How to Write a Good Essay

An article to help Judicial and Civil Service Aspirants

First came the sound, then came the word and then the speech. With time, speech was no longer sufficient to express complexities of the new world. To overcome this limitation writing was invented. It was borne out of necessity of communication over long stretches of time and place. Written words took various shapes and forms becoming epics, poems, stories , treaties and essays.Be as it may ,robbed out  of their facade, every written or spoken entity is a communication. Every communication, by its very definition , involves the one who communicates, the thing about which communication is made and the person/persons to whom communication is made. Success of communication is measured not by how embellished the words are and nor by  how beautifully ornamented the writing it, but by how effectively it can communicate the subject matter  to the intended audience.
The first thing to remember about writing an essay is that they are but a form of communication. Their success and failure is gauged solely by how well can they express their central idea.
I had a friend, a person of exceptional intelligence, one who got through his tireless hard work,procured an early admission in institute as prestigious as an IIT. Despite his intelligence, despite his prowess at numbers, his pen didn’t fetch him respectable marks in the competitive examinations. I happenstance came through one of his practice essays, and found it full of mistakes that were presumable made by him in the examinations as well. Later I realised, as I read more and more of essays that the reason why people fail to get respectable marks in the essay is that they fail to realise that every essay is essentially a communication.
Every communication should focus on the subject matter of the communication and on audience. It should concentrate on making audience appreciate the subject matter. Unfortunately, most of the essays just don’t do so. They do not focus on the audience , who is our case is also our examiner. They do not try to make things interesting for the examiner. Any thoughts and concerns  towards likes , dislikes, ease and preferences of the examiner are conspicuous by their absence. These essays are written without any objective. They lack structure, they lack organisation , they lack planning and worse of all, in most cases , they lack the central idea as well. Without a subject matter to give soul and bereft of a structure to act as a body, it is hardly a surprise that these essays fall like an ill arranged pack of cards.
The first question which the author should ask himself or herself is that what is it that he/she desires to communicate. In speech the desire to communicate is natural and effortless. We hardly think, except in high stake situations, before giving shape to our thoughts. We think as we speak and speak as we think, neither pausing nor reviewing the content of either the speech and thought. People do almost the same thing when they text each other. Essay is different from speech in as much as that it is purposeful and deliberate. When asked to write an essay about a certain topic, it is essential to ask yourself, before putting the pen on paper, what is it that I want to communicate to the audience on this topic. What ideas do I want to drive home to him? What is the end that I seek to achieve by this writing exercise?Instead of asking these questions we do is that we ask about what we know of the topic and how can we transfer maximum of our knowledge to the paper. We lack the wisdom to discern facts from ideas.  In such cases where focus should have been on the audience, the focus, by habits of long standing remains on the speaker. Where emphasis should have been on the idea that is to be communicated and the most effective means at disposal to do so, the thrust remains on the knowledge of the author. Where the sequence of events should have been from thought to the words, more often than not, thoughts are sacrificed at the altar of words.
Tip 1. Before starting to write ask yourself these questions and answer them sincerely. 
        1. What is the topic? 
        2. What do you want to communicate about the topic to the examiner? In other words, what are your key ideas upon the topic? Are they new and novel enough to attract attention? Are they powerful?
        3. How would you arrange your thoughts in the essay, chronological, based on importance, based on place and so on? How would your essay proceed from one key idea to the other?
        4. Is your arrangement optimum to forcefully drive the idea to the examiner while at the same time remaining interesting and lucid enough?
        5. How would your conclusion be an exposition of your idea?
Unless you have answered these questions, it is unwise to start writing.
Just don’t support the topic rather write your own thoughts about the same.
Quick tip:- Spend at least one fifth and preferably one fourth of the time allotted for the essay for thinking and organising your essays. 
