Posts Tagged university
The paragraphing techniques that we’ve covered have been the basics – the foundations, the bare essentials. Now let’s put some power into your paragraphs – soup them up – so they don’t just survive, but thrive.
There’s one powerful technique that I use to ‘pimp paragraphs’. I like this technique because it looks good, allows you to express more of what you personally think, and makes the essay-writing task easier. It also gets you more marks.
You can get all that by using what I call ‘nuanced arguments’. (In case you noticed it on the diagram, the “x” doesn’t mark a spot where treasure is buried – then again, metaphorically…) .
So what is a nuanced argument?
We looked at how paragraphs can be based around concepts that agree or differ with a stance framed by the question. But different interpretations don’t necessarily have to be opposites; they can sometimes be due to re-defining a concept. That right there was an example of a nuanced argument! It’s going into more detail and explaining how something similar or linked is actually different. So before you can synthesise this into your essay, you have to analyse some differences.
What are the benefits of using “nuanced arguments”?
- Get more kudos (and therefore marks)
Markers generally like this sort of unique insight in an essay – it shows higher level thinking and is more engaging. Just make sure that you can back it up with evidence and it’s not straying outside of the question’s scope
- Be more creative, not a stuffy academic
So many more options are open to you when you aren’t simply arguing “yes/no” or “for/against” – even the “how strongly” dimension is still limited compared to nuanced arguments…
- Be more opinionated.
… which also means you can be more opinionated! (Some of you will really like that, I’m sure).
Nuanced arguments also make your job easier for many essays because you don’t have to fit the teacher’s thoughts into your own words, or struggle to come up with the ‘right answer”; you can write your own opinion, which you’ll know better and sooner than any other opinion. Best of all, markers prefer to read a fresh take on something (as long as it’s still well written and you back up the argument with evidence).
Don’t you want to take advantage of this technique? Here’s an idea: stay alert this week; see how many nuanced concepts you notice in real life – how many levels of precise interpretation you can identify. Once you start noticing them, you can pick them up everywhere. It’s great practice for essay writing and critical thinking in general. Also think about examples that you could use in an English essay. I’ll give you an example next week and we can compare notes, OK? All the best.
In previous posts, we’ve looked at how to structure paragraphs to produce coherent, compelling, and persuasive essays.
To recap quickly:
- Use paragraphs to make your essay easy to read
- Your paragraphs are mini-arguments; use them strategically
- Be able to use both Thematic and Technique-based paragraphs
Once you’re comfortable with what each individual paragraph should do, you can master the art of arranging them effectively. We looked at both chronological ordering and ordering paragraphs by similarities and/or differences.
These topics are quite abstract. Enough to do your head in; after all, I’ve been writing lots of paragraphs about how to write paragraphs! So here’s an example of how I ordered paragraphs in one of my essays (we first saw part of this essay in the second “SEX” post). I’ll show you the ordering and the basis on which the paragraphs were constructed by reproducing the first and last sentences of each paragraph. (See how useful topic sentences are?). I’ll write comments in normal text underneath the italics of the example.
The poem opens with direct speech: “’I’m rising five’”, exclaims the character in the poem.
Nicholson shows us how when we are young we lack knowledge outside of our uncomplicated small-scale experiences; and don’t recognise how carefree our lives are – we place the utmost importance on growing up.
The start of my essay’s body discusses the start of the poem; the overall method of ordering is chronological as you will see. Note that in the first sentence I begin the paragraph by focusing on Techniques, then the evidence throughout the paragraph this leads to a Thematic closing topic sentence.
Our early years present us with so many opportunities, Nicholson believes.
Soon his life’s opportunities are left behind him: opportunities are left stranded by humans every day.
The paragraph both began and ended with a Thematic focus. Between the topic sentences there was still Technical content, though. It’s important to have good Technical content to back up your arguments and make them more convincing.
As we mature, our perspectives change.
The boy’s mentality is shown throughout the poem by using the same line-placement technique. It is like a chain of reasoning, but this results in a rather chilling conclusion….
