How to write an essay – transcript

This is a transcript, for text readers, of my Feminism 101 lecture on essay writing.

1. Base camp

Essay-writing is a bit like climbing a mountain – it’s hard work, it can be exhausting, and there will be times when you lose your way or want to give up. But if you persist you will get there.

First, set your intentions. Talk to the person next to you, or make notes on your own, for a few moments – what is the purpose of an essay? (Hint: there may be more than one answer)

An essay might:

  • Examine a phenomenon or process
  • Compare or explore relationships between two or more phenomena or processes
  • Critically explore a field of literature (empirical and/or theoretical)
  • Critically engage with a particular thinker or theory
  • Make an argument for or against something
  • Develop a case study
  • Do some or all of the above

2. The eight steps of writing

  1. Read, read read
  2. Sort through your ideas
  3. Create an outline
  4. Write your first draft
  5. Review for content, structure, argument
  6. Write your second draft (you may need to do some extra targeted reading)
  7. Review for grammar, referencing, technicalities
  8. Write your third draft (and keep polishing if you need to)

Print, submit and celebrate!

But – this is not such a linear process. The path ahead may not be clear to you at every stage; sometimes you may drop back a few steps or go in the wrong direction. Sometimes you may need to take a rest (or have some food and water). You may also need to consult a map. So here is one to help you:

3. Map of an essay


  • Draw the reader in
  • Explain why the topic is important
  • Give context/define terms
  • State your argument or thesis


  • This is where you present your argument or thesis
  • Have one main point and several supporting points in each
  • It’s usually best to make your main point at the start of each paragraph


  • Restate your argument/thesis and what its implications might be (intellectual and/or practical)
  • Don’t present new information though
  • End with something snappy

End matter

  • Bibliography or references
  • Take care with this – make sure you are using your chosen referencing system correctly
  • There is no magic number of sources


But how do I develop an argument or thesis? Again, talk to the person next to you or make notes on your own about how you might go about this (and again, there is more than one answer).

To develop your argument or thesis, you could:

  • Consolidate and go over your reading
  • Look for key gaps, debates, contradictions, unanswered questions
  • Use your intuition (free-writing can be useful here)
  • Use diagrams that help you cluster points
  • Talk it through with a friend

Once you have an argument or thesis:

  • Summarise it in a sentence or two, so you can build your essay around it
  • Develop a set of sub-headings which are argument-driven, not descriptive
  • Make sure you can evidence your claims (and if you can’t, rethink)


4. Example essay outline

Question: Why was Prince socially significant as an artist?

Thesis: Prince challenged norms of sexuality, gender and race in important ways

Paragraph 1: Prince was known for his androgynous and/or gender-bending costumes, lyrics and performances

Paragraph 2: He also played with his sexuality, again through his music and stage performances

Paragraph 3: These challenges to gender and sexuality norms also challenged norms of race, as Black men are expected to perform extreme masculinity and heterosexuality

Paragraph 1: Prince was known for his androgynous and/or gender-bending costumes, lyrics and performances. One of his famous stage outfits was bikini briefs with a trench coat and stiletto-heeled boots. He wore makeup as a matter of course, a practice which tends to be identified with women (reference needed). Lyrics to famous songs such as ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ also played with gender roles, and a study of his song lyrics found that over 50 per cent had themes relating to non-normative gender (reference needed). He frequently used falsetto or pitch-shifting in his songs. This was used especially to create his feminine alter-ego Camille, a homage to Alexina Barbin, a historical figure who was intersex and also used the name (reference needed). In 1993, Prince changed his name to a genderless symbol, which was fitting: as Reynolds argues, he ‘tended to pose himself as a human question mark’ (reference needed).

5. A word on academic writing

  • It does not need to be full of long words and jargon
  • It should be clear and precise
  • Avoid contractions and colloquialisms
  • Use transition words to link ideas and help your reader follow (therefore, furthermore, nevertheless, for example, in contrast, similarly)
  • It’s fine to use the first-person (but if you say ‘I think’, you need to follow it with ‘because’)
  • Use examples, stories and quotes to draw the reader in, but make sure you are also citing studies or theories to support your points
  • Acknowledge possible counter-points, and respond to them if you can (but it’s also fine to have some unanswered questions)
  • Critique ideas, not people

Before you submit, check:
Is the argument clear throughout?
Does it read well?
Have I evidenced all my points?
Is my essay formatted correctly?
Have I referenced correctly?
Is my bibliography complete?
Have I fixed any errors?


6. Sources of support

And remember:

  • Essay writing takes time
  • You will not always feel comfortable, but some of it will be fun
  • You can do it

Any questions?