How to Write an Essay

By Robert Mason
January 2004

In my day, undergraduate essays could be refused if they did not conform to standards. Lamentably, in the current climate, such rigorous discipline has gone the way of the flogger, but we can at least inflict upon your essay a very bad mark! So read this, and conform to it. Reading essays is infinitely worse than writing them, so do not give me an excuse for giving you a bad grade when I have transformed into The Marking Monster after reading essays all weekend.

You are looking at it. All submissions will be on white 8.5" by 11" paper, with 1" margins throughout, in 12pt Times font, double spaced (okay, what you are reading is not double-spaced, but you are not doing the marking). You can put a title page on it if you like, but this is not necessary, nor is attractive binding. The text will comprise nine pages, with one page of references (see further on this below), the references should be single-spaced. More references than this is acceptable, but I can tell the difference between egregious reference cramming and an extensive and thorough research by a zealous student. Use sub-headings to divide the text into meaningful divisions. Each page should be numbered. All figures should be appended at the end. Gratuitous appendices and other appendages are accepted, but the extra work will not do you a great deal of good if the main essay is a total stinker. Do not use contractions or abbreviations of words in a formal essay (i.e., "it is not the thing to do" rather than "it's not the thing to do"). And make time to read your essay, mistakes can get by a spell-checker or style-checker that will get you marked down.

Marking scheme: 10% of the essay mark is based on format.

All essays must have some relevance to the course it is written for. It is highly advisable to ask me about any topic and how it should be handled. Try to avoid "setting the scene," in which students write a paragraph or so of random and often hysterical nonsense loosely related to what they are talking about. Just get on with it. Have an introduction, a central thesis which is argued on the basis of your extensive and detailed research, and have a conclusion. And do have a thesis and come to a conclusion. The conclusion should not contain any new topics that the body of your paper does not address. Top marks are given to people who have thought about the subject and have gained from it. If you have developed and expressed your own opinion, make that clear. Do not hesitate to use the first person, I never do. Also, make sure the content of your essay is not the same as the content of another essay handed in to another professor. We do check up on this sort of thing. Do not forget the cardinal rule: if unsure, ask me.

Marking scheme: 20% of the essay mark is based on relevance to the course; 30% based on structure of arguement; 10% based on orginality.

Since most of the courses I teach are about things, it is highly unlikely that you could write an essay for me that does not include illustrations. Put the illustrations together at the end, make sure you refer to them in the text, and arrange them in the order in which they have been referred.

Marking scheme: 10% of the essay mark is based on relevance of figures.

An undergraduate essay should have at least ten references, and these should be relatively current, unless you are writing a history of the discipline or using old excavation reports. Any reference dating to before 1980 is likely to receive a raised eyebrow; before 1970 will be frowned upon; before 1960 will be glared at angrily. Too many of these, and especially too much reliance on this sort of reference, and marks will fall like leaves in autumn. You should not rely on a single reference for an opinion, especially if it is a controversial one. Do not list anything that you have not referred to. To find relevant references, when I was an undergraduate I would just search in the library through relevant journals until I found something. Once you find a recent source, it is a simple matter of seeing what that source refers to, and Bob's your uncle.

References should be in parentheses within the text, for instance "according to Siggers (1992) this is a load of ...." or: "this opinion is generally thought to be untenable (Sunahara 1995)." If a book is used, page citations should be used, for example: "one authority on the matter suggests that he was quite mad (Scorsone 1995:121)." Figures and plates should be specifically referred to, for example: " was surprisingly ugly (Siggers 1992: fig. 3)."

If you refer to notes taken in lectures, these are what is called a "personal communication," so if you refer to my lectures, it is cited as "according to Mason (personal communication 2004)." Traditionally it is considered polite to ask permission to use a personal communication, and it might be a good idea to consider this if you are citing the person marking the essay. If you are using a lecture note to put forward a controversial view, or as an opposing view in some sort of dialectic that has developed in the field, it is advisable to find out what the actual source that the lecturer used really was, especially if the lecturer is not an internationally- regarded authority on the matter (for instance if I tell you that Cleopatra was really Polish, I would advise you to check that).

Citing web-sites is a shaky proposition. A standard authorless web-site is unlikely to be an adequate reference. If you do find a good web-site with authored text, then cite the author, or come up with a short-form for the site in order to cite that site, such as the organization which provided the site, for instance "this has been shown to be very large indeed (ROM 2001)." Do not include the complete url in the essay text.

Other formats exist for references, end-notes for example, but end-notes are particularly irksome in an essay that has to be read critically, and so I find them unacceptable. The format should be as I ask for it and you will be marked down if your essay does not conform.

For the actual references themselves, they are at the end, as you would expect them to be. In order, they provide examples of a personal communication, an authorless web-site, a book, a journal article, and a paper in an edited volume. If you can not print italics then underline will do.

Marking scheme: 20% of the essay mark is based on relevance, quality and format of references.

I give myself very little time between when the essays are due and when the marks are due, so late essays are particularly irksome. Late essays are penalized with 5% per day, excluding weekends.

Other Resources
I would recommend that you read Ted Banning's guide to writing an essay, which is actually much better than this one, and provides further links.

Mason, Robert, 2001, personal communication, lecture for NMC 369, October 5th 2001.

ROM 2001, Royal Ontario Museum "Ceramics: History in clay," downloaded 17th December 2001 from

Scorsone, Jovanna, 1995, The Snake Goddess in Archaeology, Serpentine Press, Upper Squirming, Surrey.

Siggers, Julian, 1992, "Archery and the Rabbit cult of Upper Silesia," Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries, vol. 11, pp. 62-86.

Sunahara, Kay, 1995, "Canid response to Maya ceramics," in Sunahara, Kay, editor, The Canid Response: An Archaeological Perspective, Black Dog Press, Toronto: pp. 62-86.

Appendix: Summation of marking

    10% general format
    20% relevance to course
    30% structure of argument
    10% originality
    10% relevance and format of figures
    20% relevance and format of references

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