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Good writing is hard

Good writing is hard.

I mean, nearly everyone can write. It’s just how well that matters. We can all string a sentence together; unless you count the chap at a press briefing I went to yesterday who announced that, ‘Corporate carbon reduction targets are cascaded down to country business units, which develop their roadmaps to deliver assigned emission reductions.’

It’s like getting dressed. We all put clothes on in the morning (or the afternoon in the case of my next door neighbour who’s 97 and gets dressed only at night). However, not all of us look any the better for it (again, I refer you to my next door neighbour whose signature look is a dressing gown, teamed with an egg-stained cravat and flying boots). We can’t all be Charles Dickens, or to continue my analogy, (and it’s a rather favourite mental picture of mine) Daniel Craig arising from the waves in those rather manly Speedos.

Perhaps arising is not what I should have said. It interrupts my thought patterns. See what I mean? As soon as you start writing, you are hurtling along an obstacle course, trying to avoid sending your readers to sleep, or irritating people in Tunbridge Wells to the point where they reach for the Basildon Bond and their favourite green pen.

Some people think that writing is simply not for them; that it is a mystical art known only to a few, and that there is no point in putting finger to keyboard at all, unless it is to tap out ‘whistling ducks’ on YouTube. But there is. Of course there is. We may not all have the Great English Novel inside us but we all have stories to tell, and we can all learn the skill of telling them well.  And, of course, there is always going to be a time in everyone’s life when they have to write a note to their next door neighbour about his trombone practice at 2 am, or an essay, or even a snappy press release about corporate carbon emissions.

You don’t always need to show off your writing skills. But then, you don’t always need to wear clothes that make you look 10 years younger. It’s just useful to know how.

Must stop now. I need to look at those whistling ducks again.

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Essay writing, part 2

This is the second part to my guide on essay writing (here’s the link to Part One):

The first thing to do when you get an essay, is to read the question. I mean, really read it. Out loud, if you are not in an examination. The easiest questions are the ones asking you to discuss stuff. But make sure you talk about what they want you to talk about. Say you get the question, ‘Discuss the role of Sponge Bob Squarepants in children’s television.’ After you’ve read it twice the most important thing is to define your terms. Academics are just as guilty of writing woolly questions, as students are of writing woolly answers. So be firm with them. Say what you are going to talk about. Children’s TV is a huge area, so you’d be well within your rights to point this out and say, ‘I’m going to discuss Sponge Bob’s role in British TV, or American TV or whichever TV land you inhabit. Define the word ‘role’ too. Give examples of some of the different things it can mean and then say which ones you are going to discuss further (explore is a really useful word here; essay markers love it).

That is your introduction.

Then you need to set your paragraphs out. Use each one to talk about different aspects of the role that Sponge Bob plays. Teachers these days are extremely fond of the P.E.E. method (point, example, explanation), it but you need to take care that you don’t end up writing like a dalek.

I am terrifying. For example I have a deadly egg whisk and a nobbly exterior. Hence, I am not to be confused with the school dinner lady.

Sometimes your essay will flow more easily if you combine the point and the example in one sentence. However, if you get stuck, be a dalek. Your tutor/ teacher won’t care. They won’t care because they just want you to answer the question. If you answer the question you fulfill the whole point of the essay.

See what I did there?

Then, after you have explored the different aspects of Sponge Bob’s role, you write a conclusion. You sum up the points that you have made in each paragraph. For example you might come to the conclusion that, based on the evidence that SB is funny, endearing and inhabits a world under the sea which in some respects mirrors real-life habitats, SB can be said to be both entertaining and educational. Or not. It doesn’t matter what you say, so long as you back it up.

The other most common kind of essay is the compare and contrast one. It’s a bit trickier, but so long as you define your terms and do what the question asks you should be ok. Say you’re asked to compare and contrast Sponge Bob and Squidward. It doesn’t matter if you compare and contrast them in each paragraph or if you talk about one first and then the other. Just so long as you are clear.

