Sunday, August 23, 2009

The anatomy of an essay - Part 2 - Planning before writing

A step that students often leave out is the essay plan.

It is important to have an idea of what you are going to write before you begin. Once you have done your research and gathered your notes, you will have a good idea of your approach. A mind map is a great tool to use to help you organise your thoughts and make a solid framework for your ideas.

Mind maps are based on the work of cognitive specialist, Tony Buzan who is featured on the side of this post. They enable you to expand your ideas exponentially, helping you to understand your readings, topic notes and make links and associations with your question.

I have made up a simple generic mind map to demonstrate the basic structure of an essay. You can organise the body of your essay and the content of the answer with references easily and this can be a great tool to help you as you write and further develop your ideas. (Make sure you click on the image to enlarge it.)
Below is an example of two completed mind maps for an essay.

In these mind maps, the body 1 and body 2 headings have been replaced by the topics for that section of the essay. Your mind maps could look like this, or could be quite different depending on your writing task. Happy mapping!

Susanna Carter

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.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Lessons from the Writing Lab

Greetings grammophiles! Today is my official last day as a graduate tutor in the Purdue Writing Lab. I am off to more literary pastures in the following school year (not "greener" just different). While all these experiences are still fresh in my mind, I wanted to pass along some of the lessons I've learned about writing and, maybe, life.

Be Persistent
For the vast majority of writers, the Romantic notion of genius-inspired creativity just doesn't apply. There are very few people who can sit down and write a perfect essay, poem, or report the first time. Good writing takes time, and it is the persistent writers, the ones who consistently revisit their ideas, who generally succeed in communicating something interesting. Writing can be frustrating. I see it in my clients' faces on almost a daily basis. Luckily, I have never had anyone cry during a consultation. There have been plenty of sighs and groans.

That frustration may not be a negative thing. Take it as a sign that you need to slow down and think about the topic a little more. I also notice that our repeat clients, particularly the ones who have poured hours into a document, tend to exhibit less and less frustration as they move along. I am also struggling through a personal statement at the moment, and I came across Mary Hale Tolar's (Executive Secretary, Truman Scholarship Foundation) suggestions for writing a personal statement. She suggests engaging in activities that keep your body busy but your mind free to wander. Some of my favorites: take a walk, weed the garden, take a shower (you would be surprised how many ideas come up in the shower!).

Get a Second Reader (and a Third and a Fourth)
The idea sounds simple. It can be a little intimidating to ask someone else to read your stuff. Strangers generally work better as second readers than friends or relatives. Strangers are more likely to give you an honest assessment. Since strangers are unfamiliar with your work, you may find that having to explain your ideas to someone else can actually be quite fruitful. You may see your project in a new light, or you might suddenly utter that perfect sentence you have been stuck on for two weeks. Just make sure to have paper and pencil (or computer) handy if you are talking informally about your writing. A few nights ago, I was walking with my wife and said something that would have been fantastic to put in my personal statement. But by the time I got home, the magic had vanished. If this happens to you, see above.

Seek Out Strategies Rather Than Fixes
Anyone can "fix" your paper, but if you passively sit by and do not participate in the revision process, chances are you will make that mistake again. Allowing someone else to correct what you did wrong means that you haven't learned anything. You will always need to have that other person's approval to make sure it is "right." That is why it is better to seek out "strategies" for writing and revising rather than quick fixes. Strategies serve as a guidelines for choices. Yes, think of writing as a series of choices to be made. Strategies should help you decide between active and passive constructions, simple and complex sentences, or even something simple as the verb "abscond" over "sneak out." If you have trouble with articles, seek out some guidelines for using "the/a/an" in your writing. You may be surprised that as your writing gets better, so too will your speaking.

There Is Always an Audience
You can help your writing immensely by finding an audience, even if it means you have to imagine one. "You" can also be your own audience, which works great for diary entries but can only get you so far with other types of writing. Audiences, imagined or otherwise, will help give your paper a focus as well as an argumentation style. Do you want to persuade, inform, or entertain your audience? What type of information will they appreciate (and recognize) the most? Having an audience may also help you bring your document to a close. If you know there is someone out there waiting to read your writing, you are more likely to finish it at some point.


In closing, I just want to write a note of thanks to everyone in the Purdue Writing Lab. It has been a great place to work for the past two years, and I have learned more about writing and the process of writing than I ever would have otherwise. This, however, does not mean I'll be leaving the Grammar Gang. Good luck and keep typing away.

Brady Spangenberg