Posts Tagged Writing

"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!

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The ninja and the lawyer

You're the lawyer, now.

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

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

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

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

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

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The thesaurus is not your friend

Thesaurus: a dictionary of synonyms and antonyms (dictionary.com)

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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Illuminating the darkness: examples of examples

Classic examples from "Heart of Darkness"

In the past few weeks, we’ve explored the use of examples in essays. Since examples are powerful communication devices, I will take my own advice. Below are some example paragraphs from a Year 13 level essay (written for Cambridge A2 course work).

Before we dive into them, though, note that for English Literature essays like these, the examples will usually be quotations taken from the text. At higher levels, and in other subjects, the types of examples may be case studies from various academic sources – or other sorts or evidence.

Good essay examples to use in an English Literature essay include quotations of sound devices, metaphors, personification, and various forms of imagery. This not only ensures your analysis is tied to the text (which is very important), but it means you can leverage the evocative power of the author’s work to help you explain your thematic interpretation.

Now for these examples – how many of the key elements of good examples can you identify? What things do you like about these paragraphs? What could be improved?

Q: Explore the effect on the reader of Conrad’s use of Marlow as narrator in “Heart of Darkness”.

Conrad’s literary strategy involves using Marlow’s narrative to demonstrate the reader’s incomplete understanding, which parallels the main character’s developing discernment. Marlow frequently presents his tale beginning with inexact, unrevealing descriptions. Literal observations like the “poleman… stretch[ing] himself flat on the deck” utilize emotionally neutral diction such as the leisurely verb “stretch”. Casual, nonchalant statements beguile the reader and belie the actual occurrences. “Arrows, by Jove! We were being shot at!” These snappy exclamations are all the more striking after the long, unenlightening sentences that begin the paragraph. Delayed decoding causes the reader to imaginatively experience the unanticipated situation.

Conrad has Marlow use lists of images to capture essential evocations. The ominous mood during the preparation for his voyage is created by eerie and lifeless adjectives: “deserted street” and “dead silence” appear in the list describing “the sepulchral city”. “Deep shadow” has symbolic connotations of evil and harm, “grass sprouting between the stones” signals neglect and carelessness, the adjective “imposing’ is plainly aggressive. This unnamed European city is later described metaphorically as a “whited sepulchre”. This biblical allusion* implies hypocrisy and deceitfulness. Wealth and power are often the motivating desires behind a façade of legalistic cant touting administration, advancement, illumination and civilization.

Were the examples relevant? Were they entertaining or at least engaging? (This could be because of the examples themselves and also because of the argument). Was the significance of each example adequately explained? Were they detailed enough? These are just a few of the questions that you can derive from previous posts about using examples in essays. There are other questions too – if you grasp the main points and also develop a personalised understanding of the concepts, then you’ve done really well. That’s a sign of a good example.

* cf Matt 23:27,28

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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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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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The many uses of glue in essays

Glue for essays - hold the bits together with connectives

We’ve examined some of the main uses of connectives over the past few posts. They’re like glue that can be used in many situations. Connectives signal connections (funny that) between your essay’s various themes and techniques; and they can also signal when you’re going into more detail – so they’re very diverse and adaptable.

Speaking of going into more detail (that’s a conversational style connective), examples are a great way to do this. “A picture is worth a thousand words”. So use examples and explain them well. Together with explanations, examples make great pieces of evidence to back up your claims and arguments in your topic sentences.

Connecting to examples

Clearly signalling that a relevant example is coming up makes your essay seem more planned, and therefore more persuasive. You could do this by saying that “first this essay will examine historical implications of this practice, then second it will analyse the modern practices, and third it will discuss where the industry is heading in the future”. These sorts of sentences can work well in an introduction – just make sure you cover the topics you say you will! At the very least, use connectives just before you launch into the example. To introduce examples you can use connectives like “for example, …”; “for instance, …”; “like, …”; “consider…,”; “when this happened in the 1990s…,” – and so on. The right one for the occasion will sound right to you. Importantly, (note the connective!) sometimes other connectives help to link to an example – especially if the rest of the sentence mentions a specific example, or perhaps another one that is compared or contrasted with the coming one. The right ‘fit’ of connective word or phrase enhances the flow from argument, to example, to explanation; making the paragraph that much more compelling.

