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Essay writing

The academic essay is a particular form used in the university, which requires the demonstration of specific abilities, testing your reading skills, your conceptual grasp of research materials made available during the course, your ability to organise your thoughts and then to render them in concise prose which offer evidence of your creative engagement with the set topic. As such, there are no ‘answers’ to essay questions, just as there is no ‘correct’ way to dance; there are fundamental principles which guide one towards an adequate performance of the essay writing task, but markers are often also looking for evidence of a student’s independent labours, and tend to reward a creative engagement with both the form and the content of the argument.

While many students often complain that they find their creativity stifled by the demands of the academic essay, it may be argued that, on the contrary, it is precisely the ability to show creative flair within the conventions of the academic essay that works as evidence of individual style. In this, as in so many other elements of human creative endeavour, it is the combination of convention and innovation which results in creative novelty; academic essays are not meant to be ‘original’. lLittle which we often call ‘original’, is in fact so: the ‘Mona Lisa’, the Eiffel Tower, the Great Zimbabwe, or the pyramids at Giza, None of these are ‘original’: they all rely on and derive from texts and forms that have gone before; similarly, your essay is not expected to be original. W hat is being tested is your ability to state your interpretation and synthesis of other arguments in the topic in a way that shows both your indebtedness to those sources, and attempts to state an argument of its own, i.e. an argument limited to that particular piece of writing, not an original contribution to the field.

Because the academic essay is usually limited in length, you are not expected to provide a synthesis of all extant knowledge on the topic

Quality of argument
  • How lucid is your argument statement?
  • Is your argument statement an accurate reflection of the essay that follows?
  • Is your argument valid given the material and the evidence which you cite and which was made available through the course material?
  • Do you substantiate your argument adequately with textual evidence? Is your argument at the level of sophistication required of first/second/third/fourth year university academic essay?
  • Does your work demonstrate familiarity with the research material made available in the course?
  • Do you demonstrate an adequate understanding of the scholarly research you cite?
  • Do you engage in relevant, independent research on the topic?
  • Have you evaluated the independent research appropriately?
  • Do you demonstrate awareness of the multiplicity of views and competing arguments within the chosen research field?
  • Is the depth of your insight into the material substantiated by evidence and by the analysis of such evidence?
  • Do you link the argument proposed clearly and overtly with the analysis of the primary text in light of the secondary sources and the theoretical framework?
Style and presentation
  • Do you follow a clear set of referencing and citation conventions with consistency?
  • Is the paragraphing in your writing clear and logical, as well as topically motivated?
  • Is the organisation of thought clear, sequential and logical?
  • Are the tone and register of the prose appropriate to the genre of the academic essay?
  • Does your essay demonstrate clarity of expression, the use of complex linguistic and grammatical conventions to reflect complex thought?
  • Has the work been proofread and edited for errors before submission?
  • Does your essay avoid clichés and colloquial expressions, awkward phrases, mixed metaphors, and inappropriate analogies and comparison?
  • Are your sentences logically linked to one another?
Marking grid
First class (≥75)

Work in this category presents itself as a fully researched essay with a clear argument that demonstrates facility with research material as well as analytical methods. The essay responds to the demands of the task with the confidence appropriate to the year level at which the assignment has been set. The presentation of ideas is succinct, key points are identified with analytical clarity, and the piece demonstrates insight into the processes it examines. There are no errors of spelling, grammar, citation, presentation, or typography. The writing style is elegant yet simple, not overly verbose, with a sparse, economical usage of complex terms rather than a concatenation of technical terms. The writing should display an identifiably independent voice that evaluates and addresses the voices of the other writers cited.

Upper second class (70-74)

Essays in this category would have been first class essays but are compromised by the writing style of the student. These essays are often systematic restatements of other writers’ ideas and arguments with some, but little, critical evaluation. The piece may offer minimal commentary on the established research, and demonstrates a good grasp of the material, but there is no critical evaluation of the ways in which the various sources cited address one another and relate to the student’s own central argument. The essay may also contain independent research, but fails to indicate clearly why or with what effect this work has been incorporated into the essay. Some minor errors of grammar, style, and spelling may often also be observed in the text.

Lower second class

65-69: Essays in the lower second class are often overly descriptive of the primary object of analysis and the theoretical framework, with no evaluation of the cited research or commentary on the relationship between the theoretical framework and the object of study. Assignments in this category may demonstrate a good grasp of the course material, but the approach is often descriptive, and there are symptomatic gaps in the analysis of the primary text. The argument may be interesting, but there is often little or no elaboration of central issues raised by the analysis. There is evidence of good planning, but the execution has not followed through on this promise. The integration of theoretical framework and textual analysis is often functional, fulfilling the requirements of commentary rather than analysis and evaluation. 

60-64: These essays are pedestrian in their presentation of a functional argument. The grasp of the course material is adequate for a predictable analysis of the primary object of enquiry. The theoretical material and the textual analysis are often not integrated; the outline of the research field is often followed by a description of the object of enquiry but little or no link is made between these two sections. Several errors of style and grammar persist, though not such that the argument is obscured; this may be evidence of inadequate proofreading before submission. The essay may be marked by occasional lapses from appropriate academic tone and register, with recourse to cliché and colloquialism. Too often work here relies heavily on the citation of examples rather than analytical engagement. The evaluation of secondary sources is also absent or minimal, and sometimes nonscholarly material is given the same status as scholarly material. Some misreading and inaccurate representation of the primary object of study may also be evident.

Third class

55-59: Third class essays are often pockmarked with inaccuracies which slip into the work as a result of a poor understanding of the course material. There is no clear statement of argument in these essays, and they often rely on implicit constructions of the argument. Generalisations and an improperly heavy reliance on the description of examples rather than the analysis of the text prevent this essay from being an adequate response to the task. There may also be too many lengthy quotations from scholarly or other sources, and the selection of secondary material tends to be poor. Sometimes essays which score in this range could have been good but relied far too heavily on a limited range of sources.

50-54: These essays may be marked by errors of expression, spelling, grammar and presentation which obscure the argument or render it deeply ambiguous. Adherence to scholarship conventions may be whimsical, such that the expression of the argument is occluded by poor proofreading and editing. There is no statement of argument, or the argument proposed is different from the one engaged in by the essay itself, the understanding of the research material is questionable, and the work demonstrates a functional approach to fulfilling the requirements of the task, and has failed to do so with much merit. The essay may be too descrip


≤49: Essays which are given a failing grade show no engagement with the research material made available in the course and rely exclusively on either commonsensical understandings of the concepts, of on extra-curricular sources which have been poorly selected. There seems to be no awareness of the conventions appropriate to academic writing (style, presentation, tone, register) and there seems to be a functional approach towards meeting the word count limit. The writing may not address the topic--there seems little evidence of having engaged with the topic, the work may also be sloppy. Alternatively, the writing may be so flawed as to be incomprehensible (usually the lower the mark, the more likely that this is the problem), and is marred by errors of grammar which obscure the argument and occlude meaningful engagement with the text. Also, essays which are little more than a series of connected sentence fragments, a conglomeration of terms used irregularly and without adequate definition, and are written in a consistently colloquial tone, also tend to receive low failing grades.

Last Modified: Thu, 05 Mar 2020 15:24:14 SAST