Another common mistake is to write essay in the way answers are written. Answers are a test of your knowledge, essays are a test of your expression. Answers are structured by the demand of the questions, essays are organised as per the necessity of communications. Marks in an answer would depend on how well the aspirant knows the subject and how effectively he can transfer the knowledge to answer sheet; marks in an essay are proportional to the power of the idea sought to be communicated and eloquence and lucidity of communication itself. While it would be ridiculous to ignore the importance of stretch of one’s knowledge in an essay, the marks in an essay are not at all directly proportional to the knowledge of the author. This highlights that essays are not answers and it is preposterous to write the one in the way other is written.
Yet another mistake is to learn some essay and reproduce it on paper. While it may prove to  be an efficient exercise when the words required are limited and the topics are few in numbers. When it is not so, the strategy falls upon itself. The exposition in such cases lacks sincerity and the language of the essay falls in contradistinction to remaining body of copy.
An essay should be a structured presentation of ideas related to the topic at hand. Whatever may be the topic the essay must always begin by asking question as to what are the ideas and how would they be presented. Let us say we are given a topic ‘Cleanliness is Godliness’. There can be two approaches to start writing this essay. One can either start the essay by introducing the importance of cleanliness, and then continue with listing all the reasons that support the statement and end by highlighting the importance of cleanliness. This is indeed what most of us would do. The problem with this approach is that it produces at best an average essay. There is nothing new, nothing interesting. Structure is simplistic. Essay in such  cases becomes lukewarm tasteless soup which at best fetches average marks and at worst becomes a reason for failure. If you notice, in this case the focus is not the audience but the author, the emphasis is not on idea and structure but knowledge.
What many aspirants fail to understand is that the examiner is not asking them to support the statement. The aspirant is not expected to support the topic of the essay by all means possible. He is required to produce his own thinking over the topic. The thinking of the aspirant may even differ from the topic. One should not be afraid of presenting one’s ideas unless they are fundamentalist and prejudiced. So long as you are treating the topic analytically , judiciously and fairly, so long as your statements are supported by arguments and examples, it hardly matters whether you support the topic or not.
Other approach would begin by asking oneself about the goal of writing the essay. What do I seek to achieve by this essay? Every one of should seek a personal answer to this question. My answer for such an essay would be that by this essay I want to show the reader the meaning and importance of terms cleanliness and godliness and there similarities and differences. The second assessment should relate to the ideas that I want to expound in my discourse. Your ideas would be different to mine. My ideas are,cleanliness is not limited to physical cleanliness; godliness lies in worship of humans, cleanliness is the worship of humans; god and sensitivity  to cleanliness are product of civilisation and growth, spiritual progress of an individual is linked to his self control, but godliness can not be reduced to cleanliness, thus though cleanliness is integral part of being godly , godliness is something much more and much important. Next step should be concerned with organisation of the ideas. The main idea is to arrange the ideas and facts in a manner which is easy and interesting for the examiner to understand.
Organisation of ideas is perhaps  the most difficult and most important part of writing the essay. Every idea, in a long essay, would have sub ideas and arguments and those sub ideas and arguments would in turn be supported by devices such as description, comparison, exposition, narration, contrast, examples, cause and effect and so on. Organisation would usually follow the three parts of introduction , body and the conclusion. However, each of these parts can be divided in sub parts.
In Judicial Service examination, the kind of essay that the aspirant is required to write ranges typically from 300 words to 1000 words. Since there are only a fixed number of words to spare, the essay cannot waste words. Writing for writing sake,that is for filling pages, repeating the  same idea over and over again is perhaps the worst thing that an aspirant can do. Even Introduction of the essay is not an exception of the rule. Most of the aspirants would simply rewrite the question in the introduction. This is fallacious.
Introduction should, firstly summarily propound the main purpose of the essay, secondly, be interesting and novel enough to coax the examiner in reading the entire essay, should begin with force. It does not mean that the essay should begin by a formal and uninteresting statement.  It can begin by a fact, a couplet, a quote and so on. In fact, such embellishments to the introduction when they are integrated to with the theme of the essay go on to elevate the essay from the realm of the good to the zone of the excellent.Be what may, the introduction must be integrally related to the general body of the essay.In civil service examinations since the essays to be written are longer and since more is at stake the author may make introduction a bit more critical and analytical. He may also include a question in the introduction. For example. “Are those who, by the misfortune of their circumstances, are devoid of the means to keep themselves clean, are also bereft of goodness and god?”
