Tips for writing a mind blowing and marks fetching Essay

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by the 2 highest scorer of CSE 2013, Hemant Rohilla (160/250) and Roman Saini (145/250)

Essay writing forms an important part of many examinations conducted by UPSC. Civil Services Examination is no different. It is meant to be a subjective assessment of one’s personality, one’s reasoning and one’s line of thinking.
I believe Essay writing is both an art as well as a science. Before further discussing Essay Writing, let me first raise the most basic question.

What is expected out of an essay?

Essay is not just a disgorgement of information and facts nor is it a medium to express our attitudes and prejudices through half-baked opinions.
One purpose of an essay could be to test and assess the writing skills of the candidates. Yet equally and even more important purposes that an essay serves are to give an insight into:
  • one’s thinking
  • one’s ability to respond critically and personally to a problem or issue
  • one’s acumen to select and use information to support an argument and
  • to present this argument in a structured and impressive way.
Essay, to put it succinctly, is considered to be a reflection of one’s personality.
What UPSC expects is neither a factual or informative essay nor a highly opinionated one. What is needed is a balanced presentation of ideas related to the given topic substantiated by sound facts and reasoning.
At the same time, it should also be kept in mind that innovativeness, creativity and novelty (in presenting and structuring essay) within the limits of reasonableness is always rewarded.
This year the topic I chose to write the essay on was “Is the Colonial mentality hindering India’s Success?”.
I started off with a fictitious story of atrocities done on 2 tribals by the strongmen of their area in connivance with the Police authorities about 2 decades back and how they are still trying to pick up their lives long after those atrocities were committed.
Even the whole Criminal Justice System seemed to have failed in dispensing justice to them and the Civil Administration had failed miserably in restoring their lives and livelihoods.
Though fictitious but the story I cited was in resonance with the many incidents of caste/class dominance and evil nexus between various powerful lobbies.
After citing this small story, I moved on to explain the biases, prejudices and power structures that are still part of the Administrative structure of our country more so at the lower and middle levels where the poor and the powerless are more often than not at the receiving end of it all.
Then I moved further to a more broader level where I elucidated the dominance of Colonial Mentality in the psyche of a common citizen by citing examples across polity, administration, economics (as Mr. Raghuram Rajan also stated in his address as WEF) and across different levels of the society.
Following are some of the points that I would like to mention as my learnings/take-aways from the essay that I wrote
  1. I did answer the question unequivocally through my essay – Yes, Colonial Mentality is hindering India’s success.
  2. I paid due attention to illustrating what I understood by each and every word of the topic i.e. I did explain Colonial Mentality and how did I evaluate Success in the essay.
  3. I took a practical position by admitting the negatives associated by Colonial Mentality and its presence in modern India. But at the same, whenever I took I critical stand it was solely based on sound evidence and arguments not just opinions or emotional arguments.
  4. Even though I was critical at places, I maintained a positive attitude and tone throughout. I was optimistic and hopeful of the future and suggested ways of getting over the impediments which are hindering our progress and success.
  5. I did not use the story just in the introduction but rather weaved it throughout the entire essay. I connected back to my story in between my arguments and again connected back at the fag end in the conclusion. I gave the direction to the story and finally pointed to the ray of light that still existed at the end of the dark tunnel.
  6. I focused on a limited number of points only – about  5 or 6 in the entire essay.
  7. I took around 50-60 mins to detail out the structure, framework and broad flow of the essay. Also I left around 10 mins towards the end to revise the essay. So I could write only about 1100-1200 words. It reaffirms that quality matters not the quantity.
  8. After the examination, most people anticipated that I must have written on the topic “Science and technology is the panacea for the growth and security of the nation” given my background as a working Research Engineer and an MBA post-grad. However I took an unconventional topic since it appealed to me and I was confident that I would be able to manage it. And the gamble paid off. However I would like to state here that this is not a golden rule to choose a topic different from your area of expertise. But if you are ready to take the risk, this strategy may yield good dividends.
  9. And finally there is not a single proven and uniform formula for everybody to use. Yes, there could be some set of DOs and DON’Ts and certain advices but finally one has to work out one’s own formula based on understanding of one’s strengths and weaknesses.
In the following writeup, I have tried to mention the strategies, techniques and principles that I found useful when I prepared for and wrote essay in the 2013 Civil Services Examination. Application of these principles helped me score 160 marks in the essay paper.

