The evolution of writing a good law essay

Love them or hate them, essays in law are common. You may face them in subjects such as criminal law, equity and trusts, administrative, and constitutional law. Even though you likely won’t be writing essays in practice, it’s still really important to get your head around how they’re written well in order to get as many marks as you can before the dreaded exam.

Writing an essay is a skill which you will find gets better over time. I recall my first essays being pretty average, but they have become better and I have achieved really great marks for them recently. I’d really like to share with you my action plan for writing a good law essay.

Firstly, what’s the topic? Is it “discuss the relationship between common law and equity”, is it “what is the status of Aboriginal offenders in the criminal justice system”? Get your head around the broad area of knowledge the topic is asking you to think about.

Once you’ve got your head around the general topic, sit down with a pen and paper and scribble down a few dot points about what you’ve learnt about this particular topic throughout the course so far. This may mean you look back through your lecture notes, textbook, and any extra resources your lecturer may have shared with you to note the main concepts.

Then take to the internet to gather research. Don’t even think of typing your essay yet because you’ll end up doing your head in trying to find a direction to take. Just spend some time reading a few articles. Type in a variety of search terms because this will enable you to get more results. If you find anything important, do a brief note in a word document or on a piece of paper about what that article is about. Save these as you go so that if you want to use them in your essay you don’t have go in search for them again.

Then think about what your stance is on the topic. What’s your opinion? Do you agree or disagree? Jot down some points that are on your side. This is how you’ll start to formulate your structure. Also jot down counterpoints or critiques of the points you’ve got. This is what it means to critically analyse the topic. An essay is not just merely agreeing or disagreeing with the topic. The point of an essay is to research the topic, formulate arguments for and against, and then take a stance to convince the reader that you’ve thoroughly understood the topic.

Next, start to formulate a structure with the points you’re making or sub-topics you’re going to discuss. Each point could equal sections of your essay, and the points and the counterpoints could form paragraphs within those sections. Usually the lecturer will allow you to structure it in your own way, so do it in a way that makes sense to you.

Then start consolidating your research. Start typing something into a Word document. What I like to do is type or copy/paste the bits of research I’ve already gathered under the headings I’ve decided I want and then type them in my own words (don’t simply copy and paste and then leave as is).

Once you have the bare bones, go back over your sources and extract more detailed information to put into your essay. Don’t forget to interrogate and critique the points if you can find research to the contrary. This is very important as it will show you’ve really understood the topic and that you have not only explored the favourable points, but also that you’ve critiqued the favourable points themselves.

You should now have a draft. Now you can start editing. As you edit, you’ll be able to identify the stronger and weaker points, and what needs to be expanded on. Keep adding information until you have enough to make your points clear and concise. Repeat this step until you’re satisfied with what you have written and have a final product.

Congratulations, you’ve written your essay! You can pass GO and get some bonus tips:

  • Every time you save a source, give it a simple name, such as “A”, so that when you’re typing the essay up and have to footnote, you can simply type “A” without breaking your concentration and then fill it in later.
  • You will rearrange what you write. Many times. But you don’t panic. This is part of the process of writing a good essay. So plan your time accordingly.
  • Start early. Yes, at least a month in advance. This will give you time to research in depth, do a few drafts and then begin to finalise and appropriately source and structure it well before the due date.
  • Write your introduction and conclusion last. Often you’ll start typing and by the time you’ve done a few drafts you’ve gone into a different direction than what you originally thought, so leave those until the end when you have a clear idea of what you’re trying to say. If you want to read about how to write an introduction and a conclusion, I will be doing a follow up post on this later.
  • Short. Sharp. Sentences. It’s much easier to follow what you’re saying and get you those communication marks.
  • Reference – better to overdo it then not do it enough and risk getting done for plagiarism. That’s not fun. So be proactive about it and go over every footnote with a fine-toothed comb.

Anything else you’d like to know? Get in touch.

Best of luck on your next essay,

The [Pre]Lawyer in Black


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