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Writing Essays – Help and Tips

Good essay writing is a skill all students need to learn. Through practise and following some simple rules, essays can become rewarding and no longer intimidating.

Here are some essential tips to writing essays.

Example Essay Question – What were the causes of the First World War?

Answer the Question. As a teacher, this is the most frequently repeated piece of advise I give. The biggest mistake is to write what you know about a topic, rather than what the question asks. At the end of each paragraph, ask yourself – how does this answer the question. It is often appropriate to finish a paragraph by making reference to the question.

Good Introduction. A good introduction does not mean you introduce yourself and what you would like to do. A good introduction is concise and helps create focus to the rest of the question. Explain key concepts and what the essay will do.

For example, this kind of phrase should be left out.

  • Bad – In this essay I will consider various aspects of the different factors that led to the start of the First World War.
  • Good – The First World War was ostensibly triggered by the assassination of a relatively obscure Austrian prince. However, many other factors caused this small spark to spread into a full scale European war. This essays shall examine the significance of factors such as militarism, the balance of power and treaty obligations in causing the First World War.

Simple Tips for Essays

Avoid Unnecessary waffle. This is material which in no way helps to answer the question.

Keep writing simple. If possibly vary the length of sentences to make writing more interesting, but if uncertain, it is better to err on the side of caution and write in short simple sentences.

Use Paragraphs. Paragraphs should consist of 4-7 sentences. Don’t worry this is just a rough guide, but paragraphs shouldn’t be one sentence or a full page. Keep to one main point per paragraph.

Consider different points of view

Bad – It was all the Germans fault.

You Don’t Have to Agree with a Point to Include it.

Marxist historians argue the First World War was created by the ruling classes to mask the oppression and injustice suffered by the working classes.

Avoid Cliches

Bad – The war began on a fine summer’s day, and Europe was never the same again.

Give Analysis and not just description of what happened.

Bad – Archduke Ferdinand was shot. Then Austria-Hungary mobilised, then Russia then Germany

Good – The sequence of events showed the complicated system of treaties and alliances meant an escalation of war soon occurred.

Good Conclusion. Be confident to argue for one particular viewpoint. Evaluating a question doesn’t mean you have to avoid strong conclusion. Be confident to say which argument is the strongest, and explain why it is the strongest.

Bad – Clearly there are  quite a few different reasons why the war started, each having a degree of merit and importance.

Good – I believe the strongest reason for the start of the First World War was the series of treaties which gave countries obligations to support their allies. This point is significant because countries felt honour bound to support their allies at any cost.

Essay Writing Plan

Identify, Explain, Justify, Analyse, Evaluate.

A good paragraph could start by identifying a particular point.

  • In Germany there was a strong national sentiment that supported the concept of war.

The next sentence takes this point and explains using evidence to support it.

  • A popular book in Germany, during the pre-war period, was entitled ‘Weltmacht oder Untergang’ – ‘World Dominion or Decline’. The popularity of this books illustrates how many ordinary Germans felt a war was necessary to protect the interests of their country.

Analyse

  • In many European countries, there was also a strong sense of loyalty to the ruling classes. This made the population more willing to support militaristic adventures. Therefore there was little, if any opposition to the war aims of the Kaiser.

Evaluate

This  spirit of militarism is quite significant, it is displayed in the enthusiasm with which war was greeted. However, a similar enthusiasm for war was also displayed in other European countries such as France and Britain, suggesting that strong national sentiment supporting war was not confined to Germany.

Other Writing Tips

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Internet Writing

The internet has created innumerable opportunities to write and share with the world your thoughts and ideas. Anyone is able to get a free blog and start writing. These are some simple tips to improve your writing for an internet audience.

Good Writing Style

Good writing will work well on internet and the printed page. For any writing medium it is worth following these basic rules of good writing.

  • Use the basic rules of grammar and punctuation to improve ease of reading – and avoid irritating grammar pedants
  • Write with a clear focus.
  • Good writing should be simple and clear.  Where possible use an economy of words.
    • Avoid unnecessary words.
    • Avoid cumbersome and oblique words which may be confusing or sound pretentious.
    • Avoid repetition of words which can become boring and confusing.
  • Generally it is advisable to write in the active tense rather than the passive.
  • Don’t assume average internet reader knows technical terms. Take time to explain concepts which may not be known.

