Tuesday, 6 March 2007

A beginning, a middle and an end

From casual conversation with my friends and from working with students in the writing center, it seems to me that most student writers at some point experience critical feedback about the structure of their essays. In my case it came early in my part-time study of art history in the form of a tetchy, “this is not how we write essays in the arts.” Ouch! Still, I learned one thing from this, namely that hard-working tutors appreciate close attention to structure. At the very least, even only as a courtesy to your reader, assignments should have a clear beginning, middle and end (aka introduction, main body and conclusion). This was pithily summed up for me once as, “tell your reader what you’re going to say, say it, then tell them you’ve said it.”

The WriteNow/Assessment Plus criteria reinforce my experience, citing structuring as an evaluative point. Specifically, “The formal arrangement of the essay content into paragraphs. Good essays have clearly recognisable introductory and concluding paragraphs. Paragraphs in the main body of the essay: each has a clear, single concept or point as its main focus. Better essays have a paragraph structure that supports the development of ideas within the essay, so that the structure of the essay is linked to the developing argument.”

So, moving into more sophisticated terrain than intro, body and conclusion, if best practice is to link essay structure to argument then it is clearly very important to get one’s argument straight at an early stage. This is what I’m trying to do on the wiki at the moment. I’m attempting to write out all of the ideas I’ve been having so that I am absolutely crystal clear about the case I am about to make to my reader. Broadly, this can be summed up as, “We’re given the impression that Freud’s theory of personality is unscientific, irrelevant and ridiculous. This is a bit unfair. I will show you why.”

What you see on the wiki is my attempt to clarify each individual argumentative step on the journey towards this unifying thought. My marker will be a psychology lecturer, probably at least a bit sceptical of Freud, so I need to craft something which will appeal to such a person. So far, my writing seems to be coming out in paragraphs which make successive points in approximately the right order. This is because I know already where I want to end up. I want to take my reader where I’ve been before, show them a condensed, cleaned-up version of my own thought process. It is also because I view academic essay writing as being closely related to storytelling, which in turn seems to be a very appealing form of communication. We tell each other little stories all the time. They always have a beginning, middle and end, and, when they’re told well, we’re always keen to know how things will turn out. Yep, that’s it in a nutshell. I want to give my reader, who may already have marked fifty essays before they get to mine, the gift of a well-told tale.

58 comments:

Patrick said...

"A beginning, a middle, an end and a gag."

I imagine my lecturer, sitting in his office, trawling through dozens of undergraduate essays. I imagine my piers in the weeks before, sweat trickling in and out of frown-creases on foreheads as words, paragraphs and arguments are painfully pasted together. My friends tell me they don't like writing essays and I guess our lecturer knows this only too well.

It is indeed important to be kind to your reader by telling them what you will say, what you have said and separate the two by saying it. I, however, urge academic writers to go one step further... tell a joke!

I'm not championing footnotes with cringeworthy "knock-knock" gags, appendices detailing incidents concerning chickens crossing roads and I certainly do not want to see Bernard Manning references in bibliographies.

I imagine my frustrated, tired and nicotine-withdrawn lecturer as he comes across my essay next in the pile. He reads my introduction and is immediately engaged. Why? Because I am engaged. What happens when I'm feeling engaged? I crack jokes, make lighthearted observations and search out laughs and smiles.

This once worked excellently when I "stole" (and referenced) a humorous yet pertinent remark for my introduction to an essay on George Berkeley ("The reader is aware, I hope, that the idealist is virtuous and the materialist is wicked. However, there may be more than this to be said." Russell, B., History of Western Philosophy).

If I have a point, I suppose it is this: all undergrad essays have to be read; if the reader enjoys reading the essay, it may well bridge the gap between a 2:1 and a First.

Lynn said...

“I say, I say, I say. My dog’s got no penis…”

Hi Patrick. Perfect timing, comic and otherwise. As you probably know, Freud saw humour as being an important clue to the contents of the unconscious. He thought that what we find funny is also what makes us anxious. Tension, then, seems to be the underlying key to engagement. And here you discuss/demonstrate one way of achieving this.

At the weekend I went to the fillums to see ‘Notes on a Scandal’. I found it to be tremendously engaging, and afterwards felt kind of overstimulated, as though I’d just seen an action movie. Interestingly, this is probably because the ending suggested more to come. The tension wasn’t adequately discharged. But anyway, the story and performances used a very clever mixture of tragedy, prurience and yes, a lot of humour. On reflection it’s probably the latter which really made it a great cinematic experience.

Patrick said...

Laughs and gasps: two disparate exit strategies for the same difficult situation.

I think of the many times my fellow passengers furiously "tutted" upon hearing the announcement that meant we would be stuck on that dank, grey, unfriendly platform for at least another 12 minutes. My response, on the other hand, would be to release a sharp spittle of mirth.

If you want to scream, shout and chuck those damn toys out of that bloody pram, I suggest that you stop, think and have a little giggle.

Generally, one cannot, if Freud et al are to be believed, control one's immediate reactions to the content and workings of the unconscious; but many outward responses can be urged in a particular direction.

Given appropriate conditions, therefore, one should laugh in the face of tension, frustration and strife and go for a swift pint.

Lynn said...

Know any good Freudian gags I could include?

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