Posts Tagged marks

Two types of words you should never include in your essay

Contractions and Colloquial language.

One of the things you should not include in your essay.

Finding these in your essay will annoy your marker – not something you want to do…

Contraction: a shortened form of a word or group of words, with the omitted letters often replaced in written English by an apostrophe (from Dictionary.com)

“Don’t”, “isn’t”, “didn’t”, and “wouldn’t” are all contractions.

Don’t use them.

But, why? We use them all the time don’t we?

Yes we do but an essay is a formal piece of writing and contractions are informal. They are a quick short colloquial way to write words and phrases.

Do not use you them in your essay. It makes it look like you’re lazy because you can’t be bothered writing your words out in full. If the marker thinks you are lazy then then the box you are being put in has a ‘C’ or an ‘Achieved’ on it, or worse. Markers hate lazy students.

It is however, easy to accidentally use contractions when we are writing our essay – after all, we use them so frequently in everyday language. The best technique is to use Ctrl+F to search for all the apostrophes in your essay.

Colloquial: characteristic of or appropriate to ordinary or familiar conversation rather than formal speech or writing; informal.

“What’s up?” , “gonna”, “dunno”, and “thick as two short planks” are all colloquial.

Do not use them in your essay. It makes it look like you are not particularly well-educated. Your arguments will seem less credible and your evidence weak, in the eyes of the marker. You are in that ‘C’ or ‘Achieved’ box at the very best, once again.

In fact, using colloquial language in essays is pretty much considered an unforgivable sin by markers. You might get away with an accidental contraction or two but you won’t get away with colloquial language. Some markers will instantly fail you and not bother to read any more.

It’s not worth the risk.

Hang on a second, isn’t it ironic that you’ve used contractions in this blog post (and this question)?

Yes it is.

But, whenever you write, you follow the conventions and styles of the type of writing you are doing. We write this blog in a casual conversational style to make it easy for you to read, understand, and apply what we write about, to your essays. Contractions are useful when writing in this style.

An essay is a formal piece of writing – it is not casual and conversational. Contractions therefore have no place in it.

Photo Credit: bon.champion via Flickr

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Consistency – important in essays too

A lack of consistency is plaguing the Knicks - don't let it plague your essay.

Consistency.

It’s a word that is thrown around a lot in the sports world. The New York Knicks lack consistency, well they did – now they are consistently losing.

When it comes to essays, lacking consistency is also a bad thing, better than your essays being consistently bad – but a bad thing all the same.

For a sports team, a lack of consistency breaks up momentum and makes it very difficult for them become successful. Their unpredictability also makes them painful to watch, beating good teams one week and losing to bad teams – like the Cavs the next.

In your essay, a lack of consistency makes it harder to read and therefore more frustrating for the marker to go through. A frustrated marker leads to poor marks and them heading for the exits before your essay is done – just like Knicks’ fans at the moment.

There are many ways of writing the same thing and quite often there isn’t one “right way”. What is wrong, however, is to use multiple “ways” in the same essay. For example, ‘focused’ and ‘focussed’ are both correct spellings of the intended word, but you should pick one and use it throughout – don’t alternate spellings to try and mix things up!

In an essay there are many things that need to be consistent:

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

Quite a lot! We will go through some of these in detail in future posts but the most important thing to remember is keep things consistent when you write this week.

Photo Credit: RMTip21 via Flickr

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Pause and balance: how to use topic sentences

Balance

Balance! - and what makes your reader pause?

Last week we looked at the two main types of topic sentence. They both have different functions, so in this post we’ll examine how and when to use each type of topic sentence to create a balanced essay.

Technique-based topic sentences summarise the evidence you will present (literary devices in English Literature essays; quotations, citations, statistics, theories and other types of evidence in essays for other disciplines). Thematic topic sentences are the distilled interpretations or implications of that evidence. Technique-based topic sentences are useful for linking paragraphs as they summarise the bulk of the essay and make smooth transitions for readers because they are generally easy to understand. Thematic-based topic sentences can also be used to link paragraphs. However, because they communicate deeper thoughts, they can take a little longer to absorb. This is often advantageous, because it further breaks up your essay, and it increases the likelihood of your sophisticated thoughts being understood.

