Archive for February, 2011

How to (proof)read your writing

Ok so we’ve got the big picture sorted – our essay as a whole does what it’s supposed to – but what about when we look closer?

When you read slowly and deliberately, does your essay make sense?

The next step is to do a slow, deliberate proofread – the aim of this is to make sure the details are correct.

The first detail is, does your essay make sense when it’s read? If it doesn’t, the marker has no choice but to give you low marks – how can they not when they don’t understand what you’ve written?!

So let’s get started

Some people prefer to print it off and read through a hard copy of their essay; I prefer to read it on the screen. It doesn’t really make a difference; though seeing your work in a slightly different form and environment, in hard copy as opposed to sitting and staring at your laptop screen (exactly where and how you wrote your essay), can make it easier to pick up your mistakes.

How to read

This is very important. Read slowly. Read deliberately. Read every single word.

When people usually read, they speed read. There are many different ways of speed reading and some of the techniques are identifying words without focusing on each letter, not sounding out all words, not sub-vocalising some phrases, or spending less time on some phrases than others, and skimming small sections (from Wikipedia). In short, you are taking in the big picture and filling in the little details yourself.

Now this is fine when you are reading what someone else has written because you have never seen it before; but when it comes to your own work, if you speed read, you fill in the details with what you meant to say. The details of what you actually said might not be not quite what you intended. A comma out of place can be a very dangerous thing – but that’s for another post.

So you need to read slowly and deliberately, and the best way to do this is to read out loud. Read and sound out every single word; pause deliberately at the commas, semi-colons, and full-stops.

Does what you are reading out loud make sense?

Next week we’ll go over what else you need to look for when you do your slow and deliberate (proof)read of your essay.

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Staying, not straying

Red question mark

Image via Wikipedia

If you lose your marker, you lose marks. Don’t lose your marker and don’t get lost yourself. Stop that happening by using this technique to show your reader how each part of your essay links to the whole.

Last week, we talked about how to tackle difficult and monstrously broad essay questions by focusing the question. This gave you more control, greater freedom to direct your essay answer towards the sub-topics and examples you prefer; making it easier to write a high quality essay and get more marks. Fantastic. But there was a risk: you might stray from the question. And that gets penalised very heavily.

So how can you make sure you’re always on the right track? Like anything in life – be continually reminded! Importantly, since answering the question largely determines your marks, reminding the marker you’re on the right track is powerful too.

In “Write That Essay!”, Ian Hunter wisely suggests that you write indicator phrases throughout your essay to remind the marker that you’re still answering the question. Tie the evidence and arguments in each paragraph back to the question explicitly. Remember, there’s a lot of text in an essay compared to the question. Help the marker move from your thorough, detailed analysis to the compelling big-picture arguments that answer the question.

Tip: the best way to do this is to use the words of the question as a motif.

This goes beyond referring back to the concepts of the question; you use the exact words of the question throughout your essay. As Ian Hunter puts it, “if the question asked you to: ‘Identify the causes of the Great Depression’, use the word ‘cause’ throughout your essay. Every time you introduce a new ‘cause’ call it that. Don’t call it something else. Use the word that the marker has used: call it a ‘cause’.”

Now, normally, I’d suggest you go for some variety. Mix up your vocab; use synonyms – and try different syntactical structures too. But in this case, you want to make the link to the question absolutely clear, more than you want to make those sentences sound fluent and elegant.

Using the words of the question reminds both you and the marker what the question is and how the essay answers it. So this is the antidote to unintentionally changing the question to something that you want it to be when you read it (quickly). Remember – you focus (usually narrow) the question; you don’t change its substance. In practice, this means you don’t change the wording of the question. That stays the same. Always. However, you state in your introduction how you will answer the question: what sub-topics or angle you will take to address the broader issue. The wording of the question should sit well with your ‘focusing’ sentence. If there’s a conflict, scrap your sentence; keep the marker’s one and brainstorm to find a new focusing sentence that still satisfies the criteria of the question. (You’ve got to jump through that hoop, for sure).

So, stay on topic and continually remind the marker that you’re answering the question and deserve more marks – use the words of the question as a motif. Go hard and get more marks!

