Archive for March, 2011

Consistency – important in essays too

A lack of consistency is plaguing the Knicks - don't let it plague your essay.

Consistency.

It’s a word that is thrown around a lot in the sports world. The New York Knicks lack consistency, well they did – now they are consistently losing.

When it comes to essays, lacking consistency is also a bad thing, better than your essays being consistently bad – but a bad thing all the same.

For a sports team, a lack of consistency breaks up momentum and makes it very difficult for them become successful. Their unpredictability also makes them painful to watch, beating good teams one week and losing to bad teams – like the Cavs the next.

In your essay, a lack of consistency makes it harder to read and therefore more frustrating for the marker to go through. A frustrated marker leads to poor marks and them heading for the exits before your essay is done – just like Knicks’ fans at the moment.

There are many ways of writing the same thing and quite often there isn’t one “right way”. What is wrong, however, is to use multiple “ways” in the same essay. For example, ‘focused’ and ‘focussed’ are both correct spellings of the intended word, but you should pick one and use it throughout – don’t alternate spellings to try and mix things up!

In an essay there are many things that need to be consistent:

  • Tenses
  • Arguments
  • Spelling and Capitalisation
  • Formatting
  • Hyphenations
  • Abbreviations
  • Dates
  • Numbers

Quite a lot! We will go through some of these in detail in future posts but the most important thing to remember is keep things consistent when you write this week.

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The essay ninja's nunchaku

Nunchaku (Ssahng Jol Gohn; 쌍절곤), one of hapkid...

The essay version is less violent

In previous posts, we’ve covered how to structure your essay’s arguments by separating them into ‘mini argument’ paragraphs. We’ve also covered how to order essay paragraphs to best guide your marker through various pieces of evidence and interpretation, based on the thematic and technique-based framework. There is one simple trick that makes these two things a lot easier, though: use connectives.

Connectives do an important job: they, well, connect paragraphs. That’s one of the most powerful uses of them, anyway. Technically, connectives show a relationship between two sentences – or sometimes two parts of a sentence (in which case they’re usually conjunctions). But the main point is that they connect thoughts. Like the stitching between patches in a patchwork quilt, or maybe the chain that links the rods in a pair of nunchaku, connectives link two substantial components together.

Importantly, connectives are also useful because they improve the flow of your essay; guiding the reader to your conclusion. Consider how you are going to order your paragraphs. This will give you ideas on the type of connectives to use to link them.  We’ve touched on using connectives to introduce contradictory evidence in the “Paragraphing – an example (and a coffin)” post.

Since arguments can be represented on a spectrum, the sequence and direction of the arrows can show the direction of the argument. If an arrow points in the same direction as a previous one, then it is backing up the evidence in the previous point or paragraph. Connecting words like “furthermore, similarly, also, in addition” etc. can be used to introduce the second point. If an arrow points in the opposite direction, then the evidence suggests a different interpretation than that of the previous point. Connectives like “contrastingly, on the other hand, alternatively, ironically” etc. can be used depending on the context.

When linking between mini-arguments, connectives that imply causal relationships, derivations, or proofs are particularly compelling. Examples of connectives you could try for this purpose: “Since that decision was made..”; “Following on from this…”; “Hence, …”; “Thus, …”; “Therefore, …”; “Predictably …”; “Moreover…”. The more proof you seem to be piling up, the more persuasive. (All other things, like the quality of that evidence, being equal).

Connectives link threads of comments and thoughts so they’re easy to follow – and as strong as a (nunchaku) chain. Use them if you want to increase your essay’s readability and persuasiveness.

References: here are some websites I found useful for the technical aspect of connectives. See what you think.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Discourse_connective

http://www.sil.org/linguistics/GlossaryOfLinguisticTerms/WhatIsAConnective.htm

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Using Ctrl+F to proofread your writing

In a future post we will go into how you must be careful of the tools Microsoft Word provides for you to check your writing, but there is one tool that is extremely useful.

Ctrl+F (a.k.a. the Find Function).

Some mistakes and typos are so similar to the correct spelling that it is extremely difficult to pick them up. This is where Ctrl-F comes in.

1. Make a list of words that you could easily mix up or misspell. Below is a few examples from McGraw-Hill’s Proofreading Handbook by Laura Anderson p123:

  • accept ~ except
  • affect ~ effect
  • alter ~ altar
  • born ~ borne
  • their ~ there
  • prostate ~ prostrate
  • quiet ~ quite

2. Then go through your essay and check you have used the right word in the right situation by entering the words into the search box of the Find Function. Remember the Find Function only reveals instances when you wrote in exactly what you typed in the search box, though. So you need to go through the document searching all variations of each word that you may have used at different times (including completely incorrect variations that you know you write occasionally, in case the spellcheck function misses them).

Other things you should check:

  • Apostrophes – you shouldn’t be contracting words in an essay, like “shouldn’t”, but it’s easy to do by accident. Also, you can check your possessive apostrophes at the same time.
  • Consistent spelling – which is the topic for my next post…

Ctrl+F is very good way to pick up those nearly impossible to spot errors and after you have been writing for a while, you’ll know what words you commonly make mistakes with and so will have a good list to search.