Preparation for the Essay paper

Now comes the point of how to prepare oneself for essay. Frankly speaking, I did not devote much of my time towards essay preparation since I knew that my GS knowledge, my reading habits and a decent command over English would let me stand in a good stead in the Essay paper.
However I did spent time to structure and draw outlines of certain essays which appeared in the last 3 years’ papers. We all suffer from information overload and in an outright attempt to sway the examiner with our knowledge and intellectual prowess, we tend to disgorge everything we know even if it is only remotely linked to the asked theme. In this process we not just deviate from the core theme of the essay and write a number of irrelevant things and waste our precious time during the examination but also end up pestering the examiner.
Thus I realized that more than the content it is the structure, organization and closeness of the content to the asked theme that is important.
However when I look back at my essay preparation strategy I do feel the following readings helped.
  • Regular reading of newspapers – The Hindu, Hindustan Times and Mint
  • Selective reading of EPW articles
  • Selective reading of frontline articles
Then material from various coaching institutes is available which can just be glanced over while looking for something unconventional, interesting and unique. End to end reading of such material would only prove to be a waste of time. So be selective and glean through the material for other than usual information.
Before delving further into the specifics, it is equally important to keep certain qualities of a good essay in mind. A knowledge of these points helped me a lot when I was structuring and organizing my essay and was looking for relevant information closer to the theme that would make the essay a good one.
These 11 qualities act as a filter to filter out grain from the chaff.

11 qualities of a Good Essay

 

1. Relevance
At every point in the essay, relevance to the given topic needs to be maintained. All key points and their supporting arguments should lend corroborative support to the main argument without deviating in relevance from the core issue at hand.
2. Completeness
An essay should be muti-faceted and should present a holistic and multi-dimensional view of the given topic. The reader of the essay should feel the completeness of the arguments that have been made in the essay.
3. Cohesive
The arguments or main points of the essay should not be haphazard or randomly arranged. They should all stick together to the central theme and give a coherence, direction and purpose to the essay.
4. Sustained
The essay should be well paragraphed i.e. logically arranged in paragraphs. Sub-headings are generally not prescribed in an essay but there should be a sustained focus on the central theme through well drafted paragraphs.
5. Well-organized
Ideally, an essay should have the following three parts:
  • Introduction : provides an insight into what follows.
  • Body : organize points/ideas, arrange sub-arguments.
  • Conclusion : should have a sense of closure and leave something in the mind of reader to think about.
6. Concise
What the examiner desires is a well thought out stream of arguments systematically arranged and rationally substantiated. The arguments should be brief and concise and write only relevant things in the essay.
7. Sign posted
Unless there are suggestive and appropriate sign-posts at the relevant places, there is a danger of getting lost. Thus try to use connectors to connect a paragraph with its preceding and succeeding paragraphs.
8. Specific
Be specific to the extent possible while extending arguments in an essay. Vagueness, arbitrariness and ambiguity are disliked by the reader. While quoting specific data or general statement, understand the relevance and appropriateness of the context. Take the pain to explain
and connect the quote or statement to the main argument. Always put the quotes in inverted commas. Mis-quoting can be disastrous.
While quoting quotes in regional languages, write its English essence after it, like done by Finance Minister Chidambram in his budget speeches while quoting Thiruvalluvar.
9. Analytical/Critical thinking
Independent opinions based on sound facts and analysis and critical unbiased analyses are always appreciated by the examiner.
10. Explanatory
The arguments, though concise and relevant, should serve to explain their core point to the reader.
11. Fluently paced
Finally, the reader should not feel bored and disillusioned while reading the essay. The arguments should be so arranged and spaced out that the reader should get the thrill out of reading the essay as if he is reading some detective novel. The essay should strive to maintain an urge in him to finish reading the whole piece with heightened interest and in one go.
I would now stress on two important sections of the essay which are I consider as the most important : The Introduction and the Conclusion.
A well written and insightful introduction would lead the reader into reading the essay with much interest and heightened curiosity whereas an apt conclusion would leave a savory taste in his mouth which would lead to good scores in the Essay paper.

