Posts Tagged high school
You never include new information in your conclusion. Everything that appears in your conclusion must have been mentioned in your introduction or body paragraphs.
Remember an essay is not supposed to contain suspense, the marker should not get all the way to your conclusion and then be surprised by a new piece of evidence. If they wanted suspense or surprise, then the marker would have picked up the latest thriller and not your essay.
What if I have just remembered a really key piece of evidence that I absolutely must put in my essay?
Go back to your body paragraphs and fit it in. Then if it is really that important it should also appear in your introduction. Makes sure that it fits; don’t just tack into onto the end of a paragraph. But most importantly, don’t add it only to your conclusion!
In conclusion, never ever include new information in the conclusion of your essays.
Welcome back, generals.
Today’s briefing covers an important lesson: effectively deploying your regiments to get more marks. This clever trick not only helps you when you’re planning your paragraphs, but it also helps you adapt as you write (as long as you’re using a word processor).
Tip: combine similar and related ideas into single paragraphs; split paragraphs that are too large.
Too many students feel that they have to write paragraphs based around the way the concepts first came into their heads and then got scribbled in a margin to make a bullet-point plan. This is not the case. Don’t be restricted by your first thoughts. You have the freedom to experiment and change how they’re put together and expressed.
For example, say your essay is about marketing and you have a paragraph on one mini-argument. It’s about how using advertising is crucial in supporting a broader marketing strategy, say. If this has ended up as a huge paragraph, you have two options:
- Cut it back
- Split in two
You could consider splitting the advertising paragraph into one about advertising in traditional media and one about online advertising, perhaps. Splitting a humongous paragraph retains more information in your essay, but it also ensures that all of that information is easier to read. I suggest “cutting back” egregious paragraphs as much as possible first, though. Cull out the unnecessary words, thoughts, phrases – and even full sentences. Make your essay clearer by removing written clutter. If you streamline your big paragraph first, you may find that you don’t need to split it after all. However, even if you still split the monster paragraph later, you have higher quality content to split.
Conversely, if you had two small paragraphs on these topics, they will probably make a stronger case together – you may have to adjust your topic sentences, but once that’s done, the new ‘super’ paragraph will be all the more persuasive with it’s ‘extra’ pieces of evidence. Here’s an example of a paragraph with opening and closing topic sentences.
Combining and splitting paragraphs gives you more flexibility when you’re planning – and writing – your essay. It’s a useful strategy to employ if you want to unlock all the potential of your writing by structuring it in paragraphs that persuade your marker.
Now, go forth and “divide and conquer”.
Okay, so we’ve covered one of the reasons why paragraphs make your essay suck less: they let the reader absorb information before moving on to the next segment. Paragraphing stops them from dreading the rest of the essay.
Q: How do you decide where to split your writing into paragraphs?
A: You’re asking the wrong question.
Since the point of paragraphs is to make your points clearer, the real question is how can you use paragraphs to make your essay easier to understand? That’s the point (no pun intended) of paragraphs. This approach subtly reshapes the way you assign thoughts to paragraphs. Instead of creating a long rambling stream of consciousness with a few arbitrary paragraph breaks, you start to think strategically.
And you should think about paragraphs strategically. In our army analogy, “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.” Body paragraphs should form a logical chain of reasoning throughout your essay. Plan the mini-arguments in note form to make sure they support the main argument that you make through the entire essay. Only then should you begin writing if you want to win the battle.
So good paragraphs make your reader hate you less. In addition, by giving your reader a break, they can also understand what you’re saying better. That’s got to be good for your marks.
So now you understand the “macro-level strategy” to prepare an essay (analysing the question and planning your essay’s overall argument). It’s time to move on to the next layer of detail: organising your answer into paragraphs.
A good analysis of the question + solid knowledge of the topic = opportunity to write unique and persuasive arguments.
However, these elements only give you the opportunity to write a compelling essay; you must express your ideas well. The first step for doing this is to form your paragraphs.
Paragraphs are the largest building blocks of your essay, and they have two important functions:
- they separate your overall essay into digestible pieces
- they make your points clearer as you build your argument
Imagine reading screeds and screeds of text running continuously for almost a whole page with no break. Not fun. No marker (or other normal human being) wants to face that. I suggest you avoid arousing unnecessary resentment.
Since this post is about conveying important ideas succinctly and giving your reader a break, I’m going to stop this post here.
I know I’m not perfect; I often need to be reminded of this too, but “be concise!”
Answering questions well is the first and most critical part of a high-scoring essay. But there’s more to getting the “macro-level strategy” of your essay right than just analysing the question. Without this, it’s like you have really precise intelligence informing you of what to target, and state-of-the-art radar revealing where it is, but you don’t have any ammo to take the target out.
Tip: it’s really useful to have some background understanding on the topic before you write an essay on it. Some of you probably realised this when you implemented the advice in the last post. The need for research is especially high at university, but it’s a good skill to develop at high school because even this mindset alone empowers you to write stronger and richer essays.
Research is your friend
So when you get a question, do some research. You may have good notes from classes/lectures, but most subject teachers expect you to go into more detail than that. There are two ways to do this:
- introduce some unique thoughts of your own
- integrate thoughts of respected academics.
Researching existing opinions will help you form your own arguments anyway. So do some research – know the basics of the main schools of thought on the topic. This is like knowing the battle field – if you have an understanding of the terrain, you have an advantage. (Sorry to keep using war metaphors, but I’m not accustomed to writing about flowers and fairies and unicorns, so I’ll stick with this analogy for now). Anyway…
Planning – and what follows it
Once you have your basic understanding, you can begin to write a plan for your essay based on argument. In doing this, you may realise that you need more information on specific points. Pros, cons, alternative suggestions, and developments of the basic/original arguments etc. It’s fine if you go back to research at various stages of the writing process. It’s good even, because there’s a feedback loop between what you’re doing, what you can improve, and the resources that raise these questions and make the improvements possible. However, for this process to end well, you need to start early. (We can all improve on that point, I’m sure). So keep researching, and keep adding to your argument brainstorm and planning pages. The writing process is a dynamic process. These are living documents; they evolve as your ideas grow.
To summarise, here’s the process I follow:
- Analyse the question
- Research to understand the basics on the topic (the ‘battle field terrain’)
- Plan the essay’s argument structure
- Research to fill the gaps – make the plan complete
Every essay is different and every essay writer is different, so you may use a modified version of the process. It’s okay to use a different process to get to a stunning result. The main thing is that you adapt aptly, edit repeatedly, stay flexible – and allow enough time!
Let me know what you do to prepare for an essay assignment; I’d love to hear from you.
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”.
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. 🙂