For the Freshers: How to write an anthropology essay…

For most of you newbies, you’ve started university and it’s a whole new world of not remembering what happened the night before. You’ve also embarked on one of the most awesome subjects there is…anthropology. I thought I’d post a hopefully helpful guide on how to write an anthropology essay. When I started university, I had no clue on what I was doing, but I submitted my MSc dissertation a few weeks ago, so fingers crossed I kind of know what I’m doing now. These are only some tips on what I’ve gathered, not a definitive must, but if you think I’ve missed something out or you disagree, let me know!

The beginning steps – Administration

Step one is to read your course guideline. You should be given one at the beginning of the term. It should state when your essay is due, helpful readings, essay titles (I’m doubting that you would have to come up with your own title in first year) etc.

Step two is to make a note of the maximum word count of your essay, and to check if they have a % leeway (you may need this). I have never bothered with the minimum. In my opinion, the maximum is given because this is what your lecturer expects is enough to make the argument. Unless you are amazing at writing, it is much better to write as close to the maximum as possible. This is not suggesting you waffle your way to the word limit, but maybe, if you really are far away from the word limit then you haven’t read as much as you should have to really go into detail.

Next, check for any extra information like the referencing style. It is a bugger to get to the end of an essay and realise that the referencing style requires a comma between the surname and the date of each in-text reference. I’m not sure what computer programs do in terms of referencing (I love computers, I love gaming…but I weirdly do not trust the computer to reference for me), but make sure you get the correct style. I think most course handouts in first year will give you a referencing guide, but if not, there are loads of guides online if you just google it.

You should also check in the outline if your lecturer has added any bits and bobs they hate to see in essays. One of my lecturers wrote that they would be quite annoyed if they saw the word “Interestingly” in our essays. You want the marks, give them everything, even your soul! They will probably give you the talk…yes, the essay talk, where they tell you everything they hate in their student’s essays. Do what they ask and you will reap the benefits of a decrease in red pen.

Step four: How long do you think it will take you to research, write, rewrite and accommodate for any problems that may go wrong? Things don’t always go wrong but when they do, they do horribly. The day before my boyfriend was to submit his paper in second year, his hard drive died. He had to go to a meeting to get an extension to prove he should have an extension, otherwise he would get zero. A month before submitting my MSc dissertation, my graphics card died and it had to go the repair shop for a week. I cried. It wasn’t pretty.

Also include time for procrastination, I’m procrastinating right now by writing this… For me anyway, things usually take longer than I expect. I usually make a list of what I have to do and what date these things have to be done by, next to any dates I know I have something coming up e.g.

Research from 10th – 20th October
Writing from 21st – 24th
Rewrite from 25th – 26th
Referencing from 27th – 28th
Comicon and Party 29th
Alcohol Recovery and essay submission 30th
Essay due 31st

By the way, I made these dates up on the spot so don’t take them as how I would structure an actual plan. The point is I know that I will be definitely be busy on the 29th October, so I need to make sure that everything is done before then. I also factor in that I might be busy most weekends, and always try to submit the day before if it is a digital hand-in to avoid panic if things go tits up…also, don’t write “tits” in your essay.


So by now you have the admin work done. Hopefully you’ve chosen your topic. Next is research. For this part I set myself a game. I set myself a target number of references and then I try to beat my target in tens e.g. say I set a 60 reference limit, after I reach 60 references, I try to read 70, then 80 etc. For your first year you probably won’t even need 60 references, but check what your lecturer expects and then try to top that! Although I make it into a game, reading references not only shows your lecturer the effort you put in, but makes you understand the topic better, allows you to construct a better argument and finally, opens up your understanding of the topic. For instance, I may be writing a topic on the evolution of bipedalism, I may read one paper that argues for the savannah hypothesis, and then another paper after that that does not support it. After a few of these papers I begin to formulate my own opinion on whether the savannah hypothesis is supportable or not, or maybe whether it works in certain cases.

To begin your research, start with textbooks and what your course gave you to read on that topic, but don’t stop with that. This should only be the beginning, and should give you an overall understanding, but next you need to go beyond this. Google scholar is quite good for this, but you should also be researching the references that the papers you have read give.

Make sure to use a range of years for your research. Current research will obviously be from the last few years, but these papers may still be referencing papers from the 80s, maybe in terms of methodology still used. For instance, I might be writing an essay on the Anterior Dental Loading hypothesis. The 1980s has quite a few papers on this, I can use these as my base to explain the hypothesis. However, the 2000s introduce new ideas on genetic drift that do not support this hypothesis, this is my counter argument.

Don’t use wikipedia. This is like essay suicide.

Try to only use citable references. As in, don’t use some anonymous post you found, even if it supports what you’re saying, unless of course your essay is on anonymous posts. I try to only use scientific papers, although other sources may be needed sometimes depending on your topic.

Always go back to the source. If you want to say that the sky is blue, and Alpha et al. says “Beta et al. argues that the sky is blue”, then you should not reference Alpha et al., but go back and read Beta et al. Sometimes it sucks because you have to follow a paper trail back to the source, but this is proper referencing, and just because Alpha et al. says Beta said it, doesn’t mean Alpha is correct. There are some cases where this won’t work, either you cannot get hold of the original copy, or the original is in a language you don’t speak. Often I go to the source and it’s in Spanish for instance and sadly I don’t speak Spanish.

