How to write beautiful Essays

how to write good expository essay with examples and how to write better essays 6 practical tips and how to write better essays bryan greetham
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How to Write Better Essays Bryan GreethamHTWPR 7/26/01 8:36 PM Page vii Contents Introduction ix The Stages 1 Stage 1 Interpretation of the Question 5 Introduction 7 1 Revealing the structure 9 2 A practical example 15 3 Learning to analyse 22 4 The three-step technique – Steps 1 and 2 27 5 Step 3 – Test your concept 36 6 Brainstorming 42 7 Flexibility 51 8 Using the right ability 56 9 The range of abilities 61 10 Changing our pattern of study 66 Stage 2 Research 73 Introduction 75 11 Reading purposefully 78 12 Processing the ideas 83 13 Note-taking for analysis and structure 94 14 Remembering your notes 101 15 Note-taking for criticism and evaluation 108 16 Organising your retrieval system 118 17 Organising your time 124 18 Your own personal timetable 132 viiHTWPR 7/26/01 8:36 PM Page viii viii Contents Stage 3 Planning 139 Introduction 141 19 Planning that makes a difference 143 20 Editing and ordering your material 151 21 Planning for the exam 160 22 Revising for the exam 166 Stage 4 Writing 171 Introduction 173 23 Getting your own ideas down 176 24 Introductions 182 25 Paragraphs 187 26 Conclusions 197 27 Style – Simplicity 203 28 Style – Economy 215 29 Working with evidence 225 30 Plagiarism 233 31 Referencing and bibliographies 240 Stage 5 Revision 253 Introduction 255 32 Preserving your best ideas 258 33 Revising the structure 262 34 Revising the content 267 Conclusion 278 Bibliography 280 Index 281HTWPR 7/26/01 8:36 PM Page ix Introduction  About this book By the time we reach university a surprising number of us are con- vinced that we should know all we need to know about researching and writing essays. We’re inclined to argue that if we’ve got this far we should know how to analyse the implications of questions, read efficiently, take notes, plan and structure arguments, use evidence, and write light and interesting prose. Indeed these skills are the very thing that has got us this far in the first place, so to admit that we could be better at essay writing seems to be an admission that we’re lucky to have got this far. Instead of seeking help, then, to improve our skills, we settle for the strategy of just learning by our mistakes, or by example in those rare moments when we might see our tutor think through and analyse a difficult concept, or pull ideas together from different sources and syn- thesise them into a new way of looking at a problem. If we recognise the significance of the moment, and most of us don’t, then we might be lucky enough to retain a small inkling of what went on in the hope that we, too, might be able to do the same. But it need not be like this. The two types of skills that we all need to be successful in our courses – study skills (reading, note-taking, writing, organisation, and revision) and thinking skills (analysis, syn- thesis, discussion, argument, and use of evidence) – can be taught. There is nothing mysterious about them. They need not be the exclu- sive preserve of a few. And there is nothing particularly difficult about them either. Indeed, most of us have the abilities to succeed, if only we can unlock and use them by learning these simple skills.  Learning the skills In this book you will learn not just the study skills, but the thinking skills too. What’s more, you won’t do this alone. At every step of the ixHTWPR 7/26/01 8:36 PM Page x x Introduction way a tutor will be by your side, showing you clear and simple ways of overcoming the most difficult problems. And you choose the essay you want to work on, drawn from the courses you’re taking at your school, college or university. You will be taken carefully through each stage of writing the essay from interpreting the question to the research, planning, writing and revision. In each of these you will be given practice exercises to work on, along with their answers, with an assignment at the end of each section. As you work through each stage you will get practical help right up until the essay has been completed. In this way not only will your work improve, but you’ll develop those skills necessary to tackle successfully all your future writing assignments. All of this means this book is significantly different from any other writing or study-skills book you may have read before: • It’s an integrated approach It doesn’t deal with writing skills in isolation from the thinking skills and the other study skills involved, like note-taking, reading and organisation. If you’ve taken study-skills courses before, you’ll know that dealing with any skill in isolation results in us just tacking on this new skill to our existing pattern of study. It’s not integrated within it. As a result, after a short time we come to realise it’s not relevant to the way we use our other skills and we quietly abandon it. • It’s a purposeful approach Because it’s directed at a specific goal of producing a certain essay that you have chosen yourself, it has a clear purpose that’s relevant to what you’re studying. Unlike more general books and courses, you’re not working in a vacuum. In effect you have your own per- sonal writing tutor, who will be by your side to