Adverbial connectives

Another way to use connectives is to use adverbial phrases to link sentences together while packing in information about the emotional layers to the work. Think of words like “annoyingly, …”; “fortunately, …”; “ironically, …”. The use of time-based adverbs can also be useful. To start with, you can try using words like “temporarily, …”; “previously, …”; “persistently, …” “slowly, …”; “rapidly, …”; “immediately, …” “eventually, …”

Further learning

Now it’s your turn to explore the uses of connectives further. The main thing to remember is that you’re aiming to make your essays clearer and more persuasive. If you think of another way of using connectives (or any other writing technique) to do that, then go for it! Also, there are many many words that can be used as connectives, besides the ones mentioned in these posts. How many more can you think of?

Note, here is a website I found useful because it contains a few examples. I’m sure you can come up with more on your own, though! http://englishonline.tki.org.nz/English-Online/Teacher-needs/Teaching+%26+Learning+sequences/New+English+Online+units/English-Units-NCEA-Level-1/Yes-but/Connectives

Learning from examples

So now that you’ve read a few posts on connectives, take this new knowledge and see if you can apply it. First, go and do the detective work: look for connectives in this example essay – can you now see new types of connectives? Secondly, look over these past posts themselves – how were connectives used here? Which ones worked well in their contexts? Are there some you think could have been better? Lastly, apply what you’re learning. That’s when better marks will start to flow!

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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?

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Beginning to tackle the information jungle

Jungle

Ready to tackle the information jungle?

Welcome back, ninjas.

Connectives increase the persuasiveness of your essay’s argument – from answering the question at the biggest ‘macro’ level to the paragraph level. Connectives can even be used on the sentence level to connect smaller scale points.

NB: You can put connectives in other places besides the start of sentences, although that’s where they often naturally fit when I use them – especially when connecting together paragraphs because they help opening topic sentences introduce arguments effectively.

Importantly, using connectives explains how you reached your conclusions from the evidence. Otherwise, people could misinterpret what you wrote. The results of any ambiguity or uncertainty can be as disastrous (and amusing) as the example of incorrect punctuation in the “Dear John” letter. Don’t throw words on a page and hope the reader draws the same conclusion form them that you do!

In the last post, we looked at one use of connectives: using them to introduce more supporting sub-arguments – or looking at an alternative point of view. This sets out logical chains of reasoning – including causal relationships. Note that those are relationships between two items where a change in one causes an effect in the other – it’s not a casual relationship; that’s very different! (Another reason to proofread your essay to make sure the spelling is correct for the meaning you want to communicate).

Another way to use connectives is to focus the reader on the most important parts of the essay landscape. Just as you can use topic sentences to pause and balance, you can use connectives to carry the marker along to your next brilliant point, or you can dwell on one concept and make it even more brilliant. It’s like you’re guiding the marker through a jungle of information, so show them what’s worth seeing. A good guide will tell the group when they’re moving on (and were they’re heading to) and when they’re simply staying put, if that’s best for the group.

In some cases, it’s best to stay put. Emphasise points that are noteworthy or interpret the relative significance of your evidence. These thoughts can be introduced with connectives such as

“critically, … “; “importantly, … “; “significantly, … “; “notably, … “; ” slightly off-setting this, … “; “negligibly, … “; “interestingly, … “; “logically, … “; “evidently, … ” – and many more. (I suppose that “many more” itself is a connective phrase in the broader sense; it could be used to introduce more supporting evidence, then the next connective can interpret the value of that vast collection of evidence).

So now you know how to use essay nunchaku to tackle the information jungle! Go tackle it!

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