Archive for November, 2010
So to better understand how an essay should be structured here is one:
An essay is like an Ionic Greek column (from Ionia – the southwestern coastland and islands of Turkey, nothing to do with Chemistry).
Introduction: Is the top of the column, called the capital, and is artistically crafted to draw the reader in (Number 14 on the diagram).
Body: Is the shaft of the column. It is narrower than the capital as the essay has moved from the more general introduction to the specific discussion of the body paragraphs. The shaft is continuous just as the essay must flow uninterrupted with the paragraphs linking together. It also must bear the weight of the roof and therefore must be strong, just as your arguments must be strong and backed up by valid evidence (Number 17).
Conclusion: Is the bottom of the column, called the base (who would have guessed?), and is of a simpler design than the capital. The reader should already have been hooked and therefore the conclusion should be clear and persuasive – there is no need to get fancy here. Like the introduction the conclusion focuses on the general rather than the specific but in reverse – moving from the specific body paragraphs to an overall sum-up of the essay’s argument (Number 23).
If you structure your essay well it will be pleasing to the marker’s eye and will stand up to their critique. So make sure your essays are as well designed as the Greek columns were.
What other analogies can you think of for essays?
Following on from my previous post (Exam warfare (Part II): generals’ briefing), let’s begin looking at how to organise your ‘essay army’ in more detail. To start off with, let’s look at the big picture, the “macro level” of your whole essay.
There are two key things to remember when deploying your overall essay:
- Answer the question!
- Argue your case persuasively (but don’t sound like a used-car salesman; it’s an academic work).
Answer the question!
The most important thing is answering the essay question. If you don’t, you don’t get any marks! The question is powerful: this pivotal sentence (or two) directs the multitude of sentences in your essay. If you think of yourself as the general in charge of the army, the question is your directive from the sovereign. You must achieve that military objective. If you achieve this mission, you will be handsomely rewarded. If you fail, you die! So answer the question! NCEA is particularly strict on this point.
Argue your case persuasively
When you’ve written many essays, you eventually realise that essays are all about arguments – an essay defends one point of view and knocks down other points of view (but in a respectful way) – some students actually enjoy writing essays for this reason! So think about how persuasive your argument is overall.
Importantly, you should recognise opposing arguments in your essay, then show why you agree or disagree with them. This makes your essay more persuasive, because if you address opposing arguments (or ‘shoot them down’ as we like to say), then they’re no longer a threat to your own argument. But if they’re ignored, you imply that you’re either ignorant or unable to answer these challenges.
Plan the thrust of your argument before you begin writing. Launching straight into writing is like impulsively charging into a mêlée with no prior thought. Begin by analysing the question. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Ask yourself “what are the extreme opposite of the key words in the question?” Expand on both extremes of each key word.
- Consider synonyms of words, analogous concepts and other definitions/perspectives.
- Consider words that are explicitly stated in the question, as well as words that are ‘missing’ which define sub-parts of the broader topic.
There are plenty of other ways to analyse essay questions and generate ‘mini-argument’ concepts. What do you like to do?
“We take it for granted we know the whole story – We judge a book by its cover and read what we want between selected lines.”
– Axl Rose
We do it, and so do markers. It is no different with your essays, whether they are written in an exam or done as an assignment.
First impressions are lasting impressions.
Therefore, the introduction is the most important part of your essay. From the introduction the marker is making judgements on:
- Your grasp of the subject (how much time you spent asleep in class)
- Whether you understand the essay question (if you don’t you’re stuffed)
- Your competency in English (written academic English not your version of English)
- Your level of intelligence (using a thesaurus doesn’t show you’re smart)
- Your attitude (whether you have the time of your life writing essays)
- The amount of effort you have put in (write lots of quality content; not lots of bullsh*t)
So after the first paragraph the marker can already put you and your essay in a box – it’s an A, B, C, D or N, A, M, E essay.
Make sure they are putting you in the best box because the rest of the of the essay, no matter how awesome, is unlikely to change your mark by much because:
“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”
So we know that preparation is important if you want your essays to win. We discussed how sitting an exam is a battle to win marks by persuading your marker. You’re the General – that’s your job.
So if you’re the General, what’s the essay? Your essay is your army. The war metaphor is one that I find useful because it provides an analogy for different levels of functionality within your essay. Here’s the extended metaphor (great for those of you studying English Literature):
- The whole essay is your army. If the essay is pointed in the right direction, answers the question, and the sub-parts work together well, then that is what will win the war for the marks.
- Paragraphs are regiments of troops. Each deployed regiment has a specific aim – they provide developed ‘mini-arguments’ and evidence to back up the overall thrust of the essay.
- Each word is a warrior and sentences are ranks of “word-troops”. There are different types of warriors, with different advantages and disadvantages. You want to use them in a combination that allows each to them to combine their strengths and minimise any weaknesses. We’ll go into diction, syntax, and other aspects of expression in future posts.
How do you organise your ideas to get the most marks out of them? We’ll go into more specific strategies at various levels in the army in future posts, but here’s one broad one to get you started:
Set your troops in formations based on concepts that you are discussing. Know what piece of “intellectual ground” the words and sentences have to hold – enable them to capture the key ideas and express them compellingly on paper. This clever manoeuvring and structuring will surpass the effectiveness of the individual words themselves.
There are different types of ideas/concepts/components that you should structure your essay around to get maximum marks, but for that you have to understand SEX (the sequel is here). To discover another simple trick that can dramatically improve your essays, go to “Cooking up the perfect essay”.
