Posts Tagged communication

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!


Photo credit: ** Maurice ** via Flickr

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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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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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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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Pimp your paragraphs


Image by Kiran K. via Flickr

The paragraphing techniques that we’ve covered have been the basics – the foundations, the bare essentials. Now let’s put some power into your paragraphs – soup them up – so they don’t just survive, but thrive.

There’s one powerful technique that I use to ‘pimp paragraphs’. I like this technique because it looks good, allows you to express more of what you personally think, and makes the essay-writing task easier. It also gets you more marks.


You can get all that by using what I call ‘nuanced arguments’.  (In case you noticed it on the diagram, the “x” doesn’t mark a spot where treasure is buried – then again, metaphorically…) .

So what is a nuanced argument?

We looked at how paragraphs can be based around concepts that agree or differ with a stance framed by the question. But different interpretations don’t necessarily have to be opposites; they can sometimes be due to re-defining a concept. That right there was an example of a nuanced argument! It’s going into more detail and explaining how something similar or linked is actually different. So before you can synthesise this into your essay, you have to analyse some differences.

What are the benefits of using “nuanced arguments”?

  • Get more kudos (and therefore marks)

Markers generally like this sort of unique insight in an essay – it shows higher level thinking and is more engaging. Just make sure that you can back it up with evidence and it’s not straying outside of the question’s scope

  • Be more creative, not a stuffy academic

So many more options are open to you when you aren’t simply arguing “yes/no” or “for/against” – even the “how strongly” dimension is still limited compared to nuanced arguments…

  • Be more opinionated.

… which also means you can be more opinionated! (Some of you will really like that, I’m sure).

Nuanced arguments also make your job easier for many essays because you don’t have to fit the teacher’s thoughts into your own words, or struggle to come up with the ‘right answer”; you can write your own opinion, which you’ll know better and sooner than any other opinion. Best of all, markers prefer to read a fresh take on something (as long as it’s still well written and you back up the argument with evidence).

Don’t you want to take advantage of this technique? Here’s an idea: stay alert this week; see how many nuanced concepts you notice in real life – how many levels of precise interpretation you can identify. Once you start noticing them, you can pick them up everywhere. It’s great practice for essay writing and critical thinking in general. Also think about examples that you could use in an English essay. I’ll give you an example next week and we can compare notes, OK? All the best.

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Paragraphing – an example (and a coffin)

Coffin icon

Weird? I know. The example essay will explain why this image is here… (Image via Wikipedia)

In previous posts, we’ve looked at how to structure paragraphs to produce coherent, compelling, and persuasive essays.

To recap quickly:

Once you’re comfortable with what each individual paragraph should do, you can master the art of arranging them effectively. We looked at both chronological ordering and ordering paragraphs by similarities and/or differences.

These topics are quite abstract. Enough to do your head in; after all, I’ve been writing lots of paragraphs about how to write paragraphs! So here’s an example of how I ordered paragraphs in one of my essays (we first saw part of this essay in the second “SEX” post). I’ll show you the ordering and the basis on which the paragraphs were constructed by reproducing the first and last sentences of each paragraph. (See how useful topic sentences are?). I’ll write comments in normal text underneath the italics of the example.


The poem opens with direct speech: “’I’m rising five’”, exclaims the character in the poem.

Nicholson shows us how when we are young we lack knowledge outside of our uncomplicated small-scale experiences; and don’t recognise how carefree our lives are – we place the utmost importance on growing up.

The start of my essay’s body discusses the start of the poem; the overall method of ordering is chronological as you will see. Note that in the first sentence I begin the paragraph by focusing on Techniques, then the evidence throughout the paragraph this leads to a Thematic closing topic sentence.

Our early years present us with so many opportunities, Nicholson believes.

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

The paragraph both began and ended with a Thematic focus. Between the topic sentences there was still Technical content, though. It’s important to have good Technical content to back up your arguments and make them more convincing.

As we mature, our perspectives change.

The boy’s mentality is shown throughout the poem by using the same line-placement technique. It is like a chain of reasoning, but this results in a rather chilling conclusion….

Notice that even in the closing topic sentences of this thematic paragraph, I refer to a chain of techniques that reveal the evolving perspectives of the boy. This further reflects the chronological ordering that is the basis of my essay’s analysis. This poem lends itself to the chronological approach because it’s theme is about progression and growing up.

NB: I don’t think I’d be so creative now to end a paragraph in a formal essay with ellipsis, but I got away with it that time. 😉

Positive images are still used for a while, though.

The space that is left unused means that the stanza lacks the detail of the previous, more densely packed stanza. This could reflect how blank and empty our lives are when we incessantly worry about the future.

Here I used a different approach to link to this paragraph. A link is made based on a similarity. The previous paragraph set up expectation of a progression, but I choose to emphasise the similarity of the imagery (so it’s a Technique focused paragraph again). This gives the reader a clear overview of what to expect, while still making the current point clear; aim for clarity in your essay.

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.

