Written work is the dominant means of assessment required of a student. This note is intended to assist you in preparing and presenting essays and reports for all of the modules you take. It will also assist you in preparing papers for tutorial discussions, in writing essay-type examination answers, and in the final year dissertation.

1. These guidelines are designed to help make the School’s expectations clear to you. Tutors expect you to respect the guidelines. You should expect to find that your work is assessed accordingly.


2.1 Coursework assignments provide an opportunity to learn about a topic in some depth, reinforcing what is taught on the course. Essays and reports provide practice in handling the subject matter of chosen study in those ways which best aid understanding.

2.2 These assignments are a source of feedback; they can help you and your tutor to know how well the you have mastered relevant information, and the methods and arguments appropriate to it. The tutor must let you know enough about the quality of the essay or report to eliminate what is wrong and reinforce what is right about it.

If you are not getting the information about your work needed in order to make it better, then you should ask for it.


3.1 What you will put into an essay or report must first be clear in your mind. Resources for this are time, reading, and discussion.

Take enough time – to allow choices to be made between the items to be read. Last-minute preparation involves grabbing desperately at one or two sources, without knowing whether or not they will answer your needs.

Make reading effective. Learn to take notes which are full enough but concise enough to make sense when the book or article is no longer at hand. Taking notes in your own words helps you to understand what the author is saying. Learn also to assess quickly and reliably what a particular book is doing, how well it does it – or how badly, and how much use it is likely to be. If a book is doing no good, then stop reading it!

3.2 Consider what books are needed. If they are to be bought, order them well in advance from the bookshop. Consult the Library catalogue and remember the School’s resource centre; if the book is out, recall it well in advance. If a book seems to be missing, inform the Library and the Module tutor. Don’t forget about other libraries in Edinburgh. It can be handy to write notes on index cards. Properly titled and classified, these can build up into a personal reference collection in the standard reference format (see below). They, and all other notes, need to be kept legible and concise.

3.3 Discussion with other students will also help. This does not mean getting other people to do your work! But students can help one another in ways which range from clarifying each other’s ideas to ensuring that all have access to the books needed.

3.4 After all these preparations, you should have the ideas and the information necessary for the essay. The task now is to select and organise the material. Making notes on your own notes will aid regrouping of items from different sources in patterns which relate more closely to the question set. The next stage will involve careful thought about the essay-title, in order to construct a plan – it should be a written plan – of the essay as a whole. This is such a crucial element of preparation that it deserves a section to itself. This might be followed by a draft or rough copy of the essay. The advantage of this is that the whole essay can be edited and improved: correcting the language, cutting out irrelevancies, and making sure that the argument flows logically.


4.1 This should begin with a look at the title. The key to planning your writing is simply this: the structure of the answer is implied in the structure of the question. No title will invite a student to “write what you know about this or that topic”. Therefore any essay which adopts this plan (or non-plan) will be irrelevant. There is no virtue in merely “getting things in”. At every stage of writing, the material should be tested for its relevance to the question. If it is no help in answering the question which has been set, leave it out.

If the question requires a statement to be discussed, the evidence for and against it (or for and against each of its parts) needs to be summarised and then a reasoned conclusion arrived at.

If a question requires a statement to be illustrated, only the positive evidence is needed; if the question asks for it to be refuted, only the negative evidence is required.

Quotations should be treated in just the same way as statements, except that, if the author of a given quotation is known, it may be appropriate to suggest why he or she should take such a view.

If a question asks whether you agree that something is true, the evidence for and against should be given, and then your own view.

If the question asks why something is the case, the evidence for and against each of the possible causes should be given in turn, how (if this happens to be the case) several causes operate together, and then your own view given. Remember to say how the various causes operate, and which of them is found to be the most important. Questions which begin “Explain …” or “Account for …” are also questions about causes, and should be answered on similar lines.

If the question asks whether this or that view is correct, the evidence should be presented for and against each view in turn, and then your own view given.

If the question requires a selection to be made (questions beginning “Who …?, “Which …?, “What …?”), the possibilities which are rejected should be discussed (and why they are rejected), before giving your own choice.

