Archive for category Evidence

"Be simple" – Don't over-explain yourself

KISS! Keep It Simple, Stupid!

I wanted to have the title of this post written like it is below, but I couldn’t get WordPress to do it. Anyway…

“Be simple” – Don’t over-explain yourself

Over the past few posts we’ve looked at ways to use examples and other forms of evidence to pack a persuasive punch in your essays. Disclaimer: you can take that too far. Remember the purpose of giving evidence: make your essays points clear. Use words to add more specific detail; not to waffle and smother the really useful words.

Since examples are so packed with meaning, each one is like a concentrated dose of explanation. This means they can be very provocative. With a little explanation wrapped around them to help with interpretation and guide the reader to your conclusion, they can be so powerful that they can almost stand alone. For example, when you have a large article or chapter to read for homework, what is your response? “Yay, lots of reading!” or “oh, man – why do we get monsters like this?”*.  I’m guessing you prefer to maximise results, but minimise the work required. So don’t create unnecessary work for your marker.

Explanations are important, but word them well. Being parsimonious lets the strength of the examples shine through. Don’t dilute that. Every extra word should add value – or be left out. We’ll have to cover the topic of eliminating redundancy in a future post. It takes practice and persistence to master this, especially if you have a tendency to be slightly verbose at the best of times and allow your examples to self-propagate until there’s almost too much detail so that the underlying intent of the message is smothered…

Since this post is about parsimony and I’ve used an example of cutting down on reading, I’ll end this post here. 😛

*The term “monsters” here refers to the lengthy article you have to read for homework. Not the teacher/lecturer – teachers want you to do well at school (yes, really!). So it’s the length of the articles that can be annoying; not the teacher.

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Judges and judgement: the parrot case


Do you want to be the parrot?

Last week we expanded on the purpose of examples – to give evidence to the judge: your marker. Now it’s time for some judgement of your own.

To communicate your examples, you have two main choices: use quotations or citations. Quotations are when you use the exact words of the person or article that you’re referring to – it’s often called a direct quotation because you’re taking the words directly from the source. Citations, on the other hand, are where you express the example in your own words. You paraphrase it. Note that you’re still communicating the same idea – you don’t change the concept; just the words used to describe it. So when should you quote and when should you cite an example from another source?

You’ve got to use the best form of evidence at the time. Think about the situation and what applies. What do the markers want to see? For a high school English course, like Cambridge (CIE) English Literature, markers want to see you tie your analysis very closely to the text. English Literature markers measure this requirement by looking for lots of direct quotations.

University markers usually don’t. They want to see that you can think for yourself. (That’s the whole point of higher education). This means university markers usually prefer citations because if you can express an idea well in your own words, it proves that you’ve understood the concept. They can always tell if you’re on topic anyway. So, when at university, I’d probably paraphrase where possible. Anyone can be a parrot.

See how the markers want to see the same underlying skills: good analysis of a question, identifying relevant information in the text (and other literature), explaining and linking the evidence coherently and persuasively – yet they also view quotations quite differently. Another example of how being able to think in a sophisticated nuanced way is valuable – you can adjust to different assessment styles.

So both university and high school English markers want you to achieve the same thing: a close analysis of the text that proves you can think for yourself. The skills required are the same, but they lead to very different signs of success. Now you can use your judgement about whether to quote or cite ideas, depending on the emphasis of your course. If in doubt, check with your teacher or lecturer. Prove to the judges that you can analyse; and prove that you can be original and think for yourself.

All the best!

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The ninja and the lawyer

You're the lawyer, now.

We’ve looked at how to improve your essays with examples. Examples can be entertaining, but make sure they have explanatory value too. Since examples explain the details, detailed examples work best – be specific about the main points. We’ve also looked at a few examples of examples in an English Literature essay.

Now, giving evidence in your essay is like presenting a case at court. Now, instead of being a ninja, you’ve got to think like a lawyer. You’ve got to convince the judge – they hand out the penalty (or blessing). You do want lots of marks, don’t you?

So now it comes down to how you present the argument: the explanation part. You’ll already have begun moving into this phase by including the details of your example. Now you want to clearly demonstrate to the judge that this example proves your overall argument. A good way to do this is to relate the example to a broad concept within your subject that supports your argument. This could be a political or philosophical framework in English Literature, or an overarching theory in another discipline.

For example, to more completely integrate the (facetious) example about selling sea shells in a previous post, you could say that “this represents a 150% increase in global sales compared to last year. This means we can afford to invest in the new wheelbarrow because we’ll be able to recoup the costs and we’ll be well positioned to sell sea shells at the Rugby World Cup 2011”. If it was a marketing-focused essay, then I’d talk about the branding benefits and sustainable competitive advantage that Rugby World Cup exposure might generate. If it were a finance-focused question, I’d mention the projected value this project would add to the firm. If the example has been quite long, it’s good to restate the main point of the example briefly too.  Explain the bigger implications of examples to get more marks.