help you with the problems you confront at each stage in the production of an essay that you have to complete for one of your courses. • The book takes account of the syllabus objectives of your courses Unlike most books on this subject, this one will help you develop the skills you need to meet the syllabus objectives of the courses you’re taking at school, college or university. You will develop the skills and techniques that allow you to explore more effectively in your writing those abilities your syllabuses set out to develop. AsHTWPR 7/26/01 8:36 PM Page xi Introduction xi many of us know from our experience with other books and courses, any book that doesn’t do this we are likely to abandon, realising it doesn’t address our needs, because it’s divorced from the abilities we are expected to use and develop in the courses we are studying. • The book is a comprehensive essay writing guide After you’ve read the book and completed the course you’re left with an invaluable guide that you can use to diagnose and deal with any problem you might have in your writing in the future. As it’s broken up into stages it’s easy to identify where the problem is and what you need to do to tackle it. To help you in this, the index can be used to diagnose a problem you might be experiencing, so that you can easily locate the relevant section of the guide. With these unique characteristics this is a book that will ensure you develop the skills and techniques to unlock your abilities and your potential.HTW1 7/26/01 8:40 PM Page 1 The Stages This book is not just about the actual writing of essays; it’s also about the various stages you need to go through to produce a good essay, and about the ways in which this can improve your learning. Once you’ve worked your way through it, you’ll find you have an invaluable guide that you can keep by your side as you write your essays, to give you answers to problems as they arise.  Why write essays? If you understand the value of doing something, you normally find you’re more confident and positive about tackling it. So, what are the reasons for writing essays? • It forces you to organise your thinking and develop your ideas on the issues In one sense writing is the crucial step in the process of learning a subject, in that it helps you to get to grips with the new ideas. Without this it’s difficult, if not impossible, to know clearly just how well you’ve understood the subject. • Feedback In the same way, it also provides you with the opportunity to get feedback from your tutor, not just on how well you’ve understood the subject, but on how well you’ve communicated this, and where your strengths and weaknesses are, so you can concentrate your energies more effectively. • Revision material If you’ve planned the essay well, so that it’s got a clear structure, you’ll find, when it comes to preparing for the final exam, that the plan itself is just about the most important revision material you have. It shows you how you’ve come to understand the topic, and how you’ve organised the ideas. As such, it is the one thing that 1HTW1 7/26/01 8:40 PM Page 2 2 How to Write Better Essays you will be able to recall and use most effectively under timed con- ditions. In fact many students who plan well use just these clearly organised thought patterns as their only revision material. Writing an essay, then, is a valuable opportunity for learning, which ought to be approached positively. If you hide behind the text, just paraphrasing or copying what you’ve read, without processing those ideas and making them your own, your tutor will rarely see you, your abilities, or your problems, and you will never glimpse the extent of your abilities, or just how much you understand.  The five stages For any essay to achieve high marks it’s essential to go through five distinct stages: 1 Interpretation of the question 2 Research 3 Planning 4 Writing 5 Revision If you omit any of these or just rush them, certain familiar problems will emerge in your writing: irrelevance, weak structure, insufficient evidence and examples to support your arguments, lack of fluency between paragraphs, inconsistent arguments, and many others. It’s also as important to separate each stage, so that you leave, say, at least a day between each of them. Of course, it may not always be possible for you to do this. You may have a number of competing obli- gations that leave you only a few days to complete the essay. On these occasions the skills you’ll learn in this book to manage your time will help you cope more effectively. They will also help you organise your time so that with most pieces of work you can in fact find sufficient time between each stage. Not only does this allow you to return to your ideas fresh, so that you’re able to see which of them needs to be edited out, but you will also find that your ideas and arguments have devel- oped in the meantime. Ideas are organic. Hardly ever are they the complete and finished article the moment you grasp them, like products on a supermarket shelf. They grow and develop over time. So, for example, returning toHTW1 7/26/01 8:40 PM Page 3 The Stages 3 your plan after a day or two, you will almost inevitably discover new ideas, new evidence and new ways of developing your arguments. You’re also likely to see a more sensible and logical way of