Archive for December, 2010

Essays for generals (Part VI) – paragraph foundations

Plan your paragraphs to get maximum impact.

Individual paragraphs affect more than just the ‘mini-arguments’ in those paragraphs; they also affect the persuasiveness of the entire essay. This is because flow of the essay is based on how the paragraphs link, which is in turn driven by the conceptual basis on which they are built. So it’s important to outline paragraphs well – but what conceptual basis can you use to create paragraphs?

There are at least two methods you can use.

  1. Thematically
  2. Technique-based

Thematic grouping designs paragraphs to show a range of themes. A drama’s themes of loyalty/sacrifice and greed/cruelty can be discussed based on examples, regardless of when the various examples of the themes appear in the text.

Technique-based grouping creates the paragraphs to emphasise your technical analysis. For example, you could structure your paragraphs around how a reader’s response changes as the poem progresses.

The method of ordering your paragraphs depends on what you want your essay to emphasize, so everything comes back to the essay question (as usual). If the question asks what attitudes towards nature a novel conveys, then a thematic basis of creating paragraphs would work well; if it’s about the techniques the poet has used to communicate the deeper message of the poem, then technique-based paragraphs might be best.

Use the thematic and technique-based concepts of how to design paragraphs in order to write clearer and more focused paragraphs. This style of paragraph design also makes it easier to link the paragraphs overall, which we’ll cover in a future post. Besides the two methods mentioned above, what other foundations could use to plan paragraphs?

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The one thing you never ever include in your conclusion

New information.

You never include new information in your conclusion. Everything that appears in your conclusion must have been mentioned in your introduction or body paragraphs.

Remember an essay is not supposed to contain suspense, the marker should not get all the way to your conclusion and then be surprised by a new piece of evidence. If they wanted suspense or surprise, then the marker would have picked up the latest thriller and not your essay.

What if I have just remembered a really key piece of evidence that I absolutely must put in my essay?

Go back to your body paragraphs and fit it in. Then if it is really that important it should also appear in your introduction. Makes sure that it fits; don’t just tack into onto the end of a paragraph. But most importantly, don’t add it only to your conclusion!

In conclusion, never ever include new information in the conclusion of your essays.

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Essays for generals (Part V) – divide and conquer

WWII Divide and Conquer 5

Image via Wikipedia

Welcome back, generals.

Today’s briefing covers an important lesson: effectively deploying your regiments to get more marks. This clever trick not only helps you when you’re planning your paragraphs, but it also helps you adapt as you write (as long as you’re using a word processor).

Tip: combine similar and related ideas into single paragraphs; split paragraphs that are too large.

Too many students feel that they have to write paragraphs based around the way the concepts first came into their heads and then got scribbled in a margin to make a bullet-point plan. This is not the case. Don’t be restricted by your first thoughts. You have the freedom to experiment and change how they’re put together and expressed.

For example, say your essay is about marketing and you have a paragraph on one mini-argument. It’s about how using advertising is crucial in supporting a broader marketing strategy, say. If this has ended up as a huge paragraph, you have two options:

  1. Cut it back
  2. Split in two

You could consider splitting the advertising paragraph into one about advertising in traditional media and one about online advertising, perhaps. Splitting a humongous paragraph retains more information in your essay, but it also ensures that all of that information is easier to read. I suggest “cutting back” egregious paragraphs as much as possible first, though. Cull out the unnecessary words, thoughts, phrases – and even full sentences. Make your essay clearer by removing written clutter.  If you streamline your big paragraph first, you may find that you don’t need to split it after all. However, even if you still split the monster paragraph later, you have higher quality content to split.

Conversely, if you had two small paragraphs on these topics, they will probably make a stronger case together – you may have to adjust your topic sentences, but once that’s done, the new ‘super’ paragraph will be all the more persuasive with it’s ‘extra’ pieces of evidence. Here’s an example of a paragraph with opening and closing topic sentences.

