What counter-arguments might they have? What awkward evidence might they throw at me? We’re not looking for the kind of contribution which brushes awkward evidence under the carpet, or which tries simply to overcome opposition by rhetoric: we’re not looking for the kind of arguments put forward by politicians on the Today programme! Rather, we’re looking for your ability to join the conversation carefully and constructively, arguing your corner seriously and in detail, taking your opponents seriously and honestly.

Choosing a topic and researching it

Usually at undergraduate level a list of topics with a reading list will be provided, but for some option modules students may be encouraged to agree their own topic and to assemble their own bibliography in consultation with the module teacher. If you have difficulty deciding on a topic, consult the module teacher.

Reading lists provided are advisory rather than directive: i.e. you may consult other works not listed, but if you fail to consult any that are listed, you will be expected to defend your procedure. As a general rule, such works should have been published within the last twenty years. Normally more than one work listed provides the same basic information, so that there are sufficient alternative sources for popular topics. Hence you are not expected to have read everything on the list. But contrariwise, you will be expected to have consulted several works with different approaches, points of view etc., so as to gain an awareness of the issues involved in a topic. When making notes from your reading be careful to identify the source for every idea, comment, criticism etc., and to take precise details of page reference for all quotations (see below).


Module teachers will usually not be able to comment on a draft of an essay, unless that is a part of the the formative assessment of a module, as set out in the module descriptor.  However, they will often be happy to comment on a brief essay plan or outline, especially at Level 1.

Given that all assessed assignments must substantially be each student’s own unaided effort (see information on plagiarism in the College Handbook), there is a limit to appropriate input from a module teacher (or any other person) on any individual assignment: it is limited to advice on reading material, and checking an outline (not more than two sides of A4 in length) to ensure that all important issues will be treated in a coherent way.

For Level 2 and 3 option modules that allow students to choose their own title students need to choose a topic and inform the module teacher in good time, so that s/he can arrange tutorial help.

Group discussions of topics and advice on how to approach the task of writing the summative assessment may be arranged after the conclusion of tutorials on any formative assignment. Students will be expected to attend the discussion of their chosen topic, and it is advisable for them to have previously made a good start on reading and reflection on their chosen topic.


It is important when writing your essay to structure it carefully, whatever the subject matter and whichever kind of essay it is.

Start your essay with a brief introduction. You can explain what you will be covering in the body of the essay, and why you think this is an appropriate way to cover the question you have been set.

In the body of the essay you should try as much as possible to deal with one topic at a time, making the connection between topics and the overall progression of your argument as clear as possible. If you think it will help to use headings and sub-headings, please do.

Finally, write a conclusion in which you summarise your findings on each of the topics you have covered, and show how they add up into an overall conclusion. Make sure that the conclusion you come to answers the question you were set.

Suppose you were set the question: Is breaking the speed limit okay? You might have read various authors, and taken notes of the arguments used. You might have read Joe Bloggs’ book, Hurrying to Death, which gives lots of statistics about death rates from accidents at different speeds, arguing that we need to keep to the limit for reasons of safety. You might have read John Smith’s book, Fine Upstanding Citizen, which contained arguments about the wickedness of breaking the law of the land. You might have read John Doe’s article, Intrusive Cameras, which talks about the need for drivers to be able to trust their own judgment, and the silliness of some rules and regulations. And so on.

When you sit down, you would ask yourself: what are the main points, pro and contra? You might draw up a list, something like:

• breaking the law
• civil liberties
• safety
• annoying the driver behind
• everyone does it

When you’ve got the relevant issues clear in your mind, you can write a full plan for your essay. It might go something like this:

Example: Is Breaking the Speed Limit Okay?

What’s involved in the question?
We’ll be looking at law, safety, and ‘etiquette’.

1. The law
Useful facts: What is the law on speed
John Smith’s arguments for obedience in all circumstances
John Doe’s arguments against
My evaluation of Smith and Doe, and my conclusion on obedience

2. Safety
Joe Bloggs’ safety statistics
Sarah Peters’ safety statistics
Frank Jones’ arguments about safety
My evaluation of Bloggs, Peters, and Jones, & my conclusions on safety

3. Etiquette
Jane Johnson’s arguments about driving too slowly
Reflections on personal experience of ‘Sunday drivers’
Bob Howard’s arguments about road rage
My response to Bob Howard
My conclusion on driving etiquette

Recap of my conclusions on the law, on safety, and on etiquette
My final conclusion: Is breaking the speed limit okay?

It may sound obvious, but in your introduction, you should explain what is coming up. It can be tempting to start with a poetic or rhetorical flourish, but this is an academic essay and it’s probably safer to start with a simple statement of your understanding of the question, and a description of the way you are going to answer it.

The conclusion should draw together the threads of your essay and provide your answer to the question set, or your conclusions about the topic set. You can summarise the conclusions you came to on each individual point, and show how they add up (or how they don’t add up) to a particular conclusion. (Note: the approach to an exegesis assignment is rather different from that outlined here for an essay.)


One of the things we will be looking for is evidence of the reading that you have done in preparation for the essay. We don’t expect you to have read a great long list of books, but we do expect you to have read relevant material from several, and to refer to that reading in your essay. This is not because we value name-dropping, but because a key part of joining in a conversation is learning to listen to and respond to other contributors.

As a very rough guide:

• an essay which simply uses a few random quotes here and there is unlikely to achieve a mark above the 40s;
• an essay which uses pertinent quotes and references to back up specific points made in the essay might be heading for a mark in the 50s;
• an essay which, where relevant, goes beyond simply backing up specific points and actually describes relevant arguments and claims made by differing authors is probably heading for a mark in the 60s; and
• an essay which not only presents the arguments and claims of various authors, but actually engages with them critically may well be heading for a mark in the 70s.

Grammar and Spelling

Check your spelling. If you are not sure about a word, look it up! If you word process your essays, use the computer’s spell checker, but remember that it will not pick up on any plaice place where your misspelling forms a real word. As for grammar: do try to make sure that you write in complete sentences, and that you punctuate properly. An essay with poor grammar is much harder to read, and far more liable to be misunderstood. You may lose marks if your spelling or grammar is bad enough to make your essay confusing or ambiguous.

TIP: try reading your essay out loud to yourself or someone else once you have finished it, and see whether you have said what you meant to say.


Please type all your essays.. Leave generous margins (e.g., 3cm all round), to allow the marker to insert comments easily. You may use both sides of the paper. BA students should submit two copies of all assignments; BTh students should submit one copy of all assignments except the dissertation, for which two copies are required. Keep at least one portable electronic copy of all your written assignments, updated as you work on them. Unfortunately accidents to computer files can happen, but no allowance can be made for losses where students have failed to take elementary precautions.