An Architects Guide To Essay Planning

Blog Post 2 Pic

Over the course of my essays in university I’ve come to realise I’m an architect when it comes to writing. That is I plan so much that when it comes to writing the essay itself there’s little thinking to be done. In the first year of my undergrad degree Dr. Lyle Skains of the School of Creative Studies and Media went through a planning format for producing a coherent essay that I still use to this day regardless of what kind of essay I happen to be planning. Since I, and several other students, have found this format to be very useful I thought it would be beneficial to write it out so that mentee’s who much prefer planning out their essays in great depth can be made aware of it during sessions…

First, make a note of the total word count of the essay, for this example let’s say we’re dealing with a 4,000 word essay:

Total word count = 4,000

Introduction

Your introduction should take up roughly about 10% of the overall word count. In this case 10% of 4,000 comes to 400 hundred words so…

Intro = 400 words

Based on this method of planning a good introduction should do five things:

  • Make sure the subject is clear.

What we’re looking for here is something as simple as stating what kind of work is being written; argumentative essay, report, critical analysis, proposal, etc.

  • Purpose/Argument

What is the reason behind writing this essay? What is the main argument/point/information you’re trying to convey to your reader?

  • Background & Context

Establishing the state of the art, introducing (by name rather than explanation) the main theorists and theories being put forward.

  • Justification & Importance

Why is this essay being written? Why should we care that is has been? Is it looking at something new and interesting? Going to argue a point that has yet to be made?

  • Forecasting

My favourite line to use in mentor meetings: ‘essays are not mystery novels’ forecast the structure of the essay so the marker (and us as mentors) know what the essay should look like, the flow of thought behind it and what kind of conclusions you might come to.

Main Body

Having prepped an introduction the main body and conclusion of the essay would come next. Though I, personally, tend to leave the introduction till last as I find it easier to plan out with a planned essay body already made. A conclusion should be roughly about 5% of the total word count (so 200 words in this example) leaving us with a total of 3,600 words to write. A good paragraph that makes a coherent point in depth could be roughly 300 words, so that’s the total we’ll be working off here.

3,600 ÷ 300 = 12

Based off that we have about twelve decent paragraphs to plan out for this essay. The best way to do this is to think of each paragraph as its own mini essay and work accordingly. There should always be a topic sentence within each paragraph (preferably the first, occasionally the second sentence) which explains the subject-matter of that specific paragraph. This can be an argument being put forth, a subject that is being explained, etc. It is always vital to think how this topic being set out works to answer the overall essay question to help keep the piece of work on track; with that shall usually come 3-5 supporting statements that link back to supporting evidence that is then expanded upon to create an overall point for the essay. Finally, a closing statement should restate the topic of the paragraph (linking it back to the overall essay question by extension) and lead into the topic of the next paragraph as well. This helps with the flow of the essay and settles the reader into the introduction of a new topic/argument.

Conclusion

Having briefly mentioned this above, we know the total length of the conclusion in this case should be roughly 200 words and it is vital those words are used effectively. Within a conclusion there should be no new information or arguments as they should have already been covered. What a conclusion should do is restate the thesis (purpose/argument) and sum up all of the sub-arguments that were crafted within the essay paragraphs; it should also restate the importance of the research (justification & importance). Finally, if appropriate, the conclusion could mention further avenues for the research; new directions it could go, elements that could be expanded upon, or topics that were not covered in this essay whose relevance could be worth looking into in later (larger) projects.

By the time all this planning has been done writing the essay is the easy part as all you’re doing is transferring the information from a plan to essay format, writing it out eloquently and ensuring the spelling, grammar and punctuation are correct. I hope you guys have found this useful and if you ever get any mentee’s who’re looking to try a more architectural approach to essay writing this comes in useful.

Advertisements

Don’t forget the audience

Trupe, A. L. (2005) Organizing Ideas. In B. Rafoth (Ed.), A tutor’s guide: Helping writers one to one (2nd ed.). (pp. 98-106). Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publihsers, Inc.

This book has a fantastic chapter on structuring  your writing (Chapter 11: Organizing Ideas). The most useful advice the chapter offers is to be aware of the perspective you take when organizing your writing. The author suggests that there are two primary viewpoints one can take in order to do this: the viewpoint of the writer and the viewpoint of the reader.

Taking the writer’s perspective will generate a question like ‘What do I want to say?’, and writers will often organize their writing based on the answer to that question. However, the chapter suggests moving towards an organization that is based, instead, on the reader. One such guiding question is, ‘What does the reader need to know?’ This will move the writer to take on the reader’s perspective, giving insight into any existing gaps that need to be filled.

