What is good writing?
What is good writing?

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What is good writing?

2.4 Analysing Hansa's essay

To refresh your memory, look again at Hansa's essay and the notes you made earlier. The first thing I noticed is that her essay starts with the title she was set. It also comes to a conclusion that tries to answer the question in the title, so straight away it has some important strengths compared to Philip's. From the start she gets stuck into the argument, making a purposeful attack on the question in her opening sentences. And, while she covers a lot of the same ground as Philip, she develops a stronger line of argument overall – though not always as clearly as she might. To help us see all this we can again set out what she says in note form. Quickly check the notes below against her essay to see whether you think they are a fair summary.

The content of Hansa's essay

Paragraph 1: Introduction – role of women in C18 upper-class society

  1. C18 soc. – expected women to have accomplishments (piano, etc.).

  2. Image of women as fragile, etc.

  3. Trained for role as ‘embodiments’ of male status.

Paragraph 2: Restrictions of rural life

Country life → little scope to display skills

  • sparse population at higher social levels

  • travel difficult

  • tight social boundaries.

Paragraph 3: Tedium of rural life – attractions of town

  1. Refined ladies' boring life – denied role as estate managers – excluded from country pastimes → reduced to letter writing, reading.

  2. But in town – wider social opportunities:

    • role in social planning

    • opportunity to display accomplishments

    • enjoy socialising.

  3. Offered women much more scope – for display of accomplishments – desire for sociability/ amusement → rapid expansion of female urban population.

Paragraph 4: Women's need to be in towns to play out the role prescribed for them

  1. Male-dominated society → women's highly prescribed and restricted role → social skills required of them could only be satisfactorily enacted and displayed in town – where more people of same rank – good transport.

  2. Women fled country to escape v. tight restrictions (→ boredom).

Paragraph 5: Conclusion

Women not so much attracted to town – or escaping from countryside – as mainly trying to fulfil their very restricted social role as fully as possible.

Structure and argument

The structure of Hansa's essay is fairly similar to Philip's. However, you may have noticed that the subject of her second paragraph spills over into paragraph 3. This immediately suggests an improvement – the first part of paragraph 3 could be put back to the end of paragraph 2 (from ‘Thus the lives…writing letters.’). Then she will have a paragraph on the country followed by one on the town, which will help her reader to follow this shift of focus as her argument moves forward.

Now we can see the five stages of Hansa's argument more clearly:

  • The role of well-to-do women

  • Country life

  • Town life

  • The futility of trying to play the ‘society woman’ role in the country

  • Conclusion.

Let's see how she links the argument together. Notice that she introduces the ‘country life’ stage of the argument by referring back to ‘these skills’; that is, the skills she has referred to in her opening paragraph. The new paragraph 3, on ‘town life’, begins with ‘However,…’. That suggests a contrast between this and what she has just been discussing (country life). And when she begins the fourth paragraph with ‘In view of the somewhat prescribed role…’ she is again referring back to the earlier stage when she discussed that role. ‘In effect…’ signals her conclusion. So we have a connected ‘line’ of argument here – a thread of meaning running through the essay.

Making connections

‘Links’ are the words you use to show the relationship between what you have just said and what you are going on to say. For example:

link words what they signify
‘and’, ‘also’, ‘as well as’ you are adding something of a similar kind to what you have just said;
‘but’, ‘however’, ‘although’ you are about to say something different;
‘because’, ‘since’ you are going to explain what you have just said;
'so’, ‘therefore’ you are going to conclude an argument and draw out its significance.

Of course, there are many more words of these kinds (including ‘of course’, which suggests ‘I don't think I need to explain any further because no doubt you get the idea’).

Your readers cannot see into your mind. They may not be able to see connections between points that seem perfectly obvious to you. Link words act as ‘signposts’ that indicate the direction your argument is taking next. They show how your readers are meant to understand what you are about to say – they help your readers ‘follow’ your meaning as they read. So you should use them often.

Ellis's article is a very good example of how to do this. She uses many words that show how what she is saying follows on from her previous point; whether it adds something, qualifies it, or contrasts with it. As a result, reading her article seems fairly effortless (from the second page at least). That's because she is doing the work of ‘steering’ us, her readers, through the meaning of her text.