ordering your ideas. And the same goes for all the other stages. Each time you return to your work after leaving it to lie unattended for a while, you will find your subconscious has worked on the ideas, restructuring them, answering questions that you weren’t sure of, and critically evaluating the arguments you’ve read in your texts. But, be reassured, this is not an endless, confusing process, in which your ideas are thrown up in the air each time you return to your work. Within a short time, after revising your plan a couple of times, you will realise that it’s ready and you can begin writing. The same is true of your interpretation of the question, your research and the revision of your work. You will know when enough is enough. It may take three or four essays before you feel confident about your judge- ment, and during these you will have to rely on your tutor’s judgement, but it will come.This page intentionally left blank HTW1 7/26/01 8:40 PM Page 5 Stage 1 Interpretation of the QuestionThis page intentionally left blank HTW1 7/26/01 8:40 PM Page 7 INTRODUCTION Often, and for the best of motives, our problems in essay writing begin the very moment we are given the question. Anxious to get on with the work and not fall behind, we skip the interpretation stage and launch straight into our research. As a result, we read sources and take notes without a clear idea of what’s relevant, beyond some very general idea of the subject of the essay. Then finally, after hours of toil, tired and frustrated, and no clearer about what we’re doing, we’re left with a pile of irrelevant, unusable notes. Yet, just an hour or two interpreting the question would not only have saved us this wasted time, but would have given us a clear idea of what the question is getting at and a better understanding of what the examiner is looking for in our work. And even more, it would have given us the opportunity to get our own ideas and insights involved at an early stage. Without this our work can seem routine and predictable: at best just the re-cycling of the ideas that dominate the subject. So, what should you be looking for when you interpret a question? All essay questions tell you two things: the structure your essay should adopt for you to deal relevantly with all the issues it raises; and the range of abilities the examiner is expecting to see you use in answer- ing the question.  Structure Take the first of these: the structure. In the following chapters you will learn how to unwrap the meaning and implications of the question, so that, before you go off to do your research, you will have prepared for yourself a clear structure of the issues that the question raises, so you know what you’re looking for. In many questions this will develop out of your analysis of the key concepts in the question. Most of us strug- gle to do this well, but the skills involved can be easily learnt. You will be shown a simple three-step technique for analysing the most diffi- cult concepts. Once this has been done you will be shown how to brainstorm the question. Again, this is not a time-consuming task, but it will help you to use more of your own ideas and avoid wasting time in your research. Once you’ve learnt to do this, you will be able to make two important things clear to yourself before you start your research: what you know about the issues the essay question raises, and the questions you want 7HTW1 7/26/01 8:40 PM Page 8 8 Interpretation of the Question your sources to answer. Without this the authors of the texts you read are likely to dictate to you and you’ll find it difficult to distinguish between what’s relevant and what’s not.  Range of abilities Then, once you’ve brainstormed your ideas and know what questions you want your sources to answer, there’s just one more thing you need to be sure about before you begin your research. You must be clear about the range of abilities the examiner wants to see you use. Other- wise you may find yourself tackling the essay in a way that doesn’t answer the question, and noting information that is irrelevant.HTW1 7/26/01 8:40 PM Page 9 1 Revealing the Structure In this chapter you will learn: • how to avoid irrelevance in your essay by carefully interpreting the meaning and implications of the question; • how to reveal from the question the structure your essay should adopt; • how to make sure your essay qualifies for the highest marks on offer. Obviously it’s important to realise that you’re not embarking on a piece of open-ended research. You’re answering a particular question that raises particular sharply focused issues. You must, therefore, be rigor- ously selective in collecting your material in the research stage, and in planning and writing the essay. You should use only material that is relevant to answering this question. There are times in the research of every essay when you find your- self collecting material that is interesting and so closely argued that you find it difficult not to take notes from all of it, particularly when it’s relevant to the wider implications of the topic. But if it’s not rel- evant to the problems raised in this essay, ditch it File it away for other essays, by all means, but don’t let it tempt you in this essay. Otherwise it will lose focus and the reader will fail to understand what you’re doing and why.  