We, as writers, can easily cloud our judgment about the coherence of our work simply due to the fact that we (usually) already know what we want to say. We already know that it makes sense. Of course, this coherence doesn’t always translate to the reader. After-all, the reader doesn’t necessarily have the same presuppositions as the writer. As such, this distinction can be helpful to ensure that no leaps in logic are made in the writing (as well as many other errors).

Hope you find this helpful.

Polished writing, and recurrent themes.

 

Two things crop up in mentoring sessions a lot. First, questions like ‘How do I make my writing sound more formal/professional?” Second, the length and wordiness of the weaker bits of writing. In academic writing too many words are worse than too few. On starting University, the gulf between written and spoken English grows, and once well-crafted essay now seems amateurish.

When asked for help refining writing- well, it’s a lifelong thing!  But there are few tricks that can be used. Tense, too, can make a great difference (‘tense can be making, too’ doesn’t sound as snappy). Much of this will fall into the final editing stage, which can feel more like a pruning session than anything else. Still, it’s often the little microskills that add an air of confidence and professionalism. It may be easier to categorize them…

Substituting words-Because/as, Lots of/many, this means that/hence, Even though/while, Keep/retain, But/yet, Says/states (affirms, suggests, argues…), you’ll  probably come up with far more as you think about them. Swapping a longer word with a shorter one, or an informal with a formal one, is an easy way to polish your work. Remember the word count, but also how long it will take to read your sentence. A syllable count will make a difference too!

Emotiveness-Another thing is to keep traces of emotion to a minimum. You may be writing a heartrending report on some appalling topics, but it is not so much about your feelings, as the reasons the reader should feel that way. I read an article in the Guardian which was basically about how much the writer hated the Thames Garden Bridge. I gave up caring what they thought long before the end of the article, being presented with so many laden words (despicable, chummy, gobbled ect…) and so few reasons to feel the same way as the journalist.

While essays allow more flexibility for personal opinion than reports, remember to present the information, order it so it supports what you believe, summarise what you feel should be taken from it- and let the reader form their own views.

Structure and order- ‘Many excellent blog posts have been published by the Study Skills Centre’ is not quite as strong as ‘The Study Skills Centre has published many excellent blog posts’. The first is an example of the ‘passive construction’, where a noun has something done to it. The second is the ‘active construction’- the subject does something in its own right. The blog posts were published- but the Study Skills Centre publishing them sounds more engaging.

Also-paragraph beginnings and ends. A common way of beginning a paragraph is to finish the previous one with a statement, then begin with a formulaic link word such as ‘ However’ or ‘Therefore’.  If each paragraph follows the same pattern it gives an under confident impression and a rather flat tone.

Try using a question or a quote. An element of uncertainty in the leading statement, can pique reader interest. Especially if it’s something they didn’t expect. Or beginning a paragraph with a ‘honing in’ of something brought up in the previous one? The ‘Henceforth’ or ‘Although’ can be moved further into the paragraph, if used at all.

 

Writing should be enjoyable to read. For all the stress and worry of writing, it will be worth it in the end. You’re always going to come back to it later on and feel you could do better (hence my previous post on cringy pre-teen poetry). The main thing is that the piece at hand is as good as you can make it. Be proud of your writing!

Quick Tip – Welsh Translation Service

Hi All!

Not sure if everyone has seen the recent email from the Corporate Communications and Marketing department – but within that email they stated that Canolfan Bedwyr (Bangor University’s Center for Welsh Language Services, Research and Technology) offers a translation service (short piece of text: up to 250 characters about 50 words), courses for tweeting in Welsh and writing in Welsh on the web. I just thought this might be something useful for us to know about!

Hope you’ve all had a great Easter break!

Links:

Canolfan Bedwyr: https://www.bangor.ac.uk/canolfanbedwyr/

Canolfan Bedwyr, Translation Unit: https://www.bangor.ac.uk/canolfanbedwyr/cyfieithu.php.en

Pratchett, Austen and the beginnings of craftsmanship.

It’s always impressive for craftspeople to look over their early work. It’s said to always keep your first sewing project, attempt at a bird box, lumpy knitting and so on, to remind you of how far you’ve come. For me, looking back on my pre-teen notebooks and squirming at embarrassment- well, that does a similar job!

The fact is that writing is a craft that can be honed, and experience will take you a long way. Writing with another writer lets you watch another craftsman at work. A little like the medieval apprentice system. That’s one of the wonderful things about peer mentoring. One of the main reasons people come to the Study Skills Centre is simply that they’re new to the particular style of writing asked of them. Highly talented freshers or non-native English speakers are just starting this craft, and by ‘learning by doing’ with a writer who’s been through much the same, the whole style visibly matures and deepens.

