What is good writing?
What is good writing?

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What is good writing?

2.3.2 The content of Philip's essay

Paragraph 1: Introductionsocial context

  1. Ellis – a portrait of C18 women whose fathers/husbands were of landowning class.

  2. Men were country-oriented → expected wife/daughters to fit into high-status rural life-style.

  3. Women were under-privileged [?], owing to the boredom of country life.

  4. Contrast with modern woman – who can combine marriage, children and career.

Paragraph 2: Tedium of country life

  1. Increasing wealth → rising standard of living → more servants → women more time for skills → extreme frustration.

  2. In country, women couldn't exercise skills:

    • females outnumbered males [?]

    • few opportunities to meet.

  3. Strict rules of social propriety, very visible → conduct impeccable at all times.

  4. Longed for urban life – even for short spells – to be able to socialise.

Paragraph 3: Attractions of town

  1. Towns → variety of respectable social options, including active role in organising.

  2. More women to meet – exchange views – learn new ideas.

  3. More meetings with men – theatre, concerts – both sexes could mix respectably.

  4. In many ways beneficial to women.

Paragraph 4: Male interpretation of women's migration to towns

  1. Male jibes at women's migration to towns.

  2. Viewed women as inferior in many ways.

  3. Saw escape from boredom of country as ‘improper’.

Paragraph 5: Conclusion – Women's need for company and amusement

  1. Women need company and escape from boredom

  2. → will continue to seek things in their favour.

Setting out the essay like this shows us a number of things.


We can see straight away that Philip's essay has a structure. Each paragraph deals with a new aspect of the topic and the sequence of paragraphs has a clear line of development. In the first paragraph Philip sets up the general background; then he explores the repellent side of country life, followed by the attractive side of town life; then he notes male attitudes to the women's migration to towns; and in his final paragraph he draws a general conclusion. This is an excellent outline plan for a short essay. He hasn't entirely carried it off, as we shall see in a moment, but there is nothing wrong with the basic structure.

Key points

  • An essay needs to be structured.

  • Partly this involves organising the points you want to make into groups, and giving a paragraph to each group.

  • It also involves arranging the paragraphs into a meaningful sequence, leading towards your conclusion.

Arguing a case

Philip clearly has a sense that he is meant to be arguing a case. Perhaps the best bit of argument comes at the start of paragraph 2. If you look at the notes you'll see that I have used arrows to show how the argument works. He says that increasing wealth led to a rising standard of living, which meant that more servants were employed, which led to women having more time to polish up their social skills, but that this ‘in turn’ led to frustration because country life no longer gave women enough opportunities to exercise their skills. This is very purposeful writing. He drives us forward through the logic of his argument.

As paragraph 2 continues, Philip tells us why women didn't have the opportunity to exercise their social skills in the country, saying first that women outnumbered men (though I'm not sure where he got that from) and then that few chances arose for meeting others. At this point the logic is still clear – we have just been given two reasons why opportunities to exercise social skills were limited. But he then moves on to the oppressiveness of the rules of ‘propriety’. It isn't obvious whether that still has to do with the exercise of social skills. Perhaps it is added simply as another source of the ‘frustration’ Philip mentioned earlier, but if so the connection is not made. It reads as just an item in a list of points, not as part of a clear sequence. This lessens the impact of the build-up of the logic. That's a pity, because the last point is about women longing for city life where they could exercise their skills, which would have followed on very nicely from the points about not being able to do so in the country. We end the paragraph with the sense that there were ‘a bunch of reasons’ why women were fed up with country life, instead of a sharp focus on the irony of having increasingly sophisticated skills but dwindling opportunities to use them. Just read the paragraph again to see if you agree.

Key points

  • An argument is a series of points arranged in logical sequence, with links made from one point to the next.

  • Putting in points that distract from the main flow of the argument diminishes its impact.

