Sunday, October 28, 2012

Essay Writing - Why Analyzing Essays and Teaching Writing Has Been So Difficult

Why is it so doggone hard to talk sensibly about essays and to teach how to write them?

Definition Problem & Assumption

The difficulty is reflected admirably in a statement within Wikipedia's coverage on the subject of Essays:

The definition of an essay is vague, overlapping with those of an article and a short story.
And the further we read in that discussion on Essays, the more we are lost in a muddling Valley of Vagueness, even though some specific historical facts are offered to give a false sense of definiteness and a falsely comforting sense of knowledge.

Here's an equally telling definition of "essay" from an Internet dictionary:

A short literary composition on a single subject, usually presenting the personal view of the author.

If we take the strongest elements from each of those statements, we can come up with: An essay is a vague composition, usually presenting the personal view of the author. Let's focus on the last part of that-the personal view of the author.

There's a HUGE assumption in that phrase. Do you see it? Can you bring that out into the open in your own mind, before I do it for you? Think about it for a moment-and then read on, here.

It's one of those assumptions that, when spelled out, makes all the difference in the world for truly understanding something. And I'm sure that when I point out the very obvious assumption, you'll smack your forehead with your open palm and say, "Right! He's nailed it! That's it! Why didn't I see it?"

Why haven't you, personally, seen what I'm about to tell you? Don't be too hard on yourself-the entire academic community hasn't seen what I'm about to tell you, and they've been wrestling with this problem at least since 1580, when Michele de Montaigne published his two volume work, Essais (French for our English word, Essays; and the meaning of the word is the same in both languages: to try, to attempt).

In fact, as I see it, academics of Western Civilization have actually been struggling with this assumption since a Greek by the name of Gorgias introduced Rhetoric to ancient Athens around 425 B.C.

Assumption Clearly Revealed

Okay, I've dangled the bait long enough.

Here's the assumption in that phrase, the personal view of the author - we assume that the personal view of the author is different from most of the rest of us.

If the author's personal view isn't different or NEW to the rest of us, then why bother with it? We surely don't want someone just repeating back to us what we already think, do we? So the underlying assumption has to be that the author of an essay-or anything else, for that matter-is saying something different or new.

AND THERE'S THE PROBLEM-academics (people involved in formal education and teaching) simply have never presented a way of talking about-of teaching about, across the board on all subjects-what's different or what's new. 'How's that?' you're wondering, no doubt.

Well, do you have-or do you remember coming across, in writing or speaking-a definition of different or new that covers everything? Tall order, right?

Look no further. The following discussion clears up the matter:

You see, the idea of new or different has always been a difficult problem because it's so formlessly vague. New (or different) has simply been a big, black, mysterious, even seemingly magical box that could hold just about anything and everything in it-and did!-because, up to now, we've never had a UNIVERSAL way of distinguishing one kind of newness (or differentness) from another.

However, one thing we do know about newness is that something couldn't be new unless there was something old to compare it to, right? But part of the whole problem is that old is just as formlessly vague as new.

What's missing? Answer: Two helpful sets of categories.

Old View Categories

You see, for something to be new, we must be able to compare it to a former version or type that is accepted by the reading or listening audience as old. You know the old saying, "You can't explain color to a blind man."

That is, if there's nothing shared to compare something to, you can't talk about it to someone who hasn't seen or experienced anything that is "like" it. All you can really say is, "Like wow, man!"-and doesn't that just electrify you and make your hair stand on end with insight! Here's what I see as the full list of old view categories:

  • values
  • expectations
  • experiences
  • reasoning
  • language

We can't say anything without using these in basic, everyday communication-especially in essays.

New View Categories

Now, here's where old meets new. Through years of study and research, I've found that you can change an old view in one or more-or some combination-of the following five major ways to make it "new:"

  • reverse
  • add
  • subtract
  • substitute
  • rearrange

That seems like an absurdly small number to cover all things new, doesn't it? Well, try it out yourself--just think of something new, identify the old that it's related to, and you'll see one or more of those new view categories in use (excepting merely "recent," of course; in such cases, the only difference is that something old has happened nearer in time).

At first, I doubted that small list. One word that gave me a brief hang-up was synthesis. But as I researched and thought more and more about it, I found that to explain synthesis you have to use words like blend, integrate, and merge. With those and similar words, it always comes down to put together in some special way-which is the same as add together. That's simply the add category of new views.