Analyse the key concepts With these warnings in mind it’s essential to pin down two things: how many parts there are to the question and what weight you will need to give to each part. With many questions these structural problems can be solved by analysing the key concepts used in the question. Indeed, 9HTW1 7/26/01 8:40 PM Page 10 10 Interpretation of the Question in most, if you fail to do this, the examiners will deduct marks: they will expect to see you show that you can analyse difficult abstract concepts and allow this to influence, if not determine, the structure of the essay. For example, markers for the University of London are told to award the highest marks (70–100%) to those students who ‘note subtlety, complexity and possible disagreements, which they . . . will discuss’, while only average marks (40–60%) are to be awarded to the student who adopts a ‘More relaxed application’ of the question, and who ‘follows an obvious line . . . and uncritically accepts the terms of the 1 question’. Similarly, in the Department of Sociology at the University of Harvard students are told: Papers will be graded on the basis of the completeness and clarity of your analysis and the persuasiveness of your recommendations. As always, we will be appreciative of well-organised and well-written 2 papers. The same emphasis can be found at the University of Oxford, where examiners look for a good analytical ability, to distinguish first class and upper second class scripts from the rest. In the marking criteria it’s only in these two grades that any mention is made of analytical ability, with those failing to display it more likely to end up with lower seconds and below. A first class script should show: analytical and argumentative power, a good command of facts, evidence or arguments relevant to the questions, and an ability to organ- 3 ise the answer with clarity, insight and sensitivity. An upper second class script also displays these qualities, but ‘less consistently’ or ‘to a lesser degree’ than a first class script.  Questions To give you an idea of what this means in terms of actual questions, listed below is a selection of essay questions from different depart- ments at different universities around the world. You will see that the answer to each of them hinges upon the same ‘clarity, insight and sen-HTW1 7/26/01 8:40 PM Page 11 Revealing the Structure 11 sitivity’ that we can bring to the analysis of the key concepts in the question. • Do the narrators of Pride and Prejudice and Great Expec- tations speak with the same kind of irony? (The English Novel, University of Harvard) • Are there any good reasons for supposing that historical ex- planation is, in principle, different from scientific explanation? (History, University of Kent at Canterbury) • Did the years 1603–4 witness a crisis in the history of English Protestantism? (History, University of Kent at Canterbury) • Consider Duncan Kennedy’s claim that people who favour casting the law in the form of rules are individualists while people who favour the use of standards are altruists. Do you agree that the debate between rules and standards reflects that sort of deep difference in general moral outlook? (Law, University of Cornell) • Hobbes insists that covenants extorted by force oblige. (Sovereignty by acquisition is a good example.) Is his argument consistent with his theory? What problems does his insistence pose for his theory? In your answer, be sure to address Hobbes’s account of obligation, in particular the obligation to obey the sovereign. (Philosophy, University of Harvard) • ‘Mill has made as naïve and artless a use of the naturalistic fallacy as anybody could desire. “Good,” he tells us, means “desirable”, and you can only find out what is desirable by seeking to find out what is actually desired . . . The fact is that “desirable” does not mean “able to be desired” as “visible” means “able to be seen”.’ G. E. Moore. Discuss. (Philosophy, University of Kent at Canterbury) • ‘Authority amounts to no more than the possession of power.’ Discuss. (Philosophy, University of Maryland) • Is there any important sense in which all men are equal? If so, what is it? (Politics, University of Maryland)HTW1 7/26/01 8:40 PM Page 12 12 Interpretation of the Question • Is democracy always compatible with individual freedom? (Politics, University of York) • Are concepts of anomie and subculture still of value in the expla- nation of criminality? (Sociology, University of Oxford) • What considerations determine the efficient levels of (a) smoking, (b) immunisation against infectious diseases? Is it practical to achieve these? (Economics, University of Oxford) • ‘Free Trade leads to a Paretian Optimum.’ ‘Free Trade leads to unacceptable inequalities.’ Discuss. (Economics, University of Oxford)  Key concepts As you can see, no matter what the subject, the analysis of the important concepts is the main focus when we come to interpret ques- tions like these. They may be couched subtly in everyday language, like ‘unacceptable inequalities’, ‘oblige’, or ‘efficient levels’, or they may stand out like beacons warning the unwary not to ignore them, like ‘Paretian Optimum’, and ‘anomie and subculture’. Historians, for example, are fond of using concepts like ‘revolution’ and ‘crisis’: seemingly inoffensive and untroubling words. But then, look at the British Industrial Revolution and you find yourself wondering, was this a revolution or just accelerated evolution? Indeed, what is a revol- ution? Is it all a question of the speed of change? In which case, the Industrial Revolution was more an evolution than a revolution, spread as it was over seventy to a hundred years. Or is it more to do with the scale of change? If this is the case, then there’s little doubt that it was a revolution, what with the mechanisation of labour, factory production, the growth of cities and the development of mechanised transport. Much the same could be argued for a concept like ‘crisis’. Again it appears to be inoffensive and untroubling; that is until you ask your- self, what do we really mean by the word? It comes from the Greek, Krisis, meaning a decisive moment or turning point. So are we really justified in arguing that the years 1603–4 were not only a time of serious challenge to Protestantism, but also a decisive turning point inHTW1 7/26/01 8:40 PM Page 13 Revealing the Structure 13 its history? Whatever your answer, you now have a structure emerging: on the one hand you can argue that it was a time of serious challenge to Protestantism, but on the other you might question whether it really was a genuine turning point in its history. The same analysis of concepts and arguments can be found in just about every subject. In politics there are concepts like freedom, ideology, equality, authority, power, political obligation, influence, legitimacy, democracy and many more. Do we really harbour not a single fear of ambiguity when we use such a large and important concept like freedom, or was Donovan Leitch right when he admitted in the sixties that, ‘Freedom is a word I rarely use without thinking’? What do we mean by legitimacy and how does it differ from legality? And when we use the word ‘democracy’ do we mean direct or indirect democracy, representative or responsible, totalitarian or liberal, third world or communist? In literature what do we mean by concepts like tragedy, comedy, irony, and satire? Indeed, it’s not unusual to find universities devoting complete courses to unravelling the implications of these and others like them: concepts like class, political obligation, punishment, revol- ution, authority and so on. In the following course outline, the con- cepts of punishment and obligation, and the distinction between law and morality, are central concerns that run throughout the course. Entitled ‘Moral Reasoning – Reasoning In and About the Law’, it is part of the programme at the University of Harvard: How is law related to morality? How is it distinct? Do we have an oblig- ation to obey the law? What, if anything, justifies the imposition of legal punishment? These issues, and related issues dealing with the analysis and justification of legal practices, will be examined using the writings of 4 philosophers, judges, and legal theorists. Take just about any course at any university and you will see the same: that many of the challenges we face are questions about concepts. For example, the Philosophy Department of the University of Southampton describes its Philosophy of Science course in the following terms: This course examines concepts of evidence, justification, probability and truth, in relation to scientific explanation, causality, laws of nature, theory and fact; the distinctions between science and pseudo-science, as well as between science and metaphor, are among the topics explored. ExamplesHTW1 7/26/01 8:40 PM Page 14 14 Interpretation of the Question illustrating the philosophical argument will be drawn from the histories 5 of the physical, biological and social sciences.  Qualifying for the highest marks on offer Syllabuses like these indicate the importance of key concepts both in the courses you’re studying, and in the essays you’re expected to write. By analysing them you not only give your essay a relevant structure, but, equally important, you qualify for the highest marks on offer. If, at this stage, you don’t acknowledge the significance of these con- cepts by analysing their implications, you will almost certainly fail to analyse them in your essay. This will indicate not only that you haven’t seen the point of the question, but, more seriously, that you haven’t yet developed that thoughtful, reflective ability to question some of the most important assumptions we make when we use language. It is as if you’re saying to the examiner that you can see no reason why these concepts should raise any particular problem and, therefore, they deserve no special treatment.  In the next chapter In the next chapter we’ll look at a particular concept and show how you can prise it open to reveal its implications. In so doing you’ll see how you can capture more of your own ideas and insights. Notes 1 General Marking Instructions (London: University of London, 1987). 2 Peter V. Marsden, Sociology, 25: Introduction to the Sociology of Organiza- tions (Cambridge, Mass.: University of Harvard, 2000). 3 Greats Handbook (Oxford: University of Oxford, 2000), p. 46. 4 Michael Blake, Moral Reasoning, 62: Reasoning in and about the Law (Cambridge, Mass.: University of Harvard, 2000). 5 What is Philosophy? (Southampton: Department of Philosophy, University of Southampton, 1986), p. 16.