FIVE THINGS NOT TO DO IN AN ESSAY
CSS (Central Superior Services) is a highly ranked competitive examination, and one of the most important elements for CSS is English Writing style. Many CSS Aspirants struggle with writing in English and it can seem like a real challenge to improve. Don’t worry, though. Here are some simple steps for all css aspirants that they can take to improve their written English and impress css examiner with their writing skills.
1. Fail to address the question’s topic in your introduction
The test of a good introduction is whether someone can guess what the essay question is just from reading it. If not, the introduction has failed. Therefore, a good introduction briefly sets out what the topic is and what your position is regarding the question. Be specific about your topic, but don’t go into too much detail—no examples or definitions are needed in an introduction.
So, if your question asks you to discuss the thematic links between three myths, it is best to say what the three myths are and to specify what themes you have identified. Don’t try to ‘wow’ the reader with grandiose statements or pithy quotes that broadly relate to your topic. The trouble with such trite openings is that they do not focus your reader. Rhetorical questions are also a bad choice for a first sentence. You are writing an essay, not a blog entry. The first one or two sentences of an introduction should directly address the question with a statement outlining your position regarding the topic. Using the terminology of the question helps to keep the statement focussed and ensures that you have not misinterpreted or misrepresented it. But never quote the question itself—the marker knows what it is. The next sentence, or sentences, should explain what the key aspects are that inform your position (i.e. they explain why you are arguing that position). The last part of the introduction should outline the method of your argument or the structure of your essay. With that done, you move on to your argument.
2. Stray from the focus of the question (especially in the conclusion)
Students often think a conclusion is where they get to discuss the wider ramifications of their position on the topic, or where they can branch out and touch upon other aspects slightly related to the topic. Wrong. The job of a conclusion is to highlight the key ideas that you have been arguing in response to the question (i.e. readdress the essay question in light of the discussion you have just provided). It helps to reuse the same terminology for consistency (but don’t just repeat what you said in the introduction verbatim). You can then summarise each main point from the body of the essay in the logical order in which you presented them. How do you know if something is off topic? Ask yourself whether your paragraph or sentence directly helps you to answer the essay question. If not, it is off topic and should be cut from the essay.
In a conclusion, don’t just say that you have discussed what the question has asked you to discuss. You must be specific and say what the key aspects were (and why). The trick is to say what you have argued in a concise way that does not just repeat what you have already said (don’t repeat your examples). Like introductions, conclusions should be one paragraph. And never include information—even if on topic—that you have not already discussed in the body of the essay. (So that means no footnotes in a conclusion!) The time for discussing the material of the topic is over; your argument is drawing to a close, not breaking new ground. Here it is common for students to get swept away by their own argument and attempt to say something profound. That is fine, so long as it is on topic. Never deviate from the question to discuss something else in the conclusion. If you have been discussing the themes of ancient Greek myths for the whole essay, do not start talking about how parallels can be seen in modern cinema, or how modern society has its own myths. The irrelevant digression belongs to old Abe Simpson, not your essay.
3. Insert quotes without introducing them or relating them back to the topic
Try to use quotations from secondary sources sparingly, if at all. And only include them if they say something of vital importance that you could not have worded better yourself. If you quote someone who says something that anyone could have said because it isn’t specific, or does not regard a contentious issue, you are only distracting your marker with unnecessary waffle. If you wish to refute what a source has said, it is a courtesy to quote it so that the reader can see you are not misrepresenting the source. But long quotes or lots of little ones will only hide your own voice—and it is you, not your sources, that is getting the marks for the essay. And don’t use a quote that repeats what you just said. That is tedious. If you do use a quote, you must introduce it correctly so that the reader understands why it is there and who said it. Don’t just shove it in and hope the reader knows why you have
included it. So say something like: Regarding survival rates for gladiators, Johnstone states: “Gladiator shows were hardly the bloodbaths we see in modern films and TV programs. If there were five fights in a day, on average only one would end in death.” This shows that the risk of death may have been low enough to entice free men to become gladiators.
You must also explain how the quote helps to answer the essay question (here the question would be: ‘Why would free men become gladiators in ancient Rome?’). Be explicit: don’t leave it up to your reader to work it out. And never refer to your quote as a quote (“This quote shows…”).
4. Fail to provide references
Essays are designed to test your ability to reference your sources. It is not pointless—it is worth marks. You include references to primary sources when you quote from or refer to a specific episode or instance from an ancient text. For example, if you say that “Hector calls his brother Paris the bane of Troy before the duel with Menelaus”, it is necessary to show the author, the work, the book, and line/section number where you read it. That way your readers can check it for themselves. If, however, you say something that is not specific to a passage or is widely understood, you do not need to provide a reference. For example, if you say that “Hesiod’s Theogony and Works & Days reveal a misogynistic attitude that is the product of a patriarchal society”, you don’t need to cite specific passages (though, if you go on to provide examples, you would).
You include references to secondary sources when you use ideas from them. If you say that “the chances of survival for a gladiator in the first century BC were one in ten”, you will need to cite whoever gave you that statistic. You also need to include a reference to you secondary source whenever you say something like “Futrell states” or “Hopkins argues” or “Slater believes”—otherwise your readers cannot verify your claims. If you don’t include a reference, your argument is weakened. If you keep failing to reference, you risk receiving a zero for
plagiarism. When referencing, use italics for book, journal and film titles. So, you would refer to Homer’s Iliad using italics (e.g. Homer, Iliad 3.50). Use in-text references for primary sources: In one of his letters, Seneca states that abusive masters would beat their slaves for something as simple as coughing (Seneca, Letters 47).
Use footnotes for secondary sources: Nevertheless, Pittman argues that the Romans were totally awesome.1
Note that the footnote is always placed after punctuation marks: .”1
5. Use informal language, colloquialisms, or overuse rhetorical questions
An essay uses a different style of language from that of a casual conversation. For an essay, you are being tested on your use of formal communication. There are certain things that are common in speech that should be avoided in an essay. Rhetorical questions Responding to an essay question with more questions is annoying. So, try to avoid posing direct rhetorical questions to the reader in an essay. These are usually tiresome to read because they shift the burden of answering the question to the reader when the reader just wants to sit back and let you do that. Rhetorical questions are useful for the person writing the essay (i.e. they help you come to grips with the topic), but it is best to rephrase them as statements or as indirect questions.