If the question requires a comparison to be made, it will be possible to compare the two terms concerned in a number of different ways or under a number of different aspects. The comparison should be made one aspect at a time. Remember that to state how two terms differ is to contrast them; comparing them means discussing their differences and similarities, again in a ordered way. When this has been done, findings should be summarised.

4.2 Finally, the meaning of some terms, or even of the title as a whole, may be hard to define. If it is, the fault may lie in your own understanding, and that can be remedied in a variety of straightforward ways – from consulting the dictionary to asking the tutor. Some problems, though, will be there in the title itself, and therefore inescapable. If so, they have to be discussed somewhere in the essay, preferably near the start. But this discussion ought not to take over the whole of the essay.


Not too little: effort is not saved by writing a very short essay, if it is too short to develop the arguments that will answer the question.

Not too much: a lame argument cannot be protected by covering it with twice the necessary words; that merely makes it worse. Nor is a point made more strongly by illustrating it with lots of examples when one or two will do the job. It will never be possible to say everything about a subject; therefore the essay or report will have to be a selection of what there is to say which is relevant to the question.

5.1 Footnotes should not be necessary. If something warrants explanation at all, it should be in the body of the text. If not, leave it out. If, on the other hand, it is an important but lengthy reference, it may be worth including as an appendix. Appendices are, however, less appropriately attached to essays than to reports.

5.2 Learn to estimate a rough correlation between sides of paper (or time of reading aloud in oral presentations) and number of words. Do not exceed the maximum word (or time) limit set in the assignment.

1.3 Quotations from sources should be as short as they can be, while still illustrating the point to be made. If someone else’s actual words are used, remember that four rules apply:

* first, make sure that they really are relevant.

* get them right (this is a matter of checking);

* put them in quotation marks, and make it clear if reading aloud at a tutorial that you are quoting;

* credit them to their sources in the text by the author’s name and date of publication.


6.1 Plagiarism is literary theft. It occurs when one person steals the ideas or words of another, and presents them as her/his own. Every student should be absolutely clear what plagiarism is and that it is unacceptable under any circumstances.

Do not copy whole sentences of someone else’s argument into an essay without any changes: this is known as PLAGIARISM, and it is unacceptable. This includes copying the work of another student. If a student is discovered to be doing this the submission will be failed and a mark of zero awarded. Similarly, copying the sentence but just making minor verbal changes is not acceptable (e.g. changing the author’s word “large” to “very big”). When drawing closely on somebody’s writing, this fact needs to be acknowledged, e.g. by saying “I am following X at this point …” or “Here I agree with X …” There is no disgrace in doing that !


7.1 The essay or report should embody the basic plan which has been deduced from its title. A great deal of time is wasted by students writing long introductions instead of getting down to their theme. If a specific point has not been mentioned by the second sentence, the introduction is likely to be waffle!

7.2 Summing up at the end needs care. At this point, you are claiming that the essay or report has achieved something; make sure that it has in fact achieved you claim for it. It is not enough to tack on “Thus we see …” to information already given, particularly if the conclusion has little or nothing to do with what has preceded it.

7.3 The effectiveness of the conclusion can be tested by asking whether it would tell a reader who had skipped all the rest:

* what the original question was;

* what your answer to it is.

7.4 But suppose it has not been possible to decide on an answer. In that case, there is nothing wrong with a conclusion which says so. This can be the mark of an honest piece of work, and even of a very good one, provided that two other things have been done. First, the evidence must have been reviewed completely, and secondly, you must have shown why it is difficult to reach a definite conclusion on that basis.

1.5 The piece must have a beginning, middle and an end, which should be linked in a logical progression, as should all the stages of its central section.


8.1 If the middle section of the essay is a continuous, undivided lump of text, it will be very hard for any reader to pick out either the shape of the argument, or any particular item of interest; hence the importance of paragraphing.

8.2 A paragraph should be a meaningful division within the whole argument of the essay. Each separate stage of the argument has a claim to occupy a paragraph on its own. Not all will be of equal length. Some will illustrate their arguments in more detail, or with more examples; some things simply take longer to say.

