Sunday, August 16, 2009

The anatomy of an essay Part 1 - Why an essay?

Hi Grammophiles!

For your reading and writing pleasure, the Possums (that is, Andrea, Susanna and Virginia from the University of South Australia) and the Owls (that is Brady and colleagues at Purdue) present our series 'The anatomy of an essay'.
These posts are partly our (and hopefully your) own personal reflections as writers. We also present some of the well-established 'rules' and resources from our respective organisations. This is a transcontinental view, over continents and seas, from writing departments at two universities. No doubt you have your own reflections and anecdotes so please add them.

Ultimately, essay writing at university is designed to test your critical thinking and writing skills. It is a way to synthesize your knowledge about the topics you are learning, while demonstrating your ability to find strengths, weaknesses, comparisons and solutions. These skills are directly transferable to decisions you make at work and in daily life.
Essays (compositions; papers; semester papers; term papers) come in a variety of forms. They can be long and constructed over the course of a semester (for an undergraduate at UniSA, they can be as long as 5000 words). They can also be short (such as in the case of the short essay in an exam setting). You may be assured your lecturer (professor) will look for some KEY aspects in your work.
  • Have you answered the question properly? Do you understand the directive words? Arguing the case for or against something is very different to defining an issue.
  • Do you meet the word limit set by your lecturer? In some instances, there is an unwritten 'agreement' that 10 percent over or under is acceptable. You need to check this out, as well as whether the reference list or bibliography is included.
  • Is your case well supported by plenty of relevant references and citations? 'Millions of people think' is very different to 'A survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2009) found...' Avoid bold and subjective statements and use an objective writing tone (unless asked to do otherwise)

  • Is your work backed up with plenty of examples ('an example of this is where'....'this can be seen where'...'for example...')

  • Have you proofread properly? This is the thing we leave the least amount of time for and sometimes find it lets us down terribly.
  • Do you have a good introduction (usually 10% of the paper); balance in your argument and a strong conclusion (with a strong, definitive statement about your position - perhaps even speculating about the future)?
  • Do you define key terms using both your own interpretation and supporting these with literature:
Grammar can be described as the lexical components which make up language. Chomsky (1972) explains how grammar... According to Spangenberg (2009) being good at grammar involves...

Essays (and/or compositions) require good time management skills. In my own personal experience, I have spent far, far too long looking for the just right literature - compromising the rest of the writing process - particularly the proofreading. Plot the milestones around the planning, research, drafting, proofreading. Whatever you estimate for the drafting and proofreading, add a day or so. I would allow (conservatively) two weeks for the construction of a 5000 word paper. However work should start way before this time as you collate lecture notes and keep a log of your readings.

Here are some of the areas which really let people down:

  • Sparse reference lists (a 5000 word essay would have between 15 - 20 references)
  • Bold statements and generalisations not backed up with theory or evidence (I think...)
  • Lack of proofreading
  • Not answering the question properly.

Here are some things which attract great marks:

  • Meaty reference lists - plenty of citations which are relevant and recent. (This is strictly between you and me*, but I have a sneaking suspicion some lecturers and professors go straight to the reference list, looking for breadth and currency, before they look at the rest of the paper!)
  • Balance in arguments - use of linking words to show contrast and similarity; structure and alternative ideas
  • Use of objectivity in expression (an academic tone avoids the first person 'I')

What are your thoughts about essays? Do you have some pointers to share? What have you learnt through the essay writing process?

Andrea Duff
* That is, between you, me and the other 3,000 or so people who visit the Grammar Gang blog each month
PS Thanks Clip Art for this week's graphic.


Andrea Duff said...

It is important to point out that undergrads at UniSA would mostly have essays between 1,500 and 3,000words, although the total number of words for each piece would amount to between 4,000 and 5,000 over the course of the semester/study period.

Terrie Gray, Ed. D. said...

I'd like to take exception to your statement that "objectivity in expression" and avoiding "the first person 'I'" is a way to "attract great marks."

My experience in 5 years of teaching an introductory course in a Master's program for teachers is that most students can't manage to avoid the first person without using stilted constructs and passive voice.

Since most of the essays assigned in my class require the students to analyze their classroom experiences and reflect on their instruction, leaving the "I" out is artificial. Students who try to -- because that's what they were taught long ago -- tend to write dry, awkward papers.

On the other hand, students who are brave enough to put themselves in the paper, tend to write more vividly and concisely. Their papers are vibrant and much, much easier to read.

Using an objective tone may be appropriate when synthesizing research literature, but is definitely not effective when writing experience-based reflections.

Andrea Duff said...

Thanks for this, Dr Gray and for reminding me that in some circumstances the use of 'I' does not preclude a student from obtaining excellent marks.

In Australia, for example, reflective papers require first person. This is particularly the case with essays or reports on teaching placements, nursing placements and other reports which reflect on personal experience and growth.

However, in my own experience as an academic in Australia, mostly there is an expectation of objectivity in academic papers.

Perhaps it's a cross cultural thing?

I'd be interested to hear about others' experiences.

Anonymous said...

It really does depend on the language of the discipline and on the task set. If I was asked to do a reflective piece of writing using the first person would be difficult and cumbersome to avoid. In general, in Australia, the formal academic essay avoids 'I'. This is to ensure the objectivity of the argument and the reliance on good research and resources. Having said this, perhaps it is a culturally determined practice also?