What is good writing?
What is good writing?

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What is good writing?

2.3 Analysing Philip's essay

2.3.1 The title

The first thing I noticed about Philip's essay is that although it begins with a title it is not the one he was given. This immediately creates two problems.

  1. If I were Philip's tutor I would find it difficult to weigh up his essay against the challenge he was actually set.

  2. The title he has made up is not a good one, so it weakens his essay from the outset.

Philip's title doesn't pose a question for him to answer. So I began reading without any sense of what he is trying to say. He has given himself a broad theme, but no purpose. An essay never asks you just to ‘write what you know about the topic’ – it always requires you to present an argument of some kind. Often, as here, the purpose is to answer a question. Other essay titles may ask you to discuss a particular point of view, or compare and contrast two points of view. But however the title is worded, it is always meant to pose a ‘problem’ which your essay should then set out to argue about and solve.

Philip neither starts with a problem to solve, nor finishes with a solution, so there is a rather aimless feel to the essay. It's reasonably interesting, but it isn't going anywhere in particular. This makes reading it a lot harder. Since, as a reader, you have to ‘project’ meaning into the written words, if you're not sure where the words are leading it is much more difficult to follow. A good essay is never just a string of sentences. It is a journey from the question in the title to the answer in your ‘conclusion’.

Philip's lack of clear purpose is the biggest weakness of his essay. We see it at the end of the first paragraph, where he throws in a comment about modern young women. The comment doesn't mean much to me, but in any case it has little to do with the topic. Everything you say in an essay should contribute in some way to answering the question in the title. This is the great value of having a problem to solve – it gives you a way of deciding what to put in and what to leave out. It also helps you to organise what you put in, so that it builds up towards your conclusion. Because Philip does not have a clear purpose, he drops in stray points that don't lead anywhere. And in his last paragraph he is left making vague remarks about women in general – needing company and seeking things ‘in their favour’ (couldn't this be said about men too?). So the essay fizzles out, without doing justice either to the themes of Ellis's article or to Philip's own ideas. All of this is quite understandable in a first essay. But it points up the crucial importance of recognising that an essay is meant to be an argument.

Key points

  • An essay should take the form of an argument.

  • This argument should start from the problem posed by the question or title at the top of your first page, and it should lead your reader through to a conclusion set out in the final paragraph.

Yet in spite of getting off on the wrong foot by not sticking to the title, Philip's essay has a lot in it, as we can see if we pull it apart. Here is the basic content of his essay set out in note form. Check the notes quickly against his essay to see if you agree that I've captured the gist of what he says.

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