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10 Tips for Writing a Human Rights Essay

Whether you are studying human rights or are building a career in the field, you will inevitably have to be skilled at writing about and for human rights. Human rights-related writing can take a variety of forms – university students embrace more academic articles while advocacy officers might spend more time with writing online campaigns or writing human rights reports. In other situations you might want to write a human rights essay. Essays need to be concise, convincing, well-researched and built on strong arguments. If you can successfully produce a human rights essay, you will be able to make a research article, a call for action, or a campaign out of it.

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To excel at writing human rights essays, follow these 10 tips:

1. Choose a topic you are passionate about

First and foremost, you need to find a topic you are truly passionate about. Human rights are such a broad field of study and can be linked to nearly any other subject – from history and anthropology to technology and medicine. The best way to ensure that your human rights essay will be readable and convincing is to discuss something you have knowledge of or find it easy to learn about. For example, if you are into criminology, you might want to look into the intersections and relationships between human rights and criminal justice. At the very start of the writing process, you should note down what the broad, general topic you are interested in is.

2. Do research and narrow down your topic

Once you have established the general human rights-related topic you are looking into, you will have to narrow it down in order to write an essay. Choosing to write only about human rights and criminal justice, for instance, will not result in a successful essay because both concepts are so broad. For this reason, you will have to narrow down the scope of your essay. If you are clueless about what you want to discuss more specifically, doing a general Internet search can lead you to some hints. After you have done a preliminary research on the Internet, you should be able to identify a topic that will be the central theme of your essay. By way of example, if you are looking into criminal justice, you might want to discuss the rights of defendants, the rights of victims, or prison conditions.

3. Ask concrete questions you can answer

Now that you have chosen your topic, you will need to start reading a bit more extensively about it unless you already have sufficient knowledge of the literature to start writing immediately. Reading journal articles, reports and book chapters is an essential step to get you thinking because a successful human rights essay should answer concrete questions. In other words, discussing the current literature on the topic is not sufficient to make an excellent essay. What you will need to do is find gaps in these sources, questions that are not fully answered, or under-researched issues and make your own contribution to the field by writing about them in more length. In preparation for writing, note down several questions that you find particularly relevant and important and start building your essay around them.

4. Provide your audience with a brief introduction to the topic

It is entirely up to the author to decide which parts of the essay will be written first. Some writers find it easier to build a central argument and then add an introduction to it, while others like to begin with the paragraphs that lead the reader to the main issue. Whichever order you decide to follow, it is important to skillfully craft an introduction to your topic. Allowing the reader to have a sense of the context in which the issue is placed is essential for them to fully follow your train of thought at a later stage of the essay. Ideally, in the introduction, you should give some historical background to the topic, reference what has been written before in a few sentences, explain some of the major debates on the topic, and guide your reader through the outline of the essay. In any case, your introduction should not be long as you want to leave more space for your arguments.

5. Create sub-headings for the body of your essay

Regardless of the length of your essay, you should divide the body of your essay into paragraphs and/or brief chapters. Each paragraph or chapter should have an overarching theme, something that unites your sentences. It could be a whole argument, a certain issue, or a group of examples aimed at buttressing your argument. If the format of the essay allows you to do so, add sub-headings to each of the chapters based on the issue they are discussing or the point you are trying to make. All of these together will make your essay much more readable and easier to follow for the readers. Furthermore, it will allow you to keep track of your ideas and ensure that you are not spilling the same argument repeatedly in different parts of the essay but that your thoughts are organized and clear.

6. Make the strongest argument your central point

In a human rights essay, you can present several different arguments; nevertheless, it is important to ensure that at least one of them is a truly strong, unique argument that readers have not heard before. If you provide your audience with multiple weak arguments that sound repetitive, there is a risk that the readers will abandon the essay before finishing or will simply not be convinced by the message you want to convene. Consequently, while writing, you need to identify your strongest argument and make it your central point in the essay. Comments, weaker arguments, and examples that will support the argument should all be placed around it. Your main argument should be in a form of a statement that you can paraphrase and repeat a few times towards the end of the essay. Yet, you should also be able to answer questions such as “Why is that?”, “How can you prove it?”, “Is there anyone who disagrees and why are they wrong?” to add to the strength of your argument. At the end of such a writing process, you can also incorporate references to your central argument into the title of your essay so the readers know what to expect from the very beginning.

7. Support your arguments with references

Although human rights essays allow writers to have their own voices heard more than academic articles, they should still aspire to adopt academic style referencing at least to some degree. Needless to say, your essay should be one-of-a-kind; however, that does not mean that your arguments should be entirely invented or have nothing to do what is actually being discussed by other authors. On the contrary, you make your argument more credible if you can provide a link to where you found certain information, particularly when it comes to answering questions such as where, when, or who. Moreover, it is wise to cite other authors who support some of your claims as that proves that your essay is well-researched. You may also decide to refer to articles and books where opposing arguments are presented and then try to refute them in your essay. Essentially, a human rights essay should not be filled with in-text citations and footnotes like an academic paper, but it certainly necessary to provide references to the other people’s work that helped you write it.

8. Write a general, but convincing conclusion

Having written an introduction and several short-chapters with a clear central argument as well as supporting arguments, all you need to do is come up with a brief conclusion. Writers have different styles of writing conclusions – you can phrase it in a form of a short overview of what was written or add the final comment on the topic. What is important is that your conclusion does not introduce any new ideas and arguments you cannot finish due to its length but that it more generally wraps up your entire essay. It would be wise to find a skillful way to reiterate one or more of your main points without sounding too repetitive. Conclusions also provide a perfect space to make a strong finish, show your writing skills and sound confident and convincing.

And a few extra tips:

9. Place your argument within a legal framework

Fulfilling the eight steps listed above is essential to write a human rights essay that is publishable, readable, and can help you get a good mark at school. To ensure that your human rights essay is truly excellent, it is also useful to look into the law. Human rights do not necessarily have to be discussed through a legal sciences lens, but they are inevitably protected and promoted through domestic, regional, and international laws. Therefore, by placing your topic within a legal framework, you truly show that you master several disciplines and that your arguments are based on practice as well as on theory. To do that, find an appropriate framework that fits your context – it could be a combination of domestic and international legal documents, their applications and differences, or only one particular law, depending on what you are writing about. In accordance with your legal knowledge, you might want to discuss the applicable legal frameworks in more detail, or simply use them as a reference to buttress your arguments.

10. Use specific examples

What can truly help your case in a human rights essay is finding a concrete example to demonstrate how theory does or does not work in practice. By doing so, you build a strong support for your argument and you also allow your readers to relate to what you are saying on a more emotional level, helping them visualize a certain human rights issue. For example, if you are making a recommendation on how to improve prison conditions in a particular country to better respect the rights of prisoners, it could be good to find a country or a community where some of the aspects you are suggesting have been implemented in prisons and this has fostered a more human rights-respecting environment. To find such an example, turn into the grassroots, do a research on local initiatives or contact non-governmental organizations working in places you are writing about.

We hope these tips will guide you to create an excellent human rights essay. To see how it all works in practice for some of the most prominent human rights authors, take a look at these inspiring human rights essays.

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About the author

Maja Davidovic

Maja Davidovic is a Serbian-born independent researcher and Human Rights graduate. She holds her M.A. degree from Central European University in Budapest, and had previously lived and worked in Greece, Turkey and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Maja mostly researches about women’s rights, child protection and transitional justice, and has been involved with organizations such as MSF and OSCE, as well grassroots initiatives. You may follow her on her newly-made Twitter profile @MajaADavidovic, where she aspires to open discussions on a variety of human rights-related issues.