A2 Essay Advice
There are many ways to write a good essay. Different questions require you to adapt your style to suit the demands of that question. You should think about what structure suits the question that you are answering.
The aim of an essay:
The aim of an essay is to MAKE AN ARGUMENT. You should present different views, use examples, evaluate the evidence all so that you can convince your reader that your point of view is correct. You need to write persuasively!
It might help to think of it in terms of a debate in which the speakers alternate and try to rebut or refute each other's points as well as making sound points of their own.
Alternatively, you could think of it as a court case in which you are presenting evidence and calling witnesses to try and convince the jury.
Your introduction is your first chance to impress the examiner and first impressions count!
Things like defining key termscan be useful - particularly if the terminology of the question is ambiguous - however, your introduction should not read like a page from the dictionary.
Likewise, biographical/contextual informationcan be useful if it is relevant. However an extended biography of the theologian whose views are mentioned is not useful. If their background is important in understanding their theology then it should be explained properly in a paragraph of its own, The introduction should be fairly short.
Set up the terms of the debate:
What this means is give a very brief (i.e. a couple of sentences) overview of the 'sides' of the argument. Try to be precise and avoid 'some people think...other people think...'
Suppose that the question was 'Women should be entitled to leadership within the church' Discuss. You could set up the terms of the debate as follows:
- The Roman Catholic Church does not permit women to have authority within the church however the Church of England has allowed women's ordination since 1992. Feminist theologians like Rosemary Radford Ruether support female ordination whilst Pope John Paul II rejected it and said that his decision was binding.
You could improve this further by giving an indication of the reasons why they have different opinions. Try to identify the crux of the debate.
- The issue hinges upon different interpretations of key Biblical passages and debates about the significance of the maleness of Jesus and the disciples.
You have then 'set up' the debate and are ready to state your line of argument.
State your line of argument:
Your ultimate aim is to present a convincing case so it makes sense to make your intentions clear at the outset. You should avoid writing 'I think...' or 'this essay will argue that...'. All you need do is confidently state your argument as fact.
If we stick with our sample question above we could state our line of argument as follows:
- The biblical evidence for women priests is ambiguous, however there are a number of other convincing reasons why women should be entitled to have leadership in the church.
Note that I have not given any of these reasons yet but I have made it clear which way I will be arguing. I could, potentially have signposted my essay more clearly and listed the issues that I will address. For example, I could also have written.
- There are three very convincing arguments for women priests; the right to equal opportunities, the importance of remaining relevant and the evidence for women in significant roles in the Early Church.
If I chose to state my line of argument this way then I almost have a mini essay plan in my introduction.
If we put together what we have so far with a couple of other sentences we get the following introduction:
To say that women are 'entitled' to equal leadership within the church is to imply that women's ordination is an issue of rights. Currently, the Roman Catholic Church does not permit women to have authority within the church however the Church of England has allowed women's ordination since 1992. Feminist theologians like Rosemary Radford Ruether support female ordination as a matter of women's entitlement whilst Pope John Paul II rejected it and said that his decision was binding. The issue hinges upon different interpretations of key Biblical passages and debates about the significance of the maleness of Jesus and the disciples.The biblical evidence for women priests is ambiguous, however there are a number of other convincing reasons why women should be entitled to have leadership in the church.
'Signposting' your essay:
A signpost points the way to go. Signposting your essay means using sentences that make it clear where your essay is going. Topic sentences at the beginning of paragraphs should make it clear what that paragraph is going to be about. Concluding sentences should link back to the question. Link sentences should show how ideas relate together.
A topic sentence introduces a paragraph and makes it clear what that paragraph will be about. E.g.
- One of the main arguments against women priest is based on the fact that Jesus only chose male disciples.
The paragraph would then go on to explain this point further.
You can adapt your topic sentences to make your own line of argument clear. Consider the way the following sentences make the writer's (i.e. my) own opinions clear:
- Pope John Paul II attempts to argue that...
- It has been suggested that....
- One plausible but ultimately unsuccessful argument is..
- Radford Ruether presents the convincing argument that...
- Schussler Fiorenza successfully challenged this point by....
- A powerful criticism is presented by...
- A subtle but important contribution to the debate was put forward by...
Another thing you can use topic sentences for is to make it clear how one idea relates back to the other or how the ideas developed in time.
Your concluding sentences are the sentences at the end of paragraphs. A concluding sentence should usually link clearly back to the question and make it obvious how what you have written addresses the question. It is often a good idea to reflect the wording of the question in a concluding sentence. For example, a paragraph explaining key arguments against women priest in the Ordinatio Sacerdotalis might conclude:
- Thus the arguments in the Ordinatio Sacerdotalis represent the official Roman Catholic reasons for arguing that women are not entitled to equal leadership in the church.
