How to Start an Essay

August 3, 2017

Set out your intentions in the introduction and make sure you define any words or phrases that might be ambiguous in the essay title.


It is important to know what you want to say, for the way you begin will determine the direction in which you continue. It might be useful to begin an essay with a quotation that is pertinent to your argument. 

Main section/development of argument

This is where the bulk of your argument will be found. Much of your essay will be largely dependent on your ability to analyze. You will often use the work of other scholars, both to support your argument and to present an objective discussion in your essay. Remember that critics who have studied the same area as you for many years have often written realms on the subject and can not be ignored. Here, also, compare and contrast other examples.

Each new 'idea' you introduce requires a new paragraph so make sure there is a link between paragraphs. Keep a tight structure in your essay – if there are bits hanging out in the form of unnecessary digressions or retelling of events, it looks messy. 


The conclusion of your essay essentially restates much of what has been discussed in the main section of your essay. If it is difficult to state a definitive judgment because of conflicting evidence, say so. Make sure that you state what conclusion you yourself have reached, even if this seems to be in conflict with some of your sources.

Much of what is judged by the reader is your authoritativeness in the writing. It is often very effective if you can save one last piece of evidence or summarizing quote for your conclusion.


Short quotes (of less than thirty words) should be included in the text in single quotation marks, and each quotation will need to be referenced (see the section below). If there is a quote within a quote – a common example being dialogue – then you need double quotation marks. Longer quotes should be indented without quotation marks and you should introduce them with a colon. Quotes within quotes then require single quotation marks. If you are quoting two or more lines from a poem in sequence, these should also be indented. 


Besides listing all your research sources at the end of your essay in a bibliography (see section below), you should also always state in the body of your essay the origin of any quotes, both direct and indirect, to avoid being accused of plagiarism (see section below). There is no definitive way of referencing or of writing a bibliography, but always make sure you are consistent. Here are two examples of referring to sources which you're quoting:

a) 'The threat of being devoured is the central theme of “Little Red Riding Hood”.' (Bettleheim, 1975, p.169)

b) According to one critic, the central theme of 'Little Red Riding Hood' is the fear of being eaten 1.

The first gives the surname of the author, the year of publication, and the page number of the source that the quote is taken from. These details appear in brackets immediately following the quote. 

In the second example, each quotation is numbered, and these numbered notes can either be organized as footnotes at the bottom of the relevant page or 'endnotes' at the end of your essay. Footnotes/endnotes can also be used to make other comments that you think are important but do not fit into the main body of your essay.

Please also include illustrations (black and white photocopies will do) in your essay when discussing particular examples. These can be inserted in an appendix before your endnotes and bibliography. You should label these as far as you can (e.g. give designer, design company, title of piece, date.)


The dictionary definition of plagiarism is 'the act or practice of taking and using as one's own the thoughts, writings or inventions of another'.

This means that in writing your essay you must not copy passages out of books, articles, etc. or down-load internet or other electronic sources and pass them off as your own words, that is, without crediting your source. Changing a few words in a sentence or paragraph can still constitute plagiarism. The key is whether you have understood your sources sufficiently to put their points in your own words. Where you find it important to include the original words of one of your sources in your essay you should show this as a quotation and give a reference to the source in your text, as specified above. Even if you are not directly quoting word-for-word, you should still provide a reference to your source where you are drawing substantially on one particular author for information or opinion. 

Although it is important to understand what plagiarism is in order to avoid it in your essay, do not become obsessed to the extent of trying to eliminate every word that may have been used by someone in the past. The main thing is that you tell the reader which sources you are using for your information. 
Any case of plagiarism is treated seriously, and may lead to an essay being given a fail mark. As with the rest of the points made in this document, you should consult your Theoretical Studies tutor if you have any doubts at all about the form and content of your essay.


Make sure you list all the sources that you have used while researching your essay. This information will go in a bibliography at the very end of your essay.

Authors should be in alphabetical order. Titles should be italicized or underlined.

Bettleheim, B. (1975) The Uses of Enchantment, London, Penguin.
Chatman, S. (1978) Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film, London, Cornell University Press.
Fell, J (1977) 'Vladimir Propp in Hollywood', Film Quarterly, 30.

For websites, write the author first (if available) followed by title of website, full Internet address, date site last visited (e.g. Fontworks (2000),, 13/02)

For videos, write the name of programme, year of transmission, channel, date of transmission (e.g. The Money Programme (1999), report on Saatchi and Saatchi, BBC2, 15/1.)

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