This maturing of style and learning-by-doing is a lifelong thing. Fans of the Discworld series will notice the difference between the first and the last ten books. There are 41 Discworld books written over the course of thirty plus years, so naturally there will be development in the quality of writing! The earliest books are ones of very close parody- to Rock and Roll, to Shakespeare, and simply to the plethora of weak fantasy novels so popular in the 80s. In academic terms, there was over-heavy reliance on the source material, with limited originality. Pratchett’s inexperience also shows in the long, over emphasised sentences, weighed down by excess information, and an unclear central theme in the various strands.

Similar is the Juvenilia (juvenile writings) of Jane Austen, which you may be able to get a copy of online or from an old fashioned second hand bookshop. These short stories romp with energy, are clear parodies of the source reading material and don’t quite have the same readability or sound structure of her later work. Many believe that the finest novel she ever wrote was her last, Sandringham. Sadly this was never completed due to her early death, but the same theme of continuous improvement with experience remains the same.

So moving back to The Study Skills Centre, how is this likely to benefit the writers of Bangor University? For a start, I always assure the less confident ‘novices’ that they will only get better. And they do. To the point I can be little more than a sounding board for the more experienced mentees.

Secondly, neither the mentor, the text book or the lecture slides can tell you exactly what to write. While the assignment brief must be followed, a university student is expected to have their own words and viewpoints on the topic. A hand to hold can be comforting, but sooner or later it should not be needed. Two excellent quotes from one of my tutors are-

“Academics are always arguing. That’s what drives science forward”

“You’re becoming the academic now. People are going to look to you for advice”

So Peer Mentoring is interesting in that it helps writers at that early, awkward stage, which even the greatest have. By letting the mentee direct the session and taking a step back to focus on the issues at hand, we help others of our kind develop. And for my own early works? Maybe my parents’ attic is the best place for them…

Mentoring quote

Hi team,

I wanted to share this quote I found about mentoring that I felt could be applied to the work we do here in Study Skills.

I know I often find it difficult to strike the balance between telling somebody ‘you should do it like this’ and encouraging them to find their own way. For me, little quotes like this serve as a reminder that our goal isn’t necessarily to create the perfect writer in 50 minutes, but rather to set them on their way equipped with all the tools.

260826f39be184fb12435ace0e17a209.jpg

And then hopefully this one will make you smile…

funny-pictures-mentoring

I hope you all have a great week!

 

Vignettes

Hi team!

I hope you are well.

I wanted to offer a reflection of a session I had this morning in which a Childhood Studies student came to me with a task I had never encountered before.

I am particularly interested in what you would have done in the same situation, so please do feel welcome to leave your thoughts and comments below.

The task was to create a 1000 word ‘vignette’ and then a 2000 word annotation of the ‘vignette’. 

The material I (or rather we!) had to work with consisted of two case studies outlining two childrens’ childhoods. There was no accompanying task sheet, just the above statement in her notebook.

I asked the student if there was a task sheet or PowerPoint slide available that we could refer to, but she said there wasn’t.

Not knowing what a vignette was (and Google not offering much help either) I was truly stumped, and found myself almost guessing what she had to do. I guessed that she needed to write an assumption of how the children in the case studies’ future would turn out, and then the annotation would consist of research to back this up.

However, terrified of setting her off on the wrong foot, I advised that she went and saw her tutor to clarify what she needed to do.

My heart really went out to the student and I felt like I hadn’t helped at all in –  what turned out to be – a very short session.

Can anybody offer some enlightenment on writing a vignette in an academic context?

 

 

Grammar point: Participles

Hi everyone,

I thought I would share something else I have been working on from the Palgrave Study Skills: Improve your grammar. (This book is quickly becoming my baby I recommend it to you all!)

This time I have been looking at participles to enhance students’ writing. I find this a particularly useful grammar point to focus on when the student already writes well and coherently, but it’s lacking flare. In other words, the classic stuck in a B graders!

So, what is a participle?

In Maisie speak, it’s being playful with the sentence. Twisting the order and varying this from sentence to sentence. Basically it’s a step further than just adding your usual connectives (and, because, or).

However, I feel the book writes this slightly more eloquently, describing a participle as:

  • A present participle is a form of a verb ending in – ing (eg. facing)
  • A past participle is often a form of a verb ending with -ed (eg. worked, although could include done, driven, known etc).
  • A past participle can also be used after ‘having’ (eg. having worked)

“But stop!” I hear you cry. How an earth do we put this grammatical jargon (as it may seem to the student) into practice?