By relating your example and its implications to a bigger framework, you show how it’s relevant to your audience – so these sentences should answer the essay question too. If you answer the essay question at both the big theoretical level and the detailed example level, then the judge will have to award you more marks. Go get ‘em!

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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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Aliens and sea shells

A 780 ft crop circle in the form of a double (...

Would you argue that crop circles are evidence of aliens?

Last week we looked at the benefit of using examples to elucidate your essay’s points. We know that examples should be interesting, but still relevant to your essay as a whole, and help you to answer the essay question. Now let’s look in more detail at how examples provide more relevant details to the reader.

Give examples as details

When writers don’t give the required details, they’re tantalising the reader. Some examples and details can even make things worse – like in murder stories; finding out more details can increase the suspense even further. An essay is not supposed to be suspenseful – give the reader (marker) the satisfaction of knowing what you’re talking about by giving them an example sooner rather than later. If your argument is itself interesting, then your reader should be interested anyway. For example, would you keep reading an essay that began arguing that crop circles don’t prove the existence of aliens because the symbols depict forms that humans expect to come from aliens, which assumes that all intelligent life is like human life? Okay, maybe it’s just me. Anyway…

Give detailed examples

If the point of examples is to explain your essay’s points in more detail, you should give examples with enough detail for the marker to understand your argument. This isn’t about being verbose. Don’t stuff your example full of unnecessary words. The detail that’s required are the links to make the links in your reasoning clear. It’s often about setting the example in context so markers know how to respond. After all, what use is a picture if you don’t know where to look or what you’re looking for in the picture? A little explanation of the significance of the picture and how it relates to you (or rather, in the case of essays, to your marker), is what is really useful.

Consider standing up in a business presentation and saying “sales are expected to be $1,000,000”. That doesn’t tell me much – is that good or bad? What time frame does it relate to? If the sales forecast is for one year then the million dollar figure might be alright – if it’s Sally selling sea shells from a wheelbarrow. Not so good if it’s for Shell Oil. The size of the company matters in this case. Be specific; set the example in context. Another aspect of including an example’s critical details: state the assumptions. For example, what are the geographic boundaries that were taken into account in your sales forecast? Were you talking about global sales – or sales just from one suburb? If you want to get better marks, set examples in context and state your assumptions. Communicate the details.

Give examples as details and give detailed examples. You’ll make your essays clearer and more compelling. And probably more interesting. So you’ll get more marks. And maybe even have a little bit more fun writing too!

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Worth thousands

Think you already knew the old saying: "A...

There are other reasons why pictures are worth more...

“A picture is worth a thousand words”.

(No, you can’t just hand in a picture instead of pages of text for your thousand word essay).

You may not be able to include pictures in your essay (in some subjects, like marketing, this is actually allowed – or even encouraged – so check with your teacher or lecturer). However, you can include examples that will help the reader to see, hear, and feel what you are talking about. Engage your reader. The more voluntary involvement you elicit from them, the better, so use examples that are interesting and memorable. Make your essay stand out to the marker.

Examples are part of an essay for a specific purpose, though: to inform, not to entertain. Well-chosen examples can be interesting for your reader. Even in other forms of writing, many readers look forward to examples. For example, in business books (give me an example of how buying a parakeet to be a mascot improves business) – or in murder stories (just tell me what happened please! So I don’t kill myself!) NB: there shouldn’t be a connection between parakeets and murder – and definitely not between murder and business – unless someone was in the pirate business and happened to own a parakeet; that would increase the likelihood of murder getting mixed up in it.

Whoops, that convoluted example obscures the point. Examples should provide more detail, making your arguments clearer. Not harder to understand. So, in a marketing essay, for example, you could explain how a mascot improves a firm’s brand awareness among consumers because it is consistently presented to the same audience and repetition is a key to learning and remembering the brand when the consumer is considering a purchase. You could explain how a mascot gives personality to a brand that might otherwise be selling a boring undifferentiated product. This would then encourage consumers who liked that personality to be more brand loyal, and this would increase sales. See how you choose an example that is not only entertaining, but is also relevant to your essay question? Also, have a chain of reasoning attached to it that will keep it firmly grounded so it doesn’t fly away to the other side of the reader’s imagination.

In conclusion, we all know the power of a good example for making an explanation clearer. Examples can be entertaining and memorable too, which gives you better marks. Just make sure that the clear details you’re fishing to the surface of your readers’ minds are relevant. Happy fishing – and watch out for pirates!

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