Other Internet Writing Techniques

  • Make a document easy to scan. Give clear subheadings where appropriate. Writing in bullet point form may not be good English style, but, for many aspects of internet writing, works quite well.
  • The Internet can magnify anything you write. It is easy to forget that anything you write on the internet could end up being permanent and read by millions of people. Be very careful before writing anything critical or personally embarrassing. As a good rule of thumb – before posting anything make sure you would be happy for anyone in your life to read it.
  • Something New. There is so much writing on the internet there is always a danger of simply regurgitating something already published. Make sure your writing has some added value and not just going around in circles.

Related

Common Mistakes in Your Writing

  1. Spelling mistakes. Use a spell checker when writing. It is also helpful to use the Mozilla Firefox inline spell checker which will help catch errors if you write directly into your blog. There is no excuse for not using a spell checker which will help catch 85% of spelling mistakes. However, don’t forget that you still need to check because the spell checker can still miss words not used correctly. See: humorous example of spell chequer
  2. Grammar Mistakes. Avoid common errors such as confusing their and there. You’re and your. If you are uncertain, take time to learn these rules, the effort will pay you back through helping you to look more professional. See: 5 Grammar Mistakes to avoid
  3. Punctuation Mistakes. The comma can be tricky. How to use the comma these are the main useage of the comma. Punctuation mistakes to Avoid
  4. Unnecessary words. Avoid unnecessary adjectives.
    • He was sprinting very fast – If you are sprinting by definition, you are going very quickly.
    • It is equally superfluous to say the “wet rain.” – It is rare that water is dry…
  5. Repetition. Some repetition can create emphasis. But, generally, you want to avoid repeating yourself. If you have made a point, don’t keep making it in the same manner.
  6. Lack of Clarity. Good writing is simple and to the point. If a word can be left out without altering the meaning, then do it.
    • BAD: I think that, on reflection, the new version of the English dictionary is mostly, quite a fascinating version. However, I am not entirely certain that it will be well liked by young generation, who generally seem not particularly interested in changes in the usage of English language.
    • WHAT YOU MEAN: The new English Dictionary is fascinating. But, the younger generation will probably not be interested
  7. Repetition of words. It is considered bad practice to keep repeating the same word. In this example, using the word general 3 times creates an unpleasant effect. You should avoid this overuse.
    • BAD: Generally, the comma is misused. In general everyday use, the comma splice often creeps into people’s writing. Generally, I think people should try to learn how to use a comma.
    • GOOD: In many situations, the comma is misused. In general everyday use, the comma splice often creeps into people’s writing. Arguably, people should give much more importance to using the comma.
  8. Moralistic. Do we need the moralistic second sentence? It is usually unnecessary to condemn other people. It is sufficient to point out the error.
    • x made the mistake of using uncopyrighted images. This is shameful and shows his contempt for basic human decency. Photographers should always be given credit
    • x made the mistake of using uncopyrighted images. Photographers should always be given credit Continue reading →

Confusing Words Explained

Affect and Effect.

  • What is the effect of higher taxes? How do higher taxes affect yourself?

There, their, and they’re.

  • The place is over there. (refers to place)
  • Their journey was long and arduous. (refers to person)
  • They’re going to be happy the bus was on time. (short for They are)

You’re , Your

  • You’re not going to believe this. (short for you are)
  • Your wallet was stolen (wallet belonging to you)

Continue reading →

How To Write in Sentences

How about this for a bad sentence:
It is a comment from the Association of Chief Police officers in response to the Government’s Green Paper

“The promise of reform which the Green paper heralds holds much for the public and Service alike; local policing, customized to local need with authentic answerability, strengthened accountabilities at force level through reforms to police authorities and HMIC, performance management at the service of localities with targets and plans tailored to local needs, the end of centrally engineered one size fits all initiatives, an intelligent approach to cutting red tape through redesign of processes and cultures, a renewed emphasis on strategic development so as to better equip our service to meet the amorphous challenges of managing cross force harms, risks and opportunities.”

