Posts Tagged Essays

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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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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How to write numbers and dates in your essay – be consistent!

In my last post we talked about consistency and I gave you a decent list of things you need to keep consistent:

Keep the numbers in your essay consistent

  • Tenses
  • Arguments
  • Spelling and Capitalisation
  • Formatting
  • Hyphenations
  • Abbreviations
  • Dates
  • Numbers

In this post we’ll look the last two: numbers and dates.

Numbers

One, 1, I…

Ten, 10, X…

Which is correct?

Well if you are talking about amounts definitely not the Roman numerals! Deciding between the next two is a little trickier.

There is no actual official accepted format but a good rule of thumb is use words for one through to nine and digits for 10 and above. The main thing is whatever you decide, whether it’s the rule of thumb above, all words or all digits – keep it consistent.

Don’t use both one and 1 or ten and 10 in your essays.

Another thing to watch out for is money and percentages.

50c, $0.50, 50 cents, fifty cents. Pick one and stick to it.

25%, 25 percent, twenty-five percent. Once again, pick one and stick to it.

This leads us nicely onto dates…

Dates

As with numbers there is no right way or wrong way to write out your dates – just keep it consistent!

20th century or twentieth century or even 20th-century and twentieth-century

1800’s or 1800s

7th August 1990 or 7 August 1990 or 7 August, 1990 or August 7, 1990 etc.

An interesting note from McGraw-Hill’s Proofreading Handbook by Laura Anderson, is that if you use a comma in your date then you need to use one after the year also. For example: “On 7 August, 1990, I was born.”

Throughout this post I have been saying that there is no right way or wrong way to write your numbers and dates as long as they are consistent throughout your essay. This is true.

However, people and/or subjects have preferences for certain formats – so make sure you check out what formats your lecturers, teachers, textbooks use first before making your own choice of format.

The secret to getting good marks in your essays is writing what the marker wants – so be consistent and use their preferred number and date formats in your essays this week.

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Using Ctrl+F to proofread your writing

In a future post we will go into how you must be careful of the tools Microsoft Word provides for you to check your writing, but there is one tool that is extremely useful.

Ctrl+F (a.k.a. the Find Function).

Some mistakes and typos are so similar to the correct spelling that it is extremely difficult to pick them up. This is where Ctrl-F comes in.

1. Make a list of words that you could easily mix up or misspell. Below is a few examples from McGraw-Hill’s Proofreading Handbook by Laura Anderson p123:

  • accept ~ except
  • affect ~ effect
  • alter ~ altar
  • born ~ borne
  • their ~ there
  • prostate ~ prostrate
  • quiet ~ quite

2. Then go through your essay and check you have used the right word in the right situation by entering the words into the search box of the Find Function. Remember the Find Function only reveals instances when you wrote in exactly what you typed in the search box, though. So you need to go through the document searching all variations of each word that you may have used at different times (including completely incorrect variations that you know you write occasionally, in case the spellcheck function misses them).

Other things you should check:

  • Apostrophes – you shouldn’t be contracting words in an essay, like “shouldn’t”, but it’s easy to do by accident. Also, you can check your possessive apostrophes at the same time.
  • Consistent spelling – which is the topic for my next post…

Ctrl+F is very good way to pick up those nearly impossible to spot errors and after you have been writing for a while, you’ll know what words you commonly make mistakes with and so will have a good list to search.

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The importance of punctuation

Have a read:

Dear John:

I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can be forever happy–will you let me be yours? Gloria

Now read this one – same words, different punctuation:

Dear John:

I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we’re apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be? Yours, Gloria

Completely different meanings.

So make sure you proofread and check your punctuation carefully – you don’t want to accidentally say something you didn’t intend!

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Staying, not straying

Red question mark

Image via Wikipedia

If you lose your marker, you lose marks. Don’t lose your marker and don’t get lost yourself. Stop that happening by using this technique to show your reader how each part of your essay links to the whole.