In the fourth paragraph we see Hansa ‘bringing together’ what she has said in the first three – about the role of women, about country life and about town life. This is a very good move. She is setting herself up to draw her conclusion. She wants to argue that women's attitudes to country life and town life arose directly out of their very restricted role as status symbols for their men-folk. We can summarise what she says as follows:

  1. women were attracted by the towns (because they could fulfil their role better there);

  2. women were escaping from the countryside (because they could not fulfil their role there).

So, at this stage, Hansa's answer to the question of whether women were attracted or escaping appears to be ‘a bit of both’. But then in her conclusion she seems to contradict that, by saying they were ‘in effect’ doing neither. What they were doing, she says, was mainly trying to fulfil the role that society had ‘burdened’ them with. (Notice that this ‘mainly’ is what the essay question asks her to reach a conclusion about.)

Hansa is saying that the really important issue here is what was expected of women at that time – the role that was available to them. This is what really explains why women migrated to towns. It was not essentially a matter of ‘escaping’ from the countryside because it was dull and soggy, nor of being ‘attracted’ to the town because it was more fun. The deeper and more important reason for women's migration was so that they could live life more fully as the women they were expected to be. This brings us much closer to the heart of the arguments in Ellis's article than Philip's account does. However, Hansa hasn't made her case very obvious. We have had to dig a bit to find it. When I first read her conclusion it took me by surprise; it seemed contradictory. Indeed, I think there is something missing from her essay.

A frame of reference

Hansa, like Philip, starts her essay by talking about the role of well-to-do women at the time. And also like him, she doesn't give us any idea why she does that. When you read the essay title it does not have any obvious connection to women's roles. So we are left a bit bemused. We can follow what Hansa is saying, but we don't really know what the point of it is.

If we compare this with Ellis herself, she begins by talking about a ‘dramatic’ migration of women to the larger towns during the period. Clearly, a social change on that sort of scale needs explaining. In other words, she begins by showing why the whole issue matters. Having established that, she sketches out an ‘argument’ about why the women migrated. She says she wants to disagree with the satirists of the time who presented these women as seeking ‘freedom from male control’; in her third paragraph she tells us she is going to argue against the satirists’ views. She also outlines what it is she is going to say. So, by then, we can see both what she proposes to do and why. In short, she has set up a ‘frame of reference’ within which we can understand the purpose of her argument. (Bear in mind how important frameworks for thinking are for readers.)

This ‘frame’ is missing in both Hansa's and Philip's essays. If Hansa gave us some idea of the scale of the migration, and a few pointers to the debate she is engaging with, we would be able to follow her argument through to its conclusion more easily. For example, she might add something like this to the end of her first paragraph:

They were also expected to live for long spells in their family homes in the countryside. When these women began to migrate to towns in large numbers, satirists of the period presented this as a wilful desire for ‘freedom from male control’ and a chance to enjoy frivolous pastimes.

There are many different ways of doing this kind of frame-setting. The point is that nowhere in her first paragraph does Hansa make a link to the title of the essay (and hence to the conclusion she is leading towards). She has her argument in her head, but she doesn't remember to set up a frame of reference within which her argument will make sense to us. Remember, an essay is a complete piece of writing; it must make sense to readers ‘in itself’. So you have to explain yourself ‘as if’ the reader is someone who has not read the texts you have been studying and has no special knowledge of the subject.

Key points

You have to remember that your readers need some kind of frame of reference for your argument. You need to find a way of setting a context for your argument at the start, so that you set your readers’ thoughts going in the right direction. They need some sense of:

  • why it is worth paying attention to what you are saying

  • what you are arguing ‘against’.

Making judgements

The essay title, then, invites the writer to engage in the debate between Ellis and the satirists. This involves coming to some kind of judgement between the arguments on the two sides. As we saw, Philip does not really commit himself. Insofar as he makes judgements, they are about the parallels between the situation of eighteenth-century women and women now, and between eighteenth-century women's actions and those of women in general. I found these views:

  • irrelevant, in that they do not contribute to his argument – they do not connect with either the official essay title or his own made-up title;

  • inappropriate, in that we have not been reading about these other women, so we have no information or arguments to go on in responding to Philip's observations.

Making judgements

We make judgements about what we read all the time. Indeed, we read other people's writing in order to think our ideas through more thoroughly and to extend them. Unless we have some ideas of our own we can't ‘make sense’ of what we read. And our ideas ‘inform’ our judgements.

However, when you present your judgements in an essay they have to be relevant to the question you are discussing, and appropriate in terms of the sources of information and authoritative debate available to you. You must try not to make assumptions as you develop your argument. Ask yourself ‘what if my reader disagrees with me?’.

