Saturday, 26 January 2013

Essay Writing Techniques (with some Tips from Shakespeare)

Are your sentences juggling too many ideas?

This blog is a summary of sentence and essay writing techniques and strategies.

1. Creative Research

Brainstorm all your ideas. Enjoy the sense of liberation and creative flow.

This approach helps the researcher to identify the key words and concepts to be employed in the topic.

Remember that it is easier to juggle words, and to move them around safely, than it is to juggle complex sentences.

2. Composition on a topic.

Sentences are the building blocks of any essay. But start your work by exploring the key words and ideas.

Sentences that communicate effectively are the life-blood of an effective essay. Well-thought out sentences run through an essay like veins and arteries. They distribute the oxygen of ideas to each part of the structure. Poor sentences rot the fabric of the essay; they cause decay and lead to death. Avoid flabby sentences. Cut out what is not needed.

3. Planning / Structure

Identify the key clusters of ideas and concepts. These will become your paragraphs.

Think about the order of sentence-ideas within each paragraph.

Ideas may ripple outwards in circles, from smaller to larger generalizations.

At other times, it is the logical sequence that is essential.

4. The Writing Process

"Brevity is the Soul of Wit." (Polonius, in Hamlet, II.ii.90). Do not use more words than you need.

Initially, start with short, simple sentences. Avoid juggling to many ideas in one sentence!

At the outset avoid trying to show off.  In the first stage of writing it is wise to aim for content over style.

But in Shakespeare's play Polonius fails to stick to his own rule, and falls in love with his own linguistic exuberance. Throwing the right methodology back at the wind-bag politician, the Queen reprimands him concisely and effectively: "More matter with less art." (Hamlet, II.ii.95)

If you try to write long sentences at the outset, there is a danger that you will be lost in a maze of your own making. This means that your writing and thinking slows. You lose track of your ideas and you may become frustrated. Don't juggle more balls than you can handle.

In the second stage of writing, sentences can be joined if they share common ideas. Sometimes sentences are snapped together like links in a chain. Sometimes there is a looser sense of association. Occasionally, sentences work in parallel.

Use connectives as signposts. These words and phrases provide a sense of sequence and direction. They help sentences to flow smoothly and logically.

Think about variety and rhythm. A sentence is a unit of meaning, but it also has a sonic quality.

Employ a range of short, medium and long sentences. Avoid rigid patterns. Too many long sentences exhaust and confuse the reader.

Repetition of words or structures within and across sentences can be pleasing and memorable. Example: in 47 BC Julius Caesar said in Latin: Veni, Vidi, Vici. 'I came, I saw, I conquered.'

Short sentences deliver impact and effect, like a punch!

Longer sentences maybe employed where you want to balance two or three ideas. But avoid complexity for its own sake. A confused reader soon becomes impatient. Long sentences run the risk of entanglement.

Some sentences function as introductions to paragraphs. This type of sentence is like a short announcement. Typically, an opening sentences tells us what the topic is about. It may provide a menu, or offer a list of short points that will be explored subsequently in more detail. Opening sentences are precise statements or definitions. In order the create variety, the opening topic sentence may be delayed to second or third position. An example of this approach is when an essay starts with a quotation. In this case, the first sentence sets the tone for the essay, and/or arouses the curiosity of the reader.

In contrast, closing sentences may summarize the entire paragraph. The summary may offer a broader generalization based on the totality of the evidence or the concepts outlined within the paragraph. Perhaps your final sentence links back to your opening.

Following Julius Caesar's example, is it not the case that stylistic triumphs are more memorable than the events on the battlefield? Words win wars!

There is a reason why composition refers to music and to writing. So avoid being deaf to the sound of your sentences. Learn to listen to your work.

“All art constantly aspires to the condition of music.” - Walter Pater

Poor writing = a death sentence.

5. Next steps

It is essential to produce a second draft of your essay. At this stage you can afford to focus more on stylistic improvements. If you can afford to spend several days away from your work, you will return to it with fresh eyes. failure to re-draft leads to shoddy work.

In my view, the writing process twins creativity and critique. This means making and re-making based on critical insight and creative flair.

The final draft of your work should be proof-read. This means checking for errors. This stage of the process is also an opportunity to fine-tune your work. Step back and listen to the flow of sounds and sense. Use your ears!

The functional mechanics of sentences:

The Glencoe Grammar and Composition Handbook. Start with Chapter 4: Main Clauses and sentence structure. Pages 164-183. Then try pages 160-3.

Semantics and memory.

Writing out sentences is a very effective way to learn new vocabulary. See Lessons in Mary Ann Haller's Essential Vocabulary for College-bound students.

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(Quibble Academic, 2013)


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