Introduction

Some of the important characteristics that make an introduction appealing are
  • Its relevance to the given topic.
  • It should be interesting and captivating.
  • It should suggestive of the direction of the central theme of the essay.
  • If possible, it should give a hint regarding the conclusion.
There could be different ways to write an introduction. I explored the web, read a few articles, read a few essays and finally zeroed on the following suitable ways of starting an essay.
– Starting with a General Statement
A General Statement followed by specific statements is very common way of starting essay. I would say more than 70-75% candidates start their essay in this manner.
– Start with a Quote
However the Quote should be relevant and should be used in a proper context. Around 20-25% candidates use this method to write the introduction of an essay.
– Starting with an anecdote
Anecdote is short story – it may be fictitious as well. But it should be relevant, moving and interesting. This is a novel way of starting essay. I used a fictitious but real life resembling story to start my essay this year.
– Conversational Introduction
Another way to start an essay could be through  a conversation, a predicament or by raising a question. Thereafter this conversation could be carried further by explaining it or extending it further in between the arguments.
– Writing the conclusion itself in the introduction is another unique way
For example if one is to write on ‘Globalization & Indian culture’, then introduction could start by  saying – ‘Globalization has corrupted my culture.’ And in this context arguments could be extended further in the essay.
– Asking Rhetorical Questions
‘Are we Indians really hypocrites?’. This could be an interesting but difficult way to start an essay.
Conclusion of the Essay is one another extremely important area which should be given appropriate attention. Afterall it is only towards the end that the examiner would be giving marks to the essay.
A conclusion should not just give ‘a closure’ to the essay but should also impart a ‘sense of closure’ to the essay. That is one should close the discussion without closing it off totally.
sense of closure could be ensured by supporting conclusion with a quote which amplifies the argument or by giving wider implications for the argument.
Arguments should not be repeated in conclusion and the tone should not be apologetic. Rather one should demonstrate decisiveness in conclusion, be assertive and positive.
Following are some of the important points that are generally rewarded in a conclusion. Conclusion should
  1. show that you have answered the main theme
  2. show wider implications of your subject
  3. leave something in the mind of reader to think about
  4. NOT be a mere repetition of the introduction
  5. NOT be a two line statement as if there is nothing else to write
  6. NOT introduce a fresh argument
Following are the various strategies that could be used for writing a conclusion
  1. Echoing the introduction eg. If started with a story connect back to it
  2. Directing the reader (into a direction)
  3. Looking into the future (beneficial for all of us in the future)
  4. Posing questions
When I was preparing for the essay, I was told about the following 6 Ps that are crucial for a good essay. And in addition to the above specified 11 characteristics of a good essay the following 6 Ps equally serve as lampposts for writing a good essay.
1. Presentation
Neatness & Clarity straightaway appeal to the reader and can help you maximize score with the same quality of content. Margins, legibility, handwriting, indenting are all essential elements of presentation.
2. Proper selection of subject
It is generally suggested that one should select a topic that is different from one’s area of expertise/background. But this may not be the golden rule always.
The golden rule is that one should understand the context in which the theme of the essay has been set. In essay essay topic, there is a broad theme that is essentially present and needs to be understood and addressed.
3. Planning
Planning is an important part of essay writing. Planning involves structuring, arranging, writing
and revising. It is generally suggested that the last 4 pages of the answer sheet may be used for drafting and structuring the essay.
4. Proportion
Dividing one’s time between the Introduction, Main Paragraphs and Conclusion is equally important. Generally prescribed times are : 1/6th of the time to structure, 3/4th to write and 1/12thfor revising the essay.
5. Perspicuity
Clarity of expression and uninterrupted and logical flow of thoughts in paragraphs are another requirements of a good essay.
6. Persuasiveness
The tone of the essay should be assertive and generally positive. Though one can be objectively critical at times but positivity and optimism should ooze out from the essay.
Finally I would like to sum it up.
Introduction to the essay should be insightful. It should directly relate to the given topic. Content should be rich, coherent and should all point towards the desired theme. Conclusion should again be insightful. All the points in the essay should contribute towards one single theme. Paragraphs should be in continuity.
While detailing out the points in the content, expand the topic and identify the underlying issue. Reach to a more broader level without compromising on the overall focus of the essay.
Essay length could be about 1200 -1500 words. Each paragraph may contain 8-9 sentences. Introduction/conclusion could take 1-2 paragraphs each. Take the first 15 minutes to understand the topic and the last 15 minutes for revising.
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