Posts Tagged high school

"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

Parrot

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!

Photo Credit: Image by Ed7 via Flickr

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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!

Photo Credit: Image via Wikipedia

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Colouring books and blueprints

SUBARU AVCS Blueprint

Your essay doesn't have to be planned out to this level of detail...

Little things can make a big difference. It’s been said that ‘big doors swing on little hinges’ – if it’s not already, that will be a cliché one day. One small technique that can improve your essays massively is the astute use of connectives (or “linking words” as some call them).

In the last few posts we’ve been looking at various uses of connectives, and why they’re important. You can’t expect the marker to piece all your diverse points together. Between sleep deprivation and thinking about what they’ve got to teach the next day, there’s a high chance their neurons will misfire – so we use connectives to help them connect the dots.

We’ve mentioned two main types of connectives so far: those that show when you’re stopping to drill into more detail, and those that announce that you’re moving on to a new point, while also showing the direction of the argument. This second tactic includes the special case of using connectives to show causal relationships, which are very persuasive.  However you use connectives, make sure you make the marker’s journey to enlightenment easy. You’re their guide in the big bad jungle.

A few tips:

Unlike a children’s colouring-in book, there isn’t only one correct way to connect the dots, but there are still ways that produce a better picture that strikes the marker. Using connectives makes it easier for them to notice that picture. From which dot are you going and to where. Are you now going into more detail about one point, or are you going to the other side of the colouring-in book (a different point that’s still related to the topic you are discussing)? Be creative in how you put your argument together – don’t do what everyone else does. Do make sure that it’s still logically constructed though.

 

You can draw inspiration for the various types of connectives from your bullet-point essay plan. Consider both the direction of the argument and the way you want to handle the evidence. From this you can get a clearer idea of how you’ll link concepts on a paragraph and sentence level, and not just a nebulous ‘big picture’, whole-essay impression. Now you have a more precise blueprint in mind.

So there’s a recap of two types of connectives and how they relate to each other and how you can work with them. Stay open-minded and creative when planning your essay. Just integrate your brilliantly unique insights in a logical form and the essay will be of a higher quality. There are more uses of connectives, though. What other uses of connectives can you think of?

Photo Credit: Image via Wikipedia

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Pause and balance: how to use topic sentences

Balance

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 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!

 

Photo credit: ** Maurice ** via Flickr

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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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Pimp your paragraphs

DSC_0386

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.

Ready?

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.

[Introduction]

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.

[Conclusion]

(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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