Step 9: Know how to write a top-scoring essay

Verity Aylward
Verity Aylward |

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The trick is to think of a question and then set about answering it as clearly and logically as possiblel.

Verity Aylward

Mention the word 'essay' and you get a divided classroom: some of you love them and the rest would rather run round the school 10 times.

Whatever you think about essays, you need to know how to write them, whether it's for school exams or further education.

Have an open mind about what you might learn: with practice, some people change their minds and admit to falling in love with essay writing.

There is no universal law about what makes a good essay. Some subjects require a different style or tone of writing. A good essay on history is different from a good essay in science.

Different subjects represent different fields of study so you need to adapt. In terms of writing a great essay, there are three things you should have to make your essay stand out:

1 A clear and logical structure

2 Brilliant thinking and communication skills

3 Knowing your topic very well before you write the essay

How to make your essay great

I love the analogy of the skeleton representing the bare bones of an essay. Let's start with the important first bone:

The question: To write a great essay, you need a title that is framed as a question. If the essay title is a statement like 'The political system in Hong Kong', you might just be tempted to offer a lot of boring information.

But if the title was a question, such as 'Why have attempts to bring democracy to Hong Kong failed?', then you have a debate, and this is what will interest the reader. You also have a chance to explore ideas to reach a judgment, and that's what great essays do.

The introduction: In an exam, you may be pushed for time. All introductions should be short and to the point. Great essays begin with an introduction that addresses the question and indicates the main areas you will explore.

If the question is 'Why have attempts to bring democracy to Hong Kong failed?', you might identify three or four main reasons your essay will explore, and you could even indicate which reason you think is most important.

The body: This is where you pile on the meat to the skeleton you have outlined - answering the question in depth.

So in your democracy essay your reasons must be described and explained. Let's say one reason relates to the Basic Law and how it has been interpreted. You have to start the argument with a key statement that relates to the question. The problem with that is you may become too descriptive and write about lots of things related to the question and not necessarily answer it.

So, back to the key statement: it's better to say one reason why attempts to bring democracy to Hong Kong have failed. Avoid telling a story.

Each paragraph should focus on a reason that helps to answer the question. Once you have made a key statement, begin with some description to show you have knowledge and understanding of your topic.

You would need to draw upon selective knowledge of the Basic Law, what it states and how it has been interpreted.

You may even go further into the realms of evaluation and provide your judgment about what you have been explaining. Then you move forward to your next paragraph, your next reason.

Avoid rushing. Less is more if it's well explained.

The conclusion: If you have already indicated your judgment throughout your essay, it's not the end of the world if, in an exam situation, you don't get this far. But the conclusion is the skin that wraps around the bones and flesh to make your essay complete.

You want the skin to be tight, so advocate your final point of view with confidence. Show which reason is most important and perhaps leave the reader with your predictions about the prospects for democracy in Hong Kong.

Sort the following into DO'S and DON'TS to produce your essay-writing checklist:

♦ Know your topic really well

♦ Avoid writing a story/narrative (unless it's creative writing)

♦ Make sure your title provokes debate

♦ Write a skeleton plan

♦ Avoid waffle

♦ Consider other viewpoints

♦ Explain your points

♦ Do not plagiarise by copying the words of others and using them as your own

♦ Add a bibliography and reference quotes where appropriate

♦ Don't write a neutral conclusion