Undergrad Essay Writing Principles: V – Conciseness

V

Conciseness

To be concise means to be brief and to-the-point. To be effectively concise requires having only the necessary information structured in the shortest, clearest, and simplest way possible. If a sentence, or paragraph, or essay is concise then the reader will have a much easier time navigating and comprehending it. If the writer is concise they can fit more into their essay. The reader will also thank you for not wasting their time with unnecessary details or flourishes.

Often students are not concise, instead choosing to be wordy and discursive. The reasons for why students are not concise, or not as concise as they could have otherwise been, vary. Some (1) mistakenly think the sentence or paragraph is concise and that the expert is wrong. Other times, (2) they believe the sentence cannot be any more concise than it is presently. A student might also, (3), argue that there is such a thing as being too concise, and that being too concise is overly restrictive, resulting in a loss of meaning or detail. And, (4) understandably, often many mistake ‘philosophy’ for being a subject that requires the flowery expressions and turns of phrases comparably continental philosophers (self-help, new-age books).

Reason (4) is simply a result of undergraduate students being exposed to certain conceptions of philosophy (such as a layman understanding of philosophy), and only certain kinds (self-help, Nietzsche, Rand, De Botton, etc.). I think, in cases like this, it is just a matter of explaining to the student that academic philosophy is done quite differently. Student’s who were being vague or discursive for reason (4) often become concise because “that is just how it is done at the University”.

Reasons (1), (2), and (3), are a matter of students having to learn a craft and realise that they do not know what they are talking about. That is, the students holding to 1, 2, and 3, need to recognise the expertise of their marker, tutor, professor, etc., that when the experts tells you it is not concise, then it is not concise. With regards to (3), the student needs to recognise that being concise requires not losing necessary and valuable information. The trick this student must learn is to be concise and keep all the important information. With regards to (2), this student lacks imagination. This student needs to enumerate the different ways of expressing the same idea and, through this procedure, generate the most concise sentence, or paragraph, that they can. With regards to (1), the student lacks insight; they simply don’t realise the sentence or paragraph is not what it could have been.

You might wonder how one becomes concise. My answer is that we learn to be concise the same way we learn anything: practice. In the same way as the musician, or the artist, or the carpenter, produce great work and demonstrate excellent skill, they treat their subject as a craft. Students need to think about writing essays as practicing the craft of writing. And, in the same way the musician, or the tradesman, takes care of every detail in their work, so the student needs to treat each word as being as important as the totality of the paper it resides in.

The student needs to ask themselves constantly: “can this sentence, this paragraph, this section, this paper, this chapter, be any more concise?”, and then explore whether it can be.

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Undergrad Essay Writing Principles: IV – Clarity

IV

Clarity

Thus far, I have sketched out a design principle concerned with simplicity in essay structure and ideas. I have argued that a simple structure is easier to follow and simple ideas are easier to formulate and successfully execute. And the reason these are important is because they ultimately serve the function of an undergraduate essay. In this entry I want to focus on clarity. I first sketch out what clarity means in an essay context and then explain why such clarity is necessary for good academic writing.

In the context of a philosophy essay, clarity can refer to how quickly the meaning in a sentence (a paragraph, etc.) is comprehended by the reader. We can measure how clear or vague an essay is depending upon the accuracy and speed in which the reader comprehends the intended meaning. The faster and more accurate, the clearer the writing; the slower and more inaccurate, the vaguer. Consider the following sentence:

“The cat sat on the mat”.

What is the meaning of the sentence? I imagine a reader will think the sentence meant to describe a particular kind of animal (cat) and a particular kind of object (mat) and is describing the relationship (sitting) between the animal and object. Because the reader was able to almost immediately comprehend the meaning of the sentence, then this must mean that the sentence was clear – it’s meaning was clear. Now consider the following sentence:

“Upon the mat there was a feline that placed itself upon it”.

The meaning of this sentence is identical to the one above. Yet the mental moves it takes to decode that meaning is more than the previous. Because it takes longer, even if it still results in a correct interpretation, the sentence is less clear than the former.

I do not think the importance of clarity can be overstated. I really do think it is the writer’s duty to take the burden of work with regards to communication. After all, your reader is giving up their time (and often money) to hear what you have to say (or read what you have to write). Given that, it would behoove a writer to make their reader work harder to get the message.

But there are other reasons why, as a student, you should writer with great clarity. You need to demonstrate to the marker that you – the student – understand the material, and you cannot demonstrate an understanding if the reader cannot make sense of what has been written. If the meaning of the sentence is clear then the reader will understand you. Another reason is that it shows you that you yourself comprehend the material and ideas you have read. Student’s often think they get it but, upon asking them to explain the idea in their own words, they quickly falter. Why? Because the student has mistaken a vague notion as understanding, rather than a clear idea.

