LOTS of people don’t know how to write an essay, a business report — indeed, any other kind of extended writing.
It’s a bad generalisation, yet a rather accurate observation too.
Our general suspicions have been proven right ever since going on a certain Q&A site in August 2014 — as far as the general run of questions asked there is concerned on the general and specific points of writing.
Unfortunately, lots of people don’t know how to write a concise cover letter for a job application either — but that’s another story for another day.
(Yes, yes, we are well aware of sampling error — it might just be some of the people on that Q&A site (and others) who don’t know how to do those things.)
Let’s stick to solutions for essays for the time being.
The essay is the one that usually has many of us beat (defeated) — at least judging from the questions asked on various Q&A and essay-writing websites.
Let’s explore some possible solutions in terms of:—
— Parts of composition
— Two simple ideas to realise at the outset
— The planning
— Operational tips for the actual chore of writing things up
— Mop-up operations after the initial writing
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The weapon system (a.k.a. parts of composition)
If Learn English or Starve had to summarise the whole thing about essay writing into a 5-minute crash course, a well-rounded, general-purpose essay in the traditional mould has these 7 parts:—
1. Introductory statement of subject and purpose
2. Roundup of the main issues under discussion
3. Outline of points or arguments to come
4. Application of points or arguments to issues
5. Possible counterpoints, counter-arguments or counter-issues
6. Summing up and closing statement or argument
7. A personal note on the discussion (optional)
* * *
Realise two simple ideas right now
Almost everyone knows these two already from school:—
1. Get your main point up front and early! Nobody likes to read!
This piece of advice nearly always override any other advice we’re ever likely to receive. Read on to know why.
2. Write with an eye on the reader.
The type of reader in mind depends largely on you — or the requirements set for the essay by the establishment. Either way, write in your own style and flavour, but always with an eye to the reader’s expectations.
* * *
“Planning is everything; the plan is nothing.”
— Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, ca. 1943
The first rule of planning is that you can’t plan and work at the same time.
Some people have the writing version of “the gift of the gab” — the happy knack of able to write anything on the fly that’s practically publishable. Most people will require some degree of planning beforehand, however.
Three emergency measures to help planning — assuming there’s a background idea already in the head, but the chief hiccup is the actual writing up of it:—
Draw a diagram (e.g. mindmap). It helps to kick things off. Try writing descriptions of that diagram. Rework the text later.
Bullet points and/or broken sentences — even ‘telegramspeak’— but get the thing down first. Rework the text later.
Alternatively, write the individual points on index cards as they occur to you. Afterwards, organise (and reorganise) until ‘best fit’ is achieved. Then write out the thing in accordance, using the cards as prompts.
If it’s too hard to write out, voice record it. Monologue your ideas, then transcribe. Indeed, record the dialogue with your collaborators and transcribe that. Rework the text later.
Worth a shot.
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For upping general writing abilities quickly, below are some emergency measures — a cheatsheet, if you will — from 30+ years of editorial experience.
Writing proficiency takes time and practice — we know that already. Practice makes perfect, as the saying goes.
Also true unfortunately is this reality:— Practice may reinforce bad habits we have in the first place. Accountants recognise this ‘practice-makes-perfect’ problem from bitter experience.
Get to the point up front and early — nobody likes to read!
Back to basics! Set your most important point right at the start to ‘stage’ the reader. Don’t force anyone to read the whole thing to get to your ‘conclusion’ at the end. This advice nearly always guarantee your essay will stay focused.
Always write the wretched thing out to ‘completeness’ first!
Write to complete or near-complete form first, regardless of phraseology, grammar, punctuation — or whatever the hell you’re preoccupied with.
Standard operating procedures:—
– 20 to 25 words per sentence
– 2 to 4 sentences per paragraph
– 80/20 — short words 80% of the time, longer ones for the remaining 20%
– Lean more on 1- and 2-syllable words
– Go easy on polysyllabic words — makes the writing ‘feel’ turgid (paralysed)
– Stick to ‘English’ words if at all possible
– Write/draft with nouns and verbs first
– Remove ‘that’ as many as possible (unless it alters the meaning)
– Remove most adjectives — re-insert any to retain original sentence meaning
– Go easy on (or cut out) adverbs — adverbs make your writing ‘weak’ (shitty)
– One idea per sentence, ideally
– Stick to literal language, generally
– Rewrite the verbs and phrasal verbs as far as possible
– Split longer sentences to remove conjunctions, if possible
– Avoid comma-separated internal clauses inside sentences — recast
– Keep facts relatively together
– Keep issues relatively together
– Keep examples relatively together
– Keep opinions relatively together — and neutral-sounding
For factual stuff:—
– Go easy on idioms — stick to ‘literal’ language generally
– Keep only sentences with factual or literal content
– Trim out ‘opinion’ sentences
For descriptive or evocative stuff:—
– “If your eyes could speak, what would they say?” (1970s advice)
– “Show, don’t tell” is only a guideline (not a rule, though a good one)
– At worst, describe the mental imagery — definitely not ‘explain’ it
Avoid literary masturbation:—
– Don’t be hypercorrect with grammar — you’ll sound stupid and stilted
– Know your ‘zombie grammar rules’ and break them occasionally (e.g. split infinitives, ain’t, etc).
– Write for the times: Be contemporary in tone without being hip, fashionable or modish — or the other extreme: hidebound like a period piece
– 1 character space between sentences if on proportional typefaces
– 2 character spaces between sentences if (and only if) on monospaced typefaces*
* If your work is ever going to be professionally typeset, this bad habit on proportional typefaces will incur extra typesetting surcharges, whether you like it or not. Simple as that.
* * *
Recast the wretched thing!
Even when you’ve finished writing, don’t think that you’re home free and dry.
Lay off the writing for a bit — ‘let the copy marinate’ as we say in editorialspeak. go out and live a little for a few days, then back to the grind. The recast (rewrite) everything.
Real writers, as you’ve discovered by now, are ruthless animals that go for the jugular. And not just in writing either.
Having said that, don’t go the other extreme and rewrite the thing to death. It’s not a deathquest. There has to come a point when good enough is already perfection.
Learn to proofread stuff yourself
This isn’t flippant advice.
Sometimes you have no choice. You are your own quarterback. You are your own fallback in getting the legwork done.
Yes, you have to learn to unlatch your mental self from your writing so as to proofread well. It’s gets easier with practice and not too long doing it either, we’re pleased to report.
Many will tell us that an author-proofreader is mentally too close to his work to do an effective and effectual job — true enough. Since, however, we recognise this defect, it’s also its solution, isn’t it?
Basic proofreading checklist items:—
Come up with a checklist during the writeup stage. This provides your proofreading (or your proofreader) with some degree of discipline.
Go through each item in term. You’ll have to do several proofing rounds.
– Consistency of definitions (having your own stylebook will help)
– Spelling consistency (without reading the contents)
– Numbers agreement in tenses
– Tense consistency
– Punctuation consistency (must for business reports)
– Artwork-to-text agreement
– ‘Widows and orphans’
– Accuracy of your Contents page
– Check your Title!
FYI, we did our own editing and proofreading for this post. So there.
© Learn English or Starve, 2015.