If you are writing a concluding sentence after a section of analysis and evaluation then you can use your concluding sentence to hammer home 'who wins and why.'
- Ultimately these problems mean that the arguments in the Ordinatio Sacerdotalis are not sufficiently persuasive to provide good reasons to deprive women of equal opportunities by preventing them from having leadership within the Church.
Depending on the structure of your essay, you might sometimes want to use a concluding sentence (or a topic sentence) to make show how ideas link together. For example, analysis of Paul's teaching about women's silence in Church might lead you to conclude that he was reflecting the views of his time. This might then link nicely to a paragraph on the gospels and speculation about the place of women in Jesus' ministry.
- Accepting that the Biblical teachings about women are not the direct word of God but reflect the beliefs of the writers also leads us to question the apparent lack of female disciples.
If you do go off topic don't panic. There is likely to be some relevant link back if you think about it carefully. A good couple of concluding sentences can make an irrelevant aside into a really good synoptic link!
Above all, remember that concluding sentences can be very useful for steering your essay back on track if you have gone off on a tangent. You just need to show how/why it is relevant! For example, suppose you had written a paragraph on motherhood rather than about ordination.
- Although motherhood is not directly linked to the issue of ordination it is relevant to the issue. This is because the role of mother is not equivilent to the role of priest and so a woman's opportunity to be a mother cannot replace what should be her right to be a priest.
Stating is not the same as explaining. To explain an idea you have to try to demonstrate how the idea develops, what premises it is based upon, what method of reasoning is used to arrive at it and - crucially - what it actually means. There are various stock phrases that you can use to help make sure that you are explaining something fully. These include:
- This means that....
- The central claim here is....
- Another way to look at this would be...
- This implies....
- This leads to....
- This developed due to...
Crucial to explaining ideas clearly is using examples, evidence and illustrations. You should aim to include sentences like:
- An example of this could be....
- 41 used the example of.... what 41 meant by this was....
- An analogy for this could be....
- A scenario which illustrates this is....
You might be able to use examples and illustrations actually used by the people whose ideas you are writing about. However, sometimes you might need to construct a scenario to illustrate the point.
Analysing and evaluating:
Analysing is breaking down the argument to see how it works and evaluating is the final 'passing judgement' and deciding how valid it is. In an A2 essay there may well be some overlap between your explanation and your analysis as you might break down the claim in order to explain it fully.
Imagine you were analysing the argument that Jesus only chose male disciples and thus the church should not have women priests.
- You could say that this argument is based upon the premise that the gospels are an accurate portrayal of what Jesus said and did.
- Furthermore, it assumes that what Jesus did is what the church should do for all time.
- The reason why Jesus' actions are presumed to be timeless and authoritative is itself founded upon the belief that Jesus was literally God incarnate and therefore was all powerful and could have done differently had he wanted (i.e. not limited to his own state and time).
Some of these claims can be challenged. You could challenge 1) by:
- Pointing out that the gospels were written by people who had faith in Jesus which might affect how they write (explain why). Furthermore, the gospel writers used earlier sources, they are not independent eyewitnesses.
Breaking down an argument into its base claims makes it much easier to analyse.
Some useful philosophical terminology for evaluating arguments
Confusing necessary and sufficient conditions: (e.g. motherhood might be sufficient for a woman to feel fulfilled but it is not necessary for fulfilment (she could be fulfilled in other ways). Or, a sense of vocation might be necessary in order for a person to become a priest but it is not sufficient - other things are needed too - like a certain amount of knowledge and learning.)
Confusing correlation with causation: Thinking that one thing causes another just because they often occur together.
Ad hominim attack: Attacking the person rather than the argument (e.g. 41 was religious so his argument is biased and must be wrong).
Straw man argument: Misrepresenting an argument in order to make it easier to argue against. (E.g. to say that Augustine thought that women were nothing more than a vessel for procreation is an inaccurate oversimplifiation of his views.)
Fallacy of the general rule: Assuming that something that is often true is always true.
Put simply, evaluating is saying which arguments are good and which are not. However, evaluation cannot just be your opinions, you need to give good reasons for your evaluation.
You might find an argument convincing because:
- It is based upon sound premises.
- The evidence for it is convincing (i.e. there is a substantial amount of evidence from a range of objective sources. There are no other more plausible explanations etc).
- It is based on logical reasoning whereby the stages of the argument do genuinely follow on from each other.
