So, now you have a clear idea of what the question is about; you have read it carefully, noted the key words, and you are not fooling yourself about what it means. Only now can you begin to answer it confidently.
‘I can’t make plans; it stops my ideas somehow. I’m better writing everything down as it comes.’ Does this sound familiar to you? Perhaps you’ve said or thought much the same yourself. If so you won’t be alone. I will be perfectly honest and admit to occasions when as a student, having been asked to submit my plan together with my essay, I wrote the essay first and concocted the plan afterward from what I had written. It didn’t usually deceive anyone, but it had an unexpected usefulness in showing up very clearly the weaknesses of the unplanned essay! There are people who, when they read the question, can see the whole shape of their essay immediately, whose ideas seem to come out of their minds ready, organized and needing only to be written down. For these people, making an essay plan may be unnecessary and may actually inhibit their flow of ideas. But people like this are very few indeed, so if your immediate reaction to this proposition was, ‘Yes, I’m like that’, you are probably fooling yourself again.
Planning really is necessary
Planning really is necessary, but if so many people find it difficult or tedious then there must be something wrong with their methods of going about it, since the object of it is to make the whole exercise easier and more successful. There are only two basic steps to planning:
Collecting and selecting the material.
When you are in an exam, all the information has to come out of your memory and it has to come quickly; but for the essays you write during your course of study you can use all the sources at your disposal-textbooks, reference books, your own notes, ideas formed in discussion with other people and so forth. You can spend longer thinking about it but there comes the point nevertheless when you have to start assembling it.
How to do it
One way is simply to make summary notes of all the information you think you need and then to pass on to the next stage of sorting them out. This may indeed be the method that suits you best, but it does have various disadvantages. To begin with, unless you are experienced, it tends to be a long process and perhaps a repetitive one since you can find yourself simply copying out large sections of notes you have already made, without summarizing them at all. This may not matter too much if you have plenty of time but it won’t work in an exam and therefore won’t be of much help as preparation for it. However, if this is the method you are used to, you may find it hard to adapt to something different, and in that case here are two tips for using it most effectively:
Keep your planning notes as brief as possible. Don’t use complete sentences and don’t put into them more than what is absolutely necessary to remind you of the point you want to make.
Don’t write the notes one beneath another in an exercise book. Instead write each point on a separate piece of paper; you can then shuffle them as you please or lay them out in front of you like a pack of cards, trying out different ways of organizing them to discover the most satisfactory. This will also enable you to add other points or throw some out more easily. Remember though that, useful as this may be at home, you can’t do it in an exam.
You may find, just as I did, that the pattern-note method is better for planning essays and other answers. It has a number of advantages: it is quick; it can be used just as easily in an exam as it can be at home; and above all, it makes the second stage of your planning-organizing all the material-far easier because you can see everything at once. This means that you can fit different bits of information into their appropriate groups as you go along and you can see the connections between all the different groups quite easily. If you are not used to planning in this way, you may be slightly unsure about attempting it, but it is worth experimenting.
Try it now on an English Language question since this is a subject most people take.
There is too much violence on television. Discuss this statement giving arguments for and against it.
Remember that all you want to write on your pattern are key words and phrases to remind you of the different aspects of the topic you want to discuss.
Starting and stopping
You now have the general structure of your essay clear. All you need is a way of getting into it and a way of getting out. The first rule for starting an essay is don’t put the reader off. Essays of the kind already mentioned are likely to prove the most difficult so we will stay with that type for the moment. With a subject like this one on television violence you can approach your argument in a variety of ways. Here are a few possibilities:
(a) An opening referring directly to the question set
This is safe and can be helpful to the reader but take care that it is not also too dull. Never repeat the question word for word in your opening sentence:
“There are many arguments for and against the statement that there is to much violence on television.”
Can you see that not only is this sentence unexciting but it doesn’t get you anywhere either? If you are going to use this kind of opening, at least change the wording in some way.
(b) The indirect approach
It can be effective to introduce the essay subject by way of something else, but I would only recommend this if you are fairly confident; and if you do use it, don’t take too long about it, e.g., ‘When I was young, if I arrived at her house with a new toy, my grandmother would say darkly, “You get too much bought for you”. She never made it clear though just how much was “too” much or why she disapproved. The statement about violence on television is rather similar.’
(c) The factual introduction
This can be very impressive if you know the facts, which might be a problem in an exam essay but perfectly possible on other occasions when you have time for a bit of research, e.g., ‘During one recent weekday evening the three channels between them broadcast approximately eight hours of programmes in which some violence was shown. This was out of about sixteen hours’ total viewing time.’
(d) The introduction by illustration
You can sometimes start with an example that is relevant to one or other side of the argument or that simply underlines the question, e.g. ‘In a widely-published murder trial in the United States, the teenage boy found guilty of the crime claimed that he had got the idea from a television Programme. This raised once again the much-argued question of whether or not violence on television is generally harmful.’
(e) The ‘Statement of opinion’ opening
You can begin this kind of essay by saying whether you agree or disagree with the proposition and then going on to show why by discussion of the arguments. The drawback to this is that giving your own opinion is also a good way of ending he essay, and if you have already used it at the beginning, your conclusion may be rather weak.
Whatever style of opening you choose, the important thing to remember is that it must lead you smoothly to your first point.
With essays where the emphasis is on presenting some factual information, or where you have to explain and comment on something, there is no merit in searching or an original opening. You will be best served by an opening sentence that refers directly to the question and gets you started on the answer, e.g. Describe and show the importance of the growth of railways before 1850.
Opening lines: “The first public railway was the lie between Darlington and the port of Stockton; it was built by George Stephenson and opened in 1825. Before that time steam locomotives had been in use…”
These are easier. Unless you are writing an imaginative essay, the best kind of conclusion is usually one that reminds the reader briefly of your arguments and states your opinions based on those arguments. The important thing is to leave the reader satisfied that the essay has indeed finished and not just stopped, e.g., “There are strong feelings on both sides of this debate and not very much decisive evidence. Having now looked at some of the arguments, my own conclusion is that yes, there is too much violence on television and people are quite right to be concerned about it; but if the only way to change this is by imposing censorship, I would rather accept the risks and leave the freedom of broadcasting untouched.”