It has been nominated for a gobbledegook award.

When it comes to writing sentences, I suggest you don’t follow the bad example of so called literary giants and philosophers. I remember reading ‘On Liberty’ By John Stuart Mill and despairing at the sheer length and complexity of his sentences.

Some simple tips for writing sentences

  • Noun and Verb. ‘Jesus Ran’ Is the shortest sentence in the Bible and is perfectly adequate.
  • It is better to start off with simple sentences and write longer, more involved sentences as you develop as a writer. This is a better strategy than starting with long sentences.
  • Don’t try to include too much into one sentence. Two separate ideas should be separated.
  • For variety, occassional consider using a semi colon; this allows you to expand on the initial idea, but, it should be related. Often semi colons could be turned into two sentences, but, their use can just give an additional fluidity to writing.
  • Be wary of complicated sub clauses. which lead the reader off on a tangent.
  • If you can express an idea with less words, then that is good.

Avoiding the Double Negative

“How can you possibly have an international agreement that’s effective unless countries like China and India are not full participants?”

–George W. Bush,

“One of my concerns is that the health care not be as good as it can possibly be.”

–George W. Bush, on military benefits, Tipp City, Ohio, April 19, 2007

IF you look through many quotes of George Bush, you will see a variety of double negatives; they suggest a confused and simple mind. Don’t come across like the President of the US. Choose instead clarity – say what you mean.

Don’t not say a complicated way of creating confusion when things could, in all honesty, be less complicated than you have failed to put across.

Examples of Double Negatives and Better Alternatives

  • It’s Not a Bad Idea
  • It’s a promising idea
  • I couldn’t agree less
  • I disagree
  • It’s not completely useless.
  • It has some potential.
  • I’m not particularly happy with the progress that has not occured in the past few weeks.
  • The lack of progress, in the past few weeks has been dissapointing.

How to Make the Boring Interesting

Came across this interesting video at Copyblogger. Basically, Ira Glass talked about how the mundane can be made interesting. The key is ask questions of the reader so that they are drawn in and are compelled to keep reading. What is the formula for creating compelling stories? Using his idea, I wrote the following:

Boris woke up at the crack of dawn; there was an profound silence throughout the house.

With a certain inner fear, he rose from his night’s slumber and threw on some clothes.

Sleep often cleared his mind, but, this morning there was an inner disturbance with many thoughts running through his mind. However, although his mind was noisy, there was a great silence pervading the house as he descended into the kitchen.

Still, here in the kitchen, the morning’s silence was only broken by the sound of passing cars in the distance….

Basically, this story is saying. Boris got up, got dressed and went downstairs for breakfast. But, here where is the drama, the interest in saying that? There is no bait or anything to get people wanting to read more.

However, in the above story, there is something in the writing which makes us want to keep reading. Why is the house so silent? Why is Boris a little perturbed? It has us hooked and we want to keep reading to find out why?

Good writing tries to pull us in and keep us guessing. It throws up questions and wants us to keep reading. The only problem is do we have a good reason why the house is silent?

Maybe its always silent? Maybe it’s a bank holiday and Boris has forgotten? Or maybe it is something more sinisiter

This is one thing you notice in the writing of J.K.Rowling and Dan Brown. The end of a chapter is a page turner – what is going to happen next?

See also: 7 Tips to make your writing interesting

Tips for Keeping A Regular Posting Schedule

One of the more difficult aspects of blogging is the ability to keep a regular posting schedule. If you are able to keep a regular posting schedule, it will help attract regular readers. It is also a good way to build up the number of archives and pages.

Don’t Always Aim for Perfection.

Not every post has to be a 1,000 word epic. Sometimes short posts are just as good. I went through a stage of thinking I should always write with Digg in mind. Therefore, articles could take over an hour to write; this was a great disincentive to post – sometimes I went a week without posting.

