Dirty Tricks for English Essays: A Primer
by Chua Jun Yan
In my four years in secondary school, my friends and I had two misconceptions about writing essays for English language classes.
The first misconception was that essay-writing was an abstract talent which required natural flair and could not be trained. In fact, we soon realized that good essay-writing could be broken down into specific and transferable skill sets which can be sharpened with practice. This is the premise of the primer you are reading. Of course, the use of tried-and-tested “best practices” does not preclude the development of what many Examiners describe as a “personal voice”. However, it is often the case that an individual style is cultivated after experimenting with a range of techniques.
The second misconception was that essay-writing was a test of content knowledge. This explained why many of us invested so much time memorizing statistics, quotations or examples. This assumption is simply untrue. As its name suggests, the English Language examination is primarily a test of language – the subject being examined is not Sociology, or Media Studies, or Environmental Science. Indeed, the majority of marks in the Raffles Programme (RP) band descriptors are allocated for the use of English. In fact, if you read the band descriptors for content carefully, you will realize that it is not content knowledge itself which is being credited. Rather, what is being assessed is the ability to present information in a clear, economical, and structured fashion. Unlike a formal academic research paper, the goal is not to offer proof, but to persuade the reader.
With this in mind, I have tried to set out what I consider to be nine “dirty tricks” which I personally found useful when writing English essays. They can be applied across a range of topics. They are likely to be most useful when one already has a sound command of the language (i.e. consistently reaching the 18-23 range on a 30-point scale) and is aiming to push his score into the the higher end of the mark scheme.
In compiling this primer I have drawn on the experiences of many of my friends and teachers (whom I am indebted to), as well as various sources including guidebooks and past-year Cambridge “O”- and “A”- Level Examiner Reports. This primer is still very much a work in progress, and I certainly welcome any feedback or suggestions.
1. Make constant reference to the wording of the question at the start and end of each paragraph
Most of us will be aware that a paragraph should contain a topic sentence and a concluding statement which summarizes what the paragraph is saying. A useful trick is to include a restatement of the question (or some variation of it) to make the topic sentence a “because…statement”. It is a discipline which needs to be developed. This helps prevent you from veering away from the question and writing about the topic in general terms, and also makes the relevance of a paragraph immediately obvious to the Examiner.
2. Integrate definitions into the main text
A common mistake is that candidates provide literal dictionary definitions of every term in the question, as if it were a Geography or a Social Studies essay. In the 2009 “A” Level General Paper Examination, the Examiners’ Report stated that these attempts:
“serve to confuse, rather than clarify, key terms. One candidate, for example, defined ‘culture’ as being ‘the practice of a vast agreement of a certain opinion and the moral values of society which is being passed down by the forefathers’. This contains a number of factors which combine to frustrate clear meaning: abstract nouns; unnecessary and imprecise phrases; grammatical uncertainties.”
This was not a new trend. In 2006, the Principal Examiner for the same examination wrote:
“An over-long preamble, often containing unnecessarily pernickety definitions, immediately suggests a laboured style. Practice at writing effective and succinct introductions (which do not end by simply re-asking the question) would be time well spent.”
How, then, can we offer an interpretation of the question without sounding excessively nitpicky? For a start, only vague or ambiguous terms, with a significant bearing on the question, need to be defined. Words for which there in an obvious, reasonable meaning can be left out: “family”, “gender”, “environment” and “technology” come to mind. No doubt, different readers might have slightly different conceptions of what these words mean, but this will not significantly affect their understanding of your essay. Your own interpretation of the key words should become immediately obvious when you begin on your own arguments. In such an instance, it might be more helpful to simply re-state the assertion in your own words, posing it as a rhetorical question, perhaps, or just including it in your thesis statement. Suppose the question is: “The economy is more important the environment. Discuss.” Towards the end of your introduction, you could write:
“…When forced to make a trade-off between a gain in material wealth and the preservation of the natural world, which should society choose? I believe the answer is the latter.”
In so doing, you have shown that you have understood the question, without wasting time scrutinizing the question term-by-term.
Very occasionally, however, there will be questions where a particular term requires clarification. An example which comes to mind is the following question from Paper 1 of the 2010 RI-RGS Year 4 English End-of-year Examination:
“Gendered language is as natural as the air we breathe so why fight it? Do you agree?”
