jjlawry

Jonathan is an academic and entrepreneur. As an Outstanding Scholarship in English winner in 2007, he is particularly interested in helping others write better essays. Jonathan also believes that businesses are a sustainable way help others experience lasting improvements in their lives. He is involved in helping many start-up businesses develop their products and business models before they go to market. He is also actively involved in running Virtuoso Tutoring, which bridges his academic and business interests. In his spare time, Jonathan enjoys reading, spending time with family and friends, watching movies, and participating in the life of his church.

“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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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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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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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!

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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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The essay ninja’s nunchaku

Nunchaku (Ssahng Jol Gohn; 쌍절곤), one of hapkid...

The essay version is less violent

In previous posts, we’ve covered how to structure your essay’s arguments by separating them into ‘mini argument’ paragraphs. We’ve also covered how to order essay paragraphs to best guide your marker through various pieces of evidence and interpretation, based on the thematic and technique-based framework. There is one simple trick that makes these two things a lot easier, though: use connectives.

Connectives do an important job: they, well, connect paragraphs. That’s one of the most powerful uses of them, anyway. Technically, connectives show a relationship between two sentences – or sometimes two parts of a sentence (in which case they’re usually conjunctions). But the main point is that they connect thoughts. Like the stitching between patches in a patchwork quilt, or maybe the chain that links the rods in a pair of nunchaku, connectives link two substantial components together.

Importantly, connectives are also useful because they improve the flow of your essay; guiding the reader to your conclusion. Consider how you are going to order your paragraphs. This will give you ideas on the type of connectives to use to link them.  We’ve touched on using connectives to introduce contradictory evidence in the “Paragraphing – an example (and a coffin)” post.

Since arguments can be represented on a spectrum, the sequence and direction of the arrows can show the direction of the argument. If an arrow points in the same direction as a previous one, then it is backing up the evidence in the previous point or paragraph. Connecting words like “furthermore, similarly, also, in addition” etc. can be used to introduce the second point. If an arrow points in the opposite direction, then the evidence suggests a different interpretation than that of the previous point. Connectives like “contrastingly, on the other hand, alternatively, ironically” etc. can be used depending on the context.

When linking between mini-arguments, connectives that imply causal relationships, derivations, or proofs are particularly compelling. Examples of connectives you could try for this purpose: “Since that decision was made..”; “Following on from this…”; “Hence, …”; “Thus, …”; “Therefore, …”; “Predictably …”; “Moreover…”. The more proof you seem to be piling up, the more persuasive. (All other things, like the quality of that evidence, being equal).

Connectives link threads of comments and thoughts so they’re easy to follow – and as strong as a (nunchaku) chain. Use them if you want to increase your essay’s readability and persuasiveness.

References: here are some websites I found useful for the technical aspect of connectives. See what you think.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Discourse_connective

http://www.sil.org/linguistics/GlossaryOfLinguisticTerms/WhatIsAConnective.htm

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