Last week, we talked about how to tackle difficult and monstrously broad essay questions by focusing the question. This gave you more control, greater freedom to direct your essay answer towards the sub-topics and examples you prefer; making it easier to write a high quality essay and get more marks. Fantastic. But there was a risk: you might stray from the question. And that gets penalised very heavily.

So how can you make sure you’re always on the right track? Like anything in life – be continually reminded! Importantly, since answering the question largely determines your marks, reminding the marker you’re on the right track is powerful too.

In “Write That Essay!”, Ian Hunter wisely suggests that you write indicator phrases throughout your essay to remind the marker that you’re still answering the question. Tie the evidence and arguments in each paragraph back to the question explicitly. Remember, there’s a lot of text in an essay compared to the question. Help the marker move from your thorough, detailed analysis to the compelling big-picture arguments that answer the question.

Tip: the best way to do this is to use the words of the question as a motif.

This goes beyond referring back to the concepts of the question; you use the exact words of the question throughout your essay. As Ian Hunter puts it, “if the question asked you to: ‘Identify the causes of the Great Depression’, use the word ‘cause’ throughout your essay. Every time you introduce a new ‘cause’ call it that. Don’t call it something else. Use the word that the marker has used: call it a ‘cause’.”

Now, normally, I’d suggest you go for some variety. Mix up your vocab; use synonyms – and try different syntactical structures too. But in this case, you want to make the link to the question absolutely clear, more than you want to make those sentences sound fluent and elegant.

Using the words of the question reminds both you and the marker what the question is and how the essay answers it. So this is the antidote to unintentionally changing the question to something that you want it to be when you read it (quickly). Remember – you focus (usually narrow) the question; you don’t change its substance. In practice, this means you don’t change the wording of the question. That stays the same. Always. However, you state in your introduction how you will answer the question: what sub-topics or angle you will take to address the broader issue. The wording of the question should sit well with your ‘focusing’ sentence. If there’s a conflict, scrap your sentence; keep the marker’s one and brainstorm to find a new focusing sentence that still satisfies the criteria of the question. (You’ve got to jump through that hoop, for sure).

So, stay on topic and continually remind the marker that you’re answering the question and deserve more marks – use the words of the question as a motif. Go hard and get more marks!

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What should you do when you’ve finished writing?

What do you do when you’ve finished writing your essay?

When you've finished writing, take a break and forget about what you've written.

  • Hit the print button?
  • Switch to Facebook to reward yourself after a job well done, and come back and worry about your essay later?
  • Read quickly through your essay to make sure it looks good, then print?

None of those answers are entirely right and the first one is downright wrong.

Yes you need to check your essay, but don’t do it straight away and definitely don’t do it quickly. What you should do is get up from your laptop (after saving your masterpiece of course!) and do something that doesn’t involve text, so don’t go on Facebook – go outside, or even watch TV. Better yet (if you’ve been organised and have left yourself enough time!), don’t go back to your essay for a whole day.

But why not just check it there and then?

Because we see what we expect to see.

Just like the businessman who made it through an airport security checkpoint with a loaded gun in his laptop bag, typos and grammatical errors will make it past you if you check your essay too soon after you’ve written it. Airport security didn’t expect to see a gun in the laptop bag because it’s such a rare event. You don’t expect to see typos just after you’ve written something because you see what you thought you wrote – a perfect essay.

Going back later means you’ve forgotten what you meant to say and what you thought you said; so instead you see what you did actually write.

But what about Spell and Grammar check? Don’t they find all these errors for me?

No, they don’t. Computer Spell and Grammar check programmes, like in Microsoft Word, are notoriously bad. To have your essay checked properly you need to do it yourself or get someone to do it for you (a human, not a computer).

However, these topics are for another couple of posts. So check back next week as we go through how to proofread your essays – so what you are handing in is free of all typos and spelling mistakes and is grammatically perfect.

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