Archive for category Essays Overall

The thesaurus is not your friend

Thesaurus: a dictionary of synonyms and antonyms (

No matter how much you love your thesaurus, it's best for your essay marks if you leave it on the shelf.

It sounds like it would be perfect for paraphrasing journal articles or making your essay sound sophisticated.

However, it’s not.

Well not exactly. In order to paraphrase you need to understand what you’re paraphrasing – just finding synonyms of the key words and changing the sentence structure isn’t good enough. The reason is because replacing words with their synonyms doesn’t necessarily make the sentence say what it originally said. If you understand what you’re paraphrasing you’ll be able to pick out the bad synonyms; if not, you’re screwed – the marker will have a bad impression of you.

The same goes for trying to make your essay sound sophisticated. While it doesn’t read particularly well if you use the same word over and over again throughout your essay, it’s much worse if you use words that don’t make sense because you’ve been using a thesaurus. A boring essay which makes sense will beat a fancy sounding essay that doesn’t make sense any time.

So I should never use a thesaurus?

Never is quite a strong word – but unless you have a word in mind that you’re looking for, don’t use a thesaurus. They’re much more likely to hinder rather than help.

Especially don’t use the thesaurus in Microsoft Word!

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Illuminating the darkness: examples of examples

Classic examples from "Heart of Darkness"

In the past few weeks, we’ve explored the use of examples in essays. Since examples are powerful communication devices, I will take my own advice. Below are some example paragraphs from a Year 13 level essay (written for Cambridge A2 course work).

Before we dive into them, though, note that for English Literature essays like these, the examples will usually be quotations taken from the text. At higher levels, and in other subjects, the types of examples may be case studies from various academic sources – or other sorts or evidence.

Good essay examples to use in an English Literature essay include quotations of sound devices, metaphors, personification, and various forms of imagery. This not only ensures your analysis is tied to the text (which is very important), but it means you can leverage the evocative power of the author’s work to help you explain your thematic interpretation.

Now for these examples – how many of the key elements of good examples can you identify? What things do you like about these paragraphs? What could be improved?

Q: Explore the effect on the reader of Conrad’s use of Marlow as narrator in “Heart of Darkness”.

Conrad’s literary strategy involves using Marlow’s narrative to demonstrate the reader’s incomplete understanding, which parallels the main character’s developing discernment. Marlow frequently presents his tale beginning with inexact, unrevealing descriptions. Literal observations like the “poleman… stretch[ing] himself flat on the deck” utilize emotionally neutral diction such as the leisurely verb “stretch”. Casual, nonchalant statements beguile the reader and belie the actual occurrences. “Arrows, by Jove! We were being shot at!” These snappy exclamations are all the more striking after the long, unenlightening sentences that begin the paragraph. Delayed decoding causes the reader to imaginatively experience the unanticipated situation.

Conrad has Marlow use lists of images to capture essential evocations. The ominous mood during the preparation for his voyage is created by eerie and lifeless adjectives: “deserted street” and “dead silence” appear in the list describing “the sepulchral city”. “Deep shadow” has symbolic connotations of evil and harm, “grass sprouting between the stones” signals neglect and carelessness, the adjective “imposing’ is plainly aggressive. This unnamed European city is later described metaphorically as a “whited sepulchre”. This biblical allusion* implies hypocrisy and deceitfulness. Wealth and power are often the motivating desires behind a façade of legalistic cant touting administration, advancement, illumination and civilization.

Were the examples relevant? Were they entertaining or at least engaging? (This could be because of the examples themselves and also because of the argument). Was the significance of each example adequately explained? Were they detailed enough? These are just a few of the questions that you can derive from previous posts about using examples in essays. There are other questions too – if you grasp the main points and also develop a personalised understanding of the concepts, then you’ve done really well. That’s a sign of a good example.

* cf Matt 23:27,28

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A stroke of genius – An example

Last week I talked about the key ingredient in changing a good essay into a great one – the ‘stroke of genius’. In this post I’ll provide an example of

You don't need to be Einstein to use a 'stroke of genius' in your essay

one I’ve written to give you an idea of what it might look like.

Note: There is no formula or template for adding a ‘stroke of genius’ to your essay. It is up to you how you phrase it and where you put it.

The example below is from the essay I used as my example for how to construct a conclusion.