The word analysis gave me similar trouble. But I found that analysis was actually a form of the subtract category, with which you subtract parts from the whole to study the functioning of the whole through its parts.

Conclusion

Hmmmmm. I could bore you with a lot of detail-oriented analyses of published essays and student essays that use the old view categories and the new view categories. But I'm not going to do that because it would take away from the idea-level strength of the major insight I'm expressing here. If you are interested in such proofs, go out and look up on the Internet some widely anthologized essays, such as these:

  • Politics and the English Language by George Orwell
  • The Abstraction of Beasts by Carl Sagan
  • The Eureka Phenomenon by Isaac Asimov
  • The Nature of Scientific Reasoning by Jacob Bronowski
  • Thinking As a Hobby by William Golding

All the essays in the list above do unmistakably first state the old view very early on (in Sagan's essay, it's the very first sentence) and then follow up quickly with a statement of the new view (a new view reverse category of the old view value category; published essays practically always have a reverse new view). Then each of them follows with support of the new view in the form of stories, examples, and reasoning. That's always the pattern.

A couple of these five essays play a little loosely with the pattern, but you can still see the pattern for all that. But the more closely and clearly an essay follows the pattern, then the more easy it is to follow and to understand. That's always the case, too.

You simply can't get away from the pattern of old view first, then new view reverse of the old view, and then support for the new view.

Interestingly enough, that very same pattern occurs in short stories, novels, and poetry-with an important twist that entices you to read through to the story's end.

But that 'twist' should be the subject of another article or essay or book, now, shouldn't it?

And it is.

Essay Writing - 6 Common Types

Students often have essay writing activities in almost all of their subjects. The initial step is usually to decide on what topic to discuss. But the next big decision that essay writers confront is what type of essay to employ. What technique works for the selected topic? What kind of writing style is suitable? What tone is efficient?

In choosing what essay type is appropriate to use, students need to fully understand the difference between each type. Here are the common types of essays that can help students on their paper writing activities:

1. Persuasive or argumentative essay

A persuasive or argumentative essay makes a claim or position regarding a subject for the main purpose of persuasion. It is usually presented with statistics, expert opinions, and well-supported arguments about a claim or controversy. In using an argumentative tone in essay writing, it is essential that the issue to be discussed is two-sided wherein the writer takes a stand. Also, the main argument must be clear, exact, and highly focused.

2. Comparison and Contrast essay

This type of essay writing takes two subjects and identifies their similarities and differences. A good comparison and contrast paper possesses a valid basis for comparison - a limited focus and catchy information. In writing essay using compare and contrast, it is vital that the purpose for comparing and contrasting the two subjects is made clear. This purpose is crucial because it provides focus to the paper.

3. Descriptive essay

Descriptive essays' aim is to provide a vivid picture of a certain person, place, object, or event. It offers concise details that enable the readers to imagine the subject described. Generally, descriptive essays explain the "what, why, when, where, and how" of a topic.

4. Definition essay

Definition essay writing demands writers to present a meaning of a term that goes beyond the objective definition offered in the dictionary. Essay writers need to provide a more focused and exact description of the term than what is offered in reference sources.

5. Narrative essay

A narrative essay tells a story in a sequence of events. This type of essay is told from a defined point of view, often the author's. It offers specific and often sensory details to get the reader involved in the elements and sequence of the story. Verbs must be vivid and precise.

6. Evaluation essay

The prime purpose of this essay writing style is to form judgment on certain ideas, places, services, etc. basing on clear-cut criteria. An informed opinion is critical to the development of this essay. It is important to use facts, statistics and other authoritative resources to establish and organize the criteria to present a substantial analysis and evaluation.

Essay writing is just one tough kind of various paper writing activities. Students usually ask for professional essay help to assist them on what type of approach or style to use in their composition.

Essay Writing Tips - Creating a Compelling Introduction

When it comes to writing essays, many would argue that the introduction is the key to whether your essay is a success or failure. The introduction should serve to inform, inspire and potentially educate the reader, but this is only possible if the introduction is written in such a way that it can be deemed compelling. How you achieve this will obviously depend to some extent on the subject matter but there are some key points to consider, no matter what the subject, which could help you to achieve the compelling introduction to open your essay.

Firstly, remember that your introduction doesn't need to be, and indeed shouldn't be too lengthy. Using excess words or developing topics or themes too thoroughly at this stage will leave you struggling to write original content later on in your essay, when the arguments need to be powerful and thought provoking. If you explain all your theories and ideas in the first paragraph the reader will have no reason to read on. Furthermore, succinct writing, especially in the introduction allows for a clear background to your essay to be established.

