Posts Tagged Essays

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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A stroke of genius – An example

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where, when, what

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep the numbers in your essay consistent

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

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


One, 1, I…

Ten, 10, X…

Which is correct?

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

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

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

Another thing to watch out for is money and percentages.

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

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

This leads us nicely onto dates…


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

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

1800’s or 1800s

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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What should you do when you've finished writing?

What do you do when you’ve finished writing your essay?

When you've finished writing, take a break and forget about what you've written.

  • Hit the print button?
  • Switch to Facebook to reward yourself after a job well done, and come back and worry about your essay later?
  • Read quickly through your essay to make sure it looks good, then print?

None of those answers are entirely right and the first one is downright wrong.

Yes you need to check your essay, but don’t do it straight away and definitely don’t do it quickly. What you should do is get up from your laptop (after saving your masterpiece of course!) and do something that doesn’t involve text, so don’t go on Facebook – go outside, or even watch TV. Better yet (if you’ve been organised and have left yourself enough time!), don’t go back to your essay for a whole day.

But why not just check it there and then?

Because we see what we expect to see.

Just like the businessman who made it through an airport security checkpoint with a loaded gun in his laptop bag, typos and grammatical errors will make it past you if you check your essay too soon after you’ve written it. Airport security didn’t expect to see a gun in the laptop bag because it’s such a rare event. You don’t expect to see typos just after you’ve written something because you see what you thought you wrote – a perfect essay.

Going back later means you’ve forgotten what you meant to say and what you thought you said; so instead you see what you did actually write.

But what about Spell and Grammar check? Don’t they find all these errors for me?

No, they don’t. Computer Spell and Grammar check programmes, like in Microsoft Word, are notoriously bad. To have your essay checked properly you need to do it yourself or get someone to do it for you (a human, not a computer).

However, these topics are for another couple of posts. So check back next week as we go through how to proofread your essays – so what you are handing in is free of all typos and spelling mistakes and is grammatically perfect.

Photo Credit: Loren Sztajer via Flickr

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The halo: a trick to tame essay questions.

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

Image by mikebaird via Flickr

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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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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Is a conclusion an introduction in disguise?

Over the last couple of months I have looked at how to write brilliant introductions and conclusions and there seemed to be a lot of similarities in the purposes of the sentences in their respective formulae.

So is a conclusion an introduction in disguise? Vice versa? Or are they very different beasts?

Well lets take a look at the formulae again:

Are introductions and conclusions similar or not?

The Formulaic Introduction


1. Hook them!

2. Set the scene

3. Show you’re smart

4. Give the game away

5. Sum it up

The Formulaic Conclusion


1. Re-state the scene

2. Answer the question

3. (and 4.) Deliver a twist

5. End with a bang!

At a surface level each sentence of the introduction pairs up with a sentence from the conclusion. So we will chronologically go through the introduction and pair it up with the sentence from the conclusion that it is most similar too:

Introduction – Conclusion

1. Hook them! with 5. End with a bang!

Similarities: both sentences are broad like the extreme ends of a Greek column and should be powerful.

Differences: the first sentence of your introduction introduces the broad topic only; in addition the last sentence of the conclusion contains what the essay argued with regards to the broad topic. Also,  the first sentence of the introduction is neutral whereas the final sentence of your conclusion most probably is not.

Introduction in disguise? Nope.

2. Set the scene with 1. Re-state the scene

Similarities: both sentences have the same purpose – introduce/conclude what the essay will/has talk(ed) about. Also, they both use the same or similar signpost.

Differences: just the tense.

Introduction in disguise? Yup.

3. Show you are smart with 3. (and 4.) Deliver a twist

Similarities: both have the same purpose – show your intelligence, but…

Differences: …they achieve this is very different ways. The third sentence of your introduction does this by talking about the context of the essay, whereas the twist makes a judgement call on the evidence and information presented in the body of the essay.

Introduction in disguise? Nope.

4. Give the game away with 2. Answer the question

Similarities: both deal with the essay’s argument; however…

Differences: …the way it does this is slightly different – in the introduction you state your argument, whereas in the conclusion you go one step further by comprehensively answering the essay question and concluding your argument.

Introduction in disguise? Sort of.

5. Sum it up with 5. End with a bang!

Yes we have already compared “End with a bang!” but since it’s the last sentence of the introduction, let’s see whether it is similar to the last sentence of the conclusion:

Similarities: both have the same purpose – sum up the essay, and use the same or similar signpost.

Differences: tense and with “End[ing] with a bang! You need to, well, end with a bang…

Introduction in disguise? Yup.

So is a conclusion an introduction in disguise?

Based on this analysis we have two “Yup’s”, two “Nope’s” and a “Sort of”. Though the last sentence of the conclusion, “End with a bang!” is most similar in function to the last sentence of the introduction, so really there is just one key “Nope” – the two sentence 3’s: “Showing you are smart” and “Delivering a twist”.

Both have a similar purpose, so next week we will look at an example of an essay’s introduction and conclusion and I’ll provide my answer to the question.

In the meantime, what do you think – is a conclusion an introduction in disguise?

Photo Credit:  Top – 1. Lazurite 2. Unhindered by Talent 4. DraconianRain all via Flickr

Bottom – 1. Unhindered by Talent 3+4. thombo2 5. all via Flickr

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