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The big picture: the first thing you should check

So you’ve taken your break and now you’re back at your computer with your essay in front of you. So what should you check first?

Check the big picture first.

Wait, one read through isn’t enough?!

Nope, you should definitely read through your essay a couple of times before you hit the print button. Checking, editing, and proofreading your work is extremely important. Remember your mark is based not just on what you write but also the marker’s impression of you – if there are grammatical errors and typos in your essay their impression won’t be very favourable!

Okay, so what do I need to check first?

First up is looking at the essay as a whole and focusing on content.

You are checking that:

  • the introduction roughly follows the formula
  • it introduces your argument and the topics of your body paragraphs effectively
  • your body paragraphs are well constructed – don’t forget topic sentences!
  • they are all similar in length – zoom out or use print preview to check this
  • your conclusion roughly follows the formula
  • it concludes your argument effectively and mentions what you discussed in your body paragraphs
  • most importantly, you are answering the essay question throughout your essay!

While this is a broad check of what you’ve written, if you do see a typo or grammatical error – fix it up as you go. If there is something that doesn’t sound quite right or you think should be re-written better, don’t dwell on it – highlight it in yellow (or whatever colour takes your fancy); you’ll have time to fix this up on the next check.

But then why not just check everything at once?

Well, because the more things we focus on, the more likely we are to miss something. So focus on the big picture first, get that right and then go after detail. Also, that way you save time; because if you start with the detail you may ending up fixing parts of paragraphs that get deleted at the big picture checking stage.

Getting the big picture right is the easiest and the most important thing you should do. Over the next few weeks we will look at the detail and making sure what you hand in is perfect.

Photo Credit: NASA, via Wikimedia Commons

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Redefining reality: an example of how to focus essay questions

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Image via Wikipedia

Last week we looked at redefining the question to make it easier to answer. Now, there is a danger if you take this advice out of context: you will lose many of your marks – maybe even all of them – if you change the substance of the question. Remember, analysing the question correctly is the basis of a good essay answer. Dreaming up your own essay question is not completing the required task. So remember this: narrow the question, don’t try to twist it into encouraging wild thoughts and tangents.

By the way, did you notice that the above clarification is a nuanced argument? Not only are they useful tactics to use when doing writing; they’re also useful when learning how to write!

To make the concept of ‘redefining the question’ clearer, below are some examples of what you should and shouldn’t do.

You should not do this:*

*Answers are not written in essay form. The tone is purposefully colloquial and facetious; this is not how you would write an actual academic essay.

1. Compare and contrast the two poems “Thistles” by Ted Hughes and “Tall Nettles” by Edward Thomas.

Thistles by Ted Hughes is about prickly thistles and the thistles grow in the wilderness and the thistles annoy people because they grow where they want to grow plants… [basically, only writing about one poem].

2. Discuss the theme of power and authority in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”.

“Julius Caesar” by William Shakespeare is a play about betrayal, revenge, fate and justice… [never mentioning the given themes of power or authority, or only mentioning them briefly – probably at the end of the essay when you reread the question before writing your conclusion, when you suddenly realise you should say something about the given themes].

You should do this:

Here’s an example question that gets narrowed down in many ways. Let’s highlight then redefine parts of the question.

3. Discuss ethics in business organisations and how they can affect stakeholders.

Businesses today face a phenomenon of growing ethical concerns from groups on all sides: consumers, regulators, employees (Samson & Daft, 2005).

Some thinkers consider ethics to be a purely individual matter, and therefore focus on training responsible managers (MacLagan, 1998, cited in Knights & Willmott, 2007). However, this essay will focus on the ethical attributes of multi-national organisations themselves, as entities distinct from their constituent members, and the positive benefits with which multi-national businesses can endow society. Overall, this essay will argue that organisations have an ethical capacity in themselves and can pro-actively respond to the various ethical perspectives by being a source of positive transformation in modern society.


Notice how the coloured parts of the question are narrowed down to more specific sub-sets in the introduction of the essay? The concept of “multi-national organisations themselves” having “ethical attributes” is more specific than a general discussion of “ethics” which includes the idea that “ethics [is] a purely individual matter”. Similarly, “multi-national organisations” is a more specific focus than any size “business”, and so on. So the question hasn’t been changed, but the essay has been focused so that part of a broad topic can be covered in more depth.

