Tuesday, August 26, 2008

More on essays



WRITING a descriptive essay is perhaps more difficult than writing a narrative essay because it makes more demands on one’s use of language. In a descriptive essay, you need to give a detailed description of a person, place, object, experience or memory. Your description must be so effective that the person, place, object, experience or memory described is clearly visualised by the reader.

If you are describing a person, the reader should feel that he knows the person well. If it is a place that is described, the reader should feel as if he is there and seeing it with his very eyes. How can this be achieved? Through the use of details that appeal to your reader’s senses and a lively tone that draws his emotions.

Techniques in descriptive writing

  • Use details – Focus on the five senses (sight, sound, smell, taste and touch). Details are very important and when properly used, enable descriptions to come to life. Use nouns, adjectives and verbs to evoke these senses. Nouns and adjectives help the reader see; verbs help the reader feel.
  • Use a lively tone – Show your own feelings, responses and reactions as these make your description more vivid and lively.
  • Describe different aspects – If you are describing a person, do not limit your description to the person’s physical appearance. Include a detailed description of the person’s character and personality and how other people react to him. Include a detailed paragraph of an incident which highlights one of these aspects.

    Let’s look at the two extracts below on the topic “An Unforgettable Aunt”.

    Sample 1
    Aunt Eleanor had a sharp nose and a pair of black eyes. She was thin, and had a thin, long face, an aquiline nose and sunken cheeks. Her hair was always tied in a knot and her clothes were only of one colour – grey. My cousins and I were afraid of her and always found an excuse to disappear whenever she was around.

    Sample 2
    Aunt Eleanor was thin and scrawny and her protruding bones almost made her look like a walking skeleton. Her aquiline nose and sunken cheeks added to her witch-like looks and her dark eyes, when they flashed in anger, were capable of sending tremors of fear down one’s spine. The dreary grey tones of her clothes and her sparse dark hair, which was always tied in a knot, further emphasised her sternness. My cousins and I cringed with fear and were reduced to silence when she glared at us with her smouldering dark eyes. Her serious demeanour and scrooge-like appearance did nothing to endear her to us.

    Sample 1 is a plain description of the narrator’s aunt. Although there are several verbs and adjectives, the description is somewhat dull. Sample 2, on the other hand, is a vivid and interesting description which brings the character to life. We can almost see her in our mind’s eye and this effect is achieved through the description of the person’s features that are prominent and striking.

    Note the details about her overall physical appearance (thin, skeleton-like), her facial features (aquiline nose, sunken cheeks, dark eyes), and her manner of dressing and grooming (dreary grey tones, tight bun). Note the feelings stirred by her appearance (tremors of fear, reduced to silence, cringed with fear). The description of her physical appearance supports and reinforces her character and personality, and this makes the essay interesting and engaging.

    Some writers like to merge descriptive writing with narrative writing. There is nothing wrong with this as the description enriches the narration.

    Argumentative essay
    The argumentative essay is much more challenging as it makes great demands on your ability to put ideas and opinions across convincingly. To attempt this type of essay, you must be able to operate at a higher level – in terms of thought, language and style.

    Choose this essay type only if you are able to write sound and compelling arguments using clear and logical reasoning. Flawed or faulty arguments and lack of conviction are some of the weaknesses of a poorly written essay.

    Techniques in argumentative writing

  • You must be able to look at both sides of an argument – The ability to look at both sides of an argument is essential as this will help you present your case better.
  • Have between three and five ideas/points to support your stand.
  • Provide ample supporting details – Use examples and illustrations to support your ideas/points.
  • Decide the order in which you want to present your ideas – For an effective essay, begin with the most important reason and end with one that is just as good or convincing.

    Below is an example of an argumentative essay based on the topic “Public exams should be abolished. Do you agree?”

    Public examinations play an important role in a student’s life in Malaysia. In his eleven years of schooling, a student has to sit for three major public examinations, the UPSR, PMR and SPM. These examinations are taken seriously by all parties involved, especially students because the results are used for a wide range of purposes ranging from placement of students to awarding of scholarships. Despite these advantages, I strongly believe that public examinations should be abolished as they have several drawbacks.

    To begin with, public examinations to some extent merely test a student’s ability to memorise and regurgitate facts. Bloom’s taxonomy of learning ranks these skills as lower order thinking skills. Higher order thinking skills such as application and inference are often neglected. Students with excellent memory do well in such examinations while those with poor memorising skills do poorly. Thus, it is not surprising that many students with poor recall skills loathe subjects like History and Biology. Another case in point is the Moral Education paper, which requires students to memorise moral values. This is not a valid test as it tests only a student’s knowledge of values, not the practice of these values. An A in this paper does not guarantee that the student is a morally sound and virtuous individual. And what about the student who gets an E? Are we suggesting that he is not a morally upright individual?

    Another reason why I am not in favour of public examinations is that they are not the best way to identify a student’s strengths or weaknesses. This is because these examinations test only certain skills. Allow me to illustrate my point. The language papers, for example, test a student’s reading and writing skills only and even so, the range of sub-skills tested is limited. An A in these subjects does not reflect a student’s competency in all areas of the language. For all you know, he may be an incompetent speaker. Or for that matter, does a C mean a student is about average in all the language skills? Do these grades tell us where a student’s strengths and weaknesses lie?

    Another major drawback is that teaching in schools today is largely influenced by public examinations. Teachers teach to prepare students for exams and not for life. As such, many of our students are ill-prepared to face the challenges of the real world. This also goes against the grain of our National Philosophy of Education where the emphasis is on character building and the development of human capital. All parties involved are to be blamed for this as they are more concerned with student achievement and not student development. At the end of the day, parents want straight A’s for their children, principals want excellent performances from their students and teachers, and the list goes on.

    Finally, in their quest for excellent academic results, school becomes a bore and a chore. Students are overwhelmed with homework, extra classes and tuition, and teachers are overworked, leaving both parties with little or no time for relaxation. Thus, it is not surprising that students choose to ignore co-curricular activities. They see these as a waste of precious time. Parents, too, are affected by the emphasis on academic achievement. Some go to great lengths to secure private tuition for their children, hiring only the best. Thus, we can conclude that public exams take the fun out of learning.

    We cannot deny the fact that public examinations enable us to assess thousands of students using a similar instrument but the question one needs to ask is who eventually benefits from such a system? What happens to students who are not able to master test-taking skills? Is academic excellence the only indicator of success as suggested by the public examination system?

    In a world which is changing rapidly, we need to prepare our students for the many challenges they will have to face as they will form the backbone of our nation in the years to come. Taking into consideration the flaws of the public exam system, it is clear that we should seriously consider other means of assessing students and do away with public exams.

    The above essay is convincing because the writer has presented and argued his case well.

    He gives four reasons why public examinations should be abolished (they merely test a student’s ability to memorise and regurgitate facts, they are not the best way to identify a student’s strengths or weaknesses, teaching in schools is largely influenced by public examinations, and school becomes boring because of the emphasis on public exams) and each argument is well supported.

    Look also at how he begins each paragraph (To begin with, Another reason, Another major drawback, Finally). These transition markers help readers follow the direction of the writer’s thoughts. The direct and formal manner used also add to the overall effect of this piece.

    One-word essay
    The one-word essay is quite manageable as it allows you to decide which essay type you are going to write about. Take the topic “Floods”. If you choose to write an expository essay, you can write about the causes and effects of floods; if you choose to write a narrative essay, you can narrate a story related to floods; and if you choose to write a descriptive essay, you can focus on describing floods.

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