Film Essays Writing Guide in 2023

Preparing  your first film essays? This paper is your friend!

The sections this paper is divided into are the criteria on which your essay will be marked.  Please read the following tips carefully, before you start writing your essay and after you’ve finished it, as a checklist.

It has been conceived for film essays, but most of it is applicable to any essay you write.

Is the essay well-structured and focussed on the question?

  • Make sure you know what the question means before you start.
  • Never allow yourself to forget the question you’re answering. Make sure that every section of your essay relates to it, and that you say how it relates to it and what each paragraph means in relation to the question. The most common cause of poor essay marks is not answering the question!
  • Make notes for yourself before you start, then organise your material into paragraphs dealing with the main points you want to make. Change paragraph when your argument moves on.
  • Make it clear how each paragraph follows on from the last, by referring back to what you have previously said.
  • Write a clear introduction, where you explain how you’re going to tackle the question, and a conclusion, where you sum up what you’ve said. These should not be more than a short paragraph each, but they’re very important. Remember, never put NEW material into the concluding paragraph. If it was important, it deserved consideration in the main essay. If it wasn’t important enough for that, it can be left out.
  • Remember the guideline length for your essay and plan what you say accordingly. If you have too much material, remember the most important criterion is relevance to the question and a coherent argument.
  • Re-read, and if necessary rewrite, the introduction after you’ve finished the essay, to make sure that it does prepare the reader precisely for the essay they’re about to read.

Is the content well-researched, factually accurate, and appropriately analytical?

  • You will be expected to be able to handle all the concepts which have been discussed in class competently, if they’re relevant to you, and to recognise which ones are relevant and necessary.
  • You should be doing some background reading on your chosen subject, following the bibliography for the course and whatever context you needed. Any facts you give are expected to be accurate, and should always be checked if you are not sure. (PLEASE DO NOT USE WIKIPEDIA TO CHECK FACTS; it’s not reliable.)
  • If you are writing on a film, you should always be able to back up general statements about its content or its stylistic choices (i.e. mise-en-scène etc.) with specific references to images, shots,sequences …. There must be clear evidence that you have watched the film, recently!
  • However, remember that the most important part of a humanities essay is the part you bring to it – evidence of your own analytical thinking. Don’t take background reading on trust (unless it’s purely factual), assess what other critics say and develop Argue with it, if you feel inclined. A really good film essay should show proof that you are able to react to the film in an informed and intelligent way.
  • Remember analysis is about assessing what the film means, not making a value judgement. You shouldn’t, ever, write a review. Phrases like ‘I really likeAvatar’, ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a very good film’, ‘Bonnie and Clyde is rather boring’ have no place in your essay!!!

Is the essay well-written?

  • This is important!!!
  • ALWAYS proof-read, preferably several hours after you’ve finished writing the essay.

Have you corrected all the typos? Have you checked the spelling?

Do all your sentences have verbs?

Will what you have written make sense to someone who doesn’t already know what you mean? (This is a surprisingly frequent problem, and leaving a decent time-gap between writing and re-reading can be very helpful in catching it).

Are you sure that you’ve used appropriate vocabulary? (If you’re not CERTAIN that a word you want to use means what you think it means, please check it in the dictionary!!)

  • Be careful of register. Writing an academic essay isn’t the same as speaking, and it requires more care to make sure that:
  • Your sentences are complete and grammatical (see above),
  • Your vocabulary is as precise as possible
  • There are signposts (‘therefore’, ‘as we can see from the above..’, ‘despite these considerations..’) which connect your arguments to each other, both within and between paragraphs.
  • Your punctuation is appropriate! Remember (or check) the difference between it’s and its, film’s and films’, full stops and commas and semi-colons. Proof-read that too.
  • Please use italics for titles of films and books.

Have you done appropriate background reading and used it well?

  • Remember, as mentioned above, that your own analytical thinking is essential. You may not need too many sources: select what you use carefully. Two vital questions – 1) is it useful to you? 2) is it appropriately challenging and analytical?
  • Books and articles, especially on reading-lists, have usually been ‘approved’ as regards the second question. Web-sites (unless on reading-lists) have not. When you use web material, YOU are responsible for quality control. Their errors are yours, so beware! Check their grammar and, unless you’re very certain of them, it’s recommended to double-check even their facts.
  • Remember that as regards critical assessment, no one is infallible. You don’t have to agree with what someone writes just because it’s in a published book! You do, of course, have to put together a good argument if you want to contest a source, though.

Is the essay well-referenced?

  • There are two parts to referencing: in-text references and a bibliography, at the end. You need both, and they should coincide. ALL works quoted in an in-text reference should appear in the bibliography. Web-pages are to be treated no differently from paper sources: you just supply the address in the bibliography instead of the publisher.

*     Details on how to do it are on the Comm and Media  intranetand can be found here:

Harvard Guide to Referencing, along with additional Essay Guidelines.

*              If you quote a text you have read, you must reference it immediately, including the page number of the quote you have used, if relevant. Quoting without reference counts as plagiarism, which is taken very seriously by the university.  PLEASE remember this especially if you’re taking notes from the Internet: text inadvertently copied and pasted  will be treated as plagiarised. It’s highly recommended that whenever you copy a quote when taking notes, you write down the full reference immediately. It saves a lot of heartache later.

*        As a rough rule of thumb, no more than a quarter of your text should ever be taken up with quotations, and it would be preferable to keep them below that.

*        Precise facts that you can’t possibly know independently – like statistics, or directors’ opinions – also need in-text referencing immediately even if they aren’t framed as an actual quotation.


  • You must have one!!
  • Comes at the end and should be organised alphabetically by author. Web-references should also be by author and text title and date visited – a web address on its own is not enough.
  • Only list sources you really used in your bibliography, there’s no virtue in making it long for the sake of it.


  • It’s good practice to list any films you watched  in a separate ‘filmography’ at the end of the essay.
  • The first time you mention a film in your essay, always give director and date in brackets: Broken Blossoms (Griffith, 1919).
  • You don’t absolutely need to reference film-extracts in the text, but if you particularly want to locate them, do so with time references. If you do this, you should specify the DVD publisher and date in the filmography at the end: some films have been released in different versions.
  • Please use original titles for films.
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