Sunday, September 27, 2009

Essay writing




TODAY we will look at section B of paper 1 i.e. the section on continuous writing. This section carries a substantial 50 marks. Candidates are given five topics and they have to write on one of these topics in an hour. The topics can be categorised as follows:

narrative

E.g “Write a story beginning with: I never knew what happiness was until….” or “Write a story ending with: Finally, he walked away without saying a word.”

descriptive

E.g. “The worst day in my life”

factual/expository

E.g. “The Effects of Pollution” or “Ways to Make School Interesting”

argumentative

E.g. “Students should be allowed to wear casual clothes to school. Do you agree?”

one-word essays

E.g. “Freedom”

General guidelines for continuous writing:

1. Read and consider all the questions given.

Do not make the mistake of selecting the first question that you read or a question which you think is manageable. You might realise later that you could have handled another question with much more ease.

2. Choose a topic that you are familiar or comfortable with.

Select a topic which is within your experience so that you will not have to struggle with the content.

3. Opt for a topic which is within your linguistic ability.

Do not select a topic just because you think it is challenging. This is not the time for experimentation.

For weak students, it is always advisable to write a narrative.

4. Plan your essay – the outline/organisation, points/ideas/thoughts, and supporting points (if you are writing an argumentative or factual essay).

5. Write out your essay in neat and legible handwriting. Small or untidy handwriting, or a combination of both, can be very annoying as the reader has to spend valuable time deciphering what you have written.

6. Write in paragraphs.

You may leave a line between paragraphs as it is easier on the examiner’s eye.

7. Edit and revise language if necessary.

Allocate 10 minutes for this, and make sure spelling and punctuation are accurate.

Narrative Essays

This week we will focus on narrative essays, which are a favourite among students. As mentioned earlier, narrative writing is a better option for weak students.

Guidelines to remember when writing a narrative essay:

1. You have to decide whether to write your essay from your own perspective or someone else’s.

The first person or third person singular is the most popular voice. If you choose to write from your own perspective, then use the first person singular i.e. ‘I’. If you choose to write from someone else’s perspective, use third person pronouns (he, she, it). Be consistent in your choice of pronouns. Do not switch perspectives mid-way through the essay.

The choice of pronoun also depends on the question. In the question “Write a story beginning with: I was tired and…”, you have to use the first person singular ‘I’.

2. Engage your reader. Make the story real for him. Make him involved in your experience.

3. Have a simple plot. You will be better off using the chronological order. Flashbacks are a wonderful device where you merge the past with the present. But be careful; only engage in this method if you can carry it off.

4. Use only the simple past tense if you cannot handle the past perfect tense.

However, you will need to use the past perfect tense if you are referring to more than one action in the past.

5. Bring your characters to life. Make them real. Make them memorable. It is always more interesting to read about flawed characters.

6. Use nouns, verbs and adjectives to evoke your reader’s senses.

7. You may use dialogue, but use it sparingly and effectively. Remember you are writing a narrative, not a script.

Before you write your essay, it is a good idea to plan what you are going to write.

A good narrative should have:

i. An introduction

This is to set the scene and present the character/characters

ii. Complications or problems

In your story, the character/characters might have a problem to overcome.

iii. A climax

A good story should have a climax which is the most exciting part of the story

iv. A resolution (end)

Never leave your story hanging although accomplished writers use this technique (which is called an open ending) to get their readers to confront certain issues the writer may have raised in his story.

A resolution tells how the complications/problems were resolved or how they (the problems) affected the characters.

Specific guidelines for continuous writing:

i. Make sure your essay is longer than 350 words.

This means that you need to develop your essay/ideas to a considerable degree.

ii. Avoid lengthy essays.

Some students believe that they will obtain more marks if they write a lengthy piece. This is definitely not true, especially if your essay has considerable grammatical errors.

iii. Do not waste time counting the number of words.

By now you should be able to gauge how many words you write on one page, so do not waste precious time counting the number of words in your essay.

iv. Pay attention to language.

As in directed writing, avoid informal language, clichés, contractions and slang words.

v. Avoid using unnecessary idiomatic expressions/proverbs.

Some students have this notion that they will obtain more marks if they use idiomatic expressions/proverbs, and so, they memorise as many idiomatic expressions/proverbs as they can.

Reading an essay littered with idiomatic expressions/proverbs can be a pain. Also, not all idiomatic expressions are formal.

vi. Use a variety of sentences (simple, compound, complex and compound-complex) of varying lengths.

We will look at these in the next article.

vii. Use precise vocabulary.

E.g. He told me to be careful as there were crocodiles in the river.

He warned me to be careful as there were crocodiles in the river.

The word ‘warned’ is more precise.

viii. Do not use spoken language.

These days, it is quite common to come across the usage of spoken language not only in newspaper articles, but also in magazines and novels.

Remember, there are differences between spoken and written language.

If you are unsure whether a phrase is spoken or written, ask your teachers.

ix. Do not leave your sentences hanging.

Remember, every English sentence must have a subject and a verb.

E.g. “I saw many types of marine life. For example, seahorses and starfish.” (The second sentence is hanging.)

x. Do not use repetitive words, phrases or structures.

a) Examples of repetitive words:

i. It was a very hot day. I was feeling very thirsty.