Combining and splitting paragraphs gives you more flexibility when you’re planning – and writing – your essay. It’s a useful strategy to employ if you want to unlock all the potential of your writing by structuring it in paragraphs that persuade your marker.

Now, go forth and “divide and conquer”.

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Introducing Conclusions

Over the last few weeks we have talked a lot about introductions and body paragraphs which leads us nicely to the third and final part of an

Introducing Conclusions

essay: the conclusion.

Many people find writing conclusions difficult, but they do not need to be.

The purpose of your conclusion is to sum up your essay and nearly everything you need for your conclusion you have already written. You are taking all the arguments, information, and evidence you have presented throughout your essay and are tying it all together.

The introduction is there to hook, the body paragraphs to persuade, and the conclusion is there to convince.

The marker should, after reading your conclusion, see how all your points and mini-arguments work together to answer the essay question, convincingly.

So before you start your conclusion you need to refer back to your:

  • introduction – did you write about what you said you would?
  • body paragraphs – how does what you wrote answer the essay question convincingly?

If the answer to either of those questions is ‘No’ then you need to go back and fix them up. You cannot write an effective conclusion without being able to answer ‘Yes’ to both these questions because this is where you will draw your content from.

Just as a poor introduction will lose you lots of marks, so too will a poor conclusion. In fact, if written well, your conclusion can gain you a lot of marks by aiding the marker’s understanding of what you have written in your body paragraphs.

So just because you are sick of writing after 2500 words of introduction and body paragraphs or you are running out of time in your exams, doesn’t mean you can write a half-arsed conclusion and you’ll get away with it.

Over the next few weeks I will look at how you can write effective conclusions which will give the marker no choice but to award you a top mark.

Photo Credit m.gifford via Flickr

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Essays for generals (Part IV) – strategic paragraphs

Strategic paragraphs in action...

Okay, so we’ve covered one of the reasons why paragraphs make your essay suck less: they let the reader absorb information before moving on to the next segment. Paragraphing stops them from dreading the rest of the essay.

Q: How do you decide where to split your writing into paragraphs?

A: You’re asking the wrong question.


Since the point of paragraphs is to make your points clearer, the real question is how can you use paragraphs to make your essay easier to understand? That’s the point (no pun intended) of paragraphs. This approach subtly reshapes the way you assign thoughts to paragraphs. Instead of creating a long rambling stream of consciousness with a few arbitrary paragraph breaks, you start to think strategically.

And you should think about paragraphs strategically. In our army analogy, “Paragraphs are regiments of troops. Each deployed regiment has a specific aim – they provide developed ‘mini-arguments’ and evidence to back up the overall thrust of the essay.” Body paragraphs should form a logical chain of reasoning throughout your essay. Plan the mini-arguments in note form to make sure they support the main argument that you make through the entire essay. Only then should you begin writing if you want to win the battle.

So good paragraphs make your reader hate you less. In addition, by giving your reader a break, they can also understand what you’re saying better. That’s got to be good for your marks.

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A Formulaic Introduction – An Example

Below is an example of the formulaic introduction broken down into its 5 sentences:

Photograph by Danny Masson

Sentence 1: Hook them!

While Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) was first mentioned in the 1930s, it is not till more recently that CSR became an important part of business practice (Carroll, 1979).

Are you hooked?

This probably wouldn’t hook the average student, but the average student is not marking your essay. To a Management lecturer this is good stuff. It is neutral sentence, definitely won’t polarise anyone, and provides a good start to an essay on the importance of CSR.

Sentence 2: Set the scene

This essay will examine how The Boeing Company have responded to the challenge of CSR and will evaluate their performance.

Notice the signpost?

From this sentence the marker knows exactly what the essay is going to deal with – Boeing’s performance in regards to CSR. Even if your essay is long and you deal with a lot of content, always try and be concise in this sentence. It only needs to be a broad overview.

