How To Write An English Essay

Alice has a PhD in English Literature and first-class BA (hons) in English from the University of Birmingham. Alice qualified as ‘outstanding’ from the highly competitive King Edward’s Consortium teacher training programme and is one of Spires’ online English Tutors. In this article, she shares some general advice on writing an English essay, with views that will be useful for students at the GCSE, A-Level, IB, Higher, or University level. 

Writing an essay is hard. Sometimes it is very hard. Sometimes you want nothing more than to throw your pen (or your laptop) out of the window, bury your head in a pillow and scream for a little while. Or go to sleep. As a graduate of an English Literature PhD, and someone who loves both reading and writing to a fault, I feel like I can say this with some honesty – as much as I enjoy putting words to paper, sometimes it is hard. 

However, there are always methods of coping to be found, ranging from simply enjoying the topic you are studying, to choosing an inspiring question, to a myriad of software that can help you focus and encourage you to keep writing. The following article doesn’t claim to offer a solve-all guide to essay writing. However, it does hopefully contain some useful ideas and tips you may not have thought of before – please feel free to pick and choose from them as you please.

English Essay inspiration

Sometimes the hardest part of writing an essay is simply to be inspired. You know the rush of words will come as soon as you get a good idea… But then you spend hours staring at a blank screen wondering who’ll die next in Game of Thrones, Squid Game or some other game of life and death. 

Choosing the right question for your English essay

This becomes even worse when the coursework requires you to compose not only your essay, but your own question to be answered. Having no ‘hook’ into which you can sink your brain means that you can float around for ages with absolutely no idea where to even begin. The only consolation I can offer is this: if you are in a position where you have to choose your own question, don’t think of it like that. You get to choose your own question. This is an absolute blessing. This means that you can write about anything you find interesting – anything at all. 

Think about your favourite part of the novel/poem/play (or your least favourite, sometimes essays are the most fun when you can argue against the text). Don’t put any pressure on this, forget you are writing an essay. What is your favourite part of the text? Good. Now, why is this your favourite part of the text? Is it because it relates to a particular theme you feel strongly about? Is it because you really like the way “drought” rhymes with “pout”? Is it because there’s a metaphor about a tiger, and you really like tigers? Whatever it is, you have just found your question – or at the very least a place to start. 

Themes speak for themselves as a topic for a question. “Drought” and “pout”: compare the ways the authors use humorous language to further their themes, focusing particularly on the rhyme scheme. Tigers: how does the author use animalistic imagery to reveal inner truth in character, setting and plot? These are just a couple of examples, I’m sure you could think of better ones. The main point is: stop worrying about the final essay before it’s even begun. Start with what interests you, then formulate a question around that, never the other way around.  

On the rare occasion when you are allowed to choose your own texts – this is even better. When I was doing my A Level coursework, we were working on dystopian literature. Fortunately, I do really like dystopian fiction. However, I also really enjoyed science fiction novels, and so when I came to selecting my texts to analyse, I chose a novel called A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. – a classic post-apocalyptic science-fiction text with some incredibly interesting ideas, but not something ever officially studied in schools. Of course, you should make sure that this is acceptable with your teachers, and that you aren’t breaking some obscure sub-bullet pointed rule in the examination handbook you probably use as a doorstop – but in my experience, as long as you have something genuinely interesting to say about a text, then you should say it! Not only will it make it much less painful for you to write, but you’ll probably write something better if you are actually invested in what you are saying.

Even if you cannot choose your texts or you only have a small selection of questions, there are always ways to use the question to your advantage. One of the people who set the paper for my English university exams was obsessed with applying the third law of thermodynamics (entropy – simply, that the heat of everything in the universe is gradually and inevitably decreasing to zero). We always knew that every year without fail, the final question on the paper would be something about applying the third law of thermodynamics to the literature at hand. Though you may not have this particular luxury, if you are more of a science or mathematics buff, think about how you can use this to your advantage. Find something interesting you can say about a text that relates to your area of interest. Odds are the examiner won’t have read anything else like it that day, or even ever – bonus points for you.

Keep your essay writing time productive

Of course, there will always be those questions which you just can’t seem to get to grips with, however hard you try. The ones where you can get a certain amount of the way, but then it just becomes a long hard slog to the end. 

In these cases, the only advice I can give is to accept it is hard, and keep going! Don’t give up and watch television – you can find ways to motivate yourself. Find your own methods to just keep writing. These can be as individual and unusual as you like, no one else has to know about them, as long as they work! 

At one point when I was in the middle of a particularly long coursework, and the deadline was approaching, a friend introduced me to a great little website. You write one hundred words, and the website rewards you with a picture of an incredibly cute cat. Another hundred words, another cat, and so on 

Now this may not be for everybody – you may be a dog person. However, it is an example of how many weird and wacky resources are out there that can help you to meet even the worst deadlines and word-counts. If you are more sensibly-minded and fluffy creatures don’t appeal to you in the slightest, there is the Pomodoro technique which puts a stopwatch on your work every 25 minutes, with lovely 5 minute breaks in between, which is great for motivation and productivity. It can be found on loads of websites, including There really is no excuse!

Exam Essays

And so we come to the worst, most stressful situation in which to write an essay – the exam. There are many ways to write essays in exams. Some will tell you to spend at least 15 minutes on an extensive plan, some say to jump straight in, some say to leave your introduction until the end as you can’t go off track on a point that you haven’t yet declared. Personally, I always found that if I spent 15 minutes on a plan I never had time to finish the essay itself, and writing an introduction first helped to calm me and marshall my thoughts before diving into the body of the argument. The point is (as with so many of these points) that you have to find a way that works for you. Explore different methods when you are doing your revision, and then stick to one that you like. If you are told to do it one way (e.g. introduction last) and that just doesn’t work with the way that you think – ditch it, and try something else. You’ve got nothing to lose.

Say something original in your English essay work

One of my tutors at university once gave me the best advice for writing a good essay that I have ever received. He said, “Say something expected about something unexpected, or something unexpected about something expected”. When you’re stuck for something to write about, and you don’t want to risk being clichéd or (even worse) incomprehensible, this is a fantastic piece of advice to remember. 

For example, discussing feminism (something expected) in Romeo and Juliet (also definitely expected) has been done before, and may be quite boring for any examiner reading a similar argument for the tenth time running. Similarly, applying Pythagoras’ Theorem to an obscure poem by Edward Lear may lose the attention of even the most committed examiner if they aren’t already familiar with either – you don’t get marks for being incomprehensible. 

On the other hand, the feminist ramifications of Edward Lear, or a new perspective on the structure of Romeo and Juliet using Pythagoras, may be quite interesting.

So there you are. In an ideal world, every single one of the points above will prove a new and incredibly useful thought for you, and you will now be able to write English essays with maximum confidence and minimum stress. 

However, unfortunately life doesn’t quite work like that. Hopefully you will have seen a few things that grabbed your attention, and I encourage you to try them out next time you are writing – from finding inspiration in maths, to the website with cuddly cats. If they don’t work for you, then at least you will have tried. 

Finally, I can’t stress enough the importance of finding your own methods which work for you. Ultimately, English is a subjective topic of study, based on personal interpretation and opinion – the same is just as true of its working practices. Some authors write on a laptop, some with a pencil, some can only write outside, or in the kitchen, or (in the case of J.K. Rowling) in a tiny café in the suburbs of Edinburgh. 

Find your own place, and have fun!