8.3 There can be no fixed rule for length. But paragraphs of under 50 words tend to look scrappy, and paragraphs of over 300 words can be hard to follow. Quotations of more than a dozen words and substantial passages of direct speech should normally be marked by a separate paragraph, irrespective of the above guidelines. They must be accurately referenced in the required format and included in the list of references.

8.4 Within the stage of argument formed by each paragraph, each sentence marks a unit of sense. Between the opening capital letter and the following full stop comes a group of words which should have the following properties:

* it should make sense;

* it should be complete;

* it should belong together as a recognisable unit.

8.5 A sensible general rule is: one idea, one sentence.

8.6 A simple form of self-monitoring is to keep the sentence short. There is some merit in the “Daily Mirror” rule: sentences with a maximum of seven words, no word with more than seven letters. Sentences of more than about 30 words tend to be hard to handle. Not all sentences should be as long. The best way of handling this is not to count every word. Find out what a 30 word sentence looks like and keep an eye on any tendency to exceed this.

8.7 A sentence must do more than just carry a meaning of sorts; it must carry the right meaning. It must say something which takes the argument onwards by a recognisable step. So ask yourself “Does my sentence make a difference?”, “How does this sentence carry my argument forward?”, “Does it make the right difference in the right place?”.

8.8 With regard to words, do not use technical language to say what can be said perfectly well in everyday educated speech. If using technical terms, get their form and their use right. Scholarly or technical language, misspelled or ungrammatically used, looks twice as ignorant as a piece of plain English with the odd mistake in it.

8.9 A further class of word which will be important for an essay is the conjunction. This defines the relation between one part of a written argument and the next:

But and however mean that what comes next is somehow opposed to, or an exception to, what came before. Do not use them to mean “and”, or just to decorate the beginning of a sentence.

Although means that what comes next is allowable as an exception to something else stated, but does not overrule it. It is followed by a clause.

Despite means that what comes next is an obstacle to something else stated, but does not succeed in preventing it. It is followed by a noun or verbal noun (sometimes by a pronoun).

Because (of) means that what follows is the cause of something else stated, and that this “something else” would not be the case without it.

Therefore, so, thus, all mean that what follows is a consequence (logical or practical) of what has gone before. Do not use any of them to mean “and this is my next point which I think fits in here somehow but I am not sure how”.

8.10 Poor spelling detracts from the quality of written work and will undermine your credibility when on placement or ultimately when in a professional post. Problems with spelling must be addressed. Use a dictionary or buy a palm-sized electronic spell checker and thesaurus. Watch out for computer spellcheckers that may use American versions of words. It is a good idea to keep a list of words that you tend to misspell. Words which students in this School commonly spell incorrectly include:

accommodation (2cs, 2ms)

accumulate (2cs, 1m)

dependent (not “dependant”, if it is an adjective)

definite (not “definate”)


its (=belonging to it)

it’s (=it is)


liaise (not “liase”)



planning (not “planing”)

precede (not “preceed”)

proceed (not “procede”)

receive (not “recieve”)

spatial (not “spacial”)

succeed (not “succede”)

supersede (not “supercede”)

tenant (not “tenent”)

their (=belonging to them)

there (as in “there are”)

undoubtedly (not “undoubtably”)

8.11 Chronic misspelling may be due to dyslexia. Where students are registered as dyslexic, this will be taken account of by tutors when marking written work. Heriot-Watt University has a learning support tutor from whom students can get assistance.

8.12 Punctuation matters: it helps the reader to understand what you write. Some issues are:


Bracketing with commas

Semi colons (

Incorrect use of commas to join sentences which should be separated by a full stop, or at least by a semi colon


9.1 It is a sign of strength rather than weakness to acknowledge the source of the information and ideas in a piece of writing. This should be done in two ways:

* by referring to source material in the text of the essay or report itself;

* by including a reference list at the end.

9.2 The reasons for requiring references are:

to know how widely you have read

to know whether to believe you !

so that those reading or listening to your work can, if they wish, check that facts have been reported accurately, follow up opinions or arguments referred to, or find out more about the topic from another source;

so that a judgement can be made about the skill with which other writings or information are being used to construct arguments in the essay.