Background information is essential for any sound essay, and the introduction is the point at which this information should be entered. Providing a background to your question, hypothesis and research will allow your essay to be set in context, making it a far more compelling read.

Once you have laid out the background, you should then briefly mention the key points of your essay, consider what you are trying to prove or disprove. If your argument is countered or supported by other research, state how your work will differ or show similarities to these schools of thought.

Having informed the reader about the background, and stated your key arguments you can then go on to explain exactly how your essay will be developed in terms of research techniques, literature reviews, experiments, and analysis. Again, be sure not to reveal all of the secrets of your essay in your introduction, just enough to inform, enlighten and encourage the reader to want to find out more.

Remember that if you're trying to get someone to want to read your work, it helps if you actually want to write it in the first place; therefore before you start any writing, make sure your essay is dealing with a topic that interests you. This will then come across in your writing and will help to make not only a compelling introduction but a compelling essay in its entirety.

IELTS Essay Writing Tips

One of the major problems students face while writing an essay is the lack of subject matter. They can't find anything to write about the subject. This is natural and can be remedied by reading extensively.

Bacon says: 'Reading maketh a full man.' People who read extensively fill their mind with a lot of facts, thoughts and general information. If you want to write good essays, you must cultivate the habit of reading. Don't just read for amusement. You must also read books of history, travel, biography and science. Fill your mind with fine thought and accurate information. Then you will have plenty to write about any given topic.

Observe

Keep your eyes and ears wide open and learn from the world around us. Practice writing short descriptions of what you see in everyday life. For example, try writing about the people you meet, beautiful scenery and interesting experiences. The more you write, the better you become at writing.

Understand the subject

While writing the essay, the first thing you need to do is to define the subject. It is important that you have a clear and accurate conception of the subject before you start writing. Some subjects are so simple that you can start writing right away. Others require careful analysis.

Collecting materials

Once you have got a clear idea of the subject, the next step is to think about what you can say about it. Essays asked on the IELTS test don't require you to do any extensive research on the subject. All that is required is a little reflection on the given subject. Do not attempt to write the essay, before you have collected sufficient materials. Some students start writing with the first thing that comes to their mind. This is not always a good idea, especially when you write your essay on a paper. This approach will require extensive editing because ideas are unlikely to flash through your mind in the order they should appear in your essay.

A good idea is to jot down your points first. Then arrange them in the proper order. Once you have done that you can start developing each point into one or more paragraphs.

Order

An essay should follow an ordered line of thought. If ideas are not presented in a logical order, it will not make much sense. Before you start writing, make an outline showing the order in which each sub-topic is going to be developed.

Brevity

Your essay should be neither too short nor too long. There is no strict rule regarding the size of an essay - it usually depends up on the nature of the subject. Express your ideas clearly and concisely. Don't add unnecessary words with the objective of making the essay long.

Style

The essay must be written in a dignified and literary style. Avoid using slang or colloquial expressions in your essay. At the same time, don't commit the mistake of writing the essay in a style that is nearly impossible to follow. Instead, use simple and direct language and sentence patterns.

The personal touch

An essay should reveal the personal opinions and feelings of the writer. It should have the writer's individuality in it. If this personal touch is lost, the essay will be colorless and devoid of individuality. Therefore do not be afraid to express your views and opinions in the essay.

Essay Writing Tips - How to Close With a Good Conclusion

Academic writing, unlike creative writing, generally follows a set formula, allowing for a clear structure to an essay to act as the backdrop to your argument(s). Often, your course guidelines or essay title will define this structure but it will generally involve an introduction, some background to the main arguments, perhaps through a literature review, some analysis and then a conclusion. Although all of these elements are important in their own right, many would consider that a good conclusion is the mark of a good essay. The reason for this is that all of the earlier elements such as the introduction, hypothesis and analysis, are all reiterated within the conclusion, making the conclusion the summary of all of your research, theorising and review.

In order to create a good conclusion therefore the first rule is to ensure that all of the contributing elements are sound. Structuring your conclusion around weak evidence or research will mean that you will not be able to conclude anything with any real conviction. Secondly, a good conclusion must be relatively succinct. It is not necessary to totally re-write earlier sections of your essay or dissertation, you should merely draw out the key facts, pulling them all together into a sensible order. And finally, your conclusion should definitely summarise something, even if that is just to say that from the work you have carried out to date it is impossible to conclude in favour of one theory or another. This type of uncertain conclusion should not be considered a weak conclusion, providing that all of the contributing evidence suggests that your conclusion is in fact the right one.

