Archive for November, 2010

The Greek Column – An extended metaphor

One of my favourite literary devices is the analogy (yes I have a favourite, English can be fun you know…).

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?

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Essays for generals (Part I) – essays, arguments, and answering the question

Strategy_Map.jpg

Strategy guides many important endeavours

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:

  1. Answer the question!
  2. 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?

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Introducing first impressions

Right from the start the marker is putting you in a box.

“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.”

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Exam warfare (Part II): generals’ briefing

15mm Greek Hoplites painted by jwrait a long time ago...

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):

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!”

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When the sh*t hits the fan in an exam…

You’re sitting in exam, the time has started, you open the exam booklet, look at the question, then…

Nothing.

What do you do when can’t answer the question? When your mind seems as blank as the study notes you meant to write? What should you do the sh*t hits the fan?

The first part is easy – don’t panic. Yes maybe your hopes, dreams, and parents’ love rest on your result; but they don’t give marks for panic attacks. If you are going to salvage any part of this situation you need a clear head.

The second thing is not to stare at the question or the blank page in front of you and hope that your essay will write itself. It won’t. Many people have tried – learn from their mistake.

Thirdly, you need a change of perception. Instead of, “Oh sh*t! I’m so screwed!” You need to view it as a challenge and rise to it. The game’s the same but the rules have changed. You write nothing, you get zero. You write something, you might get more than zero.

So what do you do? You write.

You write down the essay question and list everything you know about it. Anything you can remember from class, from the study you did do, what you heard on TV, read on someone’s Facebook page etcetera. Anything you might be able to use to answer the question.

Then plan an essay around it. Choose an argument and fit in all the relevant bits and pieces you can remember in a clear, logical, structured, concise way.

What you don’t do, and I stress this, is try and look at the paper of the guy next to you. A zero is better than cheating.

Anyway, if it looks like you tried to write an essay, you may get some marks; if you made a few good points, you may get some marks; if you’re persuasive, you may get some marks. Any marks are better than no marks. Markers aren’t evil (usually) and they want to give you marks – especially at university where you are likely being marked by your lecturer – they don’t really want you to fail (usually).

In saying that, this is not a substitute for studying. To put it crudely, no matter what sort of essay you pull out of your arse on the day, it will still be sh*t compared to the rest of the class who studied. (Oh and don’t ever write like this in an essay – it’s a sure way to lose you marks!)

This is your Plan F and I hope you never have to use it!

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Exam warfare

 

P-00 (((Peonidas Preparing For War)))

Image by pikahsso via Flickr

 

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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”.

*see previous posts on becoming an essay ninja and writing under pressure if you’re not sure.

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Confidence – the secret ingredient

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction”

Act confident: US editorial cartoon from 1912 presidential election season. Shows candidates Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and William Howard Taft (left to right at top, and right to left at bottom). Signed Berryman.

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…

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