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Top marks: writing the best essay

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Essay writing is a skill that can be learned, so make sure you’re at the top of the class

Writing an essay doesn’t feel much like nursing, but in order to qualify you’ll need to prove that you’ve got what it takes on paper as well as in practice. Here are a few simple ways to win the marks you need.

Make an essay plan

By the time you start writing your essay, you’ll have read a lot and your head might be full of different ideas. Creating an essay plan can help you to focus before you start churning out the sentences. Julia Boon, midwifery tutor at Surrey University, says: “Start planning the essay as early as possible. This will allow you time to search and read supporting literature to develop a logical argument.”

Think about the patterns you might have observed in your reading. Are there two or three arguments that stand out? Can you think of different examples to illustrate these different arguments?

Setting out an essay skeleton before you begin can be useful:

  • Introduction paragraph
  • Body paragraph 1: main idea
  • Example 1
  • Example 2
  • Example 3
  • Body Paragraph 2: main idea
  • Body Paragraph 3: main idea
  • Body Paragraph 4: main idea
  • Conclusion paragraph

The beginning and the end

Start strong and finish strong, says Roger Watson, professor of nursing at Sheffield University. “Most marks are won in the opening few paragraphs - these have to be the best writing you can do.”

  • Introduction: Your introduction should summarise the essay question, explain how your essay will examine the subject and point towards what the conclusion is likely to be. To make it more interesting, you might want to use a shocking statistic that sums up the essay or reference a quote.
  • Conclusion: The aim of the conclusion is to sum up all the points you have discussed in the main body. Do you favour one argument over another? Why? You don’t need to have all the answers. You could ask some questions and leave your reader with something to think about.


References pop up in two places. First, in the body text of your essay and second at the end of your essay in an alphabetical list. You should use a reference every time you summarise a point of view, a statistic or an argument that isn’t your own but you came across in your reading.

Things to remember

  • Copying won’t help: your lecturer will be able to tell and your mark will suffer
  • Read widely. The more you understand the subject, the easier it will be to write the essay
  • Remember to check the deadline
  • Find a time to write when you feel the most productive, this may be early in the day or late at night, everyone’s different

Every lecturer has their own personal preference when it comes to references, so it’s a good idea to check which style they’d like you to use. But when in doubt, Harvard referencing is a safe bet.

Professor Roger Watson says: “Apart from demonstrating that you have noted the details of all your sources correctly this is simply good academic practice. For those who will proceed to do research and publish their own work, references are checked meticulously by publishers, so it is good to get into the habit of doing this accurately right from the start.” 

  • Body text referencing: Place the author’s surname and the year of publication in brackets after the statement being referenced, e.g. (Jones, 1999).
  • Alphabetical list: And at the end of your essay, list all your references in alphabetical order according to their surname. The format differs depending on whether you used an article, book or a website.

Check it over

Not even professional writers trust that the first time they write something it will come out perfect. After you’ve written the main bulk of your essay, have a second read through. Check for spelling and grammar errors as these can really affect your mark. Do you think the order makes sense? Do you need to add a bit more detail to one paragraph and cut down another? 

Well done

The biggest error when it comes to essay writing is to panic and leave it to the last minute. So if you’re feeling worried, don’t procrastinate, start on your essay plan and get something down on paper. Don’t be too hard on yourself, essay writing will become easier with practice and remember if you’re stuck you can always ask your tutor for guidance, that’s what they’re there for.

Good luck!

Harvard referencing

Articles: Small, G. (1998) A study of osteoporosis. Nursing Times; 13: 1, 79-84.

Books: Jackson, C. (2006) Shut up and Listen: A Brief Guide to Clinical Communication Skills. Dundee: Dundee University Press.

Book chapters: Clarke, M. (2005) The autonomic nervous system. In: Hinchliff, S. et al (eds) Physiology for Nursing Practice. London: Baillière Tindall.

Websites: Department of Health (2007) National Service Framework for Renal Services.

  • 1 Comment

Readers' comments (1)

  • Adam Roxby

    At my university (Anglia Ruskin University, Chelmsford) we are continually told that a lot of students get tripped up by essay writing and in particular referencing so having access to skills and tips like this is particularly important. I have always found it important to get regular feedback either from my tutor or form people I trust on the progress of my essays. Not just for their content but to make sure that it flows adequately and that the grammar etc is accurate.

    Excellent article and very useful.

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