Hansa, on the other hand, does commit herself. In taking Ellis's line against that of the satirists, she brings her own judgement to bear. But does she manage to present her judgements ‘relevantly’ and ‘appropriately’? In the first three paragraphs she very properly keeps her judgements to herself and sticks to outlining the women's general circumstances, and the opportunities available to them in country and town respectively. But then in paragraph 4 the gloves come off:

In view of the somewhat prescribed role forced upon women in the eighteenth century by the male dominated society which formulated social mores.…(underlining added)

Hansa is saying that this society was dominated by men; that men made the social ‘rules’ and, presumably, ‘forced’ them upon women. The relationship between men and women at the time is certainly relevant to the essay question. But is it appropriate for Hansa to make such a statement as if it is based on her own knowledge of the facts – when actually, if she got it from anywhere, we know that it was from Ellis? At least, she should refer to the source of her information, saying perhaps, ‘As we see from Ellis's article, this was a male dominated society…’

But she would have difficulty doing that because Ellis does not say this explicitly anywhere. Ellis does not actually use the term ‘male dominated’, nor does she explore the question of where the rules of correct female behaviour ‘came from’. So Hansa is not making a statement based on fact here – this is a judgement, based on her interpretation of Ellis.

What Hansa says, then, is inappropriate for two reasons:

  1. because she writes as if she herself has knowledge that she does not have;

  2. because she presents what is a judgement as though it were fact.

In effect, what she presents us with are her own assumptions about how eighteenth-century society worked.

Hansa's personal judgement comes through again right at the end of the essay when she talks about women being ‘burdened’ by their role. Again, she presents this as if it is obvious and well established that ‘society’ placed a heavy and oppressive load on these women. I dare say some of their servants would not have found their way of life such a burden. So, again, this ‘pronouncement’ jars. It feels as though we are being dragooned into seeing things from Hansa's point of view, without having been given good reason to.

So although Hansa has brought in her own judgements in a way that is relevant, she has not quite handled them appropriately. But then in a first essay it is quite an achievement to have engaged so well with Ellis's arguments. I doubt if it will take Hansa long to develop the ability to present her case more convincingly.

Referring to your sources

One of the best ways of putting together a convincing argument is to make direct use of your source material – in this case, Ellis's article. Neither Hansa nor Philip does quite enough of it. Hansa does some in her opening paragraph, when she refers to the particular accomplishments women acquired – playing the piano, singing, embroidering – and, in the last sentence, quotes from Ellis briefly. In her second paragraph she also identifies the different pastimes men and women had in the countryside. (Philip does none of these things in his opening paragraphs.) They need to make the Ellis article a more tangible presence in their essays because Ellis is both the authority for their arguments and the source of the information they present.

For instance, we saw that it would have been helpful for Hansa to be able to rely on Ellis's authority when mounting her argument about male domination. Had Ellis in fact argued this explicitly, Hansa could have used Ellis's terms and also quoted her words. In this way Hansa could both have explained herself clearly and offered evidence in support of her argument. She might also have illustrated the attractions of the towns by referring to some of the detail Ellis provides; rather than vaguely referring to ‘social events’, she could have made specific mention of the theatres and concert halls (as Philip does). This would help us to ‘see’ why women were attracted to the towns, and would not take up many more words.

‘Referring’ to a text

When you are asked to ‘discuss’ an essay question ‘in the light of’ or ‘with reference to’ a course text such as the Ellis article, you not only have to explain the ideas but also bring in some of the detail of the text to illustrate what you mean to say. You also need to refer directly to the text to back up or justify the main points you make; you have to use ‘examples’ and snatches of quotation from the text as evidence to support your points. And you must always take care to be accurate when making these references and quotations.

At present, Philip's and Hansa's arguments appear to arise too directly out of their own ‘knowledge’ and this is unlikely to be convincing to their readers. It is a vital part of writing skill in the humanities to be able to weave quotations and other references into your essays, so that you convey a sense of direct engagement with the texts you have been studying.

Key points

An essay should stand on its own as a complete piece of writing. You cannot assume that your readers have any ‘special’ knowledge of the subject you are writing about, nor that they have read the texts you have been studying. You have to refer to your source material in order to:

  • explain the points you make

  • illustrate them (give examples of what you mean)

  • provide evidence to support your arguments (justify them).


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