Arts and Humanities Essay Writing

Each essay task is different and consequently, the information below is not designed to be a substitute for checking the information for your specific essay task. It is essential that you check the assessment brief, module handbook and programme handbook, as well as attend any lectures, seminars and webinars devoted to the essay you are working on.  

Essays in each subject area belong to a faculty (science, social sciences, arts and Humanities). Essays within the same faculty tend to share some features of style, structure, language choice, and scholarly practices. Please click through to the section relevant to your faculty area and if you want to be curious, the other ones too! 

Arts & Humanities essays

Arts and Humanities is a faculty that includes a huge range of subject areas, from Music to Philosophy. Study in the arts and humanities typically focuses on products of the human mind, like music, artistic endeavour, philosophical ideas, and literary productions. This means that essays in the arts and humanities are typically exploring ideas, or interpreting the products of thinking (such as music, art, literature). 

There are a range of essay writing styles in arts and humanities, and each subject area has its own conventions and expectations, which are explained and built into modules within each degree programme. Typically, each essay explores an idea, using critical engagement with source material, to produce an argument.

There is typically more reliance on the interpretation of ideas and evidence by the student than in the sciences and social sciences. For the student, the challenge is to understand and control the ideas in each essay, producing a coherent and logical argument that fulfils the essay brief. As with all essays, careful structure, word choices, and language use are essential to succeeding.

Department-specific advice for essays in Arts and Humanities 

Some departments provide web-based advice:

  • English and Related Literature essay writing advice pages
  • Philosophy essay writing advice pages
  • Music Department ‘House Style’ guidance for essay writing
  • Language and Linguistic Science style guide

If your department does not appear above, do ask your supervisor or other academic staff what specific guidance is available. 

Key Features of Arts and Humanities essays

  1. They are based on evidence. It is important that ideas used in essays are derived from credible and usable sources to root your essay in the scholarly materials of the subject that you are writing about. 
  2. There is usually a thesis statement. This appears towards the end of your introductory paragraph, concisely outlining the purpose and the main argument of the essay. It is short (once sentence), concise, and precise. Though the essay may have multiple sub-arguments, all must tie into the thesis statement. This means it is important to know, state and stick to the primary focus set out in your thesis statement. 
  3. They require you to interpret evidence. It is unlikely that you will find a source that directly answers the essay question set. You will typically be required to interpret primary and secondary evidence. Primary evidence includes the manuscript of a novel, or a letter describing an historical event. Secondary evidence includes academic books and peer reviewed articles. 
  4. They require you to apply ideas. Many essays will ask you to apply an abstract idea to a scenario, or interpretation of something. For example, you could be asked to apply a Marxist ideology upon Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights or Post-Colonialist theories upon Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
  5. Essays vary greatly in terms of length, required depth of thinking and purpose. You must carefully read the assessment brief and any supporting materials provided to you. It is also important to complete formative tasks that prepare you for an essay, as these will help you to become use to the requirements of the summative essay. 
  6. They must show criticality. When interpreting evidence, or applying ideas in your essay you must be aware that there is more than one possible understanding. Through exploring multiple sources and showing the limits and interconnectedness of ideas you show criticality. More information on criticality can be found on the Criticality page of this guide

Example extract of an arts and humanities essay

Essay Title: Liturgical expression and national identity during the reign of Æthelred the Unready

‘Finally, Sarah Larratt Keefer, believes that whilst these verses ‘purport to be communal [and are] clad in the guise of synaxis, or public worship, they are nonetheless a deliberate exploration of [individual] “selfhood”, [concerning] the private soul within her temporal community’ . 31 Whilst Keefer makes a strong case for this argument, later offering that ‘these poems frequently [present] individual reinterpretations that have nothing to do with liturgical tradition’,32 However, I offer a slightly altered viewpoint. Indeed, these verses show a sophisticated sense of exegetical interpretation that can be sensibly associated with individual meditation, and the poems’ straying from liturgical tradition does nothing if not support this concept. However, to refer again to Raskin’s idea of a “malleable” liturgy that must “live and breathe” the community it represents, it is reasonable to suggest that the CCCC.201 liturgical verses are, in Keefer’s words, an “exploration of selfhood”, but rather an exploration of collective selfhood. Whilst they may present reinterpretations not extant within the liturgical tradition, many of the tropes these interpretations derive from are those pertaining to an English tradition. Perhaps it is not the not the individual soul, but rather the collective soul of the English nation at prayer, within the community of the Christian church on earth.