Clearly, the phrase “gendered language” is not used in ordinary parlance and requires clarification. To weave your definition naturally into your introduction and allow it to flow as smoothly as possible, consider the use of words like “or” and “otherwise known as”:
“Gendered language, or the use of words which reflect traditional gender roles and stereotypes, subtly propagates discriminatory ideas and should be condemned.”
Note that the definition is given in italics, but is offered within the broader context of the writer’s stance on the issue. This ensures the definition is connected, rather than disjoint, from the overall argument.
3. Use discourse markers
Discourse markers are transition words and phrases like “hence”, “therefore”, “by contrast”, “as a result”, “consequently”, “as such”. Use them extensively. They lend arguments their shape and form, and convey the impression that you are analyzing an issue even if your casual links are less than secure. They help to avoid the oft-repeated complaint that an expository essay has digressed into the realms of narration and description rather than argument.
4. Indulge in “name-calling”
Use descriptive vocabulary to label the arguments you are discussing, especially when you are refuting opposing viewpoints. Broadly speaking, there are two categories of adjectives you can draw on: adjectives which ascribe a value judgement to the idea in question (e.g. “repugnant”, “complacent”, “ heinous”), and adjectives which assess the analytical strength of an argument (e.g. “simplistic”, “flawed”, “superficial”). Consider the following counter-argument the writer is trying to refute:
“Some argue that gender equality will never be achieved because religious dogma discriminates against women and prevents the adoption of modern feminist ideas in conservative societies. Examples include Saudi Arabia, where fundamentalists from the Wahhabi branch of Islam vehemently oppose even minor concessions like allowing women to drive.”
Now, examine the following paragraph, with the use of descriptive vocabulary in italics.
“Diehard pessimists make the hasty generalisation that gender equality will never be achieved because religious dogma discriminates against women. They go on to make the fallacious claim that this prevents the adoption of modern feminist ideas in conservative societies. They citeextreme and unrepresentative examples like Saudi Arabia, where fundamentalists from the Wahhabi branch of Islam vehemently oppose even minor concessions like allowing women to drive.”
Here, the use of descriptive labels has three positive effects. First, it distances the writer from the opposing viewpoint, hence avoiding the contradictory writing which is common in weaker scripts. Second, Examiners are instructed to credit precise vocabulary and felicitous expressions – this is a chance for candidates to demonstrate their linguistic prowess! Third, the use of subliminal messaging implants subtle hints in the mind of the reader – even before you have refuted the argument, he or she is already led to think that it is a “hasty generalization” and a “fallacious claim”.
It is helpful to note that this technique can apply when making your own arguments as well. Consider this:
“A more nuanced view is that religions can and do evolve in concord with social norms. This is well-supported by the weight of history: Qatar has opened the doors of its universities to women, and even Saudi Arabia began allowing women to vote in 2010.”
If you look at most essay band descriptors, words like “well-supported” and “nuanced” will appear. By telling the Examiner that you are making “well-supported” and “nuanced” arguments, you are implicitly directing him or her to place your essay in the top band.
5. Invert or paraphrase common sayings
Many candidates will write down memorized quotes or proverbs. How then can you differentiate your script? One trick is to take a common saying and then invert or paraphrase it. This has two advantages. First, it allows you to use a saying in a context where it might not otherwise be appropriate in. Second, it demonstrates originality and linguistic flair – qualities which could earn an essay a spot in the top band. This is, actually, a fairly simple technique to execute – it just requires some playful experimentation. Consider the following possibilities:
“To paraphrase George Orwell, ‘All workers are equal, but some are more equal than others.’ ”
Here, the substitution of “animals” for “workers” has enabled the writer to fit Orwell’s quote into another situation altogether – possibly a discussion on income disparities between the sexes, or gender representation in the boardroom.
Alternatively, look at this sentence:
“For women in the Middle East, the Arab Spring has become a winter of discontent, after fundamentalist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood took over.’ ”
The writer has cleverly taken the common turn of phrase, “Arab Spring”, and inserted an opposite image (“winter of discontent”) to show his dexterity with language.
Not only is this an useful technique, it is also good fun!