It is very often the case that with lower level academia, or early research pieces, academics will identify gaps in their research that would need to be addressed in further study thus leading to an 'inconclusive conclusion'. In the same way the author may identify flaws in the practical execution of data analysis, perhaps realising biased interview questions, or closed interview questions that do not allow for the appropriate responses to be obtained. If this is the case then results may be skewed or the writer may be unable to draw any sensible conclusions. As long as you are able to convey all of this information then your conclusion can still be classed as a good one. Clearly, however, the ideal situation is that all of your work leading up to the conclusion is robust enough to allow you to draw an evidence-based, definite conclusion that leans one way or another.

Once you have written your conclusion then you should check your entire essay for spelling and grammar mistakes, and that you have followed the required style and referencing guidelines throughout. And most importantly double-check that your conclusion really does conclude something!

Essay Writing - Using Reasoning to Support the Thesis

Reasoning satisfies the human need for justification and a sense of 'rightness' that all intelligent communication needs, especially in an essay.

What is "reasoning," anyway? When talking about the meaning of reasoning, we can get into confusing philosophical issues much too quickly. So let's start with a down-to-earth definition of reasoning as a process---

Reasoning involves a conscious attempt to discover what is true and what is best. Reasoning thought follows a chain of cause and effect, and the word reason can be a synonym for cause.

By this definition, reasoning involves cause-and-effect relationships, whether it be a single cause-and-effect relationship or a chain of cause- and-effect relationships. But what is a cause-and-effect relationship?

Cause and effect is a relationship in which one thing, called the cause, makes something else happen, and that "something else," that result, is called the effect. For example, a boy hits a ball with a bat and the ball goes through a window, breaking it. In this instance, the cause is the boy hitting the ball, and the effect is breaking the window.

Cause-and-effect reasoning is something we all use every day, whether we're particularly conscious of it or not. So I'm sure you'll recognize these common, informal rules of cause and effect:

1. Sequence--- The cause comes first, and the effect follows after.

2. Present--- When the cause is present, the effect is always present.

3. Absent--- When the cause is absent, the effect is always absent.

Now, here's a true, commonly accepted, yet typically loose, example of those rules being applied to an historical situation---

For centuries in Europe, only white swans were ever seen. All sightings, records, and information on swans in Europe showed that they were always white. So it was okay to assert as a truth that, "All swans are white." (Another way to put it: "If it's a swan, it's white.")

The cause in this instance is this: Ever since Europeans had kept and tracked records---anecdotes, diaries, family hand-me-down stories, histories, journals, legends (local, regional, cultural), memoirs, myths, oral history storytelling---they had known swans as only white. No other color of swan had ever been known in Europe, and no world traveler had ever brought word from their travels to Europe that there was ever a swan of any other color than white.

Because of all that experience and evidence, the effect was that Europeans believed that all swans everywhere in the world were white. It was good reasoning, based on centuries of accumulated evidence throughout an extensive geographical region and across varied cultures.

But guess what? A Dutch explorer, Willem de Vlamingh, discovered a black swan in Australia in 1697, undoing centuries of European observation, experience, and thought involving the color of swans.

One lesson from the black swan incident is that reasoning does work most of the time, but not always, because we cannot actually examine all the world on any particular question or fact (at least, not yet; but the world's sciences and technologies do keep advancing, however... ). And that's what it takes to authoritatively say, "always present" or "always absent." Of course, in the absence of having all knowledge, all of us will continue using reasoning to help fill in our gaps of knowledge, and that's why it's so important to understand the proper use of reasoning in essays.

Let's look at three popular essays to see how they use cause-and-effect reasoning rules to support their original ideas, or new view thesis statements. Let's start with the simplest essay, George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" (you can bring up free Internet copies of each of these essays by putting quotes around their titles in Google).

In his essay, George Orwell presents his new view of a reverse cause and effect in his second paragraph:

If one gets rid of these [bad language] habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.

Let's break that down into a series of causes and effects:

CAUSE: If one gets rid of these [bad language] habits

EFFECT: one can think more clearly,

CAUSE: and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards

EFFECT: political regeneration

We should add this, too, to clearly establish the old view---

CAUSE: political regeneration is a necessary step towards

EFFECT: reversing the decadence and collapse of civilization

..................(reverse of the accepted old view that language must degenerate and collapse, along with civilization)

As you can see, that first EFFECT becomes the second CAUSE, and that second EFFECT becomes the third CAUSE, which forms a short chain of cause-and-effect reasoning.

