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How To Write An Essay
Approaching the Essay
As a student you will almost certainly have to produce essays during your course. Some will be written during term time and contribute to course work assessment, others will be answers to questions set in formal examinations. An essay is usually defined as a continuous piece of writing ranging in length from at least 500 words to about 5,000 words for a special or extended essay. But this booklet is not just about 'writing' essays, it's about the various stages you need to consider when producing an essay and about the ways in which producing an essay helps you to learn. The time given to each of these stages will of course vary according to the conditions surrounding any particular essay. Let's look at the first stage -which is approaching the essay.
Why write essays?
If we understand the value of doing something, it usually helps to make us feel more positive and confident about the task. So what is the value of writing an essay? Here are some ideas - you might think of more. It forces you to organize your own thinking and develop your own point of view on issues. In one sense, writing is the crucial step which helps you get to grips with new ideas and new experiences. Without that step, it's very difficult or impossible to know how much you've really understood.
Expressing yourself - ideas, new information, or whatever, in written form, really is a life skill -which you will need in almost every area of work. Essay writing gives you practice and develops that skill. If it's a term time essay, you can see it as giving you practice for writing under exam conditions. And don't forget that the essay provides very useful revision material.
Lastly, it gives you a chance to get feedback from your tutor about their assessment of how much you've understood and how well you are able to communicate this. With your tutor's help, you can identify areas of strength and weakness so you know where to concentrate your energies next time. So, approach your essay positively. It can be a very valuable learning opportunity.
Of course, you must also check out any particular requirements your course or department might have for that particular essay. How long should it be? Should it be presented in a particular way -typed, for example? If you know the answers to these questions, it will help you to feel more confident about the task.
Written versus spoken
One last point in this preliminary stage is to
remember that there is a difference between written
and spoken communication. You must select your
words more carefully and make your meaning
absolutely clear. Remember you won't be beside
your reader to explain any difficult or obscure
points. It's more important too, to have a sequence
of logical steps so that your reader can follow your
train of thought. Any emphasis has to be conveyed
through vocabulary, sentence rhythm or
punctuation. And because your reader can go at
his own pace, even go back, if necessary, writing
can be much more concentrated than speech.
All this has been about the general framework in which you approach your essay. Now we'll go to the next stage which is to examine the task.
2 What is the Question?
Understanding the question
You need to examine the precise wording of the question, in order to decide exactly what you are being asked to do. You will also need to consider the assumptions behind the question and the implications that arise from the question's statement or assumptions. Does the topic require general treatment or specific reference to certain aspects? Are your own experiences and opinions worth expressing - or should you refer only to the knowledge of others?
It is often useful at this stage to underline what you think are the key words in the way in which the question is worded. Look for the vital words or phrases which will determine the style and structure of the answer you will write. A list of the key directive words frequently found in essay titles is given below and this might help you understand what is being asked of you in an assignment.
Some terms frequently used in essay questions:
Look for similarities and differences between;
perhaps reach a conclusion about which is preferable.
Set in opposition in order to bring out differences.
Give your judgment about the merit of theories or opinions or about the truth of facts; back your judgement by a discussion of evidence or reasoning involved.
Set down the precise meaning of a word or phrase.
In some cases it may be necessary or desirable to
examine different possible or often used
Give a detailed or graphic account of.
Investigate or examine by argument, sift and
debate; give reasons for and against. Also examine
Make an appraisal of the worth of something, in
the light of its truth or usefulness. Include, to a
lesser degree, your personal opinion.
Make plain; interpret and account for; give reasons
Use a figure or diagram to explain or clarify, or
make clear by the use of concrete examples.
Expound the meaning of; make clear and explicit,
usually giving your own judgement also.
Show adequate grounds for decisions or
conclusions; answer the main objections likely to
made to them.
Give the main features, or general principles, of a
subject, omitting minor details and
emphasising structure and arrangement.
(a) Narrate - more usual in examinations.
(b) Show how things are connected to each other,
and to what extent they are alike, or affect each
Make a survey of, examining the subject carefully.
Present in a brief, clear form.
Give a concise account of the chief points of a
matter, omitting details and examples.
Follow the development or history of a topic from some point of origin.
Scope of the question
Two other points to note: you will need to see how many parts there are to the question and what weight you will need to give to each. And what are the limits of the topic? It is very important at this stage to realise that you are not embarking upon a piece of open-ended research. You must be rigorously selective both in your approach to collecting material and to the writing up - choosing only material that is relevant to the answering of this question.
Remember - if you're still unsure, you have other sources who might be able to help. Your student colleagues might also find it useful to discuss exactly what the question requires. If you're still in doubt, ask your tutor. After all, s/he set the question and won't be keen to see you waste a lot of valuable time through misunderstanding. Once you feel confident that you understand what is required of you, you're ready to move on to the third stage, collecting the material.
Word Count: 1179
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