Sentence 3: Show you are smart

Samson and Daft (2005) define CSR as the requirement of the corporation’s management to contribute to society as a whole and not just to the corporation.


No, but it doesn’t need to be. Definitions of the keywords/topics are great to put here; they provide a point for you to argue from and, if you have paraphrased the source, show that you are smart – and do know what you are talking about. Once again be concise and don’t try and show off – remember there is a fine line between showing you are smart and showing off.

Sentence 4: Give the game away

Using the guidelines set out by Carroll (1979), this essay will analyse Boeing’s social performance in terms of their ethical and discretionary responsibilities and discuss possible improvements.

Can you see cards?

From this sentence you know exactly what will be discussed in the essay. This sentence is very good for listing the topics of each of the body paragraphs that will be in your essay. In this essay the topics of the three body paragraphs were: Boeing’s social performance in terms of their ethical responsibilities, Boeing’s social performance in terms of their discretionary responsibilities, and Boeing’s possible improvements.

Sentence 5: Sum it up

Overall, this essay will show that while Boeing’s CSR is very good there is still room for improvement.

Notice another signpost?

This sentence sums up the entire essay, all 2000 words. The marker doesn’t need to read to the conclusion to find out the essay’s finding(s), it is right here in Sentence 5 – remember there should be no suspense in an essay, you’re not writing a bestseller.

To finish off, here is the introduction in full:

While Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) was first mentioned in the 1930s, it is not till more recently that CSR became an important part of business practice (Carroll, 1979). This essay will examine how The Boeing Company have responded to the challenge of CSR and will evaluate their performance. Samson and Daft (2005) define CSR as the requirement of the corporation’s management to contribute to society as a whole and not just to the corporation. Using the guidelines set out by Carroll (1979), this essay will analyse Boeing’s social performance in terms of their ethical and discretionary responsibilities and discuss possible improvements. Overall, this essay will show that while Boeing’s CSR is very good there is still room for improvement.

As you can see, using the formula you can whip up a strong introduction rather easily. Try it when you write your next essay and let us know how it goes.

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Essays for generals (Part III) – Reader's Digest

Break Down write

Breaking things down is important...

So now you understand the “macro-level strategy” to prepare an essay (analysing the question and planning your essay’s overall argument). It’s time to move on to the next layer of detail: organising your answer into paragraphs.

A good analysis of the question + solid knowledge of the topic = opportunity to write unique and persuasive arguments.

However, these elements only give you the opportunity to write a compelling essay; you must express your ideas well. The first step for doing this is to form your paragraphs.

Paragraphs are the largest building blocks of your essay, and they have two important functions:

  1. they separate your overall essay into digestible pieces
  2. they make your points clearer as you build your argument

Digestible pieces

Imagine reading screeds and screeds of text running continuously for almost a whole page with no break. Not fun. No marker (or other normal human being) wants to face that. I suggest you avoid arousing unnecessary resentment.

Since this post is about conveying important ideas succinctly and giving your reader a break, I’m going to stop this post here.

I know I’m not perfect; I often need to be reminded of this too, but “be concise!

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A Formulaic Introduction

1. Hook them! 2. Set the scene 3. Show you are smart 4. Give the game away 5. Sum it up

You have planned your essay, you pick up your pen or sit down at your computer, and then what?

If you know what you are doing, the introduction is actually relatively easy to write because for academic essays it follows a rough formula. English essays don’t necessarily follow this structure quite as rigidly but for university essays it is very useful.

Below is an elaboration from Dr. Ian Hunter’s book, Write That Essay! For an average length essay five sentences is usually enough and each of them has a specific purpose.

Sentence 1: Hook them!

Aim: Introduce the general topic to the reader.

This sentence is a neutral sentence. It contains facts and information that is generally agreed to be correct – as tempting as it may be, you do not want to spark controversy here.

Sentence 2: Set the scene

Aim: Introduce what topic(s) your essay is going to specifically focus on.

You want to start this sentence with something like “This essay will [examine/consider/discuss]…”.