This was most strongly apparent when they disagreed on the major issues of relevant daily pay and the selling of holidays. Interestingly enough, despite the employer’s unitarism, the review itself was a product of the pluralist model – it was a bargaining session. That is one of the reasons the subsequent Holidays Amendment Bill (2010) has been strongly opposed by the unions, they feel betrayed by the Government’s decision to not uphold the recommendations they bargained for during the review (“Unions urge Government to protect worker leave entitlements”, 2010). In fact, in some regards, while initially portraying a democratic pluralist approach to fixing the Holidays Act (2003), the Government has now switched to a unitarist approach to do what it feels is best for New Zealand as a whole.

That’s it? That’s a ‘stroke of genius’?

Yes it is. It doesn’t have to be in the same realm as E=mc2, all you need to do is make a few clever connections between the evidence you’ve provided in your body paragraphs. Not too hard is it?

Where, when, what

Where and When: I usually place my ‘stroke of genius’ in my conclusion as part of my twist like I have done in this example. While this is a very good place for it, if your essay’s argument is itself a ‘stroke of genius’ then you will need to make your insightful links throughout your essay – usually in your topic sentences. You need to present the evidence clearly first before you start making links and connecting dots.

What: In this example I have made connections more than just the parties’ views  (unitarist or pluralist) presented in negotiations. I linked their philosophies to specific developments affecting the negotiation process itself – such as the Review of the Holidays Act – and how the parties’ responses fitted into either the unitarist or pluralist framework. Basically it boils down to:

  1. Unitarism and Pluralism are opposing viewpoints
  2. Each party discusses the Act through a pluralist mechanism – a bargaining session
  3. The Government, which is essentially pluralist, uses a unitarist action: doing what it thinks is best, which angers the pluralist unionists.

By pointing out these links in an eloquent way, the marker can see that you understand the subject you’re writing about and you can think outside the box. This is the secret to a great mark.

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A stroke of genius – the difference between a good mark and a great one

You hear it a lot – that essay or assignment was hard, I did everything my teacher/lecturer want and yet I only got an average mark.

Einstein's 'stroke of genius'. What's yours?

Exactly. You did everything you were asked to do, just like everyone else in your class.

You had the same essay question, same information, same teacher/lecture as everyone else. So everyone’s essay ends up roughly the same. If it’s written well, you’ll get a good mark.

So how do you get a great mark?

With what I like to call ‘stroke of genius’.

With everyone writing essentially the same answer to the same question, you need to differentiate yourself. This doesn’t mean writing an essay completely different from everyone else. Which, while possible, is nearly impossible to pull off and not necessary to achieve a great mark. Instead a ‘stroke of genius’ is usually a small but powerful point that make near the end of your essay.

While there is no specific place to reveal your ‘stroke of genius’ in your essay, a great place for it is your twist.

It’s all about connections

A twist is all about weighing up your essay’s evidence. If you want a good mark then this is where you stop – you weigh the evidence, come to a conclusion and that’s your essay.

But, if you want a great mark you need to take this weighed evidence and make some connections.

Throughout your essay you’ve talked about experts’ opinions and ideas – quoted and paraphrased your way to a solid argument that answers the essay question. Apart from the exact words on the page it is not particularly original or creative. You can’t be; you’re not an expert on the subject – even if you think you are.

However, having thoroughly researched the subject and topic you’re writing on, you have the ability to see links and make connections between the evidence, context and argument of your essay.

Here you can be creative, be original, show you’re smart – come up with a stroke of genius.

So what does a stroke of genius look like?

Well that is up to you… but next week we will look at an example to help you come up with your strokes of genius.

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Two types of words you should never include in your essay

Contractions and Colloquial language.

One of the things you should not include in your essay.

Finding these in your essay will annoy your marker – not something you want to do…

Contraction: a shortened form of a word or group of words, with the omitted letters often replaced in written English by an apostrophe (from

“Don’t”, “isn’t”, “didn’t”, and “wouldn’t” are all contractions.

Don’t use them.

But, why? We use them all the time don’t we?

Yes we do but an essay is a formal piece of writing and contractions are informal. They are a quick short colloquial way to write words and phrases.

Do not use you them in your essay. It makes it look like you’re lazy because you can’t be bothered writing your words out in full. If the marker thinks you are lazy then then the box you are being put in has a ‘C’ or an ‘Achieved’ on it, or worse. Markers hate lazy students.

It is however, easy to accidentally use contractions when we are writing our essay – after all, we use them so frequently in everyday language. The best technique is to use Ctrl+F to search for all the apostrophes in your essay.

Colloquial: characteristic of or appropriate to ordinary or familiar conversation rather than formal speech or writing; informal.

“What’s up?” , “gonna”, “dunno”, and “thick as two short planks” are all colloquial.

Do not use them in your essay. It makes it look like you are not particularly well-educated. Your arguments will seem less credible and your evidence weak, in the eyes of the marker. You are in that ‘C’ or ‘Achieved’ box at the very best, once again.

