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Putting pen to paper

Style

Much of what we take to be style amounts to the economical use of words and phrases. Each component of a sentence should have a reason for being there: it should have a clearly defined function. There should be no wasted effort: no unnecessary words or phrases that obscure the meaning of the sentence. Otherwise the clarity of your thought will be lost, leaving the reader wondering what it all means.

As a simple practical guide, keep in mind the following: 

  • Choose the short simple word over the long obscure one.
  • Use the active voice.
  • Rely on nouns and verbs to carry your meaning.
  • Replace prepositional phrases with prepositions.
  • Create fluency through transitions.

Introduction

There are very few students who wouldn't list an introduction as one of the most difficult aspects of writing an essay. Much of this is due to the fact that most of us are unsure about what we should be doing in the introduction. If we don't know why we're doing something, we shouldn't be too surprised to find that we're not particularly good at it. So, set yourself simple and clear objectives that you want your introduction to fulfil. These should include two things:

  1. The interpretation of the question (what is it getting at?) 
  2. The structure of your answer, the map the reader is going to follow.

In this way you will ensure examiners realise the relevance of your approach to the question and that they will not get lost as they try to follow your arguments and ideas.

Paragraphs

Many students are unsure how long paragraphs should be, when to start and end them, and even what they are expected to do in them. It helps to give you a simple formula:

  • First, introduce the topic of the paragraph with a clear topic sentence, which picks up an issue you have already analysed in the introduction. Tying each paragraph into the introduction in this way will create a taut, cohesive and tightly reasoned essay. Whenever possible use a transition at the beginning of the topic sentence to create fluency between paragraphs, or to indicate the direction of your argument. Without these logical indicators readers can easily get lost as they wonder what you're doing and why it is relevant.
  • Then develop the topic of the paragraph through analysis, criticism and discussion.
  • Finally, complete the paragraph with evidence and examples that illustrate and support the points you have made.

Using evidence

Without doubt this is one of the most neglected aspects of our writing. We tend to assume that all we have to do is select our evidence and then insert it into our essay when our arguments need support. Yet the evidence we use serves to do much more than just support and illustrate our arguments. Used thoughtfully, it can help us change the pace of our writing, making our essay more readable. And there is no other component of our essays that can so effectively engage our readers' empathetic responses. You will find, then, that by looking carefully at the way you use evidence not only can you make your work more interesting, but also you can give it real impact.

Conclusions

Having got your readers safely to this point without losing them or confusing them as to the relevance of your arguments, there is little you can do now to weaken your work. Nevertheless, there are still problems that can catch the unwary. You can do any of the following things, but above all try to create cohesion in your work by tying the conclusion to the introduction:

  • Give your opinions as long as they match the strength of your arguments.
  • Summarise the main points.
  • Pick up the theme of the introduction.
  • Suggest wider implications.
  • Predict future trends.

For more advice, see referencing and plagiarism and writing skills.

This content has been written by Bryan Greetham, author of How to Write Better Essays.

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