(You could replace the word ‘very’ with ‘extremely’ in the second sentence.)

ii. My mother scolded me for coming home late. My father, who was just as angry, scolded me for not listening to his advice.

(You could use ‘admonished’ instead of ‘scolded’ in the second sentence.)

b) Examples of repetitive phrases:

i. Murni and I were best friends. We had been best friends since kindergarten. We had promised to remain best friends till the end of our lives.

(You could rewrite it this way: Murni and I were best friends. We had been close since kindergarten. We had pledged to maintain our friendship till the end of our lives.)

ii. It was the end of the year. My father had promised to take us on a holiday. He had promised to take us to Perth.

(There are several ways to rewrite this:

1. It was the end of the year. My father had promised to take us on a holiday. He told us that we would be going to Perth that year.

2. It was the end of the year. My father had promised to take us on a holiday to Perth.)

c. Examples of repetitive sentences:

My mother is one person who is admired by many people. She is a strong and determined person. She does not let problems stop her from doing what she wants. She sees problems as challenges.

(As you can see the structure ‘She…’ is repeated as in ‘She is… She does not… She sees…’

Learn to use other structures to overcome this problem.

‘My mother is one person who is admired by many people. She is strong and determined. Problems do not stop her from doing what she wants. According to her, problems are challenges.’)

*You may, however, use repetitive structures for emphasis.

xi. Avoid redundancy,

E.g. “In my opinion, I think…”

‘In my opinion’ and ‘I think’ have the same meaning.

E.g. “It was a happy and merry occasion. I felt satisfied and contented.”

The words ‘happy and merry’ mean the same thing, so does ‘satisfied and contented’.

Here is a sample question:

Write an essay ending with “... with tears in her eyes, she hugged me tightly.”

Sample answer

It was the wettest December I had ever experienced. The torrential rains had ruined my holiday plans as floods continued to wreak havoc in several states. I had pleaded with dad to allow me to go to the east coast with my friends but he had been unyielding. The thought of having to stay indoors for the next two weeks was not only depressing but also unbearable. Television did not excite me anymore. I was fed up of watching the same old movies on cable television. Even the other channels had nothing exciting to offer. Finally, I decided to go into the attic to retrieve some books which I had not read for a long time.

The attic was surprisingly clean - a sign that mum had finally completed the chore that she had kept putting off. I looked around and noticed a teak chest that I had never seen before. Curiosity got the better of me and I walked towards it. I lifted the lid slowly and was pleasantly surprised to see a variety of things in it – all of them reminders of my childhood. I looked nostalgically at the clothes I had worn as a child and the toys I had played with. ‘Bobo’ the teddy bear, which I had slept with until I was ten, had been dry-cleaned and kept in a box which also contained the first Mother’s Day card I had made myself. I was not prepared for what I saw next. Lying at the bottom of the cardboard box was an old black and white photograph of a young woman. I stared at it incredulously. It was as if I was looking at a female version of myself. All sorts of questions and dreadful thoughts flooded my mind. I held the photograph tightly in my hand and dashed out of the attic, only to bump into my mother.

“Mum....who is this?” I asked in a quivering voice.

From the look on her face, I knew it was a question she did not want to answer. Quietly, she held my hand and led me towards the study where dad had been working all morning. She knocked on the door once before opening it. Dad looked up, and his expression of annoyance disappeared when he saw the photograph in my hand.

What I heard that day is something I will never forget for the rest of my life. The woman in the photograph was my mother, my biological mother — Lily Lee.

“Son, Lily loved you very much; just as much as Janet here loves you.”

Dad’s use of the past tense made me uncomfortable. It took a great deal of effort on his part to narrate the painful past.

My biological mother was six months pregnant when the incident happened. She had been walking towards her office when a motorcyclist came from behind and grabbed her handbag before speeding off. As a result of the sudden assault, she had lost her balance and fallen on the kerb. The head injuries she had sustained had a devastating effect on her health. The only option was to perform surgery, but due to her condition, this option was risky. The doctors had wanted to terminate her pregnancy to save her life but she had refused. A month later she fell into a coma. Although the doctors had given up hope, Lily continued to live, though in a comatose state. It was as if she was not giving up on life till her baby was born. When the doctors deemed it safe, they performed an emergency C-section. Lily breathed her last the moment I was born into this world.

Dad sobbed softly as he finished relating the heart-wrenching story. All sorts of emotions consumed me. I was sad, confused and angry. Was I adopted? What about my father? Who was he? Had he abandoned me? After a while, I braved myself and stated what I thought was obvious.

“So, that means you are not my real parents. I am adopted!”

“No, son. You are not adopted. I am your father. Lily was my first wife. She made me promise her that I would marry her younger sister, Janet, so that you would not grow up motherless.”

The sense of relief that I felt at that moment was indescribable. I looked at mum and I saw the pain and anguish in her eyes, as though she was anticipating rejection. Quickly, she looked down.

Slowly, I got up from my chair and walked towards her. I went down on my knees and held her hands in mine. Her eyes remained downcast, fearful of rejection.

“Mum, I know I am only seventeen but I am more mature than you think. You might not have given birth to me but you are and will always be my mother.” I comforted her as much as I comforted myself.

She looked up slowly, her eyes searching my face for sincerity. Then with tears in her eyes, she hugged me tightly.

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