Finally, in terms of referencing, remember to reference. One, it is not nice to plagiarise some one else’s work that they have spent time and effort on, but two, you don’t want to get done for plagiarising. Most universities give very strict rules on this.

Once your research is done, you can begin planning. Yay! Some people like to almost write a whole essay when they plan, it’s up to you, but I tend to prefer bullet pointing what each paper says and then putting it in categories, such as a “For” and “Against” category. I don’t like planning but they are worth it as it can organise what you’ve read and get your brain working on structure.



The writing begins!

You’re finally at the writing stage. You have a lot of research behind you, but now you have to prove this through your essay. Some main points to consider when writing are:

(1) Keep to a structure. You want an Introduction and a Conclusion, but in between you need to make sure that your arguments are in the correct places. This has been my downfall in the past, but it is easy to end up with arguments all over the place. This is where using subheadings can be useful – use them! See each subheading as a miniature story, ask yourself “what am I trying to say here?”

(2) Make sure that your paragraphs each have a point and that they link. Yes you have subheadings but are your paragraphs in line with your argument? Each paragraph needs to have a specific point, and each point needs to flow into the next paragraph otherwise it may appear random and out of place. When you read back your essay, try and establish in your head the point each of your paragraphs are saying

(3) Try not to write passively. This is my essay nemesis, I do this a lot, but you should make a note not to do this…I probably did it here

(4) Don’t quote, or at least, don’t quote too much. Reference always, but try and use your own words. I always quote in blog posts because I’m lazy, but when I’m writing an essay, if I really can’t think of what to write, I quote for the time being and then come back to it later. Later on, I can then rephrase the argument I want to put across in my own words. Coming back to it can help as, when you’re first writing the draft, you are essentially juggling an argument in your head, but later you can explain these ideas in your own way. This also shows the marker that you understood the paper you referenced from

(5) This is anthropology so remember to use the scientific names. If you are just writing about humans you don’t need it, but if you include chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) or Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) for instance, use them Latin names! Also, remember that only the first word has a capital and both words are written in italics e.g. Homo sapiens

(6) If word count gets too much, remember, you can use abbreviations after the first use of the word e.g. “The Savannah Hypothesis (SH)” and then use “SH” afterwards – three words become one. If there is a common abbreviation, use that, a most obvious abbreviation being DNA

(7) Make sure you are always critically evaluating the points of your essay with more references. What I mean here is that you can’t just write A+B = C, you have to put why A and B equal C. At the same time, you must also be using what you’ve read to back-up the “why” part. This is because you haven’t done your own studies on it, so you cannot say “I think”, but rather the “evidence in the majority of studies presents…”

A bad example would be: Alpha says that the sky is blue, but Beta says the sky is red

A good example would be: It is well established that the sky is blue (A, C et al., D), but some have argued the sky is red (Beta). However, while certain experiments have given the outcome that the sky is red (e.g. Beta), the methodologies of these studies have largely been criticised (see …). For instance, while Beta used the thingamajigs method and gained a red outcome, L et al. argues that thingamajigs are prone to falter, which can easily distort colours.

This meme says it best…



(8) This brings me onto my next point – do not use “I”. You are not writing a first-person narrative and the research is not yours. Instead of “I found that…” , use “This was found…” or “Beta et al. found…”

(9) Don’t use “don’t’ and “can’t”…”do not”, “can not” and “how now brown cow” (maybe not the last one)

(10)Explain anthropological definitions, especially if it is the main part of your essay. For instance, if your essay is on Neanderthals, explain what they are, when they lived, and maybe some historical context. If your essay is on the history of milk, and you start talking about gene-culture co-evolution, remember to explain what it is

(11) And finally, remember to always back-up your work externally!!!

Once you get to your conclusion, you are nearly done. Read your essay through first and ask yourself “does it answer the question set?” Try and answer that question in your head e.g. “My essay answers … because …” –  this is then the basis for your conclusion. Your conclusion should have no new information, it is only the summary to say what you have just said in your essay about how it answered the question set.


img class=" size-full wp-image-955 aligncenter" src="" alt="brace-yourself-essay" width="600" height="549"

The Last Leg

You are so close! Well done! Now polish that baby up!

  • Read in your head and then read it out loud. For me, reading in my head allows me to see if the arguments have made sense, while reading allowed tells me if it flows or not
  • Have you included counter points? Your essay should not be one-sided. Even if you know before you start your essay that A + B = C, you have to include alternative ideas and criticisms. Science is not perfect, because humans are not perfect so there will always be flaws and new ideas to consider
  • Get somebody to read it for you. Ask them if they understand what you’ve written. If you haven’t anyone to read it for you, email your lecturer and ask if they can
  • Make sure you are within the stated word count
  • Finally, check if the references are correct, that you have a bibliography and that you are using the correct referencing style

I hope these points help with your forthcoming essays. Enjoy the essay little anthropologists in the making, and once submitted, go binge watch until the sun comes up. Hooray!

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