The Seven Deadly Sins of Essay Writing

In Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, the good doctor makes a deal with devil and is taken on a tour of hell to meet personifications of the seven deadly sins. As he meets each, he exclaims “O, this feeds my soul!”. What could have driven Faustus to such a desperate appreciation of villainy and sin? If you ask me, it was probably his experience as a theology lecturer in Wittenberg, where he constantly came into contact with all of the following “deadly sins” of essay writing. None of us in the department have yet followed Faustus in turning to necromancy and dark magic (I hope!) – make sure it stays that way by steering clear of the following. As well as preserving our sanity, it will also have the added bonus of getting you a high mark. We’re all winners in this one…

1.      No argument: An easy mistake to make – the essay that makes no argument at all, instead trying to repeat as much information as possible: “Augustine was born in 354 in Thasgate, Algeria. His mother was Monica. His father was Patrick. He had black hair. He didn’t like gladiators (not the TV show – I don’t know what he thought about that). He liked gardens.” This is all very interesting, but what does it tell me about Augustine’s theory of the self? Answer: Nothing at all. Therefore make sure you have a clear argument throughout your essay!

2.      No sources used: Also known as the “essay written in a panic when all the books had gone from the library”. This type of essay is usually written in the vain hope that your general knowledge will be enough to get you through the question. For example, while it may be true that Gandhi was played by Ben Kingsley in the film of the same name, is it really relevant to the essay on Gandhian ethics? Start you research well in advance of the due date to avoid this one. If you have problems locating sources, then email me.

3.      No structure: Imagine I’m following a recipe for a delicious pie. However, in my excitement to make the pie for you, I throw out the recipe book and decide to use all the ingredients in whatever order makes sense to me at the time. If I make the filling using flour and butter and try to make pastry out of apples and cinnamon my pie will be a disaster. In the same way, good research needs to be structured in a logical way – it cannot just be thrown together. Make sure your structure fits in with your thesis statement; that the evidence you present links logically with the arguments before and after, and fits into your conclusion.

4.      Plagiarism: This one doesn’t just infuriate your marker – it can get you a zero and in even more trouble down the line. It’s just not worth it. Plagiarism insults both your marker and your classmates who have actually done the work. It isn’t fair… it is shameful.

5.      Wikipedia and friends: When I was an undergraduate the internet was a wonderful place filled with excellent information, a great sense of community and download speeds rivalling that of a snail covered in super glue.  Even back then, though, the very first piece of feedback I received as an undergraduate read: “If you spent less time on strange websites and more in the library you might have made more sense”. This was true in a world in which Wikipedia had yet to be invented; a time when we thought “Broadband” was a nasty way of describing the Rolling Stones in their old age. Now of course, with the advent of superfast downloads, the internet is a dangerous place full of dodgy people and even dodgier information. While Wikipedia is useful for checking general information (i.e. just what are Jedward up to these days?) it is not an academic resource. In fact, taking information from Wikipedia is a bit like trusting information that you’ve just found scrawled across a random wall somewhere. It might be true, but you’ve no way of knowing without checking a proper academic resource.

6.      Not answering the question: Sometimes you won’t like the question that’s been set, or not really understand it. In these cases, it is always a good idea to ask your lecturer for help in interrogating the question, seeing what it is really asking. The way out of your conundrum is NOT to answer the question you would have liked the lecturer to set (i.e. “In this essay I will be discussing Luther’s opinion of the mass by examining his views on the quality of German beer”).

7.      Being late: We’re all late from time to time – but if you’ve had months of notice for an essay then it should be no surprise when the deadline suddenly approaches. Don’t leave it to the last minute and you’ll be fine.

Avoiding these sins will leave in good shape when submitting your final essay. While I know that there seem to be a lot of different elements in essay writing don’t panic about it. We are not looking for the perfect essay (there’s no such thing!). All we are looking for is evidence that you have tried your best and done the work. I look forward to reading what you produce!

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About andrewcrome

Lecturer in religions and theology at the University of Manchester.
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