Now let's see how well Orwell fulfills the rules of cause and effect to support the new view in his thesis:

Sequence--- first, get rid of bad language habits

........................(WEAKLY SHOWN by two small examples)

........................after, think clearly and reverse civilization's decadence

........................(NOT SHOWN by any story or example; merely asserted as true)

Present--- when good political language usage is present,

...................clear thinking and improving civilization is always present

...................(NOT SHOWN by any story or example; asserted as true)

Absent--- when good political language usage is absent,

..................clear thinking is always absent

..................(many old view examples show clear thinking as always absent)

Did you notice that I entered "WEAKLY SHOWN" for the first part of the Sequence rule, based on Orwell's following two brief examples of getting "rid of bad language habits"--

Two recent examples were explore every avenue and leave no stone unturned, which were killed by the jeers of a few journalists.

As far as showing how those two examples had the effect of helping politicians "think clearly and reverse civilization's decadence" for the after part of the Sequence rule, that's definitely "NOT SHOWN." No stories or examples or reasoning is provided to support that effect.

And "NOT SHOWN" for the Present rule? Whoa! Orwell does not use any stories or examples or specific speculations to show that what he is proposing actually works or will work-or even has worked at any time or place in history.

And, although Orwell shares his 6-item formula for getting rid of bad language usage towards the end, he supplies no story or example or specific speculation to show any of those suggestions really working or actually having some sort of positive effect.

Wow! How does he get away with that? Why don't we notice that when we're reading his essay?

After much thought, I think I discovered the reason-it's the amount of time Orwell spends propping up his old view with all those examples of poor language usage by politicians.

We can see what he is saying is true about each one of those examples. But there are so many of them that it's-well, it's very much like a slick salesman who bends our ear with such a torrent of words that we get mentally tired trying to follow what he's saying. And then we're just grateful to get to the end of all the talk, without mentally filtering all the reasoning of what's being said.

I think that's it. However, I honestly don't think Orwell was trying to put anything over on us. He just didn't have examples of the effects of his new view thesis to share with us because what he was suggesting hadn't been implemented by a large group of people yet, so there were no effects to see. And maybe, just maybe, all his examples tired him out, too!

What Orwell should have done is supply some examples of specific effects that he predicts would happen, as well as how they would progressively, logically happen, if his six suggestions were followed. That would have done the trick, I think.

Interesting, don't you agree?

Teachers and publishers, in general, seem to love Orwell's essay despite its faults-why? Because of the important new insight, the new view, that Orwell provides, that's why. Orwell's principle of 'good language makes for good thinking' rings true to all of us, even though his reasoning support for it is rather weak and he provides no new view examples.

Just goes to show you what a truly great new view thesis-plus an overwhelming number of solid old view examples-can do for you, right? (Please see my next article to finish this discussion with the analysis of two more published essays.)

An Analytical Approach to Essay Writing

Is there really a standard approach on writing essays? If so, how are you going to structure your writing? Do you need to follow some basic rules or guidance to write effectively? Some people sit down and write an essay like they're whipping this afternoon's snack. While there's nothing wrong with that, approaching the task analytically will probably do most students better.

When instructors give essay assignments, they're hoping to witness how you engage your cognitive responses. Most students attempt to demonstrate their abilities at recall, comprehension and application. Problem is, teachers usually look for more than that. They want you to introduce elements of analysis, synthesis and evaluation into your essays too. In my opinion, that is best achieved with a conscious, analytical approach.

  • An analytical approach to essay writing breaks down the job into various steps:
  • Analyze the different concepts that pertain to the subject.
  • Synthesize various ideas and evidences, relating one to the other in a cohesive whole.
  • Construct consistent and well-supported arguments using those synthesized concepts.
  • Write about the issue, discussing it in a manner that is balanced and fair.
  • Evaluate ideas and arguments opposing your own, ultimately integrating them as part of your discussion.
  • Making judgments and expressing a clear, well-reasoned opinion.

Going this route, you keep yourself from focusing too much on the recall, comprehension and application parts of the essay, going deeper into the issuesby accessing more complex thought processes. How about the writing part? Just do your best and arm yourself with your favorite software for writing to help you. You'll be fine.