It’s the thought that counts. The closing thematic topic sentence is there to sum up the argument and present the thematic implications in a compelling and thought-provoking manner. It could be as simple as “Time destroys.” I like that short sentence. (We’ll discuss sentence types and how to deploy them effectively in a future post). I’d already explained how the imagery in the poem “Ozymandias” conveyed this thematic message, so that sentence was fine on its own. Pauses can be powerful. Can you see how ending a paragraph with that punchy topic sentence will prompt the reader to reflect on the message?

Have another look at the post on how to order paragraphs, but this time read the examples with a different focus: to hone your understanding of topic sentences. Do you see how they hold each paragraph together, while linking the separate paragraphs in order; guiding the reader through both technical and thematic subtleties?

Notice that the thematic topic sentences often work well as closing topic sentences, because the final sentence will linger in the reader’s mind for a while, before they move on to the next paragraph. Thus, ending topic sentences are a great place to communicate important thematic ideas. They’re also a great place to answer the question explicitly, so the reader feels that reading the preceding evidence was relevant and worth their time.

However, engaging with thematic concepts is especially important if you want to get top marks, so thematic topic sentences can be used at the start of a paragraph too. Sometimes you might feel your thematic repetition won’t add value through new layers of meaning, though. In these situations – and also when it simply reads better if you relate evidence to previous paragraphs – technique-based topic sentences are great as the first topic sentence of a paragraph.

In general, technique-based topic sentences make your essay flow; while thematic topic sentences may cause the reader to pause while you go deeper (and also answer the essay question). Both effects can be useful; there’s a time and place for everything – balance the two types of  topic sentence. Now you know which tool you can use to get the effect you want in each situation.

Photo Credit: Image by SeeMidTN.com (aka Brent) via Flickr

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How to (proof)read your writing

Ok so we’ve got the big picture sorted – our essay as a whole does what it’s supposed to – but what about when we look closer?

When you read slowly and deliberately, does your essay make sense?

The next step is to do a slow, deliberate proofread – the aim of this is to make sure the details are correct.

The first detail is, does your essay make sense when it’s read? If it doesn’t, the marker has no choice but to give you low marks – how can they not when they don’t understand what you’ve written?!

So let’s get started

Some people prefer to print it off and read through a hard copy of their essay; I prefer to read it on the screen. It doesn’t really make a difference; though seeing your work in a slightly different form and environment, in hard copy as opposed to sitting and staring at your laptop screen (exactly where and how you wrote your essay), can make it easier to pick up your mistakes.

How to read

This is very important. Read slowly. Read deliberately. Read every single word.

When people usually read, they speed read. There are many different ways of speed reading and some of the techniques are identifying words without focusing on each letter, not sounding out all words, not sub-vocalising some phrases, or spending less time on some phrases than others, and skimming small sections (from Wikipedia). In short, you are taking in the big picture and filling in the little details yourself.

Now this is fine when you are reading what someone else has written because you have never seen it before; but when it comes to your own work, if you speed read, you fill in the details with what you meant to say. The details of what you actually said might not be not quite what you intended. A comma out of place can be a very dangerous thing – but that’s for another post.

So you need to read slowly and deliberately, and the best way to do this is to read out loud. Read and sound out every single word; pause deliberately at the commas, semi-colons, and full-stops.

Does what you are reading out loud make sense?

Next week we’ll go over what else you need to look for when you do your slow and deliberate (proof)read of your essay.

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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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The halo: a trick to tame essay questions.

Halo, 22-degree halo, Solar Halo, 22 degree so...

Image by mikebaird via Flickr

Success often involves jumping through hoops. However, if you use nuanced arguments wisely, as we discussed last week, you can be more flexible in what you do to get through those hoops. Another strategy that makes writing essays much easier is to cleverly redefine the question. You can mold the question to fit the essay you plan to produce.

Wait! Isn’t that cheating?