While this sort of sentence might sound a little stupid, throughout your essay you need to place signposts to help the marker follow your argument and not get lost. This is the first signpost in your essay, it lets the marker know what topics to expect in the body paragraphs.

Sentence 3: Show you are smart

Aim: Mention the context of your essay.

You want to show the marker that you know what you are talking about and are not just bluffing through the essay question because you spent your research time on Facebook. However, there is a fine line between proving your intelligence and showing off. If you cross that line this early in your essay, you will have severely damaged the marker’s impression of you. Not a good move!

Sentence 4: Give the game away

Aim: State your argument.

An essay is not a thriller and you are not John Grisham. Right here in the fourth sentence of your essay you want to tell the marker your argument. Without reading any further they should know what happens at the end – suspense has no place in your essay – it is an essay after all!

Sentence 5: Sum it up

Aim: Summarise the conclusion of your argument.

Two sentences after the first ‘signpost’, we come to another one (after all no one wants to get lost in an essay!). Here, in a nutshell, you are summing up your essay. Your sentence should start with something like:

“Overall, this essay will argue…” or “In summary, this essay will suggest that…”

This is a very good guide for writing your introductions and one that I always use.  Learn it, use it, then you can adapt it a little too (remember English essays don’t have to be as formulaic). Just make sure you fulfil the aims of an effective introduction.

Also, check out Dr. Hunter’s book for more help and tips on writing essays.

Photo Credit: 1. Lazurite 2. Unhindered by Talent 4. DraconianRain all via Flickr

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Essays for generals (Part II) – the other half of arguments

Fairy – "Take the Fair Face of Woman"...

This image has nothing to do with this post...

Answering questions well is the first and most critical part of a high-scoring essay. But there’s more to getting the “macro-level strategy” of your essay right than just analysing the question. Without this, it’s like you have really precise intelligence informing you of what to target, and state-of-the-art radar revealing where it is, but you don’t have any ammo to take the target out.

Tip: it’s really useful to have some background understanding on the topic before you write an essay on it. Some of you probably realised this when you implemented the advice in the last post. The need for research is especially high at university, but it’s a good skill to develop at high school because even this mindset alone empowers you to write stronger and richer essays.

Research is your friend

So when you get a question, do some research. You may have good notes from classes/lectures, but most subject teachers expect you to go into more detail than that. There are two ways to do this:

  1. introduce some unique thoughts of your own
  2. integrate thoughts of respected academics.

Researching existing opinions will help you form your own arguments anyway. So do some research – know the basics of the main schools of thought on the topic. This is like knowing the battle field – if you have an understanding of the terrain, you have an advantage. (Sorry to keep using war metaphors, but I’m not accustomed to writing about flowers and fairies and unicorns, so I’ll stick with this analogy for now). Anyway…

Planning – and what follows it

Once you have your basic understanding, you can begin to write a plan for your essay based on argument. In doing this, you may realise that you need more information on specific points. Pros, cons, alternative suggestions, and developments of the basic/original arguments etc. It’s fine if you go back to research at various stages of the writing process. It’s good even, because there’s a feedback loop between what you’re doing, what you can improve, and the resources that raise these questions and make the improvements possible. However, for this process to end well, you need to start early. (We can all improve on that point, I’m sure). So keep researching, and keep adding to your argument brainstorm and planning pages. The writing process is a dynamic process. These are living documents; they evolve as your ideas grow.

To summarise, here’s the process I follow:

  1. Analyse the question
  2. Research to understand the basics on the topic (the ‘battle field terrain’)
  3. Plan the essay’s argument structure
  4. Research to fill the gaps – make the plan complete

Every essay is different and every essay writer is different, so you may use a modified version of the process. It’s okay to use a different process to get to a stunning result. The main thing is that you adapt aptly, edit repeatedly, stay flexible – and allow enough time!

Let me know what you do to prepare for an essay assignment; I’d love to hear from you.

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