Features Of A Good Academic Essay

This article is based on the free eBook “How to Write an Essay”

For some students the most traumatic element during their years at university is writing essays. It doesn’t have to be like this. Once you know how to go about putting a good essay together, it is less work than you might think. Let’s take a look at the 3 most essential elements every essay needs.


3 main features of an essay

An essay does three things.

  • It addresses a topic,
  • it answers a question,
  • and, it (usually) takes the form of an argument.


1. Finding your topic: where do you stand?

First, an essay addresses a topic.

Many textbooks will tell you that a topic is the essay’s subject. That’s not quite true. An essay’s subject is simply what it’s about: it’s a label, like the label you might put on a box file, or the name you’d give to a folder on your computer. An essay’s topic is the position it takes on the subject. It expresses your view on the subject.

To find your topic, ask: What’s my perspective on this subject? What’s my position?

Suppose the subject of your essay is the French Revolution. To find potential topics for this subject, you could start by creating phrases beginning with the words ‘why’ or ‘how’.

How the French Revolution began?

Why the French Revolution collapsed into despotism?

How the French Revolution influenced revolutionary movements elsewhere?

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If you’re writing a dissertation or a post-graduate thesis (for a PhD, for example), you’ll be asked to choose your own topic: you may spend some time with your supervisor refining that topic. If you’ve been set an essay to write, then the topic will be indicated or suggested by the question you’ve been given.


2. What question are you answering?

The problem is that, sometimes, the question doesn’t look like a question. Many essay questions are in the form of instructions. These instructions are contained in directive words: for example, ‘outline’, ‘compare and contrast’ or – that word guaranteed to strike fear into the heart of any essay writer – ‘discuss’.

You must answer the question. But you’ll need to do more: you have to support that answer with an argument.


3. What do you mean, ‘argument’?

We tend to use the word ‘argument’ to mean a disagreement. But we can also use the word ‘argue’ in the sense of ‘making a case’. We use this meaning of the word for more formal situations: we might talk about a lawyer arguing her case in court, or a politician arguing for reduced taxes.

This is the kind of argument you need to construct in your essay. It should address the topic and answer the question.

To sum it all up: An essay takes your reader on a journey, from introduction to conclusion.

Three elements of an argument

An academic argument is made up of three elements.

  • A claim that you are arguing for
  • A reason to support that claim
  • Reasoning and evidence to link the reason to the claim

In its simplest form, an argument takes the form: [Claim] because [Reason].

In academic writing, we usually call an argument’s claim a thesis or thesis statement. A well-constructed essay uses two elements to support its thesis statement:

  • reasoning, which presents ideas in a logical structure,
  • and evidence, information suggesting or demonstrating that the ideas are credible or true.

If you can create a clear thesis statement, and support it with logically connected ideas and carefully presented evidence, your essay will stand out from all those essays that are nothing more than collections of facts.


And that’s the kind of essay that the free eBook “How to Write an Essay” written by Alan Barker will help you produce. You can download this free eBook right here.


Essay Characteristics - an Example Guideline for Marking

Characteristics of an "A" Paper:

Excellent, with perhaps, one forgivable flaw.

  • Challenging thesis and clearly developed.
  • References used intelligently in argument.
  • Correct sentence/ grammatical structure.
  • Sophisticated writing style.
  • Appropriate documentation.
  • Subtlety and complexity in approach to subject.
  • Independence of thought.

Characteristics of a "B" Paper:

Good overall (i.e., does many things right).

  • Some minor errors in factual content OR
  • Some errors in terminology or general writing skills OR
  • Some lapses in clarity (i.e., vagueness, incompleteness, flaws in structure).

Characteristics of a "C" Paper:

Generally correct, with more than a few flaws.

  • Inconsistent or superficial.
  • Weakness in line of argument.
  • Dull thesis.
  • Mechanical approach to argument.
  • Lack or support.
  • Problems with basic grammar or matters of style.
  • Simplicity of thought, structure, or expression.

Characteristics of a "D" or Failing Paper

  •     Does not make its case.
  • Severe difficulties in logical structure or mechanics of expression.
  • Illogical, unsupported thinking without a line or argument.
  • Inadequate thinking about the topic.
  • Incoherent writing.

Rubrics and Marking Sheets

If you expect to be a TA an essay course it is worth your while to develop a thorough grading rubric. Although this activity can be time consuming it will save you time in the long run.

A rubric based marking sheet is a quick way to give detailed feedback in less time. It also provides quantifiable information for specific characteristics that are normally subjective and challenged by students. The sample rubric shown below was used in a third-year required course the the improvement of academic writing was a secondary course objective. The appropriate descriptor for each category would be circled and a numeric grade given for the entire paper. Rubrics should be provided to students before they begin work on an assignment or essay.


Depth/20Surface, book-report, no depth.Lacking depth in one or two areas.Appropriate for a 3rd year course.4th year or graduate level.
Clarity of ideas/15Confused interpretation of most points, or several major ideas.Confused interpretation of some minor points.At expected levels.Beyond expected levels.
Adequate sources/15Uses & and cites less than six sourcesUses & cites at least 6 sources.Minimum of 10 sources used & cited.Uses & cites more than 10 sources, or uses sources of uncommon quality.

Organization and mechanics

APA citation/10Frequent or severe errors in APA citation practices.
Minor errors in APA citation practices.All sources referenced correctly.Sources used to strengthen argument, nested referencing.
APA style/5Inattention to fundamentals of APA style.Minor errors in APA style.Reflects understanding of APA style.Utilizes APA style
conventions not addressed in class (charts, tables, diagrams, appendices, etc.).
Themes/20No thematic organization.  
Discusses 2 or 3 main themes, but uses sources sequentially
within each theme.
Integrates sources to discuss 2 or 3 themes which are clearly related.Integrates sources to
discuss one main theme,
perhaps with explicit
Correct English usage/15Frequent or severeerrors in grammar, sentence structure, or word usage.Minor errors in grammar, sentence structure, or word usage.

Appropriate for 3rd year course.


Exceptional fluency and language capacity supports communicative purpose.


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