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Pause and balance: how to use topic sentences

Balance

Balance! - and what makes your reader pause?

Last week we looked at the two main types of topic sentence. They both have different functions, so in this post we’ll examine how and when to use each type of topic sentence to create a balanced essay.

Technique-based topic sentences summarise the evidence you will present (literary devices in English Literature essays; quotations, citations, statistics, theories and other types of evidence in essays for other disciplines). Thematic topic sentences are the distilled interpretations or implications of that evidence. Technique-based topic sentences are useful for linking paragraphs as they summarise the bulk of the essay and make smooth transitions for readers because they are generally easy to understand. Thematic-based topic sentences can also be used to link paragraphs. However, because they communicate deeper thoughts, they can take a little longer to absorb. This is often advantageous, because it further breaks up your essay, and it increases the likelihood of your sophisticated thoughts being understood.

It’s the thought that counts. The closing thematic topic sentence is there to sum up the argument and present the thematic implications in a compelling and thought-provoking manner. It could be as simple as “Time destroys.” I like that short sentence. (We’ll discuss sentence types and how to deploy them effectively in a future post). I’d already explained how the imagery in the poem “Ozymandias” conveyed this thematic message, so that sentence was fine on its own. Pauses can be powerful. Can you see how ending a paragraph with that punchy topic sentence will prompt the reader to reflect on the message?

Have another look at the post on how to order paragraphs, but this time read the examples with a different focus: to hone your understanding of topic sentences. Do you see how they hold each paragraph together, while linking the separate paragraphs in order; guiding the reader through both technical and thematic subtleties?

Notice that the thematic topic sentences often work well as closing topic sentences, because the final sentence will linger in the reader’s mind for a while, before they move on to the next paragraph. Thus, ending topic sentences are a great place to communicate important thematic ideas. They’re also a great place to answer the question explicitly, so the reader feels that reading the preceding evidence was relevant and worth their time.

However, engaging with thematic concepts is especially important if you want to get top marks, so thematic topic sentences can be used at the start of a paragraph too. Sometimes you might feel your thematic repetition won’t add value through new layers of meaning, though. In these situations – and also when it simply reads better if you relate evidence to previous paragraphs – technique-based topic sentences are great as the first topic sentence of a paragraph.

In general, technique-based topic sentences make your essay flow; while thematic topic sentences may cause the reader to pause while you go deeper (and also answer the essay question). Both effects can be useful; there’s a time and place for everything – balance the two types of  topic sentence. Now you know which tool you can use to get the effect you want in each situation.

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The importance of punctuation

Have a read:

Dear John:

I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can be forever happy–will you let me be yours? Gloria

Now read this one – same words, different punctuation:

Dear John:

I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we’re apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be? Yours, Gloria

Completely different meanings.

So make sure you proofread and check your punctuation carefully – you don’t want to accidentally say something you didn’t intend!

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The two types of topic sentence

Lettrine A edtion 1570 Venise I quattro libri ...

Image via Wikipedia

Since topic sentences function a bit like introductions and summaries to paragraphs, and because there are two main foundational concepts you can build paragraphs around, there are two main types of topic sentence: thematic and technique-based.

Technique-based topic sentences

Most students find technique-based topic sentences easier; you’re effectively introducing the paragraph by saying you’ll examine the imagery, or camera angles, or whatever. Here’s an example of a technique-based topic sentence:

Conrad’s literary strategy involves using Marlow’s narrative to demonstrate the reader’s incomplete understanding, which parallels the main character’s developing discernment.

Thematic topic sentences are harder to grasp and are probably the more important of the two types, because their unique function demonstrates your ability to think and write well. Let’s look at thematic topic sentences in more detail.

Thematic topic sentences

Through explorations of themes, authors communicate messages, to a greater or lesser extent. However, these messages are often only implicit. On the other hand, thematic topic sentences should convey messages to the essay reader explicitly. Translate your interpretation of the author’s messages for your reader.

Sentences that discuss themes show higher-order thinking that will set your essay apart from those that merely re-tell the story. Themes, meanings, and messages are abstract and ethereal ideas that float above the surface of a text. So you don’t even need to refer to the poem, a character in a novel, or the plot in a short story in your thematic topic sentences; because the evidence in the preceding sentences should have already explained the important connection between your interpretation and the text itself. Thematic topic sentences communicate sophisticated ideas that draw conclusions, express insights, and generally do a little abstract philosophising.

Tip: abstract nouns feature frequently in thematic topic sentences.

Some examples

Some of the theory about thematic and technique-based writing was covered (although from a slightly different angle) in a previous post linked above, so let’s look now at a few examples.

Here’s an example of a technique-based topic sentence:

Although the form of the poem is comparatively erratic in the previous stanza, the next is more traditional in layout – it is here that a subtle shift in the mood of the piece can first be detected.

Here’s an example of a thematic topic sentence:

Soon his life’s opportunities are left behind him: opportunities are left stranded by humans every day.