Try a Few Shorter Posts

Similar to the point above, try posting a few quick posts. See: Advantages of short posts

Write on What You Know

Sometimes we set ourselves difficult challenges by trying to write on obscure topics or topics that need research. When posting think of what you already know about. Maybe you have been having a conversation with someone about an aspect of your blog. If you can talk about it, there is no reason why you cannot write about it.

Write En Masse.

Often I will sit down and write 6-7 posts for Netwriting in one day. On another day, I might write 5-6 posts for my cycling blog. By doing this, you can get into a groove for writing about the topic. Then you can use wordpress time delay publication. This is a very useful feature of Netwriting. You can have new content published throughout the week, but, only need to work on the blog for one day.

See also:

How Not To Start An article

I spent about an hour writing a previous post Common Web mistakes made by companies 

On reviewing the post, I felt I’d made a big mistake with the first sentence.

“I am an amateur blogger. I blog for part time income in addition to having a part time teaching job. Although I’m not a full time professional, I am constantly surprised…”

It’s a very weak introduction because:

It’s repetitive, unnecessary and also doesn’t inspire confidence. True, I may not be a full time professional, but,  it is unhelpful to give the impression you’re an ‘amateur blogger’

I have cut the first sentence and this enables us to get into the argument much more quickly.

 Despite the internet offering the fastest growth sector of the economy, many multi million pound companies are still making basic mistakes with their own websites.

It just goes to show the importance of the first paragraph and first sentence. An article may be very good, but, if 50% of readers give up because the first sentence is boring, the article is wasted.

It also shows the importance of following your own advice…

Would You Give Your Own Writing an A Grade?

After writing a post, I often give myself a grade  depending on how good I think the article is. This is perhaps a legacy from being an Economics teacher and examiner. If you are honest, you can soon gain a feeling about whether an article is genuinely good or just average. This also gives an indication whether the article will do well on social bookmarking sites.

It is not always possible to write grade A articles; sometimes the inspiration comes easily, at other times it can be hard work.  But, a successful grade A article usually includes the following characteristics:

Writing from the Heart

Writing from personal experience is a very powerful way to engage the reader. It is very difficult to fake real knowledge and experience. If you are writing from your own experiences and observations, you are able to give a unique and personal angle to the article. If you write with a lack of interest, your articles will inevitably join the ranks of the numerous mediocre articles floating around the internet.

Be Useful.

The best advice is always simple. When you are writing an article, you need to be clear that it is serving some purpose and can be useful to readers. For example, if you just repeat something which has been written countless times before, how is that useful to other people? If you can, at least, add some personal perspective then that makes the article more useful because you are illustrating how the idea can be applied.

  • Useful articles don’t have to be “How to” But, if you are looking for an easy template a couple of How to … articles are an excellent way to start.

Writing outside the Box.

To write outside the box means looking at things from a different perspective; it means not just writing by numbers. Think how your niche can be seen through a completely different perspective. This involves ideas such as “Drunk on Your Own Words” – Here we take two activities drinking and writing and somehow combine them together. Writing outside the box can also be using the inspiration of past masters like “what Orwell can teach us about writing” The double advantage here is that Orwell has an authority that few net writers could ever have.

Lack of Self Promotion.

To write from a personal perspective is good, but, it needs to combine a certain humility and avoid excessive self promotion. Allow your writings to speak for themselves. Good writers don’t need to tell their readers they are good. If the information is useful for readers then include it; if you are writing to boost your ego be very careful of your motives

Passion vs Emotion

We want to avoid writing by numbers, which creates an uninteresting piece. We need to convey a sense of energy and newness into our writing. At the same time, there is a big difference between passionate writing and emotional writing. Emotional writing involves adding our personal judgements in a moralistic tone. When writing is emotional, it can feel unbalanced and lacking in maturity. However, if we are careful then we can create useful articles which are both engaging and avoid an emotional imbalance.

Short and Punchy

A short sentence will grab attention. Although, if you use it too often, your writing will sound stilted and under developed. However, if you can create a mixture of sentence length it will offer greater variety to your writing; it is one of those factors which will subconsciously attract interest. The key is to eliminate unnecessary words which don’t add anything useful.

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