Now you’re thinking more like a General, you’ll be able to make the strategic decisions that earn more marks.
“Onwards and upwards!”
When you sit an exam, you’re going to war: it’s a war to win marks and glory – well, you want the marks anyway. So get a determined attitude, then become a canny general and marshal your resources to win the war. Here’s a piece of advice from Sun Tzu, the famous ancient military strategist and author of “The Art of War”:
“The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand.”
What does it mean? If you want to win – prepare! You’ve probably been told this before (many times). “Use your time before the exam well; because you won’t get it back again”. “Time will be one thing you’ll wish you have more of in the exam” etc. It’s all true, but what can you do to prepare effectively – and how can you maximise the return on your time?
Preparing for war
Build up an inventory of resources in your mind so that you have a range of content to draw upon during the exam. Importantly, this will also decrease your nerves on the day and increase your confidence.
There are two categories of resources that you can store up in your mind:
- Firstly, know what literary techniques you can write about; be able to discuss key sections of the text, know some good examples of important devices that develop the text. For essays in subjects other than English Literature, know some good examples of studies, facts etc. that prove important points.
- Secondly, understand the themes of set texts – have a firm grasp of these themes; you need to be able to write fluently about them. Know multiple themes, or interpretations, if possible. Be well-equipped to respond to a range of essay questions. For other subjects, this translates to understanding theories, models, philosophies and schools of thought.
Note: you don’t need to memorise these inputs for your essay word-for-word, you just need to be able to call them to memory on the day. If you can remember the gist of them and then string them into an eloquent essay body paragraph under pressure, then that is enough. These are the bulk of the essay that you wrap around the quotations – you memorised these, remember).
- If you have to memorise key words, try adapting the Quote Sheet technique to learn these.
- Also try mind mapping to quickly get an overview of how the concepts link together – you can also depict models and theories in diagrams. Discover what works for you.
Train yourself too, General. (Guess what that means…*)
Preparation of resources and your knowledge, plus preparation of yourself will make you a formidable force in the essay war.
“Go get ‘em”.
“Whatever you say, say it with conviction”
– Mark Twain
Talk to anyone at exam time and you’ll find they are not feeling very confident (or that is what they say…). They think they’ll fail; they didn’t study enough, their dog ate their study notes, they have a hangover etcetera etcetera.
What makes you confident about writing that killer essay in your exam? Plenty of study. Yet plenty of study never seems enough does it?
When you walk into an exam you have two options: believe you haven’t studied enough, or believe you have and walk in relaxed, calm, and confident. Irrespective of much or how little you have studied, you can choose to be confident – or walk in feeling like you are going to be sick all over your freshly printed exam paper.
It seems a pretty easy choice doesn’t it? Take two situations where you have studied an identical amount, and being confident is much better than not being confident. If you are confident you are more relaxed and therefore less likely to panic or blank out in the exam. Also, you will be surprised with what you do know and can remember.
On another note; your exam is an essay, an essay is an argument, and an argument must be persuasive. Are you more likely to be persuaded by some who is confident when they speak or someone who looks like they are going to dissolve in a pool of fear? Someone who is confident.
So whatever you are writing in your exam, correct or not – be confident!
The ‘con’ in con artist stands for confidence. They persuade you to place your confidence in them. How? By being confident. In an exam essay you need to to persuade the marker to put their confidence in your knowledge and ability in the subject. Even if you know everything there is to know about the subject, the marker won’t be persuaded if you don’t write confidently.
So confidence improves your performance and the essay you produce. Be confident this week and see what happens…
Here’s another way to make you a black belt in writing essays in exams: hone your technical analysis skills.
Why is this important?
Technical analysis ability is obviously important for Literature essays where you are given an unfamiliar text in the exam. However, it’s a valuable skill for all essay-writers, including those who write on other subjects besides English Literature.
As every essay ninja knows, if you “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; if you teach a man to fish…”. Similarly, if you “give a student a pre-prepared essay, you help them scrounge a mark; but give a student technical analysis skills and they can adapt, write on anything, and thrive.” Using memorised and regurgitated essays in exams results in insubstantial pieces of writing that don’t fit well with what the question asks. It’s a risky one-hit-wonder approach – you’ve got to pray that you’ll get the right question on the right text (or theory or topic in other subjects). It also takes ages to memorise the content. Using technical analysis skills saves time – which can then be used for other things!
Please note: knowing which questions are likely for the given texts is a very good thing, but it’s only the beginning. It’s an aide to focus your study on the most critical material. However, your study should aim to develop the skills to write well, not recall second-hand ideas well. Examiners what to know whether you can think, not just what you think.
How do you develop this valuable skill?
- Have a list of techniques that you have memorised and understand comfortably. Can you explain each technique and think of an example for each one?
- Give yourself a quick injection of Analysis practice using short texts: tear poems apart (not literally – although it’s tempting at times).
- Master the art of scribbling bullet-point essay plans in the margins around a poem:
- these should be quick to do, so that you have plenty of time to write the actual essay
- they should be detailed enough to guide your whole essay
- use short hand and key words
- You also need to be able to read them!
- Check your progress by asking yourself “Am I able to write a compelling essay based on the notes I’ve made?”
As always, do use this study method under pressure. Is there enough pressure on you to do that yet?
Keep studying hard – it’ll all be over soon. 🙂