Linking points together

Looking at the flow of Philip's argument as a whole, we can see that it gets off to a weak start – it lacks a title to give it a clear framework and purpose, and the opening sentence does not engage the reader.


There is a lot to be said for brisk, direct opening sentences in an essay. You need to set the reader's thoughts off in the right direction, so there is no virtue in a lot of formal ‘throat-clearing’. The first sentence should grab your reader's attention. It should be related to the essay question and it should be doing important work for your argument. But it doesn't have to be fancy.

It is often said that in your ‘introduction’ you should say what you are going to do in the essay (then do it in the ‘middle’ part of the essay, and then say what you have done in the ‘conclusion’). But this kind of writing to a ‘formula’ is tedious to do and pretty dull to read.

After the opening sentence, the first two proper points in paragraph 1 (see my notes) actually do a good job of getting things going. Unfortunately, point 3 does not follow on particularly well and point 4 is simply a distraction. Yet broadly, once he gets going, you can see that in the first two paragraphs Philip is telling a ‘story’ about how and why women's roles in the countryside changed over time, and what this meant to them.

At the end of the second paragraph he concludes ‘so therefore woman began to long for the urban or city way of living…’. This leads us into the next paragraph, and to the topic of women's role in the town. He begins the fourth paragraph with ‘This transition…’ which connects back directly to what he has said in the last sentence of paragraph 3. And by using the linking word ‘Nevertheless’ at the start of the last paragraph, Philip shows he knows he should be making a connection there too, even if he hasn't quite worked out how to pull the whole thing together at the end. So he has a good general sense of the need to connect each stage of his argument into a flowing sequence.

But although Philip links up the stages of the argument well, he doesn't always organise the main points he wants to make within each stage into a meaningful sequence. As we saw, in the second paragraph he does not manage to weave the idea of the demands of propriety into the flow of his otherwise purposeful writing. Here's how the main points about women's role and their life in the countryside might be re-organised into a connected, logical sequence.

Life in the countryside

  1. Points about rising standard of living, etc. (which Philip handles well) → these women lost their household function.

  2. As a result, they had more time to develop accomplishments and fulfil a ‘decorative’ role.

  3. But the demands of propriety meant they could mix only with their own kind (unlike their menfolk).

  4. This particular population was sparse. Lack of transport and bad weather prevented women from mixing socially and so fulfilling their role in rural society.

  5. Instead they were restricted to pastimes in and around their homes, such as needlework, letter writing, reading and walking.

Here a clear line of argument is being developed within the stage of the argument that deals with life in the countryside.

Key points

  • You have to develop an argument in stages towards your conclusion.

  • This means you have to link each stage to the next, so that the reader can follow the direction your argument is taking.

  • And, within each stage of the argument, you need to organise your main points into a logical sequence.

Bringing in your own ideas

At the end of paragraph 2, Philip makes his point about the busy lives of modern young women. (Presumably he means to draw a contrast, rather than suggest a ‘resemblance’.) Why did I suggest that this is not a good idea? Doesn't it show initiative to bring in a few ideas of your own? Is essay-writing meant to be just repeating back what you've read in books and articles? This is a tricky issue. Certainly you are meant to think about what you write and to say things as you have worked them out for yourself. It would be very dreary indeed simply to repeat back what you have read, and you wouldn't learn much. On the other hand, your thinking is meant to be based on the ideas and information you have been reading about in your studies. The essay is an exercise in ‘engaging with’ these arguments and ideas, and trying to put them to use. This helps you to learn in depth. It is also an exercise in being disciplined in your writing – saying exactly what you intend to say, and only what you can justify saying. It is not an open invitation to write down your thoughts to see what your tutor makes of them.

There are three problems with Philip's attempt to introduce the comparison with modern women.

  • If he is going to bring in something from outside the Ellis article he needs to justify it. He can't just drop in a remark in passing and expect his reader to accept it without question.

