Essay Writing

This page is for art history students. Essay writing involves a combination of:

  • Critical analysis of sources, that is reading in order to find weaknesses in their arguments by asking testing questions that raise contradictions and so create a debate. A good technique is to find two sources that contradict each other and then to present the two points of view while building your own analysis, perhaps based on a middle ground between the two. To achieve the highest marks you must read multiple sources and present your own argument based on your understanding of all the issues raised.
  • Visual analysis, is required to relate the visual object to your critical analysis in order to develop the arguments based on observation. Art history revolves around a physical object or event and you must demonstrate you have considered every detail and used them to support your arguments.
  • Historical research and analysis, is required to support the arguments presented. Remember, the subject is art history, not just the art and not art appreciation. You may feel emotionally involved with an artwork, which is good, but use your feelings to enliven your rational arguments based on the work and on its historic context. Art history is not about saying how you feel about an artwork.
  • Structure of essay, start with a clear introduction of the argument, present a clear, coherent and cogent debate that sets out the issues being presented. A lot of time can be spent on the conclusion but if an essay is well argued the conclusion can often be deleted as it should be self-evident.
  • Academic notation. Study and learn the notation system required by your school or college. This is straightforward and there is no excuse for getting it wrong. Always say where any quote is found, which leads me to…
  • Plagiarism, which must be avoided at all costs. The worst form of plagiarism is submitting someone else’s essay as your own. Depending on the institution, this could result in you being failed from the whole course. The next worst form is to copy text into your essay as if it were your own without citing the reference. Finally, even if you put the text into your own words, if you are using someone else’s argument then cite the source. Remember, citing sources is a good thing but approach other authors critically and say what you think is wrong with their approach or argument. Do not just copy and cite chunks of text but use them to clarify and support your own argument. Do not self-plagiarise, that is copy large chunks of text from one of your essays to another. This is just lazy, rework the material to support the argument in the current essay.

There is never enough time for any of us. Never waste time, always get ahead of yourself by starting early. I believe in starting to write almost before you start to read the sources because writing requires thought. It is too easy to read without thinking and waste time. Do not relax when reading, blast through your sources looking for the arguments and noting phrases and sentences you may need later to support your developing argument. Always copy the quotation and write the reference next to it as a lot of time can be wasted later trying to find that elusive sentence your remember reading but cannot find. Start early and get ahead of the game.

Do not be scared by the need to be original. At undergraduate level this simply means saying what you think based on the sources you have read. Do not go to extremes to try to create a forced originality. A well balanced sound, well argued case is much more powerful than some weird theory based on your feelings rather than the facts. Stick to the facts.

Try to find a theme to help you formulate an argument. What do I mean. For example, if your are asked to compare and contrast the Doric and Ionic styles than a theme would be to consider their masculine and feminine attributes. A theme can be wacky as long as what you write is based on facts. The alternative, in this case, could be a long and boring list of ratios and attributes. Avoid being boring.

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