Some common problems:

  • Poor organisation of information – make a spider diagram before you start, and then a list of points you want to make in order of importance.
  • Not enough content – you need to do more research.
  • Boring – not necessarily a problem, but can sometimes be solved by using shorter sentences and making your points more crisply and clearly. You might even want to think of different ways of looking at your subject. But don’t go too mad. This is not entertainment; this is an academic exercise.

In effect, your essay is making an argument in much the same way as a lawyer would in court. If it helps, stand up, read your essay out, and if the dog has fallen asleep by the end, sit down and have another look at it.

Good luck.

Essay writing

I used to think essays were really only something that Sheena Percival could ever master. And possibly Jackie Dandridge. Normally, Sheena and Jackie never spoke to each other. Their lips curled when they passed in the school corridors. They would not even play on the same netball team. Sheena wanted to go to Oxford to study English and Jackie wanted to go to Russia to live an honest life. At least, that’s what she said. Sheena always sat at the front, and Jackie lounged at the back, occasionally, if really roused, bringing her chair back to earth with a bang and standing to defend the working man. I can see them now, bandying arguments about the politics of literature with our teacher Miss Roberts, as the rest of us wondered what they were talking about, or passed notes about who was going to cop off with who at that night’s party in the working men’s club.

Sheena had read more than one book by Jane Austen and Jackie had a copy of the Communist manifesto in her desk. Really, they were very alike. They both handed in essays peppered with the most extraordinary words. I know this because Jackie wrote such a zinger once that she was asked to read it out. When she came to the word ‘hegemony’ I thought Sheena was going to snap her pencil.

The following week Sheena was asked to read her essay out. Her crowning moment was the word ‘anagnorisis’. I suppose I ought to tell you that it was after this that the pair of them signed a peace pact, struck up a really close friendship, and when they left school it was Sheena who went to Moscow and married a penniless piano tuner and Jackie who went to Oxford and became a merchant banker.

More importantly, to me, at the time, was the idea that if I used impressive sounding words I too might get the approval of Miss Roberts, and more importantly still, eight quid from my mother to buy a new maxidress from Dorothy Perkins. Hence, dear reader, I opened the dictionary at random and chose ‘homiletic’, ‘peduncle’ and ‘smorgasbord’. I remember, a week later, Miss Roberts congratulating me, with a thin smile, about my interesting choice of language, but also that it was mere speculation on my part that Elizabeth Bennet had a neck like a peduncle and that open sandwiches were unknown in Regency England. I got a B. It seemed that, even armed with amazing words, I could never ascend to the giddy heights of a B+ or, whisper it soft, an ‘A’. I was like Gandalf knocking at the gates of Moria, or possibly my mate Lou trying to prove to the landlord of The Gun that she was old enough to buy a vodka and tonic on the strength of her sister’s driving licence.

Then, after years working on tabloid newspapers, I started a university course and the old problem came back. What did you put in an essay? How did you beguile a tutor into giving you a good mark? But hey, I thought, I’m older, I’m wiser, I can write snappy paragraphs about axe murders. Surely I can just do the same about the romantic poets. My tutor was going to lap my stuff up. What she was lacking was some entertainment. After all, essays can be so dull, can’t they? It was with a light heart that I knocked off my essay on the romantic poets (‘Discuss the impact on Augustan poetry of Wordsworth’s preface to Lyrical Ballads’). I began:
1802 was set to be just another boring old year dominated by those fuddy duddy Augustans, but a young and dashing William Wordsworth had other ideas.

And you know what? My tutor didn’t like it. At all.

It wasn’t until I got taken in hand by another tutor, a doctor of philosophy, that lightning struck my pen and the scales fell from my eyes. I was shown firmly and clearly how to write an essay. The point about my tutor being a philosophy dude, is that they are masters of logic, and logic requires you to be clear about what you are asked to do, and then to answer by making your points, backing them up with evidence and then drawing a conclusion.

It is as simple as that, but I’m going to spell out the details, and you don’t even need to use the word ‘hence’ if you don’t want to.

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