- The person promoting the argument is a reliable source (be careful with this one though, reliable sources can be wrong!)
- The conclusions are coherent (i.e. fit together) and consistent with what we know already.
- It appeals to our intuititions and fits with how we see the world. (This one is a bit of a cheat as it amounts to saying 'it just seems right' in a slightly more academic way!)
You might reject an argument because:
- It is based on false premises.
- The process of reasoning includes illogical leaps or inaccurate conclusions.
- There is another, more likely, explanation of the same evidence.
- The source is not reliable.
- The conclusions are incoherent.
Who wins and why?
'Who wins and why?' is a useful phrase to remember when evaluating. You will have presented contrasting views in your essay. You need to pass judgement and give a ruling (like a Judge) as to whose arguments are better.
As I wrote earlier, THERE IS NO ONE WAY TO WRITE AN ESSAY. However, there are basic patterns that you can adapt.
- Introduction (set out terms of debate and state line of argument).
- Explanation paragraph (you might need this, you might not - it depends on the question. You might be able to do all the explanation you need in your thesis).
- Thesis (one view) This could be the view that you agree with and you might then go on to defend it. OR you might want to start with the view that you want to oppose. If the question is about a specific claim then you might use the thesis to set out that claim.
- Antithesis (alternative view)
- Who wins and why (analysis/rebuttal/defence). The form that this takes depends on how exactly you've used the thesis and antithesis. You might be defending your thesis against the antithesis. You might be passing judgement on two contrasting views. You might be supporting the antithesis if that is the side of the argument you have picked.
- Challenge to your view. (response to your who wins and why) How might a person disagree with you?
- Rebuttal (to the challenge) Defend your view.
- Conclusion: Sum up your case.
This way tends to work well when you are given a statement and told to 'discuss' it or asked 'do you agree?'
If you are asked to 'critically evaluate [N's] ideas' or 'evaluate the arguments for [x]' then this way is less likely to work easily. You might want to use a more thematic approach.
- Introduction: Set up key areas of their thought.
- Explanation/Overview: Give brief overview of all the ideas and how they fit together. State an opposing view/different approach as constrast if relevent.
- Claim 1: Pick one distinct idea and explain that. Start with either the most important one or with the one that comes logically or chronologically first.
- Analyse/evaluate it: You may well want to contrast it with other relevant ideas so you may want a separate paragraph to set out a contrast before you evaluate it or you might include several different responses and analysis in one paragraph.
- Claim 2:
- Analyse/evaluate it:
- Claim 3:
- Analyse/evaluate it:
- Conclude: Summarise whether the ideas work or not.
These two methods should give you a good framework for most essays.
HOWEVER, provided you fully explain a range of different views which you analyse and evaluate to create a clear line of argument then you have done the right thing. You can structure it how you like.
Things to avoid:
- Unsubstantiated claims. Anything you claim you must justify!
- Vague imprecise summaries of ideas (especially if you have misrepresented views).
- 'Some people think...' This statement is far too vague. The 'some people' should be more precise. E.g. 'liberal feminists think' or (even better) 'Harriet Taylor argued...'.
- Agreeing with two totally opposing ideas. You might agree with PARTS of two opposing views but you cannot wholeheartedly agree with two things that contradict.
- Any reference to 'I think' or 'this essay will argue'. It won't lose you marks, but it is not a very sophisticated way of writing.
Things to aim to do:
- Have a strong and convincing line of argument.
- Make sure your conclusion actually follows on from your evaluation in the essay.
- When rebutting challenges to your view make sure you engage with what is actually said and don't just ignore it. Try to show why the challenge is invalid or unimportant.
- Analyse ideas thoroughly to see how they work before you reach your final evaluation.
- Include technical terminology and quotations.
- Think for yourself. Examiners try to ask you questions which make YOU think about APPLYING what you know to answer the question. You are not necessarily supposed to be able to remember discussing exactly that issue in lessons.
- Use your wider knowledge. Knowledge and examples from history, geography, literature, PSHE, popular culture, the news ect. could all be relevant. The examiner would LOVE to see that you can make links and go beyond the syllabus.
In an essay you should:
- Use paragraphs.
- Avoid starting sentences with 'And' or 'But'. 'However' should always be followed with a comma.
- Quotations should be in quotation marks.
- Exclamation marks should be avoided.
- Use rhetorical questions very, very sparingly.
- Capital letters should not be sprinkled at random through the essay but names should be capitalised. God should be capitalised when referring to Christianity Judaism or Islam but you should use a small g when referring to polytheistic religions. 'Bible' can be written with or without a capital, but be consistent.