If we think of an essay as a kind of product for a consumer, then clarity is the design principle that leads to the consumer understanding the purpose of the product and how to use it. If you want your reader to grasp the ideas as quickly as possible you need to be clearer.

One might object that some ideas, problems, or whatever, are too complicated to explain clearly or the ideas in themselves are too vague, to be clarified. For example, you might have heard artists or poets talk about the ideas or themes which they are exploring through their art as being too difficult or even intractable for our common, literal, everyday and even academic talk. Thus, academic writing is incapable of truly capturing the ideas or themes that can be captured by art or more poetic writing.

There are several answers to this. The first, and most uncharitable, is that the above objection is a mark of laziness. Just because something is hard to do does not make it impossible. And considering philosophers and academics have explored such issues by way of academic writing, I do not think this objection holds much water. The second way of responding is simply agreeing, but that since the assignment demands you do it, you might as well try. But the third response is sympathetic to the objection: yes, it might be well that some topics are beyond the reach of plain, literal, academic writing – but you will not know until you try. And, like the artist, while the subject is difficult to grasp, they will try multiple times through many iterations to nail their interpretation, and to try and express that to their audience as clearly as they can.

 But I, and many, can attest that it is possible to become clearer when writing about difficult topics – it just takes a lot of time and effort.

Undergrad Essay Writing Principles: III – Simplicity in Structure

III

Simplicity in Structure

In the previous entry of this series I argued that simplicity is a crucial design principle in crafting a philosophy essay. However, simplicity can be taken in two different directions, (i) application to ideas, and (ii) application to structure. The prior entry addressed (i), and this entry will examined (ii). That is, in this entry I argue that a simple, no-frills approach to structuring an essay – which I call EOR – is in the student’s best interests.

The essay structure which I strongly suggest to students is a simple one:

  1. Introduction
  2. Explanation/explication
  3. Objection
  4. Response
  5. Conclusion

Obviously though, the length of the essay, or the level of study the essay is being written,  can result in adding extra sections. Yet these extra sections are merely repetitions of the above provided structure, and often, if not always, presented in the same order. For example, a longer research paper might be as follows:

  1. Introduction
  2. Explanation/explication
  3. Objection 1
  4. Response 1
  5. Objection 2
  6. Response 2
    1. Objection 2.1
    2. Response 2.1
      1. Objection 2.1.1.
      2. Response 2.1.1.
    3. Objection 2.2.
    4. Response 2.2.
  7. Conclusion

Note that even when there are extra sections, the structure is essentially the same. And what this structure offers is nothing novel nor interesting; I am simply making salient a simple structural procedure that is highly robust because it fits in with our intuitive grasp of how we manage verbal discussions. For example, consider the following dialogue between two car mechanics attempting to fix a car:

M1: I think it’s the ignition.
M2: Why?
M1: These old Volvo’s were designed with cheap material in the ignition part – I’ve seen this before. (explanation)
M2: Yeah, but that doesn’t mean this one is the same – have you checked the engine yet? (objection)
M1: Nah, yeah – engine is in pretty good nick. Oi, look – the wiring in the ignition is stuffed. (response)
M2: I’ll go get the wire out back.

As we can see from the dialogue above, the structure of our verbal discussions when attempting to resolve problems or discuss issues uses the EOR design.  That is the beautiful thing about EOR – because we deploy this structure throughout our lives, we are able to immediately grasp it, even when we don’t know we are doing it.

But there are other reasons for employing EOR, most of which turn out to be beneficial to both the writer and the reader. First, it makes the essay easy to signpost and to follow. This benefits the writer because it allows them to quickly locate sections of their paper and edit or work on them, and it benefits the reader because it makes reading the essay easier. Second, it can help the student ensure they have provided a well reasoned or argued paper. After all, they can see if they have provided an objection, or provided a response to that objection, and they can see whether they have provided adequate words to developing those sections. Third, it means that when the student is given feedback, they can follow precisely where they went wrong and what to fix.

Finally, I want to note that the structure of an essay is not, by itself, ever going to result in a high mark. Structure, like spelling and grammar, if done right will not benefit you directly, but done wrong and they will hurt your mark. Why? Because like spelling and grammar, the structure of an essay facilitates the communication of the ideas within the essay. And you, as a writer, do not want all that hard work you put into those ideas to be lost under a sea of poorly designed and obscure structure.