It is ironic that people often desire to be younger again when they are adults – this backs up the poet’s argument that we need to make prudent decisions about what we do with each day; once we have decided, we can never get that day back again.

Another new approach to mix things up: this time a contrast is used to link the paragraphs. “Although” is a great linking word to use to signal a difference in the next paragraph. “On the other hand”, “however”, “in contrast”, and “nevertheless” are a few others. Experiment with them to find ones that work for you – the ‘fit’ often depends on the specific situation.

By the last stanza, Nicholson’s motif of the fruit trees has developed into an extended metaphor for the human life cycle.

The future holds the same fate for all of us: death. Nicholson reminds us not to be excessively captivated by the future.


(There. So now you know why there’s a coffin as the image for this post.)

Back to chronological linking of paragraphs after a little variety to add interest for the reader.

Often, my closing topic sentences are more creative and expressive than my opening topic sentences. I also prefer to close with a theme – and the sentence I leave in the reader’s mind at the end of each paragraph can target emotional responses (without becoming a poem or novel itself; it’s still an essay).

So there it is – ah, I’m at my word limit. ‘Bye for now’.

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Constructing Conclusions – An Example

Kate Wilkinson, New Zealand Minister of Labour. Photo Credit: Geoff Walker, Photographer, Greytown, New Zealand.

Below is an example of a well-constructed conclusion:

Sentence 1: Re-state the scene

This essay has looked at the key issues of the 2009 Review of the Holidays Act 2003.

Know what the essay was about?

The sentence is short, simple, and clearly states what the essay did. For comparison here is the second sentence of the introduction, “This essay will examine the positions that the employer organisations and trade unions took, in regards to the key issues reviewed by the Working Party, within the Employment Relations’ frameworks of unitarism and pluralism.” Both sentences are very similar, as they should be, but the sentence in the introduction goes into a lot more detail. The reason is because in the introduction you haven’t said anything yet and so need to introduce the topic to the marker in a bit of detail. However, by the time they have got to the conclusion they don’t need to have it spelt out again in so much detail. All you need to do is refresh the marker’s memory, not try and put them to sleep!

Sentence 2: Answer the question

Looking in particular at where the employers and unions stood on these issues, this essay has shown how the reasoning behind their positions is a product of their unitarist or pluralist viewpoints.

See the answer?

The sentence follows on from the first sentence and narrows its focus before providing the answer to the essay question: “In 2009, the Government undertook a review of holiday entitlements in New Zealand. What were the key issues addressed by the Working Party? What positions did employer organisations and trade unions take on these issues? What does your reading of the debate on holiday entitlement suggest to you about the principal analytical frameworks used in Employment Relations?”

Once again, you are providing a broad answer to the essay question here – you don’t need to go into too much detail.

Sentence 3 (and 4): Deliver a twist

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.

See what the most important evidence was?

The first sentence is essentially the twist – it chooses from all the evidence and examples presented in the essay the most important. The next three sentences show the student”s intelligence. It is a different way of looking at the evidence in order to answer the essay question and shows the marker that the student has thought very carefully and understood the topic he is writing about.

When I introduced this formula in my last post I suggested two sentences but in this example the twist takes up four sentences. With the formulas we have discussed the most important thing is what the sentences are about, not how many sentences you write. The twist is the most important part of the conclusion and so here it takes up four sentences total. Make sure, though, that it is taking up more sentences because it contains important content – not because you’re waffling.

Sentence 5: End with a bang!

Overall, it appears that in New Zealand Employment Relations, unitarism and pluralism are going to continue to fight to gain the upper hand, with the Government’s job to try and balance the opposing views because of our democratic pluralistic political system.

Hear the bang?

Probably not quite what you were expecting. Ending an essay with a bang is not quite as dramatic as ending a fiction novel – but you want the same effect. This sentence ties the whole essay context together and doesn’t waste words.

To finish off, here is the conclusion in full:

This essay has looked at the key issues of the 2009 Review of the Holidays Act 2003. Looking in particular at where the employers and unions stood on these issues, this essay has shown how the reasoning behind their positions is a product of their unitarist or pluralist viewpoints. 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. Overall, it appears that in New Zealand Employment Relations, unitarism and pluralism are going to continue to fight to gain the upper hand, with the Government’s job to try and balance the opposing views because of our democratic pluralistic political system.

Well that’s the formula in action, give it a try and let us know how you get on.

Photo Credit: US Embassy New Zealand via Flickr

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The Spectrum

No, this isn’t about politics, don’t worry. It is about opinions and arguments in essays, though.

In my last post, we looked at a simple method of ordering paragraphs: sequentially like the way content appears in the text. Along with the advantages, chronological ordering comes with a downside: it’s tempting to recount what happened in the text, rather than analysing the way the text was constructed and the deeper messages it conveys. The last thing markers want is yet another summary of the plot. They have sparknotes for that – and they’ve probably taught it so many times they can spout it off in their sleep – backwards – and with their hands tied behind their backs. Use chronological ordering to tie your technical and thematic analysis together in a logical manner. It’s not an invitation to stop thinking.