Lord’s Prayer (Il) and Gloria Patri (I) illustrate a bond between liturgical expression and English national identity. As Alfred had intended it to, Old English became a uniting factor for an otherwise “fragmented” peoples; in aligning that bond that still further with Jones, “Lord’s Prayer (10”, 70 71, lines 30 31. Latin and the liturgy, these verses create a space in which English can keep its rich, yet individual, Christian history, as well as maintaining a place within the wider Christian community. Additionally, through the penitential act of liturgical composition; with vernacular exegesis potentially likened to God-like creativity; and the linguistic choice of “engla God”, these liturgical verses themselves both signify and enact a ritualised unity with God. Perhaps in an effort to encourage penance still further, they subtly reference the nation’s cultural Christianity.’

This essay is from English studies and shows typical features of an arts and humanities essay. It is examining two ideas, namely ‘national identity’ and ‘liturgical expression’ and applying them both to a period of history. The essay does this by analysing linguistic choices, using interpretation from the literature base to create an argument that addresses the essay title. 

It also has the feature of the student using sources of evidence to offer an interpretation that may disagree with some published sources. This use of evidence to create an argument that is novel to the student and requires interpretation of ideas is typical of arts and humanities writing. ‘”engla God”, these liturgical verses themselves both signify and enact a ritualised unity with God.’ is an example from the essay extract that shows the careful language choices used to create a concise and precise argument that clearly conveys complex thought to the reader from the author. 

One way of thinking about a good arts and humanities essay is that it is like you are producing a garment from threads. The overall piece has a shape that people can recognise and understand, and each word, like each stitch, builds the whole piece slowly, whilst some key threads, like core ideas in your argument, run through the whole to hold it all together. It is the threading together of the strands of argument that determines the quality of the final essay, just as the threading of strands in a garment determine the quality of the final piece. 

Good arts and humanities essay writing is…

  1. Based on evidence sources,
  2. built on the interpretation and application of ideas, evidence and theories,
  3. a clearly expressed, logical argument that addresses the essay question,
  4. carefully constructed to guide the reader in a logical path from the introduction to the conclusion,
  5. filled with carefully chosen language to precisely and accurately convey ideas and interpretations to the reader,
  6. built on rigorous, careful and close analysis of ideas,
  7. constructed using careful evaluation of the significance of each idea and concept used,
  8. readable, meaning it is clear and logical, using clearly understandable English,
  9. rewarded with high marks.

Common mistakes in arts and humanities essay writing

  • Not answering the question posed. It is very easy to answer the question you wished had been asked, or drift away from the question during your writing. Keep checking back to the question to ensure you are still focused and make a clear plan before writing.  
  • Moving beyond the evidence. You are required to interpret ideas and evidence that exist, this requires some application and novelty, but should not be making up new ideas/knowledge to make your argument work; your writing must be rooted in evidence. 
  • Using complex and long words where simpler word choices would convey meaning more clearly. Think of the reader. 
  • Leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions, or requiring the reader to make assumptions. They must be able to see your thinking clearly on the page. 
  • Using lots of direct quotes. There are times when using quotes is important to detail lines from a novel for example, but you need to use them carefully and judiciously so that most of your writing is based on your use of sources, for which you gain credit. 
  • Giving an unsupported personal opinion. This is a danger in arts and humanities writing because you are interpreting ideas and it is much easier to drift into unsupported thinking. Stick to the evidence and interpret/apply it, rather than telling the reader what you personally think. 

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