A surprising number of business and management students struggle with writing coherent essays.
In today’s blogpost, Professor Will Harvey (University of Bristol Management School) provides practical advice on creating an essay that is structured, well-balanced and reads fluently.
It is difficult to know exact numbers, but there are at least 10,000 Business Schools worldwide and many millions of prospective, current and former students of business and management subjects. As a teacher, tutor, supervisor and examiner, I have witnessed a common trend of students struggling to write coherent essays. I have found this to be as true of undergraduates as it is of postgraduate pre-experience and post-graduate post-experience students. Many of the students I come across are smart, but struggle with the strictures and independence required when answering an essay question. My purpose here is to help provide some practical advice to business and management students at all levels on writing fluent essays. There is plenty of reading materials (Tissington and Hasel, 2017), generic guidance provided by universities and programmes, but as a marker and an internal and external examiner, this does not seem to be having the scale of change needed for students.
I am not advocating for a single style of essay. Every essay you are set will have its own context and assessment criteria, which you will need to understand and seek clarity from whoever is setting the assignment. Most academics set aside time in class, office hours, on virtual learning environment chat groups and via e-mail to support you with answering your assignment questions. There is plenty of material available online via search engines and now generative artificial intelligence offerings such as ChatGPT and Bard. Be warned, while they may be able to address your needs rapidly and persuasively in the short-term, their responses to complex questions, although improving, tend to be superficial, dated and often erroneous. There is also the implications of claiming work that is your own, without appropriate referencing.
Writing an essay is both an art and a science. It is an art because it requires style and creativity in how you write and persuade through language, data and examples. It is a science because it needs a clear structure, evidence-base and logic. One of the most wonderful and frustrating aspects of answering essay questions is there are many ways that excellence can be demonstrated and each examiner will have their own stylistic preferences. This is why it is important to ensure you have carefully reviewed the assessment criteria and that you and your peers have probed your instructor on the assessment criteria. We as instructors have a responsibility to be clear around our expectations and you as students have a responsibility to ensure you understand the expectations before you begin your essay.
Imagine you have been set the following broad 3,000 word essay question, which I am using based on my research and teaching in this area (Harvey, 2023):
The reputations at stake argument is hyperbole. Discuss.
I would recommend that you start with a pragmatic exercise, which is approximately how long does each paragraph need to be for you to develop a compelling argument? I have decided 300 words for this essay because I need to engage with some academic literature on reputation, examples, data and analysis. For you, it might be 400 words, or it might be 200 words, but it is probably not going to be much outside that range because if your paragraphs are too short then you will be descriptive and organising your argument like a business report, whereas if your paragraphs are too long then they will be overly dense with detail and therefore difficult for the reader to follow.
In my case, I have ten paragraphs to answer the question (3,000 words/300 words). It is important to have an introduction and aims paragraph at the beginning and then a concluding paragraph at the end, more of which later, so that leaves me with two paragraphs for contextualising and wrapping-up, and eight paragraphs for the body of my essay.
Now I know that I have around eight paragraphs, I need to start reading, researching and planning what my main arguments will be. For a broad question of this kind, there will likely be some readings that have been recommended on your course and you also need to identify your own readings to give you the opportunity to find out more. You can read beyond course readings in three ways. First, you can follow-up on interesting sources that have been referenced in the course readings that capture your curiosity. Second, you can review on Web of Science or Google Scholar who has cited the course readings, which will provide you with more recent research. Third, you can search for keywords on reference databases to see what other materials emerge. Given that the question on reputation is not only academic, but also of relevance to business, I would also recommend a wider search in reputable business, finance and mainstream media to gauge what themes, data and examples are given.
Try not to be disconcerted that you do not have a good command of your argument when you are in the middle of reading and trying to make sense of all the material. An important part of the process of planning an essay is getting out of your comfort zone and immersing yourself in different evidence and arguments, which should challenge your thinking in relation to the question. It can be confusing, chaotic and sometimes demoralising when you cannot see the direction of your essay. However, persevere and ensure that you are confident that the evidence upon which you are drawing is high quality, otherwise you run the risk of building your argument on dubious evidence, which is a major problem we have in business and society in relation to misinformation and disinformation (Petratos, 2021).