Tip 2:- Dos and Donts for the Introduction
    1. Never repeat the question in the introduction
    2. Introduction should summarily indicate the purpose and the objective of the essay
    3. Introduction should be eye catching and interesting. Remember the first impression is the last impression. 
    4. Introduction can have a fact, a couplet , a quote and even a question to stimulate interest of the reader. 
Body  of the essay is perhaps the most important part of the essay. Body must have an intelligent organisation and systematic presentation of ideas. Intelligent organisation means that the ideas and the facts should not present themselves haphazard manner. They must be organised on the basis of content, time, location, theme and so on. The exposition of ideas should also be systematic, which means that every next idea should logically follow the previous one. Basic ideas should be presented first and complex ideas should be presented subsequently. The ideas should be supported by the facts, arguments, narratives, personal experiences, examples from the lives of other great men, examples , comparison , contrast etc. The ideas in the body must not, therefore , be naked. Every idea or a sub idea which needs a separate argument or example to support it should preferably be written in separate paragraphs. One thing that the examinees can do is to begin every idea in the essay with a heading. Using heading gives an impression of ease and organisation. Two things that are a must for the essay. Whenever an idea starts to get more complex , divide it in sub ideas and write them in smaller paragraphs. Now if you are among those who write before they think then more often than not you would find yourself writing long complex paragraphs. Such paragraphs are often skipped by the examiner. Have pity on him. Take a pause and think before you write each paragraph about the idea you want to propose and the methods you would use  to substantiate them. It takes hardly 30 seconds but goes a long way in increasing the effect of your essay. More importantly different paragraphs should not come out as a rapid fire of arguments and ideas. They should be different in writing style. Say you have used population facts from data in one paragraphs, in next paragraph using the data from the same source would make it tepid and repetitive. You may use narration or examples or comparison. In one paragraph if you begun with a statement , in next you can begin with a question. The essence is that try to bring in variation in the paragraphs.
Tip 3:-  Things to keep in mind while writing the body of the essay.
    1. The body should be divided in separate paragraphs.
    2. Each paragraph must contain a separate idea or sub idea that requires a separate example or argument in its support.
    3. The ideas in the body should follow each other logically and should be organised systematically.
    4. Whatever may be the method of organisation the same should be followed throughout the essay.
    5. Various ideas in the body can be preceded with topics. 
    6. Take a pause before writing each paragraph and think about the idea you want to propose and the means you would use to support these ideas.
    7. Bring in variation in different paragraphs. 
Let us take the example of our essay in question. My ideas on this topic were : godliness lies in worship of humans, cleanliness is the worship of humans, god and sensitivity  to cleanliness are product of civilisation and growth, spiritual progress of an individual is linked to his self control, but godliness can not be reduced to cleanliness, thus though cleanliness is integral part of being godly , godliness is something much more and much important. Since my basic theme is to show that though cleanliness is an important part of godliness but godliness is something much more than mere cleanliness I would perhaps begin by citing fact that about 22% of India Population is below poverty line. In the introduction itself I would ask question whether these hapless humans can be condemned for blasphemy for their lack of cleanliness. I would again ask, that those who have been given enough, if they indulge in unfair and dirty practices can they be called godly. Now I want to divide the body of the essay on the basis of themes.
  1. The first is definition where I would propose that cleanliness is not related merely to bodily hygiene ,
  2. then history where I would show that morality, cleanliness and god all evolved in course of civilisation,
  3. then comes comparison which includes similarity and differences
    1. in this part I would argue why cleanliness is godliness and
    2. why is it not so
    3. and write my remaining ideas
  4. The problems in attaining cleanliness and godliness
    1. This is the place where I link the phrase with the current affairs
  5. and at last I would write the conclusion.