Notice that even in the closing topic sentences of this thematic paragraph, I refer to a chain of techniques that reveal the evolving perspectives of the boy. This further reflects the chronological ordering that is the basis of my essay’s analysis. This poem lends itself to the chronological approach because it’s theme is about progression and growing up.
NB: I don’t think I’d be so creative now to end a paragraph in a formal essay with ellipsis, but I got away with it that time. 😉
Positive images are still used for a while, though.
The space that is left unused means that the stanza lacks the detail of the previous, more densely packed stanza. This could reflect how blank and empty our lives are when we incessantly worry about the future.
Here I used a different approach to link to this paragraph. A link is made based on a similarity. The previous paragraph set up expectation of a progression, but I choose to emphasise the similarity of the imagery (so it’s a Technique focused paragraph again). This gives the reader a clear overview of what to expect, while still making the current point clear; aim for clarity in your essay.
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.
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.
Another new approach to mix things up: this time a contrast is used to link the paragraphs. “Although” is a great linking word to use to signal a difference in the next paragraph. “On the other hand”, “however”, “in contrast”, and “nevertheless” are a few others. Experiment with them to find ones that work for you – the ‘fit’ often depends on the specific situation.
By the last stanza, Nicholson’s motif of the fruit trees has developed into an extended metaphor for the human life cycle.
The future holds the same fate for all of us: death. Nicholson reminds us not to be excessively captivated by the future.
(There. So now you know why there’s a coffin as the image for this post.)
Back to chronological linking of paragraphs after a little variety to add interest for the reader.
Often, my closing topic sentences are more creative and expressive than my opening topic sentences. I also prefer to close with a theme – and the sentence I leave in the reader’s mind at the end of each paragraph can target emotional responses (without becoming a poem or novel itself; it’s still an essay).
So there it is – ah, I’m at my word limit. ‘Bye for now’.
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!”
You have planned your essay, you pick up your pen or sit down at your computer, and then what?
If you know what you are doing, the introduction is actually relatively easy to write because for academic essays it follows a rough formula. English essays don’t necessarily follow this structure quite as rigidly but for university essays it is very useful.
Below is an elaboration from Dr. Ian Hunter’s book, Write That Essay! For an average length essay five sentences is usually enough and each of them has a specific purpose.
Sentence 1: Hook them!
Aim: Introduce the general topic to the reader.
This sentence is a neutral sentence. It contains facts and information that is generally agreed to be correct – as tempting as it may be, you do not want to spark controversy here.
Sentence 2: Set the scene
Aim: Introduce what topic(s) your essay is going to specifically focus on.
You want to start this sentence with something like “This essay will [examine/consider/discuss]…”.
While this sort of sentence might sound a little stupid, throughout your essay you need to place signposts to help the marker follow your argument and not get lost. This is the first signpost in your essay, it lets the marker know what topics to expect in the body paragraphs.
Sentence 3: Show you are smart
Aim: Mention the context of your essay.
You want to show the marker that you know what you are talking about and are not just bluffing through the essay question because you spent your research time on Facebook. However, there is a fine line between proving your intelligence and showing off. If you cross that line this early in your essay, you will have severely damaged the marker’s impression of you. Not a good move!
Sentence 4: Give the game away
Aim: State your argument.
An essay is not a thriller and you are not John Grisham. Right here in the fourth sentence of your essay you want to tell the marker your argument. Without reading any further they should know what happens at the end – suspense has no place in your essay – it is an essay after all!
Sentence 5: Sum it up
Aim: Summarise the conclusion of your argument.
Two sentences after the first ‘signpost’, we come to another one (after all no one wants to get lost in an essay!). Here, in a nutshell, you are summing up your essay. Your sentence should start with something like:
“Overall, this essay will argue…” or “In summary, this essay will suggest that…”
This is a very good guide for writing your introductions and one that I always use. Learn it, use it, then you can adapt it a little too (remember English essays don’t have to be as formulaic). Just make sure you fulfil the aims of an effective introduction.
Also, check out Dr. Hunter’s book for more help and tips on writing essays.
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?