Having read lots of material, made notes and annotations, you are now ready to finalise your essay plan. In researching the above question, I came across so many readings and arguments. Rather than making eight arguments in eight paragraphs, I decided to make four key arguments so that I have more scope (600 words and two paragraphs) to present the evidence as well as build and develop my argument. For each of the four arguments, I ask myself a few key questions. First, am I finding the right balance of description and analysis? Inevitably, you need to provide some context for the reader, for example explaining the essence of a theory, outlining an example or showing data. However, you need the right dose of description and analysis. Too much description and limited analysis will reduce the depth and sophistication of your argument, but limited description and too much analysis can run the risk of not providing important context around your argument. In general, I have found weaker essays tend to be heavy on description and light on analysis so I would recommend placing more emphasis on analysis than description.
A second question I ask myself is what evidence am I drawing-on? For the question above, I would want to be engaging with high quality peer reviewed academic literature, for example in well-reputed and relevant journals or published with well-regarded book publishers. The grey literature can be another important source of insight, which includes government or business reports, articles from think tanks and reputable media, or more broadly information from reliable sources outside of commercial publishing. For example, I might draw on an article from the business press such as The Economist, Financial Times or the Wall Street Journal, or from a Business School accreditation body such as AACSB or EFMD.
A third question I ask myself is what am I presenting that is surprising? Marking is one of the most important tasks for academics because the consequences are significant for our students, but it is also gruelling for us because it requires high levels of concentration during an intensive time period to ensure we feedback to students in a timely manner. If you are one of fifty essays being marked then you want to tell the reader something surprising that they may not have considered. This shows a step change in your research and analysis that can help to stand you apart.
Topping and Tailing
Having identified your main argument, I recommend finishing your essay with what I call topping and tailing. The topping is your introduction and aims paragraph where you need to provide some background context and set the scene of the topic before you dive into answering it. In this paragraph, you might want to identify areas of emphasis that you will cover and also explain areas that you will not cover. At the end of the introduction paragraph, I find a few sentences outlining how you will structure the remainder of your essay is helpful for signposting your argument.
The tailing of your essay is your final conclusions paragraph. This should briefly recap on your argument and explain why you have taken a particular approach and outlining the novelty of your argument. There will be issues that have been unveiled in your argument that you would have gone into more detail, but did not have the scope to cover. The end of the tailing section can provide an opportunity to outline further lines of enquiry that others can explore to build on your argument.
I recommend leaving the topping and tailing to the end because your main argument can significantly shift as you write and review so by writing these sections at the end, you will avoid too much unnecessary rewriting.
Congratulations for having written a first draft. There is a lot you can still improve in the final stages. First, give yourself some time away from the essay and come back to it the following day with fresh eyes, which will help you to iron out typographical errors and logical flaws in your argument. Second, ensure you have appropriate topic sentences, pivots and bridging sentences to ensure your argument flows smoothly and is well-signposted (Abrams, 2000). Topic sentences typically come at the beginning of your paragraph and should clearly reflect the content of the paragraph. Pivots are when you may need to change the angle of your argument within a paragraph. Bridging sentences highlight what has come before and what is coming next and can help with the flow between your paragraphs. Third, if you have a trusted person who is willing to review your work then this can be helpful for identifying any writing errors, identifying issues with your argument and flagging areas where you have drifted from the question. Receiving feedback can be challenging, but it is an essential part of how we improve.
There is no one formula to writing a fluent essay in business and management. Giving yourself time to research, plan, write and review will help to ensure you have a well-structured and coherent argument. Try to break down the essay into focused sections initially and then work to connect those areas coherently at the end. Finally, receiving feedback from a trusted critical friend is important at the end before one final review and submission.
Abrams, E. (2000). Topic Sentences and Signposting. Harvard College Writing Center. Url: https://writingcenter.fas.harvard.edu/pages/topic-sentences-and-signposting Accessed on: 13.2.2022.
Harvey, W.S. (2023). Reputations At Stake. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Petratos, P. N. (2021). Misinformation, disinformation, and fake news: Cyber risks to business. Business Horizons, 64(6), 763-774. Tissington, P. and Hasel, M. (2017). How to Write Successful Business & Management Essays. 2nd Edition. SAGE Publications Ltd., Thousand Oaks