So that’s what you can and can’t do when redefining the question. Use this technique correctly and it will make your essay-writing projects a lot easier. Let me know if you have any questions, suggestions or comments. See you again next week!

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What should you do when you've finished writing?

What do you do when you’ve finished writing your essay?

When you've finished writing, take a break and forget about what you've written.

  • Hit the print button?
  • Switch to Facebook to reward yourself after a job well done, and come back and worry about your essay later?
  • Read quickly through your essay to make sure it looks good, then print?

None of those answers are entirely right and the first one is downright wrong.

Yes you need to check your essay, but don’t do it straight away and definitely don’t do it quickly. What you should do is get up from your laptop (after saving your masterpiece of course!) and do something that doesn’t involve text, so don’t go on Facebook – go outside, or even watch TV. Better yet (if you’ve been organised and have left yourself enough time!), don’t go back to your essay for a whole day.

But why not just check it there and then?

Because we see what we expect to see.

Just like the businessman who made it through an airport security checkpoint with a loaded gun in his laptop bag, typos and grammatical errors will make it past you if you check your essay too soon after you’ve written it. Airport security didn’t expect to see a gun in the laptop bag because it’s such a rare event. You don’t expect to see typos just after you’ve written something because you see what you thought you wrote – a perfect essay.

Going back later means you’ve forgotten what you meant to say and what you thought you said; so instead you see what you did actually write.

But what about Spell and Grammar check? Don’t they find all these errors for me?

No, they don’t. Computer Spell and Grammar check programmes, like in Microsoft Word, are notoriously bad. To have your essay checked properly you need to do it yourself or get someone to do it for you (a human, not a computer).

However, these topics are for another couple of posts. So check back next week as we go through how to proofread your essays – so what you are handing in is free of all typos and spelling mistakes and is grammatically perfect.

Photo Credit: Loren Sztajer via Flickr

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The halo: a trick to tame essay questions.

Halo, 22-degree halo, Solar Halo, 22 degree so...

Image by mikebaird via Flickr

Success often involves jumping through hoops. However, if you use nuanced arguments wisely, as we discussed last week, you can be more flexible in what you do to get through those hoops. Another strategy that makes writing essays much easier is to cleverly redefine the question. You can mold the question to fit the essay you plan to produce.

Wait! Isn’t that cheating?

Or at least not answering the question? No, you have to stay within the broader confines of the question, but you can narrow the question.

As Ian Hunter explains in his book “Write That Essay!”, this technique is often used anyway, because it might be necessary to cut down the amount of content that you’d have to cover in your essay. For example, you can’t cover everything about Medieval European warfare in one essay. So, you could focus on, say, a few famous battles, or a few technologies, or the political aspect of warfare during that era.

The trick and a quick example

Here’s the trick: tell the marker what you’re doing. Tell them that you’re focusing on one aspect of the broad topic allocated by the question. This ‘qualifying sentence’,  as Ian Hunter calls it, might say something like “while Medieval European warfare was affected by many factors such as the political environment, social paradigms, and prominent personalities, this essay will discuss the effect of technological advancement which ultimately brought the Medieval Age to an end.” That one extra sentence in the introduction (it often becomes sentence 2 or 3 in the formulaic introduction) shows a broader understanding of the topic. So even though you haven’t covered them, the marker will assume you understand the other sub-topics too. In fact, if you write really well on one sub-topic, they will assume you know the other topics to the same standard. So write in detail on the aspect that you understand best, and you’ll score an instant kudos upgrade for no extra effort (the halo effect – the awesomeness rubs off on surrounding sub-topics).

Remember essays need to go beyond description. You’re not there to recount what happened in the play. You’re there to interpret what happened – analyse, offer some insights – even synthesize with other relevant ideas. To do this in-depth analysis of the text, you need enough words to discuss your chosen sub-topics(s) comprehensively, so focus the question.

NB: One thing you can’t narrow down is the number of texts or examples you have to refer to.

In most cases, however, redefining the question is brilliant. It focuses your writing; allowing you to go more in-depth and produce a higher quality essay. And it makes it easier to write the essay too. Redefine the question to unleash the halo effect and get higher marks.