    1. Solutions
    2. Inspiration
    3. Hope
Since the theme of essay is philosophical the conclusion, to be appealing , should be inspirational. Notice how definition and history come before comparison. Notice how history follows definition and not vice versa. What would have happened if I  had not followed this systematic expounding?
The last part of the essay is conclusion. Conclusion in essays, as against in an answer , is not required to establish a particular point of view. Thus, repeating the topic in the answer hardly pays. The conclusion should be a summary of the views but it should be must be much more. It must contain solution, hope, wish, inspiration and so on. Please refrain from arriving at pessimistic conclusions. For example in our essay , a conclusion that says ,”Hence cleanliness in godliness.”, will not get good marks. Similarly ,writing that no matter what human beings do they would always remain filthy, inhuman and horrible creatures , is not advisable
Lastly , after ending the essay ,it is of paramount importance to revisit it. Usually in course of writing an essay, we are so overwhelmed by writing , atmosphere of examination, pressures of time , etc. that we commit silly mistakes that could have been easily avoided by using some caution. Failure to use a ‘s’ after verbs following singular noun in simple present, using ‘ed’ after a verb following a did, superfluous article, failure to capitalise, unnecessary capitalisation, forgetting to write a word and so on. These are some errors that could be avoided upon a revisit. These blemishes reduce the impact of an otherwise powerful idea, what worse, they reduce marks.
Tip 4: Conclusion
  1. Solutions to the problem
  2. Hope and wish for a better future
  3. It should inspire or motivate
  4. Should not contain negative and pessimistic views.
  5. Should not contain the topic.
  6. Revisit the essay and do minor corrections
Writing good essays, which for our limited narrow purposes are the essays that fetch marks is not limited to knowing about the physical structure of the essay.  To cultivate a panache, a flair and a style of the writing, the same should be done as often as possible. It is similar to exercise. To develop a physique, a person must consciously work on his body. Likewise, to be a good writer, you must not only write, you must be conscious of your own writing. You should be aware of the flaws and shortcomings of your own writing, your struggle to express yourself. You should review your own essays and if possible engage in peer review. In long run regular conscious writing practice, revisit and peer review would qualitatively increase your writing potential not only in essays but in general. For examination point of view, it is advisable to make a copy of essay. Write down some nice quotations, some very important facts, some beautiful couplet or some great idea about a topic in the booklet. Keep them short and manageable. Dedicate a portion of the booklet to tough words that you came across but didn’t know the meaning of, the interesting phrases and beautiful expressions that you might have read.  Visit this copy once a week and on the day when you do so, also write an essay. It also helps to note down important topics that might be asked in an examination and write some very short summary points, ideas and facts beneath them. So long as the ideas and facts are short enough to remember and revise in less than 3 hours, you are good to go.
Language of the essay should be simple, without errors and powerful. Tough and complicated words should be used only when it is required. If you make your essay too tough to read , you are making life of examiner tough, who would return the favour in kind.  Does it mean that the aspirants should shy away from using tough words even when the need so arises? No! Necessity and not embellishment should drive choice of words. If a word is needed , it must be used. Sentences should not be monotonous and should vary in a paragraph. Are words anything more than being containers for the idea? Since they are not, every prudent man would use only those words which would express his idea in most lucid , interesting, simple and effective manner. Perhaps, the flow of the language is even more important than the choice of the words. It really pays to avoid grammatical and spelling mistakes in the essays.
Long term habits:-
  1. Work on grammar. 
  2. Make a copy of facts, quotes, words ,expression and possible topics
  3. Read various things
  4. Write consciously , at least once a week, being aware of your own writing.
  5. Review your essay and copy after a week. 
  6. Use simple but flowing and powerful language.
  7. Use variation in sentences
Lastly, there is no substitute to reading. All great writers were invariably voracious readers. The repertoire of reading should not be limited to the books related to competition. Cases help, but they are not enough. Editorials, stories , novels, articles and memoirs, read them all, do not shy away from reading. None of us are good writers from our birth. We all learn writing . Work sincerely and regularly and see your success touch your feet.
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