The Essential Guide to Producing Assessments in the School of English


Most of your modules will require some element of assessed coursework to be submitted, through (for example) an essay, project or seminar presentation write-up. This coursework cannot be successfully completed the night before it is due: you must plan and take care with your work to achieve your potential. Writing is an individual process, and it is not possible to specify a single ‘right way’ to write an essay. However, following these guidelines will give you the best chance of making the most of your own skill, research and commitment.



Scheduling your work

During your studies, you will inevitably find that several pieces of coursework are due within a very short period of one another. You will receive your coursework information and deadlines well in advance. It is up to you to plan your work so that you have time to complete each task successfully and on time.

Working on your essay


The minimum preparation necessary is to know what the main focus of the module is, and what your primary texts are about. You gain this knowledge by:

  • reading your primary texts;
  • participating fully in your lectures and seminars;
  • making sure you are aware of any secondary reading recommended by your tutor;
  • asking your tutor if you are unclear about any aspect of your (All tutors have office hours, and may be able to see you at other times if you are unable to make office hours. Email to make an appointment).




  • Choose the question/title that most interests you and/or that you feel most competent to (You will sometimes be asked to compose your own title, in consultation with your tutor.)
  • Then decide what primary texts or data set you will be writing It is better to proceed in this order than to choose a text first and then bend the question to fit the text you have chosen.
  • Pay careful attention to any instructions in the assessment rubric as to the number, genre, etc. of texts you must discuss, e.g. ‘any two novels’, ‘one novel and one poem’, or ‘one sample of spoken and one sample of written discourse’. Usually you are not permitted to write on texts you have already used earlier in the year/semester, but in some cases the assessment rubric will specify otherwise. Failure to follow the instructions properly in the question will lead to a reduction in marks for your work, whatever the quality of your essay.



  • In addition to the specific instructions for each essay, you will find it helpful to keep in mind the Marking Criteria used by the School for assessed work.

Have a look at the qualities of assessed work which are needed to achieve marks at the upper end of the scale, and keep these in mind as you develop your work.

  • Read through examples of high quality work produced by students of English in the final year. These are available from the School’s undergraduate journal of student
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While there is not one single correct way to write an essay, these examples will help to illustrate the kinds of best practice and quality that are produced by our students. Hopefully they will inspire you in your research and writing, and help you to make sense of the marking criteria used in the School

  • Read your chosen texts again, with the question in mind, making notes on relevant Write down any ideas on the structure/content of your essay that occur to you as you are reading so that you don’t forget them.
  • Consult any secondary reading recommended by your You might also look for secondary reading your tutor has not specifically recommended: some fields (like Shakespeare or Victorian literature) are vast, and nobody has read all of the material available. Be careful, however, that you do not give too much weight to out-of-date or unscholarly work.

For secondary material, other than journal articles, use the index and the table of contents to identify areas of interest, rather than simply reading through the full work. Try to follow up references to other critics or texts, if you feel it would be useful. Note down useful ideas, and transcribe short, relevant quotations that you might use in your work.




  • The basic structure for your essay consists of an introduction and a conclusion separated by a series of paragraphs each progressively developing your You will know this already.
  • The introduction should identify the topic of your essay, the approach you intend to use, and the text/s or materials that you will be writing It is also possible to use the introduction to grab the reader’s attention by some eye-catching statement, quotation or statistic, but this can back-fire. Read it over to yourself to be sure it is not going to alienate your reader. The introduction is not intended to contain broad generalisations about your topic, your material, your views on the material, or anything else.
  • The argument developed in the main body of the essay will be dictated mainly by the question or title you have chosen. It is often logical to move from the general to the particular in your work, starting with a short survey of the critical, theoretical, literary or cultural context for the text/s before moving on to make particular However, be sure to keep relating the individual points back to the main context and focus of your essay as you proceed.
  • Where the question requires you to write on or compare two or more texts, you should structure the essay around the argument you are making, considering each successive point in relation to each text, rather than giving each text a separate section within the
  • Each paragraph should contain one point, fully explained, accompanied by the evidence you are offering for your
  • The conclusion should be short, and include a brief summary of the argument you have developed in the It should not contain anything which contradicts the rest of the work, or any new ideas or points that you have not discussed already.
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This is usually the hardest part of the process, and also the most difficult to advise on. Bear in mind the following points:

  • DO NOT include irrelevant information. For instance, it is inadvisable to start an essay on ‘Dickens’s use of romance motifs’ with a page of biographical information on the author, or a paragraph on the general characteristics of Victorian England.
  • You should also avoid making statements to the effect that Dickens is well-known, successful, good at writing, the greatest Victorian novelist,
  • DO ensure that you are answering the question that is being What you should produce are points relevant to the question, including specific examples chosen from the text to support your argument, and, where appropriate, references to relevant criticism by other scholars.
  • DO make use of secondary sources, lecture notes and points made in seminars, but do so with care. Lecture notes should be used as material to consult, but not to quote in assessed work. If your lecturer made a general point, using a specific textual example, you might, for instance, look for different examples of the point to use in your own The same may be done with regard to points gained from secondary reading.
  • DO NOT use other people’s ideas as a substitute for your own, no matter how well-expressed they appear or how carefully you have referenced Instead, use them as starting-points for your own arguments. Writing ‘X argues that Dickens’s heroines are “childlike, sexless angels”; however, this view overlooks the prominent role of characters such as Estella’ is much better than writing ‘as X argues, Dickens’s heroines are generally childlike and asexual’.
  • DO ensure that you acknowledge all ideas taken from the work of others, as well as providing references for all Information that is widely known does not need to be acknowledged, but all specific ideas must be attributed to their owner. For example, a statement to the effect that India was a colony of the UK during the nineteenth century does not need to be referenced; however, using the concept of ‘hybridity’ in discussing colonialism requires a note citing the work of Homi K. Bhabha. If you are in any doubt about whether or not you should acknowledge your source, it is safer to include a reference.
  • DO distinguish between primary evidence and secondary comment or ‘Evidence’ comes from the text or material about which you are writing in your essay. ‘Comment’ or ‘criticism’ is what other people have already written about it (or what you might have heard in a lecture about it). You should use comment and criticism to stimulate your own ideas and help develop your own argument. You should cite ‘evidence’ in support of your argument, and not simply the published views of critics. You should then follow your argument through to its conclusion, acknowledging the ideas of other critics without being derivative (see the section on Plagiarism below).
  • DO make sure that you are using the correct system of referencing and bibliography (see References and Bibliography).
  • DO keep a back-up of your work at all times. Computer failure or loss of work and lack of a back-up copy at any stage of the writing process will NOT be counted as valid extenuating circumstances.
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DO NOT stop work when you have finished writing. Use the Checklist at the end of this guide, and ensure that you can answer ‘yes’ to all the questions before you hand in your coursework.



Word counts and Leeway

The School of English has introduced a new policy on word counts and leeway, in a phased roll-out from Spring 2014.

For all first year and second year undergraduate students and all full-time and part-time PGT students:

All items of coursework, including dissertations, carry a maximum word limit that you should aim to meet but must not exceed. So, for example, if the word count is 2500 words, you must aim to write up to this word count, but not beyond it.

There is no leeway on the word count for any piece of assessed work. Marking practices and word limits relate to an assignment’s intellectual, professional, and technical skills as outlined in the Faculty of Arts marking criteria and your work will be marked accordingly.

Your word count includes all quotations, citations, footnotes and endnotes, but excludes the essay title, tables and figures, and the set of references or bibliography at the end. Appendices containing either data or passages used for analysis are also excluded from the word count.

For ALL final year undergraduate students:

You are permitted a 10% leeway above or below the word-limit. Over-length or under-length work is less likely to display a high level of professional, intellectual and technical skills under the Marking Criteria used by the School and Faculty, and will be marked accordingly.

Your word count includes all quotations, citations, footnotes and endnotes, but excludes the essay title, tables and figures, and the set of references or bibliography at the end. Appendices containing either data or passages used for analysis are also excluded from the word count.

(The new policy without leeway will apply to all Year 3 and 4 undergraduate students from Autumn 2015.)