Writing Better University Essays/Common essay problems
By following the approach of essay writing outlined in this book, you can avoid a whole range of very common essay problems:
- Unstructured: Many essays are not structured, which makes them difficult for the markers to read. Without structure, reading an essay is like a discovery journey: your marker will never be sure what is around the corner. This might sound appealing, but you’re not writing a thriller. Your marker will have difficulty to see whether and how what you write is relevant to the question set. Following the advice in this book, you can avoid this problem by outlining at the beginning how you’re going to answer the question (delimit). Your reader will know what is coming up. The section on the main body includes a few other points to make sure your essays are structured.
- Rambling: The problem of rambling is often just a symptom of the above problem: lack of structure. By thinking in a structured way, tendencies to ramble are reduced. Following a reasonable form of preparation will also help (see the section on preparation). Once you know what you’re going to say, and in what order you’re going to say it, it’s much easier to stay on track.
- Not relevant: Unfortunately many essays that are written are as such great essays, but include substantive sections that are not relevant. The problem may be that not enough time is spent planning the essay. It may also be the case, that the irrelevant bits merely appear to be irrelevant. The trick in the latter case is to link the paragraphs using suitable phrases, and actively demonstrate how the illustrations are relevant, for instance.
- Unconnected: For the same reasons as in the above point, essays may be or appear unconnected. A good plan can be the first line of defence: making sure that you yourself know how the different bits link. The next thing to do, again, is using phrases that connect different paragraphs and sections. Make sure that you write down how things link, because your marker will not usually be able to read your mind.
- Unclear: An essay can be well put together, and the reader still be left unclear about what exactly is being said. The problem is in most cases the lack of delimitation and definition. This means that the essay does not state what is and is not written about, and also that key terms are not defined. Much unclarity can stem from misunderstandings, the reader understanding terms in a different way from what you intended them to mean. What is clear to you may not be so for the marker. Making sure it’s down on paper, this problem can be prevented.
- Difficult: Essays that are difficult to read often suffer from one of the following symptoms: lack of illustrations, lack of conceptual clarity, or lack of guidance. Illustrations are not a nice to have, but an essential part of most essays. Think about the examples when you plan the essay. Conceptual clarity can be remedied by providing definitions, as outlined in the previous point. The lack of guidance means that your readers will feel lost, not knowing where the essay will go next. Providing a clear introduction that delimits the scope of the answer is sometimes all that is needed. Within the main body, linking sections and paragraphs helps further.
The most common problem, probably, is students failing to answer the question. By paying attention to the process and content words, the first part of the problem is already resolved. Writing in a planned and structured way, the remainder is addressed, too. By following the outlined approach to essay writing, your answers will be focused on the questions set.
Getting Top Grades
In this section I try to outline what differentiates good from very good essays. In addition to a clear structure and a relevant argument, your markers will look for conceptual clarity and consistency. You can achieve this by taking care to delimit your answer, and define key terms in a way that is relevant to your answer. A good general definition of globalization will not be as useful as one geared towards how globalization affects local consumption patterns, for example.
Your examiners will also look for critical engagement. Constantly ask yourself how important an argument is. Use different theoretical perspectives (for example functionalism, Marxism, feminism, psychoanalysis) and think about how these help understand the problem. Chances are that some theoretical perspectives have very little to say on your particular question. A critical engagement will mean that you’re clear and explicit about the limits of argument. Markers look out for statements like that “X is important, but only in certain areas of life,” or that “Y is important but only when considered together with other concepts,” or that “Z is not as important as X and Y.”
Essays with top grades identify and challenge where appropriate the assumption implicit in a question. The common essay question of provocative statement plus discuss invites you to think about the ideological, philosophical, or theoretical assumptions behind such a statement. A question may actually be the wrong question to ask if you’re approaching the answer from a feminist point of view, rather than a Marxist one, for example. Look out for counter-claims and examine their merit.
A top essay will have a clear and systematic structure. Ideally, at any one point your readers will know where they are, and why they are there. In practice this means that you’ll be clear about what you want to write before you start, and that you organize your thoughts in a coherent manner. The different sections are thus linked in a way obvious both to you and your reader.
Exploring all possibilities is another way to get top grades. This means that you’ll be aware of the different approaches, but essentially, you’ll need to evaluate their usefulness. It’s not just a matter of applying a great number of perspectives, but maybe more importantly one of choosing and selecting which of those carry forward the argument most. This normally involves the rejection of some of the possibilities. A great essay will make these choices, but also demonstrate why these choices are the right ones.
Top-grade essays are also clear about the relevance of what is written. In a paragraph, you not only list the different aspects, for example, and then give an appropriate example. In addition, markers look for a few sentences on the importance of what was just written. This can usually be achieved by linking it back to the question, or other underlying debates. Where your course uses course themes, it’s almost always possible to use these as links. In their feedback, markers often use the phrase “engaging with the question” to refer to this aspect.
In most cases when you’re given an essay to write, there is a word limit stated. A word limit is simply an indication how many words you should not exceed in your essay. Sometimes instead a number of pages is given. Word limits exist for a number of reasons. First of all, writing to length is considered a desirable skill. Secondly, having a limit is a way to ensure that you select the most relevant bits. Skills of selection are sought after outside of academia, too. Thirdly, word limits give an indication to you as the writer of what is expected from you.
