What is good writing?
What is good writing?

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What is good writing?

2.2 Looking at other people's essays

One of the best ways of developing your essay-writing ability is to see how other students respond to the same essay title as you. It is not that you want to copy someone else's style. It's just that you need to broaden your understanding of what is possible when you are answering an essay question.


If you are studying with other students you might arrange to meet from time to time to read and discuss each other's essays. If you can't meet, you could exchange essays by post. This is not cheating. It is a way of gaining insight into the strengths and weaknesses of your own writing by comparing your approach with other people's. Anyway, you probably wouldn't be able to copy their styles even if you tried. And why would you want to when it is your writing you are aiming to develop?

The idea of letting other people see your work is a bit daunting at first. Your writing feels like a ‘private’ matter, between you and your tutor. But, once you take the plunge, other students can often be as helpful as a tutor in giving you ideas and opening up new possibilities.

That is just what we are going to do here. Below you'll find a link to and article called ‘On the town: women in Augustan England’ by Joyce Ellis, followed by links to two essays on the subject of the article. Read the article and the essays. You will get the most from this section if you print the essays out. The essay writers were adult students in a ‘return to study’ course, who were given this task:

Write a short essay (of no more than 500 words) on the following:

Did eighteenth-century women migrate to towns mainly because of the attractions of the towns, or mainly to escape from life in the countryside?Discuss in the light of Joyce Ellis's article.

Click 'View document' to open the Joyce Ellis article ‘“On the town”: Women in Augustan England’ (PDF, 0.1MB).

View document [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

Click 'View document' to open Philip's essay On the Town. “Woman in Augustan England” 1680–1820 (PDF, 0.1MB). Philip's essay was handwritten and came with a note. Part of it reads: ‘Writing this is a learning experience because I am starting late in life to going back to be re-educated. But I feel more than willing to attempt the challenge…’.

View document

Click 'View document' to open Hansa's essay Did eighteenth century women migrate to towns mainly because of the attractions of the towns, or mainly to escape from life in the countryside? (PDF, 0.1MB).

View document

Did eighteenth-century women migrate to towns mainly becauseof the attractions of the towns, or mainly to escape from life in the countryside? Discuss in the light of Joyce Ellis's article.

Activity 1

Read the essays by ‘Philip’ and ‘Hansa’ which can be accessed through the links above.

  1. As you read, note any places where you have difficulty grasping the point, and write any other thoughts that come to you in the margins. Pencil in any alterations you think could usefully be made. (If possible, work on printed copies of the essays.)

  2. When you get to the end of the essays, take a sheet of paper and write two headings: ‘Strengths’ and ‘Weaknesses’. Note down the good things about Philip's essay and the weak points. Then do the same for Hansa's.

  3. Try to weigh up the quality of these essays.

    Do you think that one of them is better than the other? (Can they be good in different ways?)

    Overall, do you think that they are good essays or poor ones?

    How much of that is to do with the quality of the ideas in them and how much to do with the way the ideas are presented?

  4. Finally, can you draw any general conclusions about the qualities a good essay should have? (Look back over your answers to 2 and 3 above.)

Write down your conclusions.

Before you begin, read the box below about ‘“Judging” writing’.

‘Judging’ writing

This is a demanding activity and it will take you some time. You may not want to do all of it at this stage. However, it is worth doing. It will be time well spent because you need to develop your ability to see what works in writing and what doesn't. It is not helpful to try to learn formal ‘rules’ of writing. Rather, you have to become a reasonably good judge of real pieces of writing, including your own. ‘Marking’ other people's work helps you understand what you should be aiming for in your own writing.


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