However, chronological ordering is just one method that you can use. The following ‘family’ of methods is modelled on the ‘Spectrum Diagram’ above.

  • Similarities
  • Differences
    • (nuance)

Essentially, all these methods structure your essay around concepts – usually themes and techniques in a Literature Essay.

Similarities and Differences

The spectrum diagram depicts the flow of the essay through the paragraphs. The spectrum itself represents the grounds of the debate, as set by the question. Opinions, individual concepts, arguments – and the different schools of thought that you discover in your research – can be placed on this spectrum.

Tip: to have a more convincing argument, look at alternative interpretations and arguments, as well as your own.

Structure your argument by balancing the different opinions and pieces of evidence. So some paragraphs may re-enforce each other (move in the same direction), while others may differ and take the reader back along the spectrum of opinion in the opposite direction. These paragraphs can be more persuasive, because the arguments are clearer; they form the very backbone of how the essay’s ordered. However, you have to very clearly communicate where the evidence is found in the text, since it’s not in chronological order. Also, remember to order the paragraphs with the end goal of being persuasive. Your paragraphs should link together in a meaningful journey, not just meander through some interesting but irrelevant concepts.

Ordering paragraphs to lead readers through stages of an argument is a more adaptable method than chronological ordering; every essay question will invite you to discuss concepts. You can mold the content more freely. However, it can take a little more thought to write using this method – but that can be a good thing. Done well, this can impress the marker and give you more persuasive power.

Perhaps it’s time to try a slightly more sophisticated paragraphing and ordering technique?

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Essays for generals (Part VI) – paragraph foundations

Plan your paragraphs to get maximum impact.

Individual paragraphs affect more than just the ‘mini-arguments’ in those paragraphs; they also affect the persuasiveness of the entire essay. This is because flow of the essay is based on how the paragraphs link, which is in turn driven by the conceptual basis on which they are built. So it’s important to outline paragraphs well – but what conceptual basis can you use to create paragraphs?

There are at least two methods you can use.

  1. Thematically
  2. Technique-based

Thematic grouping designs paragraphs to show a range of themes. A drama’s themes of loyalty/sacrifice and greed/cruelty can be discussed based on examples, regardless of when the various examples of the themes appear in the text.

Technique-based grouping creates the paragraphs to emphasise your technical analysis. For example, you could structure your paragraphs around how a reader’s response changes as the poem progresses.

The method of ordering your paragraphs depends on what you want your essay to emphasize, so everything comes back to the essay question (as usual). If the question asks what attitudes towards nature a novel conveys, then a thematic basis of creating paragraphs would work well; if it’s about the techniques the poet has used to communicate the deeper message of the poem, then technique-based paragraphs might be best.

Use the thematic and technique-based concepts of how to design paragraphs in order to write clearer and more focused paragraphs. This style of paragraph design also makes it easier to link the paragraphs overall, which we’ll cover in a future post. Besides the two methods mentioned above, what other foundations could use to plan paragraphs?

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Essays for generals (Part V) – divide and conquer

WWII Divide and Conquer 5

Image via Wikipedia

Welcome back, generals.

Today’s briefing covers an important lesson: effectively deploying your regiments to get more marks. This clever trick not only helps you when you’re planning your paragraphs, but it also helps you adapt as you write (as long as you’re using a word processor).

Tip: combine similar and related ideas into single paragraphs; split paragraphs that are too large.

Too many students feel that they have to write paragraphs based around the way the concepts first came into their heads and then got scribbled in a margin to make a bullet-point plan. This is not the case. Don’t be restricted by your first thoughts. You have the freedom to experiment and change how they’re put together and expressed.

For example, say your essay is about marketing and you have a paragraph on one mini-argument. It’s about how using advertising is crucial in supporting a broader marketing strategy, say. If this has ended up as a huge paragraph, you have two options:

  1. Cut it back
  2. Split in two

You could consider splitting the advertising paragraph into one about advertising in traditional media and one about online advertising, perhaps. Splitting a humongous paragraph retains more information in your essay, but it also ensures that all of that information is easier to read. I suggest “cutting back” egregious paragraphs as much as possible first, though. Cull out the unnecessary words, thoughts, phrases – and even full sentences. Make your essay clearer by removing written clutter.  If you streamline your big paragraph first, you may find that you don’t need to split it after all. However, even if you still split the monster paragraph later, you have higher quality content to split.

Conversely, if you had two small paragraphs on these topics, they will probably make a stronger case together – you may have to adjust your topic sentences, but once that’s done, the new ‘super’ paragraph will be all the more persuasive with it’s ‘extra’ pieces of evidence. Here’s an example of a paragraph with opening and closing topic sentences.

Combining and splitting paragraphs gives you more flexibility when you’re planning – and writing – your essay. It’s a useful strategy to employ if you want to unlock all the potential of your writing by structuring it in paragraphs that persuade your marker.

Now, go forth and “divide and conquer”.

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