Introduction: How to begin!

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GES Essay writing guide (1)

Introduction: How to begin!

This guide presents a brief outline of some of the technical points that must be observed in essay writing within the School of Geography and Environmental Science (GES). With the exception of the details concerning footnotes and referencing (where requirements can vary greatly from subject to subject) the comments are applicable to essay writing generally.

AIMS of essay
The value of any essay lies primarily in the thoughts and ideas expressed. However, the type of essay that we expect from you may be very different to the essays that you have written during secondary school. The essays required in this subject are not an exercise in literary expression, nor are they merely a forum for a loose collection of information. They are a form of communicating knowledge within which there is a clear line of argument soundly supported by evidence and appropriate referencing. They test your ability to find, evaluate, synthesise and communicate information independently. The research required for such an essay is a significant part of the task, along with the selection and analysis of relevant information. In addition, you may be surprised (and hopefully challenged) that there is no ‘correct answer’ - it is the logic and development of your argument that we are primarily concerned with. SGES expects you to submit an essay that conforms to its official requirements - for example drawing maps, citing sources of information and using figures and tables of information - and hence we have provided a detailed account of what we expect. Please read this guide and follow its suggestions carefully.

Planning an essay
Essays must be well organised and should NOT be written "off the top of your head". Before starting to write it is essential that you know what you want to write and how you want to write it. Therefore, always construct a written plan that will enable you to clearly structure your thoughts and guide your argument and presentation. The plan should evolve as you find more information, discover new ideas and evidence, and arrange supporting or conflicting opinions. Your plan/s will also help you to better balance the size and format of the finished product e.g. how many words, how many and what types of figures and tables, and what line of argument should be presented in the various parts of the essay? In addition, the plan will be the guide for writing your essay drafts.

As your plan takes shape, you will develop a strategy to find the kind of information necessary for your argument. A good place to start is the recommended text books for the course or relevant books in the reading list contained in the course outline. Read any chapters which are relevant to the topic, and perhaps take note of other relevant sources referenced in the bibliography. Suggested lecture readings will help (see the Lecture Reading Guide above). Some texts and collections of readings contain ‘annotated bibliographies’ which describe the most useful references on various topics.

Lecture notes


Although lecture notes may be a good introduction, they are not suitable for citation as a source of information for an essay. Do not refer to lecture notes in the body of your essay or list them in the bibliography. Similarly, we discourage reference to this subject’s major text because we want you to read more widely. Home encyclopaedias may also provide you with some initial ideas, but again please do not rely on these - use the specialised textbooks and journal articles as the major sources for your essay. Some students may gather ideas about an essay topic from relevant television or radio documentaries. When listing documentary material in your bibliography make sure that all the information is provided (ie. producer, date produced, title, date and name of programme where screened) so that others could locate the information. As a rule, however, documentary materials are too general for academic essays except where specific primary source material is included and cannot be verified elsewhere.


The internet/world wide web may also prove problematic. Some obvious problems are the lack of verification of data or opinion and the general lack of dating of material expressed at different sites; the inadequacy or inappropriate nature of material written for general audiences (e.g. much environmental information is too superficial for our purposes); the lack of adequate citation of source materials used; and the cost and time-consuming nature of surfing the net. Specialist sites (e.g. NGOs and government or semi-government agencies) may be useful, but be critical of the biases they all contain. If they are used, information gleaned must be thoroughly cited e.g. with author, detailed web address and date of contact, etc. As a general rule, the internet is a useful supplement to hard-copy and electronic serials and books, and we would expect that no more than one-quarter of your references quoted in your essay would come ‘off the net’.

Monash libraries
There are numerous libraries at Monash, but the ones that will be of most use to you for these essays are the Sir Louis Matheson Library and the Hargrave-Andrew Library. Monash Caulfield, Berwick and Gippsland are also useful for students with limited access to Clayton. Within these buildings lies a wealth of information about Geography! Start finding suitable material by using the magnificent library CATALOGUE - something you can access from on or off the campus. Go to Appendix A below to learn how to use the library from the comfort of your computer! And don't forget the library's on-line Geography and Environmental Science Subject Guide.

Library shelves
Once you have found a particular book/journal on the shelves, look at the other books either side of it (i.e. call number), as it is quite likely that they will have relevant information as well. Remember that you don't have to read the entire book to find what you need. Look up chapters or the index and then just read the parts that are of interest!


Journals (or serials) contain useful articles. The advantage of journal articles is that they are much more specific, current and provide a lot of relevant information (in contrast to books which are often more general). More particularly, academic journals are produced by a rigorous peer-review process which generally ensures more reliable information. Selected key journals are listed in the GES subject guide (linked above).They are also often listed in your unit guide and can be searched in the catalogue

The Library also provides a wide range of on-line databases which index the journals and provide a very efficient way of finding relevant articles. Databases are arranged by broad subject and can be found on the databases and electronic resources page.

Now that you have begun to explore the information, skim through the rest of the sections that look useful, jot down the main points, carefully re-read the important sections, and make more detailed notes. A systematic guide to note-taking is presented below in Appendix B. Remember to fully reference the material as you go along! That is, write down the exact details of the author, title, date, call number, etc. Go back to the structure plan of your essay and place your assembled information roughly into the order which "fills out" the structure. Decide what material actually contributes to the essay, and discard anything that doesn't. Remember it is extremely important to answer the question that has been asked, rather than going off on a tangent. Be critically selective! Now that we have got you into the library, remember that you will have to go back many times for references as your plan and draft develops.

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