You should always try as hard as you can not to exceed the word limit. They are called limits after all, not indications. The most powerful of reasons is probably that you might be penalized. Moreover, keeping to word limits is part of good practice, nice on your readers, and a sign that you possess certain skills. Many institutions practise a formal or informal 10% tolerance. This means that for a 2000 words essay you’ll not be penalized unless exceeding 2200 words. It’s essential that you check, and make sure you check with someone in an adequate position. Staying within the limits is the easier and safer option.
Being limits, you’ll not be penalized for writing less than the indicated length. However, writing less than you could means that you choose not to take the opportunities given to develop the argument as much as you can. It’s for this reason that you might get lower marks. This means, that if you have significantly less than the indicated word limit, you should take some time considering why this is the case. It’s not necessarily a bad sign, but usually means that you could develop the argument further, or that there are no illustrations to bring the essay alive. In either case, your marker will be likely to comment on this.
Planning your essay is the best way to stay within the limits. When drawing up the outline, I always spend a moment thinking about how many words I want to allocate to each section. This not only helps me staying within the word limit, but more importantly, maybe, is the plan for a balanced answer. By planning to write the same amount on two contrasting views, for example, it’s unlikely that I write three quarters of the essay on one side only. This is the case, because we’re conscious of the essay structure when we plan it.
During the process of writing the essay, you can monitor your progress by checking the number of words in your current section. Planning and checking section by section will prevent you from panicking when looking at the overall word count. If you go over, or run out with much to spare, flag the section. Maybe you’ll have an additional idea later on in the day, maybe your plan was not realistic, or maybe you mentioned a point in another section. By having the sections flagged, it’s easier to remedy the length of the essay once completed.
Sometimes there is confusion over what counts as words. Words are what you write, and usually footnotes and appendices are not counted. However, word processors often count these, too. In any case, do check what counts towards the word limit in your institution or course. Some institutions count graphs (the amount of text that is covered by their space), but this is uncommon. Technically, references don’t count towards the word count. If they did, this would encourage sloppy referencing. Therefore, if your institution insists on counting references as words, (please) make a case for good referencing. The list of references at the end of the essay is not included in any case. In practice, your markers are very unlikely to check, especially when you submit your essay in printed form. It’s for reasons like this that many institutions allow you an extra 10%. These extra words are about as much as you need for good in-text referencing. For the same reasons, the length of essays is frequently limited in number of pages. Do check the format expected, such as double-spacing. In any case, you should strive to keep within the word limit, because this is expected from you. The grading of essays is always in relation to what could be said within the limits stated, not what possibly ever could be said about it.
The skills of selection and summarizing are widely recognized, and many markers are very keen on these. Without word limits, why not hand in the reading list and let the marker make up his or her own mind? Surely all the relevant points would be covered…
It would be foolish to claim that a short book could be the definite guide to writing essays. Of course it is not. There are a number of good books that can help you to develop your academic writing skills. Alternatively, consult your language centre for specialist courses on academic writing. Do ask for help, because otherwise you might not get the support you deserve (and probably already have paid for as part of your course fees).
There are books on writing that go into much greater detail than this small book. Ask your bookshop or library about what is available, and have a good look what is covered in the book. Books on essay writing in general will never offer you as much advice as those focusing on specific aspects of writing. Everyone has different needs, and a book focusing on the areas of essay writing you’re particularly good at will probably not help you as much as another. Feedback from previous essays may help you find out what areas you want to improve.
For technical details, you might need a good dictionary. If English is not your first language, get hold of a dictionary written for learners of English, such as the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (Hornby, 2005) or the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (Woodford, 2005). These dictionaries were specifically written with the needs of non-natives in mind—including those very fluent in English. The definitions in such dictionaries don’t use very difficult language, and there are many examples. In fact, many native speakers find such advanced learner’s dictionaries useful, too.
The choice of grammar books is vast, and you should pick one you feel comfortable with. Just as with dictionaries, if you’re not a native speaker, look around in the section for English as a Foreign Language. Michael Swan’s English Usage (1995), for example, is both approachable and comprehensive. Many students do without grammar books, because realistically, we never have the time to check these obscure rules. Similarly, there are authoritative books on the style of your documents, such as The Oxford Style Manual (Ritter, 2003). Hart’s rules (Ritter, 2005) are often considered authoritative, but often go far beyond the scope of general essay writing. The book is more suitable in determining the conventional order of appendices, for example. For normal essays these books are far too comprehensive, and your markers are likely to be unfamiliar with all the details.
For advice on writing style, there are a great number of books available. Again, check your bookshop or library. Some books focus on the choice of the right word, others on different aspects of style. Note that different books give different stylistic advice. If you don’t want to splash out on a good book, you could do worse than bookmark Paul Brians’ page on common English mistakes (2006). This free and useful guide can come in very handy when in doubt (see reference at the end for URL).
If you’re unsure about plagiarism, or worried about your writing skills: the best way to get help is approaching your tutor or supervisor. They will be familiar with most of the conventions, and equally important, be able to guide you to more specialist assistance should this be necessary. In terms of plagiarism, there are a number of useful internet sites, including the Glatt Self-Detection Programme (2000), and their site at http://www.plagiarism.com/ (1998).
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