Posts Tagged English

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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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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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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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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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 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.

Photo Credit: image via Wikipedia

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Pause and balance: how to use topic sentences


Balance! - and what makes your reader pause?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The importance of punctuation

Have a read:

Dear John:

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

Now read this one – same words, different punctuation:

Dear John:

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

Completely different meanings.

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

Photo Credit: Planning for Fun via Graeme Douglas

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The two types of topic sentence

Lettrine A edtion 1570 Venise I quattro libri ...

Image via Wikipedia

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

Technique-based topic sentences

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

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

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

Thematic topic sentences

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

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

Tip: abstract nouns feature frequently in thematic topic sentences.

Some examples

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

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

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

Here’s an example of a thematic topic sentence:

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

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

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

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

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Babushka dolls and burgers

babushka dolls

What's in these?

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

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

Mini-introductions and conclusions

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

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

First attempts at topic sentences

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

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


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