Friday, March 18, 2016

Writing better essays (Part 1)

On both a personal and social level, it is important we engage in an informed and thoughtful manner with other people. We also need to do this when it comes to writing essays.

What do we mean when we say we should engage in an “informed and thoughtful manner”?
  • To be “Informed” means to have taken time to learn about and understand someone’s beliefs and opinions.
  • To be “Thoughtful” means to have taken time to reflect on other people’s beliefs and opinions, as well as our own.

A good essay will show evidence of the writer being both informed and thoughtful.

Writing good essays is hard, but it is a skill which can be learned.

The most important thing when starting to write an essay is to understand what we are being asked to write about. For example, here is a sample essay question from an Advanced Religious Studies exam:

  • “What are the advantages of Utilitarianism? Identify the problems of Utilitarianism.” (21)
  • “To what extent do these problems make Utilitarianism unacceptable?” (9)

Look at the question carefully. What is the candidate being asked to write about? The question is not asking the candidate to list everything they know about Utilitarianism. It is asking them to first discuss the advantages of Utilitarianism, then to discuss the problems of Utilitarianism, and finally to evaluate it as an acceptable moral theory. The question is not asking the candidate to describe what Utilitarianism is. It is assumed they will already know this, and in fact evidence of their understanding will naturally be shown in the answers they give.

This brings us to second thing we need to do when writing an essay, and that is to be prepared.
Preparing to write an essay begins with study and revision.

We cannot adequately write about a subject without having the proper information about it, and to do this unavoidably takes time. Think of study and revision like getting to know someone. We cannot say we truly “know” someone after meeting them for just a few minutes. In the same way, we cannot adequately write about a subject unless we have taken time to “get-to-know” it beforehand.

The more time we spend with anything, the more we will get to know it and understand it. It’s that simple!

So writing a good essay shows we know our subject. It also shows we have thought about the things we have learned, and will also give us a chance to demonstrate our ability to engage thoughtfully with the subject, from different points of view.

Remember Bertrand Russell’s table analogy? Russell said that various people looking at a table will all have different experiences of it. Likewise, when we write an essay we are essentially acting as a narrator for different people’s experiences, beliefs and opinions; our own also included.

Now logically, when having to engage with a variety of beliefs and opinions there are going to be some we do not agree with, but that’s okay. The main purpose of an essay is to show we’re informed about a subject. For example, it’s okay for an atheist to talk about why some people believe in God without actually having to feel they need to believe in God in order to do this. If their essay requires them to explain the reasons why people have this belief, then that's all they need to do.

In many ways writing an essay is also like being the conductor of an orchestra; bringing together a variety of different sounds in order to make a harmonic whole. And whilst the conductor will no doubt have a favourite instrument, they will allow each one to be played on their own terms for the sake of bringing the whole composition to life.

Finally, let’s talk about the content of an essay.

Unless you are writing an answer to examination question (where time is the essence), it is good form to start your essay with an Introduction where you talk about your intention for writing the essay (“In this essay I will be…”). Obviously to be able to write a good introduction requires prior knowledge of what you are going to be talking about, which suggests we have a plan for the essay prior to writing it.

Your essay will consist of several paragraphs in which you demonstrate knowledge of the subject from a variety of perspectives. You will also use quotations to do this.

There will be a paragraph or two near the end where you discuss your own informed opinions.

Finally there will be a conclusion where you restate the main argument you made in relation to the question.

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