In fact, using colloquial language in essays is pretty much considered an unforgivable sin by markers. You might get away with an accidental contraction or two but you won’t get away with colloquial language. Some markers will instantly fail you and not bother to read any more.

It’s not worth the risk.

Hang on a second, isn’t it ironic that you’ve used contractions in this blog post (and this question)?

Yes it is.

But, whenever you write, you follow the conventions and styles of the type of writing you are doing. We write this blog in a casual conversational style to make it easy for you to read, understand, and apply what we write about, to your essays. Contractions are useful when writing in this style.

An essay is a formal piece of writing – it is not casual and conversational. Contractions therefore have no place in it.

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The many uses of glue in essays

Glue for essays - hold the bits together with connectives

We’ve examined some of the main uses of connectives over the past few posts. They’re like glue that can be used in many situations. Connectives signal connections (funny that) between your essay’s various themes and techniques; and they can also signal when you’re going into more detail – so they’re very diverse and adaptable.

Speaking of going into more detail (that’s a conversational style connective), examples are a great way to do this. “A picture is worth a thousand words”. So use examples and explain them well. Together with explanations, examples make great pieces of evidence to back up your claims and arguments in your topic sentences.

Connecting to examples

Clearly signalling that a relevant example is coming up makes your essay seem more planned, and therefore more persuasive. You could do this by saying that “first this essay will examine historical implications of this practice, then second it will analyse the modern practices, and third it will discuss where the industry is heading in the future”. These sorts of sentences can work well in an introduction – just make sure you cover the topics you say you will! At the very least, use connectives just before you launch into the example. To introduce examples you can use connectives like “for example, …”; “for instance, …”; “like, …”; “consider…,”; “when this happened in the 1990s…,” – and so on. The right one for the occasion will sound right to you. Importantly, (note the connective!) sometimes other connectives help to link to an example – especially if the rest of the sentence mentions a specific example, or perhaps another one that is compared or contrasted with the coming one. The right ‘fit’ of connective word or phrase enhances the flow from argument, to example, to explanation; making the paragraph that much more compelling.

Adverbial connectives

Another way to use connectives is to use adverbial phrases to link sentences together while packing in information about the emotional layers to the work. Think of words like “annoyingly, …”; “fortunately, …”; “ironically, …”. The use of time-based adverbs can also be useful. To start with, you can try using words like “temporarily, …”; “previously, …”; “persistently, …” “slowly, …”; “rapidly, …”; “immediately, …” “eventually, …”

Further learning

Now it’s your turn to explore the uses of connectives further. The main thing to remember is that you’re aiming to make your essays clearer and more persuasive. If you think of another way of using connectives (or any other writing technique) to do that, then go for it! Also, there are many many words that can be used as connectives, besides the ones mentioned in these posts. How many more can you think of?

Note, here is a website I found useful because it contains a few examples. I’m sure you can come up with more on your own, though!

Learning from examples

So now that you’ve read a few posts on connectives, take this new knowledge and see if you can apply it. First, go and do the detective work: look for connectives in this example essay – can you now see new types of connectives? Secondly, look over these past posts themselves – how were connectives used here? Which ones worked well in their contexts? Are there some you think could have been better? Lastly, apply what you’re learning. That’s when better marks will start to flow!

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How to write numbers and dates in your essay – be consistent!

In my last post we talked about consistency and I gave you a decent list of things you need to keep consistent:

Keep the numbers in your essay consistent

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

In this post we’ll look the last two: numbers and dates.


One, 1, I…

Ten, 10, X…

Which is correct?

Well if you are talking about amounts definitely not the Roman numerals! Deciding between the next two is a little trickier.

There is no actual official accepted format but a good rule of thumb is use words for one through to nine and digits for 10 and above. The main thing is whatever you decide, whether it’s the rule of thumb above, all words or all digits – keep it consistent.

Don’t use both one and 1 or ten and 10 in your essays.

Another thing to watch out for is money and percentages.

50c, $0.50, 50 cents, fifty cents. Pick one and stick to it.

25%, 25 percent, twenty-five percent. Once again, pick one and stick to it.

This leads us nicely onto dates…


As with numbers there is no right way or wrong way to write out your dates – just keep it consistent!

20th century or twentieth century or even 20th-century and twentieth-century

1800’s or 1800s

7th August 1990 or 7 August 1990 or 7 August, 1990 or August 7, 1990 etc.

An interesting note from McGraw-Hill’s Proofreading Handbook by Laura Anderson, is that if you use a comma in your date then you need to use one after the year also. For example: “On 7 August, 1990, I was born.”