Or at least not answering the question? No, you have to stay within the broader confines of the question, but you can narrow the question.

As Ian Hunter explains in his book “Write That Essay!”, this technique is often used anyway, because it might be necessary to cut down the amount of content that you’d have to cover in your essay. For example, you can’t cover everything about Medieval European warfare in one essay. So, you could focus on, say, a few famous battles, or a few technologies, or the political aspect of warfare during that era.

The trick and a quick example

Here’s the trick: tell the marker what you’re doing. Tell them that you’re focusing on one aspect of the broad topic allocated by the question. This ‘qualifying sentence’,  as Ian Hunter calls it, might say something like “while Medieval European warfare was affected by many factors such as the political environment, social paradigms, and prominent personalities, this essay will discuss the effect of technological advancement which ultimately brought the Medieval Age to an end.” That one extra sentence in the introduction (it often becomes sentence 2 or 3 in the formulaic introduction) shows a broader understanding of the topic. So even though you haven’t covered them, the marker will assume you understand the other sub-topics too. In fact, if you write really well on one sub-topic, they will assume you know the other topics to the same standard. So write in detail on the aspect that you understand best, and you’ll score an instant kudos upgrade for no extra effort (the halo effect – the awesomeness rubs off on surrounding sub-topics).

Remember essays need to go beyond description. You’re not there to recount what happened in the play. You’re there to interpret what happened – analyse, offer some insights – even synthesize with other relevant ideas. To do this in-depth analysis of the text, you need enough words to discuss your chosen sub-topics(s) comprehensively, so focus the question.

NB: One thing you can’t narrow down is the number of texts or examples you have to refer to.

In most cases, however, redefining the question is brilliant. It focuses your writing; allowing you to go more in-depth and produce a higher quality essay. And it makes it easier to write the essay too. Redefine the question to unleash the halo effect and get higher marks.

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An example of nuance

Rendering of human brain.

Use this! (Image via Wikipedia)

Getting something better with less effort sounds like a dream – but that’s what we covered last week. Recap it now to revise how to grab the freedom you are given when writing essays and using that freedom to its full advantage.

So how did you go in the challenge? Did you notice examples of nuanced arguments made in real life? Or nuanced discussion points that you could’ve raised, but didn’t? I promised an example of how to use the nuanced argument strategy, so here it is. It’s an essay question that you might find in an English assignment.*

The example:

“Q: The main purpose of a film is to entertain the audience. To what extent do you agree or disagree with this statement?.”

  1. You can argue ‘yes, the main purpose of a film is to entertain the audience’ by using examples of humour, suspense etc.
  2. You can also argue ‘no, the purpose of a film is not to entertain -it’s to educate’. Or you could go as far as saying ‘the purpose of a film is to indoctrinate – or solely to make money’. Those are extreme positions, though – good luck arguing them.

A nuanced argument: elegant and sophisticated.

  1. one nuanced argument would be to define “entertain[ing] an audience” to include feelings of horror and pity, as well as happiness.

Tip: I thought of this idea by looking at the key word “entertain” and asking what that implies – and doesn’t imply – and what it could imply with a slight stretch of the imagination.

Another nuanced argument would be that through the emotional film techniques (entertainment) a higher purpose is achieved: conveying a deeper message about society, humans as individuals etc. [launch into an amazing thematic topic sentence here!]

Tip: this was triggered by looking at the keyword “purpose”.

It’s all about analysing the question really. Just do it in an open-minded, even quirky way.

NB: Nuanced arguments don’t have to be full paragraphs – they can be smaller points within paragraphs too, but I find they are often important enough and big enough to justify a full paragraph length of explanation.

I’m sure there are other ways you could approach that question, but it’s important to answer it in a way that’s unique to you. As long as it’s reasonable and you can back it up with evidence and express it well, of course. So let your uniqueness peep through the academic façade of your writing. Write on!

*based on a true assignment question. Some of the words may have been changed to protect the identity of the film mentioned, to comply with all relevant legislation, and to completely alter the meaning of the original question.

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