6. Think of examples as a “mirror”
A common criticism made by Examiners is that examples are merely named and listed without being explained. What then constitutes explaining an example? To remedy this problem, it might be helpful to think of examples as a “mirror” which stares into the argument you are making. Consider the following paragraph:
“Developments in science are often touted as solutions to issues faced by humanity, yet end up creating even more pressing problems. This is because the effects of a discovery or invention are often unpredictable.”
If you observe the argument carefully, you will find that there are three separate parts:
(1) Developments in science are often touted as solutions to issues faced by humanity
(2) (a) They create problems – and (b) not just any problems, but even more pressing problems
(3) This is because the effects of a discovery or invention are often unpredictable
Consequently when you cite an example to support this argument, it is necessary to ensure that you include adequate detail to illustrate and “mirror” all three parts of the argument. It would be unacceptable to simply state, “For example, this happened with the invention of antibiotics.” Instead, you would need to say:
“For example, the invention of antibiotics was seen as an answer to diseases like the common cold mirrors (1). Unfortunately, the excessive prescription of antibiotics has only led to the mutationmirrors (2a) of even more resistant strains of ‘super-bugs’ mirrors (2b). No scientists could have guessed that viruses were so adaptable and resilient. mirrors (3)”
By fleshing out the example in full, as if we were telling a story, we have added layers of depth and complexity to the example.
7. Use a spectrum of parallel examples for every argument
For every paragraph, consider using more than one example. Instead, use a range of similar examples to demonstrate that you are knowledgeable and well-read. This technique is most powerful when you use a spectrum of examples from parts of the world which are different. It shows that your argument is supported by a trend or a pattern and that it applies universally, and not just to a singular exception. In an essay on nature conservation, for instance, you might use examples from both developed and developing countries to demonstrate a global perspective. Similarly, in a piece of work on gender equality, you might wish to consider both liberal and conservative societies.
8. Construct a counter-factual
In the course of our academic careers, most of us will come across a situation where we cannot think of an example or statistic to back up an argument. In this scenario, many will try to falsify evidence. Not only is this intellectually dishonest, these attempts end up sounding trite: how many University of Mississippi studies can a 16-year-old really remember?
Instead, a more appropriate technique might be to construct a counter-factual. In a counter-factual, you set out a scenario or situation which might not be directly related to the topic. Then, you use the conditional “if” or “suppose” to apply the argument you are making to the situation at hand. Finally, you extrapolate an outcome which is in your favour.
If this sounds abstract, consider the following piece of writing. The writer is trying to argue that a sporting boycott on nations which do not allow female athletes to compete will only worsen the oppression of women in their home countries. Unfortunately, he is unable to find a real-life example of this. He does know, however, that:
“In Ache in Indonesia, radical Islamic clerics blamed the 2004 tsunami on women because they were ostensibly too promiscuous.”
This is the scenario or situation he sets out. It is a piece of contextual knowledge the writer has, but as yet, it is not directly related to the argument he is making. However, the writer goes on to apply the argument he is making to the situation at hand, this time using the command word, “imagine”:
“Imagine if Indonesia was barred from the Olympic Games because the province of Ache refused to allow women to take part.”
He then extracts the logical outcome to the situation:
“The same hard-line clerics will just have an opportunity to make women the target of blame for the decline of the country’s sporting tradition. If they are as extreme as to blame earthquakes on women, they will surely use a sporting boycott to demonize the fairer sex.”
Of course, a counter-factual is not as persuasive as a real example, say, a historical incident where a sporting boycott has actually triggered a violent backlash against the minority group in question. Nonetheless, it is a better option than faking an example, and demonstrates the ability to skilfully manipulate evidence and language.
9. Start and end the essay on the same note
Most of us have been trained to start an essay with a “hook” and to end with a “punch-line”. Often this takes the form of a quote or a pertinent example. To make this technique more powerful, consider making reference to your introduction at the end of your essay. For instance, you could re-examine the same quote and see what new insight you can distil in light of the arguments you have made. Or you could look at the same example and consider what might have changed. Either way, this is a nice touch because it makes the argument come full circle, and demonstrates that you are in full control over what you are writing.
In summary, these are merely suggestions for techniques which might be employed in essays for English examinations. They are by no means exhaustive, and may or may not work out well for different writers. The intention is not to prescribe, but to provide a toolkit from which techniques can be deployed, modified and combined.