First, I would get the student to try and use participles to enhance the following sentences. Note that the original sentences are grammatically correct, they’re just missing that oomph, if you will.

Example 1

The country’s car industry was obliged to restructure in the 1990s because it faced the effects of a recession.

This could be improved with the help of a participle, changing it to:

Facing the effects of a recession in the early 1990s, the country’s car industry was obliged to restructure.

Example 2 

Exports grew over the next few years. They were driven by an international marketing campaign.

This could be improved with the help of a participle, changing it to: 

Exports, driven by an international marketing campaign, grew over the next few years.

 

The book gives a few more examples, however I feel it would be more beneficial (given we only have 50 minutes) to try and enhance some of the sentences in the students’ own work.

I’m sure for many of you this is something you do quite naturally without thinking about it – I know I do! For this reason I have found this resource so helpful because it’s a concrete way to make writing ‘better’, something which can seem a terribly daunting task when faced with a student who is already using a good variety of simple, complex and compound sentences.

 

Problems with past forms

Hello everyone,

This is a useful activity I use to help students improve their grammatical expression.

It is taken from Palgrave Study Skills, Improve your Grammar by Mark Harrison, Vanessa Jakeman and Ken Paterson (2012)

It takes the form of ‘find the mistakes’ in the following sentences, so very easy to fit into a session and feel like you have done something concrete which they can then go away and apply to their whole essay.

Why not have a go yourselves?

What is wrong with the following sentences?

  1. The organisers should of been able to predict the press reaction to the show.
  2. After extensive negotiations, Select Design could make an exclusive agreement with Topshop.
  3. My Frock Ltd did not need to go bankrupt if they had restricted their business to the UK.
  4. The designer handbags on sale at £25 each must not have been genuine. 

 

This is a great activity to get students thinking about grammar, especially those guilty of ‘writing as they speak’!

See the answers below:

What’s wrong?

  1. In spoken English have may sound like of, but it is never correct to write of as part of a past modal form.

    e.g The organisers should have been able to predict….

  2. You cannot use could for a specific achievement in the past. Instead, you need to use was/were able to

    e.g Select Design was able to make/managed to make/succeeded in making…

  3. Did not need to + verb is used for things that did not happen (because they were not necessary) and Need not have + past participle is used for things that did happen (but they were not necessary).

    e.g My Frock Ltd need not have gone bankrupt if they had restricted their business to the UK.

  4. To express the opposite of must have been, you need to use cannot or could not have been, not must not have been .

    e.g The designer handbags on sale cannot have been genuine.

If you have time, you can extend this activity by going through the student’s essay and seeing if there are any specific examples of these errors in their work.

The value of reflections

Hello everyone,

Further to the discussion we had in today’s team meeting about Jenny’s tricky session I have just finished reading her reflection on the session. After a long summer and only just really getting back into the swing of mentoring I’ve lost touch with the value of writing these reflections, so thought a blog post here (and I really don’t contribute enough as the report highlighted!) would serve to remind us of the power of this tool.

For those of you that are new (welcome to the blog!) there’s a pool of reflections on our drive that you can access – they are not only useful for the mentor who wrote them but are a great way of thinking about our mentoring styles and strengths. Reading Jenny’s latest piece I wonder if I would have been so effective in that difficult situation; would I have instinctively gone back to asking more questions, probing, and really try to get to the root of the situation? Possibly not, but I hope that I would at least achieve some of the positives that clearly came from the session.

Reflecting on the times I have, ahem, reflected – I find that sitting down and writing about experiences really cements good practice, as well as highlighting areas for improvements and things I would do differently next time. So, I will aim to write a reflection about a good/ tricky/ interesting session soon for sure.

Reflecting has also made me feel more positive and optimistic (again a thank you to Jenny here for her wise words after the meeting!) as I can remind myself of the good practice I do follow. I had a brilliant session before today’s meeting, with the writer leaving confident about his essay, but more importantly confident that he can write his assignment, and write it well. The addition of the comfortable seating helped too – thanks Julian! Our sessions aren’t always that straight-forward and effective, so it is good to focus on the positives when they happen.

The session that I have been worrying about is coming up in a few moments. Rather than dreading it, after our discussions I am strangely looking forward to the challenge. I suppose if all our sessions were straight-forward and easy the job wouldn’t be as enjoyable, would it? I’m sure there’s a quote out there about the benefits of facing challenges…. But I haven’t got time to dig, my PhD student is hopefully on his way! I will let you know how it goes….