Dr Barker’s essay checklist

It’s late at night (or possibly early morning), and you’ve just got down the final sentence of your final paragraph of that essay that’s been haunting you for days. And the deadline is tomorrow/later today. Excellent. Job done. Now you’re finished, you can relax…

You probably know by now that’s not the case. There’s a whole bunch of stuff that needs to happen when you finish writing but before you can submit a finished piece of work. The thing is, realistically, you might not have much time between finishing writing and submitting, and sometimes things get shoved to one side and you only remember them when they’ve been circled & underlined and handed back to you by your marker. It’s annoying and frustrating, for both you and your marker. You might well even have lost marks for things that you know you meant to do… Only you never did them. And that’s probably the thing that niggles the most.

I’ll write more about the stages of writing an essay and the importance of giving yourself time to edit in another post, but for now, here is my checklist of things to check before you hand your essay in. It’s divided into two main parts – Content and Style.

Part One – Content

1. Have I answered the question?

You might know tons about the topic, you might have done some amazing research but if you’ve not actually answered the question, and made it clear you’ve answered the question, then your essay is fighting a losing battle from the start. And let’s be clear, by “the question”, I mean the question as asked by your tutor, not the question you wished they’d asked. By all means, challenge the question, point out the difficulties it raises – but don’t dismiss it. So read through your essay, paying particular attention to your introduction & conclusion. Could I read both of them and get an answer to the question? If not, rethink them.

2. Is my argument clear?

This is closely related to point one, and again, you’re going to have to read through your essay again to check this, and yes, the introduction is going to be vital once more. A good history essay is all about the argument – it doesn’t necessarily need to be entirely groundbreaking or highly complicated, but it does need to be logical and supported. Lots of students use their introduction to show they know the background to the topic, then cram a very brief overview of the key things they will address into one or two sentences, then launch into the main part of the essay, leaving most of the summing up to the conclusion. The risk with that is that, to your reader, it seems like you’re making your mind up as you go. By the end of your introduction, I would expect to know where you plan on taking me in your essay.

3. Is each paragraph focused?

It can be tricky to know how much material to include in a paragraph, and many essays fall down because they’ve not managed to get the balance right. Too short, and you’re lessening the impact and importance of what you’re trying to say, too long and you’re going to get your reader and yourself hopelessly lost. What typically happens is that people try to include too much in each paragraph, and end up going over too many things in not quite enough detail.

Essentially, a paragraph is like an essay on a small scale – you need to introduce the point you’re going to make, then develop it, showing why it is important and what your interpretation is. Then you need some evidence to support both the point and your interpretation – I’ll come back to this – and then you need to link the point back in to your overall argument. Those are the basics. If you give yourself a sentence for each of those, you’ve already got a paragraph that’s at least four sentences long.

What’s probably harder is knowing when to stop. There’s no hard and fast rule – I start to get a bit concerned when paragraphs go over more than a page and a half in double-spaced formatting, but the real trick is to read over the end and check back with the start of each paragraph. Are you still talking about essentially the same thing, having developed it? Great. Have you moved on and are talking about something different? You probably need to go back through and see where the shift happened, and perhaps split one long paragraph into two shorter ones.

4. Are all my points supported by evidence?

A strong essay shows the reader how the issue is being interpreted through its evidence, rather than just telling the reader what the author thinks thorough a series of declamatory statements. Each point you make should have some evidence to back it up. Evidence can be an example you’ve found in the secondary reading or a quote or extract from primary source material – either is usually fine, just make sure you’re including it and referencing it properly. This is why it’s so important to take good notes during your preparatory reading. You might end up with a few possible examples you might use to support a point – in which case you need to decide if including them all is worth it, or are you just repeating what you’ve already said. You also need to make sure you’ve chosen the best evidence to support each particular point, not just the easiest or most obvious evidence, a skill you will develop over time as you read more into each topic.

5. Have I addressed the scholarship on this topic?

I’ll be honest, this was the thing I really struggled with when I was an undergraduate. It wasn’t really something I’d had to deal with at school and suddenly here I was at uni and everywhere I went, the “historiography” word seemed to loom at me. Who was I, innocent little undergrad that I was, to say what was the right interpretation? Surely the facts were enough?

Acknowledging that it’s usually less about “right” and “wrong” and much more about which aspects of which arguments are most convincing and why helped me change my approach. I knew which bits of my reading I found persuasive and which didn’t really sit well with me, and I started to bring this in to my essays. At first, I did this through reporting what the various scholars concerned had said about each thing, and leaving it at that. But gradually, I saw that that’s only part of what I needed to do as a student.

History is a discussion between historians about how they interpret the past, and as a history student, you get to join in that discussion. In fact, as a tutor, when I read your essay, I want to know what you think about that discussion. Yes, sometimes it’s easier to summarise the scholarship trends on a given topic than others – particularly if there are two established sides of a debate and various people have flung barbs masquerading as articles back and forth at each other for years on end. Other times, you will be working on topics so fresh, you are reading the scholarship as it is being produced. But no matter what, your tutor wants to hear your take on what historians have said.