- Make sure you can spell the names of the people you have studied (Feuerbach) and key technical terms (androgyny). There is no reason to get wrong words that you know you will have a good chance of having to use.
You do not get a separate mark for good use of English, however, top band marks are expected to be grammatically correct with few (if any) spelling or punctuation errors.
Here are some model A Level essays, written for the new OCR specification.
The essays are all out of 40 marks (16 AO1 and 24 Ao2) and written with A Level notes, using my standard A Level plan (below), in 4o minutes… the amount of time you will have in the final examination.
Obviously enough, these answers represent one possible approach and are only intended to give students an idea of what a reasonable answer might look like. There are other approaches that would be equally good or better.
“Fail to plan and you are planning to fail…”
Although the exams won’t allow for a lot of planning time, spending significant time planning through the course is essential because it trains your mind, helping you to absorb and understand what a good essay feels like. I always say that in a weekly essay it is much better to spend over an hour planning and then limit writing to 40 minutes than to write for 2 hours without a plan! An unplanned essay, however detailed, is pretty useless because the only thing you have done is to write out your notes in a different way.
Planning an essay forces you to analyse, assess and evaluate the content of the topic, develop and then defend an opinion on it. This takes you well beyond where you can get in class and is one of the only opportunities you have to give your brain a real work-out.
I always recommend that students use an assertive approach in A Level essays, putting a THESIS up front (after a relatively short exposition of the question and topic at hand ) using body paragraphs to support their thesis with clear reasons – including evaluated and rejected counter-claims – thus forming a strong and persuasive argument and earning the 60% of the marks that depend on this.
I think that the traditional A01 led approach – where students explain the topic, point by point, evaluating only if they remember at the end of each paragraph and leaving the argument to the conclusion – is a disaster for the new A Level because it will probably cap students around the bottom B level, maybe 28 out of 40.
Students who have not committed their line of argument to paper in paragraph 1 will often not decide what they are arguing until the conclusion, and will therefore fail to argue anything through the body of the essay.
Also, leaving 60% of the marks to the last paragraph when students will be under severe time-pressure and stress, seems unwise.
The upshot of the traditional essay-plan is that if students do not finish they could end up getting 14/40 for a detailed and fluent essay which contains no argument, getting an E rather than an A. This is a very big price to pay for poor time-management in a 2 year linear exam!
Religious Studies Practice Questions
What would a good essay look like then?
Introduction: What is the question asking? Identify / briefly explain the topic, identify important issues and key words. Finish with a THESIS, a clear statement of what your argument (answer) will be, ideally not using the personal pronoun “I” or the hackneyed “this essay will argue…”
Paragraph 1: Your first / strongest reason in support of your argument. State it in your first sentence (POINT), then explain it using plenty of examples and references to scholars (EVIDENCE) and finally relate it back to the Thesis, showing how it relates to your ARGUMENT and LINKS to your reasoning.
Paragraph 2: Your second / next strongest reason in support of your argument. State it in your first sentence (POINT), then explain it using plenty of examples and references to scholars (EVIDENCE) and finally relate it back to the Thesis, showing how it relates to your ARGUMENT and LINKS to your reasoning.
Paragraph 3: Another reason in support of your argument. State it in your first sentence (POINT), then explain it using plenty of examples and references to scholars (EVIDENCE) and finally relate it back to the Thesis, showing how it relates to your ARGUMENT and LINKS to your reasoning.
COUNTERCLAIM: Who would disagree with your argument? Why? Explain their objection using examples and references to scholars etc. EVALUATE their objection, concluding that you do not accept it because… LINK back to your Thesis.
COUNTERCLAIM 2: Who else would disagree with your argument? Why? Explain their objection using examples and references to scholars etc. EVALUATE their objection, concluding that you do not accept it because… LINK back to your Thesis.
Conclusion: Repeat your Thesis and list your main points in support. Acknowledge any limitations or weaknesses that your argument has and/or what might force you to change this conclusion.
Note how each paragraph shares a similar STRUCTURE – it contains a POINT, some EXPLANATION, EVIDENCE and a LINK to the argument. Think PEEL.
A paragraph is not just aesthetic and does not just break-up a block of text making it look better, it is a unit of your argument which helps to make sense of it. Think of each paragraph as a separate slide in a PowerPoint or a separate bullet-point in a plan. A paragraph must be self-contained and make sense in its own terms as well as fitting neatly into your essay structure.
TIP: It is worth practicing writing paragraphs separately, drafting and re-drafting them to improve your clarity and style. This can be a really good way of making notes, one which gets you evaluating and thinking about how you would use information to argue a case.