Can you see how the thematic topic sentence powerfully communicates a message that has been extracted from the text? It’s a lesson; not the story itself. The more clearly you understand this distinction, the better essays you will write. On the other hand, the technique-based topic sentence is still tied very closely to the text, so they’re often easier to write because the techniques described are easily identifiable in the text. Thematic sentences require you to think harder.

Remember that good topic sentences improve the quality of the whole paragraph to which they belong. Now you know a few types of topic sentences and have seen a few examples, you can start incorporating these into your own essays. Think critically about how you’re using the different types of topic sentences and how each sentence fits with its paragraph; used well, topic sentences can make a world of difference. All the best!

Photo Credit: Lettrine A edtion 1570 Venise I quattro libri … Image via Wikipedia

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The 3 major things to check when you proofread

So you’re reading slowly and deliberately, but what do you need to look out for?

Correct grammar is one of the 3 main things you should look out for.

Actually, a lot of things but they can be put into 3 main categories:

  1. Spelling
  2. Grammar
  3. Punctuation

1. Spelling

This category is rather straightforward and includes those accidental typos that come from typing (or writing) too fast. Here a spellcheck function, such as MS Word’s, can be useful – but you need to be careful. Sometimes words that are spelt correctly get nice red squiggly lines underneath them and sometimes words that are spelt incorrectly don’t. It is always much better to check with an actual dictionary such as dictionary.com.

Picking up typos and spelling mistakes can be the hardest mistakes to spot because we see what we expect to see. So you should check all the letters in a word carefully. In a future post we’ll look a one easy way to find spelling mistakes and typos in your essay.

2. Grammar

Or more specifically, in this case, syntax. In short, syntax is set the rules that govern the order of the words in a sentence. We are not going to go into these here but if you read through what you’ve written slowly and deliberately you’ll know if it sounds right.

Sometimes it is obvious your syntax is not quite right, however sometimes it is more subtle.

For example, take the first sentence of the paragraph above: “Or more specifically, in this case, syntax.” It could also be written, “Or in this case, more specifically, syntax.” Neither are wrong. The first one (and the one I used) is the best order because the fact that I am talking about a specific part of grammar is the more important piece of information conveyed in that sentence. This is to do with how the placement of words or phrases affect how much they stand out in a reader’s mind. What’s at the start or end is more memorable.

If you can’t tell between two possible word-orders, say them both out loud in the context of your essay. Choose the one that sounds like it says what you were intending to say.

It sounds hard but with practice and general reading you’ll be able to spot errors in your essay’s syntax.

3. Punctuation

To check you have punctuated properly you must read out loud. It also helps to exaggerate your pauses.

Read your sentences evenly, allow a normal pause at a comma, longer pause at a semi-colon or em-dash, and the longest pause at a full-stop, exclamation mark or question mark.

Do you finish a sentence gasping for breath? Add some punctuation or break it up into two (or more) sentences.

Does your sentence actually say what you meant it to say? Change where the punctuation is so it does say what what you want it to!

Next week I’ll look at how powerful punctuation is and how it can completely alter the meaning of a sentence.

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Babushka dolls and burgers

babushka dolls

What's in these?

We’ve talked about answering the question – perhaps narrowing the question, using nuanced arguments, and remembering to use the wording of the question as a motif throughout your essay. Answering the question ensures that your essay is eligible to get marks; the other techniques make hard questions easier, conceive higher quality essays, and speed up the process so you have more free time.

It’s important that each paragraph is well structured in its own right, though. This goes beyond knowing when to split or combine thoughts into paragraphs or ordering the paragraphs well. Each paragraph is a mini-argument. So each paragraph has elements which work together to guide your reader through so that they reach your conclusion – or at least appreciate it and give you lots of marks!

Mini-introductions and conclusions

One important ingredient that strengthens a paragraph is an opening and closing topic sentence. This pair of topic sentences holds the paragraph together; making it easier for the reader to ‘pick up’ and digest its contents (the evidence that supports your argument). Topic sentences do this by introducing the main argument of the paragraph, which improving clarity. Then the closing topic sentence summarises, evaluates, and re-emphasises an important “take-out” point at the end of the paragraph. This makes the paragraph more compelling.

Using a pair of topic sentences is sort of like having an introduction and conclusion, on a smaller scale, for each paragraph. Essay writing is often like putting together a babushka doll; each component resembles the one that it’s inside, but it’s smaller and simpler. Repetitive? Perhaps, but that makes it clearer and more compelling. Balance the downside of repetition by using varied expression – but that’s a topic for a future post.

First attempts at topic sentences

Opening topic sentences share a similar function to headings, like the ones in this post. When considering your essay plan, think of the main point of each paragraph as being a heading. Of course, in most academic essays, you won’t use headings (some course lecturers will allow this – check with them before you submit your work). Instead, you can write ‘full sentence’ headings as the first lines of each paragraph – this is a good first attempt at nefarious “topic sentences”, but the two types of topic sentences is a topic (eek) for another time. For an example of topic sentences which shows how well they summarise the main strands of the essay’s argument, see this bird’s-eye-view of an essay.

I encourage you to use topic sentences – while they can be a challenge to write initially, with practice writing them will become second nature. Effective topic sentences can lift the rest of a paragraph. Results are far better than expected, based their proportion of words – try it!

 

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