Three Top Tips for Writing Sociology Essays
In our book, The Craft of Writing in Sociology: Developing the Argument in Undergraduate Essays and Dissertations, we outline the essential and more advanced skills required to construct a substantive answer to an essay question, developing from a critical engagement with academic literature, but resulting in an independent argument and conclusion. Studying sociology, we propose, is not just about engaging the ‘sociological imagination’ as C. Wright Mills would put it, although this is very important, but also requires you to become a student of writing. So much of what sociologists contribute to the world is achieved through their writing, whether in the form of books, articles, reports or journalism. At the heart of each of these forms is the need to make clear the sociological argument, and it is this which we emphasize in guiding students through the process of producing a good essay. To get to grips with this skill you will need to read the whole of the book, and revisit it each time you produce an essay. However, there are some key mistakes which students often make in their writing which are more readily corrected. To help show how the book can be useful to you, we asked three senior lecturers in Sociology at the University of Manchester to come up with their top three ‘pet peeves’ in student’s essays. Here are some of their comments, and some of our top tips to help you to improve your work.
“A main peeve of mine in student writing is poor introductions. Three common errors regularly stand out: throat clearing sentences (e.g. ‘globalisation is an important topic’, ‘Marx was an important writer’); dictionary definitions for core sociological concepts; and introductions that merely restate the question. What I really want to see from an introduction is a brief account of how the student is approaching the question at hand, what key questions the essay will address, and what answer the student will come to at the end of the essay.” Senior Lecturer in Sociology
This was a point on which our three colleagues agreed: students often waste the introduction. To help students to grasp the importance of an introduction we devote a whole chapter of The Craft of Writing to ‘beginnings’, which outlines the ways in which you can use the opening paragraphs of your essay to begin building your argument. Here is top tip number one to help you improve your essays:
- Give the reader a guide to your argument. Much as you would give someone directions in how to get to where they’re going, tell your reader what steps you will take, what the key turning points will be, why it is important to take this route and, ultimately, where you will end up. In other words, tell your reader exactly what you will conclude and why, right at the beginning.
Another point on which our colleagues agreed was that sociological essays can be imprecise and are sometimes written in a style which is meant to sound intellectual, but which is more confusing than it is enlightening. As one senior lecturer put it:
“A pet peeve of mine is imprecise language, for example peppering an essay with terms like ‘however’, ‘therefore’ and ‘consequently’, but without attending to the logical relationship between sentences that those words are supposed to signal. If the logical connector is wrong then the argument fails. This kind of error is often motivated, I think, by students wanting their essays to ‘sound academic’, when often they would have been more convincing by using simpler language more precisely.” Senior Lecturer in Sociology
Part Three of The Craft of Writing explores grammar and style. We take time to explain how to construct sentences and paragraphs, and what you should prioritise when editing your work. We show why it is worth planning the time needed to rework your essays because a good argument can be let down by poor presentation. Here is top tip number two:
- Your written work should prioritise clarity and concision over entertainment and erudition when making an argument. Students often write in a style which they think makes their points sound important, but get lost in the meaning of what they are saying by doing so. It might be that you have quite a command of English and want to show off your knowledge of polysyllabic or unusual words, or it might be that you wish to imitate the sociological writers whom you admire. Whatever additional reasons you have for writing, there is none more important in a sociological essay than making your argument clear. Words such as ‘however’ and ‘moreover’ should be used to indicate how your ideas are linked together, not to start a sentence with a good word. Be sure that when you edit your work, you edit for the argument, prioritising the word choices which best help to make your point. Such decisions will reflect maturity and consideration in your written work, and it is these which will truly impress a reader.
A final element which our three colleagues all listed in their top pet peeves was poor structure.
“I am often frustrated by the poor structuring of an essay. In other words, with the order in which ideas are presented, either at the level of the whole essay or at paragraph level. Essays that ping-pong from one idea to another, and then back to the original idea, indicate that the student has not really thought their argument through. A trickier thing to get right is the structuring of paragraphs, and some students seem keen to cram in as many (often unconnected) points into one paragraph as possible.” Senior Lecturer in Sociology
Structure forms a key part of our book on the Craft of Writing in Sociology. We explore the common structures which students might use (including ‘compare and contrast’, or ‘build and refine’, for example) and get down into the detail of constructing paragraphs and sentences. Again, the key message is to make active choices in how you structure your writing to best present the main turns of your argument so as to reach a natural conclusion. Here is top tip number three for improving your essays:
- Redraft your work for your argument, before you edit and proof-read it. Students often write to tight deadlines and do not plan enough time for a good second draft of their work. Instead, they write a first draft and then edit it as they proof-read it. When writing the first draft of an essay you will still be working out what the argument is. This is because writing helps you to think, so as you write your full first draft you will be meandering around a little, finding the best route as you go. Instead of merely editing this and checking the grammar, you should seriously re-draft the essay in light of the argument you now know you wish to make. This will help you to write a good introduction, since you can now say clearly from the outset what you will go on to argue, and a good conclusion, for you will now be able to say exactly what you have argued and why. Re-drafting for the argument means taking out material, adding in material and ensuring that each paragraph has a main point to contribute. It is an essential step in producing a good essay, which must be undertaken prior to editing for sense and proof-reading for typographical mistakes.
These tips point you towards the most important part of learning to write good sociological essays: bringing everything you do into the service of producing an argument which responds to the question and provides a satisfying answer. In our book, we guide you through the steps in developing a good argument which is clearly articulated from beginning to end, and which will help you to avoid the many more common errors which students make in learning the craft of writing. We provide examples from real essays written by sociology students, showing what they have done well and how their work could be improved using the techniques outlined in the book. It is a practical guide, designed to sit next to your laptop as you write. A companion to help you develop the skills required to write clear, concise and powerful arguments.
Andrew Balmer and Anne Murcott