Archive for category Essays Overall

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.

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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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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!

Photo Credit: Planning for Fun via Graeme Douglas

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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

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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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)

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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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The halo: a trick to tame essay questions.

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

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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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