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Use the experts: Back to School, stuntmen, and referencing

I was watching a movie tonight, Back to School (aptly titled movie for the Southern Hemisphere), starring Rodney Dangerfield and it got me thinking. In the movie Dangerfield’s character turns out to be quite the diver (think Olympic not deep sea) despite his advancing age and waistline. For those scenes it was quite obvious a stunt double was used.

What does this have to do with essays?

Well think of the actor as the writer and the essay as his character. The actor is the face of the character and it’s his voice that speaks – just as the writer’s name is on the essay and it’s written in his style, with his words.

A good movie always has a bit of action and I’m not talking about the stuff in the bedroom. The action usually consists of some pretty cool stunts and for this a stunt double is quite commonly used. They are dressed the same, and the scenes are shot in such a way that it looks like it is still the same actor.

In an essay the stunt double is the sources and authority figures you have referenced. You integrate their quotes and paraphrase their papers so it looks like one cohesive essay.

While it might be made to look like there is just one person playing the character in a movie, the stuntmen are credited for their role at the end of the movie. The same goes for your essays – reference all your sources correctly. Paraphrasing doesn’t make it your own work!

But why bother with a stunt double? Why can’t the actor do it?

In some cases they can and do; however, the two reasons they usually don’t are:
1. They physically can’t aka Mr. Dangerfield
2. It is not worth the risk of them injuring themselves

In your essay you do research and use credible sources because you can’t provide the evidence yourself. You don’t have enough experience, and haven’t carried out your own studies or experiments in your essay topic’s field. Basically, you’re a student and not qualified. Even if you are, it is very risky to base an essay wholly on your own thoughts and findings. Use the experts for the evidence.

Overall, you’re the actor (writer) and your essay is your character – it communicates to your audience. Write your essay with your unique voice, integrate evidence from credible sources,  and create a powerful argument.

Keep this in mind when you are writing your essays this year and good luck!

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

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An example of nuance

Rendering of human brain.

Use this! (Image via Wikipedia)

Getting something better with less effort sounds like a dream – but that’s what we covered last week. Recap it now to revise how to grab the freedom you are given when writing essays and using that freedom to its full advantage.

So how did you go in the challenge? Did you notice examples of nuanced arguments made in real life? Or nuanced discussion points that you could’ve raised, but didn’t? I promised an example of how to use the nuanced argument strategy, so here it is. It’s an essay question that you might find in an English assignment.*

The example:

“Q: The main purpose of a film is to entertain the audience. To what extent do you agree or disagree with this statement?.”

  1. You can argue ‘yes, the main purpose of a film is to entertain the audience’ by using examples of humour, suspense etc.
  2. You can also argue ‘no, the purpose of a film is not to entertain -it’s to educate’. Or you could go as far as saying ‘the purpose of a film is to indoctrinate – or solely to make money’. Those are extreme positions, though – good luck arguing them.

A nuanced argument: elegant and sophisticated.

  1. one nuanced argument would be to define “entertain[ing] an audience” to include feelings of horror and pity, as well as happiness.

Tip: I thought of this idea by looking at the key word “entertain” and asking what that implies – and doesn’t imply – and what it could imply with a slight stretch of the imagination.

Another nuanced argument would be that through the emotional film techniques (entertainment) a higher purpose is achieved: conveying a deeper message about society, humans as individuals etc. [launch into an amazing thematic topic sentence here!]

Tip: this was triggered by looking at the keyword “purpose”.

It’s all about analysing the question really. Just do it in an open-minded, even quirky way.

NB: Nuanced arguments don’t have to be full paragraphs – they can be smaller points within paragraphs too, but I find they are often important enough and big enough to justify a full paragraph length of explanation.

I’m sure there are other ways you could approach that question, but it’s important to answer it in a way that’s unique to you. As long as it’s reasonable and you can back it up with evidence and express it well, of course. So let your uniqueness peep through the academic façade of your writing. Write on!

*based on a true assignment question. Some of the words may have been changed to protect the identity of the film mentioned, to comply with all relevant legislation, and to completely alter the meaning of the original question.

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