  • Because Philip's observation is not drawn from what he has read in Ellis's article, it opens up a whole new area – it raises questions about what kinds of generalisations can be made about women now, what kinds of comparisons can reasonably be drawn between then and now, and what kinds of evidence might be relevant to making this case. He simply does not have the space to tackle all this.

  • In any case, it is beside the point; it is irrelevant to an argument about the reasons why eighteenth-century women migrated to towns (the task set by the original question).

You are not forbidden from bringing in ideas of your own but you have to do so cautiously, and always take the time to back up your case so that your reader doesn't just dismiss it out of hand. Your reader is only interested in well thought out arguments based on good authority or good evidence, not just anything you happen to want to say. Generally, as a newcomer to a subject, it is best to concentrate on trying to do an intelligent job of working with the arguments and information you have been reading about. Your own originality of thought has plenty of opportunity to shine through.

This even applies to the terms you use. For example, Philip says in paragraph 1, ‘These were under-privileged women…’. ‘Under-privileged’ is not a term Ellis uses, and it sounds pretty odd given that she is talking about wealthy society women. Privilege was what they did have. ‘Socially cut-off’, ‘under-stimulated’, or ‘under-employed’ are all terms that might more accurately be used. But it is wisest to stay close to the terms that authors use, unless you know a lot about the subject. After all, what grounds has Philip for placing these women in a particular category other than what he has learned from Ellis? She will have chosen her terms carefully, based on her own detailed knowledge of the subject and on the terms in use amongst other experts. Writing essays is also learning to use the ‘language’ of the writers in the field you are studying.

Key points

  • Dropping thoughts of your own into your essay, in passing, tends to raise lots of complicated questions that you cannot deal with.

  • Any ideas you do bring in need to be explained and justified.

  • If you just focus on working with the terms and ideas you have been studying, your own thoughts will work their way in anyway. You don't need to make a special effort to bring in extra ideas of your own.

Arguing to a conclusion

If we ignore the bits where Philip strays off the subject, how well does his argument work? Does he make a good case? Well, I think even Philip was feeling a bit doubtful about this, since by the end he seems to be running out of steam. The conclusion is tame. He obviously hasn't realised that his closing sentences need to pull together what he has said earlier, and present an answer to the question in the title (as given). Rather, he seems to be casting about for something grand-sounding to finish off with, so he makes a general point about women's needs.

Yet, as we saw, there is some quite vigorous argument earlier in the essay. So what does it all add up to? The general gist of his argument seems to be this:

  • Men of the land-owning class enjoyed country life and expected their women folk to ‘fit in’.

  • But women found country life stultifying and frustrating.

  • Town life offered them many more opportunities (so they migrated there, though Philip doesn't actually say so).

  • The men mocked them for migrating, or criticised their impropriety.

  • But women will do what they need to.

In the end, he presents the women's migration as a straightforward clash of interests between them and their menfolk. The upshot is that women refused to bow to pressure or criticism from the men, and looked to their own needs (as women in general will). This is a weak conclusion because it relies on a notion of ‘what women in general will tend to do’. None of the rest of the essay presents any arguments about what women in general do, so we have no reason to agree. (After all, thinking about different times and different societies, there are many examples of women having felt themselves morally or practically prevented from seeking what was ‘in their favour’.) Ellis is trying to explain why these women, bound into a particular society at a particular time, not only longed for town life but actually migrated to towns in large numbers. This calls for a more robust explanation than ‘what women in general tend to do’.

Overall, then, Philip's argument is pitched in the right general area, but it does not really get to the heart of things. Nevertheless, I think it is a good attempt by someone who is new both to reading this kind of article and writing this kind of essay.

Key points

In the concluding paragraph of your essay you should give a direct answer to the essay question you have been asked (or a solution to the problem posed in the title). It does not have to be grand, but there should be a sense of having reached an ending. The judgements you make should be:

  • relevant and appropriate to the question you are discussing; and

  • justified by what you have argued earlier on.


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