How To Write A Medical Or Science Essay

Written by Natalie Shenker
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“Do not write so that you can be understood; write so that you cannot be misunderstood." Epictetus

During my time at Oxford University Medical School I learned to write well-reasoned, engaging essays. In later years, while at Kings College Medical School, I learned to teach students to write in a similar manner. The stamina engendered by the Oxford tutorial system meant that I was frequently writing five essays a week, meaning that clarity and good structure were essential components to an essay to make sense of the onslaught of information. Essay writing is still an essential skill for medical students to acquire, in order to think through complex arguments that mirror the process of making differential diagnoses when a practicing doctor. Certain key approaches are essential for whatever topic is being tackled.

Examine the question

Take time to study the question that is being asked. Frequently, subtleties can be gleaned from the phrasing of the question that may not be evident on first glance. The question could be turned on its head, allowing for different arguments to be presented in the body of the essay. It is tempting to launch into an essay that includes everything you know on the topic in the question, but this may miss the angle that the person who set the essay is interested in, losing valuable marks on relevancy. What does the question ask you to do? Is it to “compare”, “analyze” or “contrast” the subjects, for example? Remember to refer back to the question when you are writing the body of the essay to ensure you do not stray too far from the central core of the problem.

Planning the essay

Although it only takes five minutes, this is the most crucial part of writing an essay. The essay plan is the battlefield on which the war of the essay is won or lost. On a fresh piece of paper, jot down all that you know on the topic area covered by the question. It can be helpful to give each paragraph a heading. As you write, fresh information will occur to you, parallels will be drawn and conclusions reached. Keep this essay plan close by as you write, and add to it during the process.

Organize the essay

The introductory paragraph of the essay is a chance to deconstruct the title, with an opportunity to explore what is really meant by the question, and explain how you will respond to it. If more than one option is possible from the wording, state which you will explore in the essay at this point. It is acceptable to include some facts in this opening paragraph to introduce the subject to the reader, but it is important to keep these broad at this point.

Each subsequent paragraph should be based on a related topic covered by the essay title. The open sentence of each paragraph should outline what will be written in the paragraph, and the rest of the paragraph should be devoted to evidence to support that outline. This will include your own analysis of evidence that you have read and quotations from source materials. Quotations should be in quotation marks, with the author’s name and year of writing written in brackets at the end of the quote. The closing line of each paragraph should attempt to lead onto the beginning of the next paragraph, known as “the hook”, and this should be considered when constructing your essay plan.


The final paragraph should be reserved for your conclusions or conclusion, but avoid making this too abruptly. It is useful to summarize the arguments you have covered, and draw your essay to a close. I always endeavored to add to this traditional ending by highlighting areas of further research that are ongoing and may lead to new revelations, presenting the conclusions to the essay while looking to the future. Or it may be appropriate to close with an interesting quote that you have come across in your reading that is relevant in a broad sense to your essay or conclusion.

Read through the essay

This may seem unnecessary to say, but giving your essay just one proofreading read through can save you important marks for spelling and grammar. However, reading through can also highlight areas you have neglected in your arguments. Compare your initial essay plan to your finished essay to check you have covered all the topics you originally thought of. Although unnecessary for an exam essay, for a term-time essay it may be necessary to construct a bibliography.

Closing comments

Finally, try to develop a style to your writing that is engaging to the reader. It is useful to read certain authors to seek suggestions for this style, ranging from Richard Dawkins to Matt Ridley. Try to be concise and avoid the temptation to waffle without making a clear point. And lastly, avoid a purely journalistic style, but also be wary of an overly scientific, bland approach.

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