9.3 References to sources should take this form:

“Burnett (1978) reports that demographers believe the cause of the population explosion to be …”


“State intervention in housing before 1914 had limited achievements such as the construction of sewerage systems and regulations for house construction and design. Nineteenth century legislation certainly helped to eradicate the worst manifestations of the existing slums and made the construction of new slums more and more difficult’ (Merrett,1979). But there was a scarcity of decent housing at a price working class people could afford”.

9.4 You must include a list of references at the end of an essay or report. This should list in alphabetical order the reading material which has been referred to in the essay or report. Anything which may have provided useful background information without being specifically referred to may be included in a separate list of “other material read”. References must provide details of title, author, date, publisher, and place of publication. For articles in periodicals, provide the title of the article, title of the periodical, volume, number and page numbers or article. The School requires references to take this form:

For books:

Burnett, J. (1978), A Social History of Housing, 1815-1970, London: Methuen.

Merrett, S. (1979), State Housing in Britain, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

For articles or chapters in books:

Byrne, D. and Damer, S. (1989), ‘The State, the balance of class forces, and early working class housing legislation, in Housing, Construction and the State, Political Economy of Housing Workshop.

Malpass, P. (1982), ‘Octavia Hill’, New Society, 1042, pp 206-8.

For Government publications:

Scottish Office Development Department (SODD) (1998), National Planning Policy Guideline (NPPG) 8 revised, Town Centres and Retailing, Edinburgh, Scottish Office.

9.5 Referencing is made easier by keeping a record of works consulted in the required format. Be careful to reference all the material mentioned in the text. This means that every author or report referred to in the text, even if not actually read, should be in the list of references. Note that, in principle, you should not cite references which you have not read.


10.1 Written work should if possible be typed, or at least neatly written, on one side of the paper only, using wide margins (around one third of the width of the paper). Margins provide space for the tutor to write comments on the essay, as well as enhancing its legibility.

10.2 Do not underestimate how attention to presentation can help to improve the quality and clarity of written work. In the longer term, course assignments apart, the quality of presentation can have a crucial impact on the way a report is received.


11.1 The approach to writing essays and reports is very similar in many ways. However, there are some important differences, mentioned below.

11.2 Where reports are required to be brief, it can be useful to include additional information in a series of appendices. This may result in the appendices collectively being longer than the report and in certain situations this may well be justified.

11.3 In many cases within the structure of a report there will be a need for a section on methods, not necessarily so named. For instance, in a report on a survey of a review of literature or on a survey of circumstances, facts or opinions, it would be important to state what the information base was, why it was selected, how it was collected and whether it contained any gaps which might affect the findings or conclusions.

11.4 The structure of a report should be clear. There should be a list of contents at the front, with page numbers. Sections and paragraphs should be numerically labelled. The structure of any piece of writing, report or essay, is similar in needing a beginning, middle and end. However, the terminology in describing these may differ slightly and the report might end with recommendations as well as conclusions.

11.5 Each section in a report should be numbered and a consistent numbering system adopted throughout. The numbering system should, as a rule, not contain more than three numbers. Thus, there might be three parts to a report numbered 1, 2 and 3. Part 2 might be sub-divided into four sections numbered 1 to 4. Section 3 might contain 7 points. Under this system point 7 would be labelled 2.3.7 in the margin. If point 7 then contained further sub-divisions, the use of letters with a bracket, possibly indented, is suitable. The consistency of the numbering system is more important than the system itself.

11.6 In addition to a brief list of recommendations it is often helpful, particularly in longer reports, to provide a one page summary at the front of the document to guide the reader.

11.7 The style of a report is somewhat different from that of an essay. It is less likely to be discursive even in situations where – having posed a problem – a number of options or solutions are being explored. The language of the report is generally more objective and more likely to be written in the third person singular (i.e. “it is believed that …”, “it can be argued that …”, “a further option worthy of consideration is …”). The flow of prose is therefore not so important in a report, although it remains important for it to be clearly written.

11.8 The target audience for a report may significantly affect the language used. This should be remembered when preparing assignments, particularly in the form of briefing notes. Clearly a report on tenant management co-operatives would be couched in different terms for elected members than for senior housing department managers.

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