Throughout this post I have been saying that there is no right way or wrong way to write your numbers and dates as long as they are consistent throughout your essay. This is true.

However, people and/or subjects have preferences for certain formats – so make sure you check out what formats your lecturers, teachers, textbooks use first before making your own choice of format.

The secret to getting good marks in your essays is writing what the marker wants – so be consistent and use their preferred number and date formats in your essays this week.

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Colouring books and blueprints


Your essay doesn't have to be planned out to this level of detail...

Little things can make a big difference. It’s been said that ‘big doors swing on little hinges’ – if it’s not already, that will be a cliché one day. One small technique that can improve your essays massively is the astute use of connectives (or “linking words” as some call them).

In the last few posts we’ve been looking at various uses of connectives, and why they’re important. You can’t expect the marker to piece all your diverse points together. Between sleep deprivation and thinking about what they’ve got to teach the next day, there’s a high chance their neurons will misfire – so we use connectives to help them connect the dots.

We’ve mentioned two main types of connectives so far: those that show when you’re stopping to drill into more detail, and those that announce that you’re moving on to a new point, while also showing the direction of the argument. This second tactic includes the special case of using connectives to show causal relationships, which are very persuasive.  However you use connectives, make sure you make the marker’s journey to enlightenment easy. You’re their guide in the big bad jungle.

A few tips:

Unlike a children’s colouring-in book, there isn’t only one correct way to connect the dots, but there are still ways that produce a better picture that strikes the marker. Using connectives makes it easier for them to notice that picture. From which dot are you going and to where. Are you now going into more detail about one point, or are you going to the other side of the colouring-in book (a different point that’s still related to the topic you are discussing)? Be creative in how you put your argument together – don’t do what everyone else does. Do make sure that it’s still logically constructed though.


You can draw inspiration for the various types of connectives from your bullet-point essay plan. Consider both the direction of the argument and the way you want to handle the evidence. From this you can get a clearer idea of how you’ll link concepts on a paragraph and sentence level, and not just a nebulous ‘big picture’, whole-essay impression. Now you have a more precise blueprint in mind.

So there’s a recap of two types of connectives and how they relate to each other and how you can work with them. Stay open-minded and creative when planning your essay. Just integrate your brilliantly unique insights in a logical form and the essay will be of a higher quality. There are more uses of connectives, though. What other uses of connectives can you think of?

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Beginning to tackle the information jungle


Ready to tackle the information jungle?

Welcome back, ninjas.

Connectives increase the persuasiveness of your essay’s argument – from answering the question at the biggest ‘macro’ level to the paragraph level. Connectives can even be used on the sentence level to connect smaller scale points.

NB: You can put connectives in other places besides the start of sentences, although that’s where they often naturally fit when I use them – especially when connecting together paragraphs because they help opening topic sentences introduce arguments effectively.

Importantly, using connectives explains how you reached your conclusions from the evidence. Otherwise, people could misinterpret what you wrote. The results of any ambiguity or uncertainty can be as disastrous (and amusing) as the example of incorrect punctuation in the “Dear John” letter. Don’t throw words on a page and hope the reader draws the same conclusion form them that you do!

In the last post, we looked at one use of connectives: using them to introduce more supporting sub-arguments – or looking at an alternative point of view. This sets out logical chains of reasoning – including causal relationships. Note that those are relationships between two items where a change in one causes an effect in the other – it’s not a casual relationship; that’s very different! (Another reason to proofread your essay to make sure the spelling is correct for the meaning you want to communicate).

Another way to use connectives is to focus the reader on the most important parts of the essay landscape. Just as you can use topic sentences to pause and balance, you can use connectives to carry the marker along to your next brilliant point, or you can dwell on one concept and make it even more brilliant. It’s like you’re guiding the marker through a jungle of information, so show them what’s worth seeing. A good guide will tell the group when they’re moving on (and were they’re heading to) and when they’re simply staying put, if that’s best for the group.

In some cases, it’s best to stay put. Emphasise points that are noteworthy or interpret the relative significance of your evidence. These thoughts can be introduced with connectives such as

“critically, … “; “importantly, … “; “significantly, … “; “notably, … “; ” slightly off-setting this, … “; “negligibly, … “; “interestingly, … “; “logically, … “; “evidently, … ” – and many more. (I suppose that “many more” itself is a connective phrase in the broader sense; it could be used to introduce more supporting evidence, then the next connective can interpret the value of that vast collection of evidence).

So now you know how to use essay nunchaku to tackle the information jungle! Go tackle it!

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Consistency – important in essays too

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


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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