Posts Tagged persuasive writing

Essays for generals (Part IV) – strategic paragraphs

Strategic paragraphs in action...

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.

Mini-arguments

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.

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Essays for generals (Part III) – Reader’s Digest

Break Down write

Breaking things down is important...

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:

  1. they separate your overall essay into digestible pieces
  2. they make your points clearer as you build your argument

Digestible pieces

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!

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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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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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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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The art of the essay ninja

 

Ninja

Image via Wikipedia

 

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. 🙂

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The proof is in the pudding: preparing for exam essays

 

Christmas pudding decorated with skimmia rathe...

Image via Wikipedia

 

We all know they’re important. If you don’t have quotations, facts, or other types of evidence in your essay, your body paragraphs won’t prove your points (unless you make up quotations, which we don’t recommend). A Literature essay without quotations is like plum pudding without any plums (and everything around it has turned to custard too). So for exam essays, if you can’t take the text(s) into the exam with you, and you’re not going to get a text in the exam itself, you’ll have to memorise quotations.

Here’s what I did to memorise quotations – I’d create a “Quote Sheet’:

  1. Collect all the potentially useful quotations that you might use in the exam (go through essays you’ve already written on the topic, notes you’ve made in class, and find new ones from the text itself if necessary).
  2. Cull this list down to the bare essential quotations, without losing so much information that you won’t be able to write about key parts of the text. Keep quotations which are important and versatile. Quotations that demonstrate techniques and are launch-pads for thematic discussions are excellent quotations.
  3. Condense the quotations on your short list to acronyms based on key words, or perhaps draw symbols and pictograms to represent them. Yes, you can actually use txt language techniques in this academic setting, because you’re not writing these for the markers.
  4. MEMORISE these acronyms and symbols. Write them out a couple of times. Then test yourself: once you can write the list of memory aids very quickly, with no errors, and can then write out the full “translation” of the memory aid (without cheating), your quotation learning mission is complete.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to take a list of quotations into the exam with you? Well this excellent study tactic gives you the next best thing: you can write a memory-jogging list of acronyms and symbols in less than 2 minutes at the start of the exam. Then you can focus on writing your essays with confidence. Better yet, the process of creating this “Quote Sheet” will help you evaluate the key quotations in the text, process them deeply, and understand them better.

Sh – hm! (Study hard – happy memorising!)

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SEX and Essays (Part II)

In the last post, we looked at how to improve an essay’s body paragraphs by using the SEX acronym. The best way to explain SEX though, is to give a demonstration. Here’s an example body paragraph from an essay on the poem “Rising Five” by Norman Nicholson. I wrote this in Year 12 (for Cambridge AS English). It’s not perfect, but it’s a verbatim example which will be relevant to many of our followers. I’m open to your comments and suggestions. Take a look and see what you think…

 

Although the form of the poem is comparatively erratic in the previous stanza, the next is more traditional in layout – it is here that a subtle shift in the mood of the piece can first be detected. The opening line is a startling image of how, over time, changes occur and perfectly suitable opportunities are lost as we grow up; we push them into the past just as “new buds push the old leaves from the bough”. The simile in the next line coincides with this image: “we drop our youth behind us like a boy throwing away his toffee-wrappers.” Verbs like “push” and “drop” have negative connotations, while even the nouns “youth” and “boy” may show the naivety of ignoring the present. After “toffee-wrappers”, caesura is used to show that the past and all its choices are cut off from and inaccessible to us humans who inhabit the present. It is ironic that people often desire to be younger again when they are adults – this backs up the poet’s argument that we need to make prudent decisions about what we do with each day; once we have decided, we can never get that day back again.

 

SEX in practice:

See how the evidence to support the statement comes in “couples”? Examples are paired with supporting explanations. These pairs of Evidence back up the Statement made in the first sentence (red text). Broadly categorising the parts of the paragraph, there are three Examples (orange text) and three eXplanations (green text). The more SEX in a paragraph, the better! However, don’t overwhelm the reader with a mammoth paragraph – break it up into digestible chunks. Be nice to your reader!

So there’s an overview of how to use the SEX acronym in essays. Can you see how this will enable you to write more compelling paragraphs, and therefore stronger essays?

 

 

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SEX and Essays

SEX spices up your essays. Once you’ve stated what an essay paragraph is about in an attractive way (using an opening topic sentence as mentioned in a previous post), you have to do something with the rest of the paragraph! Your mission is to expand on the topic sentence and develop the point of the paragraph. This point should answer the essay question and convince your marker to give you marks. To craft a convincing essay, you will need strong evidence. Evidence is made up of two components: Examples and Explanations of those examples. How can you remember to include all the elements that make up an effective paragraph? Think of SEX:

Just Joking R18 Statement
Example
eXplanation
(Many students find this acronym memorable for some unknown reason – it even seems to be more memorable than the logical acronym “SEE”!).

SEX gives you the framework to begin piecing together the evidence you need to develop your points. Examples show your content knowledge; they prove that you’ve done the research or read the text. They also show that you’re answering the question in some cases. For example, an essay question may ask you to specifically discuss imagery or sound devices. Each example is linked to an explanatory phrase which guides the reader to the essayist’s interpretation. This is where you show that you’re smart and that your analysis deserves marks. If you skip this important step, the marker is more likely to reach a different interpretation than yours and you will not score as highly.

So there’s an introduction to the art of developing your point. More on SEX is something to save for another time…

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