How to write a good essay

Yesterday at lunch I had a discussion with two of our MSc students on how to write. We started of on how to write a good thesis and ended up talking about how to write a good essay. This morning I got an e-mail from the Chair of the Examiners, who is the person running a committee that decides the marks for student work.

N.B. marking in Oxford is its own case study of accountability, transparency, and power. I don’t understand how such an intricate system has evolved that relies on double-blind processes combined with committee decisions and multiple-levels of hierarchy to quality control all to derive ‚objective‘ marks while the revelation that facts are constructed came to this institution as a big surprise.

The email I got this morning asked me to give some students feedback on one of their essays. I have to admit switching from communication by powerpoint to communication via unformatted, double-spaced, prose was one of the greatest challenges of starting with this DPhil. I also just read Dan Ariely’s brilliant blog post and the subsequent op-ed in the LA Times on this topic.

Drum roll. Here is my list on ‚How not to write you essay

  1. Answer a different question. Well, why wouldn’t you. Time is short, the deadline looms. Luckily, in this other course there was a required reading, which you still remember and which could shine some new light on the question. Brilliant idea! Of course there are bonus points to be earned for bringing in new literature. This is perfect murder of two birds with one stone. Unfortunately the execution often falls through. The argument, already a basket case full of apples and oranges, doesn’t get the cream and chocolate sprinkles on top, which it deserves but rather gets a completely new addition, which looks more like a block of cheese with a smell of old socks rather than a fresh idea.
  2. Look up the etymology of the key concepts. No argument has ever been advanced by looking up the etymology, well outside the realm etymologists anyways. It is always good to know that the word project can be traced back to 1450. Always good way to use space.
  3. Give good solid definitions for all concepts. A good essay ought to start with a long laundry list of working definitions for key concepts. Let’s define risk, organisations, bias, projects, and my favourite major programmes. Once that is out of the way we can actually start looking at the question. Again a great way to use the space.
  4. Write up the lecture slides. Just on the off-chance that the marker hasn’t read the slides, just copy them and expand the text a little. Did you make a recording of the lecture. Even better. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.
  5. Cover everything that has been touched upon in class. Decision-making is hard, to decide what concepts to use and which ones to ignore is risky. Avoid cutting something out whenever possible. On the flip side if you cut something out you should not talk about why you took a specific lens.
  6. Make shit up. Drop names. I do have 10 years of experience in this, so let me tell you what I think. I think that the following 8 factors are the key to success in the field. Also, since it is my own opinion I don’t need to add references. Time saved! Damn, they want a reference. Let’s just put an article here whose title sounds as if they would agree with my thinking. Done!
  7. Be Malcom Gladwell „A cursory reading of 5 journal articles has brought me here today to tell youÂ…“

My list for a good essay

  1. 1 idea per paragraph, first sentence explains how this is important to answer the question, last sentence gives the so what? and answers the question. Sounds simple, then go on and do it!

My background is in Computer Science and my old prof Eric Schoop introduced me to information mapping most essays I have to read would certainly benefit from bringing stronger principles to writing.

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