Expectations for the length of the overall paper or any of its parts will vary from course to course and assignment to assignment. While instructors usually do specify length requirements for the essay as a whole, the length of the introduction, body, and conclusion depends on the material you’re dealing with and the purpose and depth of the essay. For this reason, the five- paragraph form often taught in high school (intro, three body paragraphs, conclusion) is seldom appropriate or adequate for university essays.



For example, are you restricted to using only course readings? Are you expected to locate and refer to ideas from peer-reviewed journal articles? Are newspapers or popular magazines acceptable resources?



For example, is your goal simply to report the ideas of others? Are you expected to explain, illustrate, or apply a set of ideas? Are you expected to evaluate arguments for and against a particular position? Is your goal to formulate a position of your own and defend it against possible criticisms? Are you expected to compare or analyze two ideas proposed by leaders in the field?



While there is no one general purpose for university essays, it may help to know that our English word essay comes from an Old French verb meaning to “try” or to “test”. Certainly it is common for instructors to expect that students will put forward one or more ideas in their essays and try out the suitability of those ideas or test them against the best-known work in the field. Such essays lean heavily on analysis and argument.



Recursion involves repeatedly applying a procedure to a set of data, ideas, or a text with each repetition building on the results of the previous one.

In the writing process, recursive refers to cycles of generating ideas, composing sentences, organizing them into coherent paragraphs, then generating additional ideas, and so on.


The Writing Process

As you prepare to write, review the assignment instructions carefully and be sure you understand your instructor’s expectations for your writing assignment, such as:


expected length and due date for your paper

resources you are expected to use (or to avoid)

goals you are expected to accomplish in the paper

purpose of the assignment

Reading a completed academic essay reveals little about the process that leads to a writer’s final product. Many students imagine that writers should simply read a bit, reflect a little, then sit down and write continuously from beginning to end. While there may be a few writers who sometimes work this way, the writing process is almost always more complex – messy, meandering, and recursive.


Assuming that writing is a smooth linear process can actually hold you back; it can lead to feelings of confusion and incompetence that make it difficult to get started. In fact, it is perfectly normal to have false starts, second thoughts, and multiple revisions. These aspects are typical of a productive writing process. See the Time Management module for strategies to assist your planning.