Part Two – Style

6. Have I formatted my essay correctly?

Each department I’ve worked in has produced a guide for students outlining how their work should be formatted. It’s usually very simple to apply, but often gets overlooked in the rush of stuff to do before submitting work. I might be a tad picky here, as I am someone who works a lot with old books and so I tend to notice these things (or rather, I’m trained not to be able not to notice them!). Things you need to watch out for:

Line spacing – this is usually set at double or 1.5 spacing. This is so that your marker has space to annotate the paper. Pay particular attention to this, as some word processing packages use 1.15 as standard, which can look pretty similar to 1.5 to the tired, just-pulled-an-all-nighter-to-get-it-done eye.

Margins – the same as for line spacing, your maker needs space to write.

Font – your department may have a preferred font, and they will probably ask you to use 12 point as a standard size. Go with something standard, preferably a serif font (with the little lines at the end of each stroke of a letter, something like Times New Roman or Garamond) as it will probably be easier for your marker to read, and do make sure you use the same font in the same size throughout. This is particularly important to check if you’ve written parts of your essay in different files or on different computers and have compiled everything in one document towards the end.

Page Numbers – always include page numbers, your tutor might well want to refer to specific pages in their comments.

Writing conventions – you should check what style your department wants for dates, numbers, percentages etc., and then stick to it. And you might want to double check with individual tutors as to what gets under their skin. My pet peeve is people using “16th century” instead of “sixteenth century” – it drives me up the wall…

Making a fuss about whether something is 11 point or 12 point, or whether something has page numbers or not might seem a bit pedantic. But it’s worth thinking about what message rushed presentation gives to your reader. You don’t want to give the impression that you don’t care about your work to the person reading – and marking – something you’ve spent many hours working on. Plus, it’s good to get into the habit of checking formatting requirements and keeping to them before you hit the world of work – if you ignore these when applying for a job or responding to a client brief, you will soon hear about it!

7. How is my grammar?

A perennial issue, and one that I can’t really address in just one bullet point in one blog post. Common problems include the use of commas, apostrophes, parentheses, semi-colons and colons, and the correct form of various verbs. You shouldn’t be using contractions in an essay, whereas I can get away with them in a blog post!

If you know you find grammar tricky, make sure you give yourself time to deal with this during the essay writing process. Find someone you can ask to look it over – English language students are a good bet, if you happen to have a friendly housemate you can bug – or see what facilities there are as part of your library or study skills provision. Get a decent grammar guide – I have one I picked up from Blackwells for a quid ages ago which covers all the basics, and it lives on my desk when I’m writing.

8. Do my footnotes and bibliography conform to my department’s preferred form of referencing?

You need to check what the house style is for your department and then stick to it. Be aware that different departments might use different styles. Common ones include MHLA, Chicago, Harvard – these all use essentially the same information but present it in a different way. If you’re doing a joint honours degree, or modules in another department, you’ll need to check which style they prefer.

There are a few common mistakes to watch out for. Footnotes and bibliographies are usually different in that in the footnote, you tend to put the first name or initials then the second name of an author – so S.K. Barker – but this is reversed in the bibliography – Barker, S.K.. You will usually include a full reference the first time you footnote something, giving the publisher details for books, and the journal volume and issue and the full page range for articles, but you will be expected to shorten this for subsequent references to the same work. This can get complicated if you’ve shifted references around between paragraphs in the course of writing and editing, so give yourself time to make sure the first one is full and the later ones short and consistent before you submit.

9. Does my essay read ok?

It’s easy to forget when you’re busy researching and arguing that your essay is also something that someone else is going to read. If you’ve read it over and over again on screen as you’ve written it, you might be sick of it, but still, take some time to read over your essay again, not simply for factual detail or for grammar and format, but to actually hear what it sounds like as a piece of writing.

Find a quiet place and read the whole thing out loud. You will get a very different impression of your writing than if you just read what you’ve put down from a screen. You will start to make out the rhythms and patterns that you prefer. You will definitely get a sense of where your writing is easy to follow and where it needs some clarification. You will probably spot some typos as you go. And you will get to know yourself as a writer that bit better.

10. Have I fulfilled the submission requirements for my department?

Is the title of your essay at the top of your first page? Where do you include the word count? Have you included your student number but taken off your name? How many copies do you need to print off? Is it ok to print things double-sided? The last thing you should do is to make sure you’ve double-checked all the fiddly official things.

And there we go. Your full and frank essay pre-submission checklist – good luck with writing the essays to go with it!


About drskbarker

Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Leeds. Interested in all things early modern, European, news & print-culture and higher ed teaching related.

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