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How can I improve my essays?

Essay writing, both in exams and otherwise, can often appear daunting at first. However, by GCSE and A Level, students should hopefully be well practised in the art, and should be comfortable with the basic methods: studying and using evidence, balancing arguments, reaching conclusions. However, it is always possible to improve your essay writing, and to make the leap from average essays to good essays, or from good essays to excellent essays. There are a number of ways of doing this, of which perhaps the most important is establishing and emphasising a strong overarching argument. I will explore this idea, using examples from an essay I wrote on the Kleisthenic reforms at Athens of the late sixth century BC. The essay was graded first-class when submitted to Dr Peter Haarer during my first year studying at the University of Oxford.

An essay is, in essence, the setting out of an argument. This is an obvious point, but a hugely important one. If it is not possible to tell what the author believes at the end of an essay, then it can not be considered a success. It is therefore crucially important that you do three things when presented with an essay title. Firstly, you must read the essay title closely, to see exactly what it is asking. Secondly, you must, having considered the evidence, come to a clear decision about what you actually think the answer to the question is (this is perhaps the most important step, but the one that is easiest to miss out). Thirdly, you must make sure that your view is made clear on paper.

To explain this further, let me turn to the example of Kleisthenes (in case you have never heard of Kleisthenes [or Cleisthenes as he is also known]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleisthenes ). The essay title I was given was ‘What difference did Kleisthenes' reforms make to the distribution of power in Athens, ca. 508–461 B.C.?’. When presented with this question, the natural thing to do is simply to pour out everything you know about Kleisthenes and his reforms. This is not wholly unhelpful: it is important to consider all the evidence. However, if you wish to make a strong argument, it is important to add in the three steps outlined above.

Firstly, you must work out exactly what the question is asking, and attune your response to it. Here for instance, you might happen to know something about Kleisthenes’ ancestry, or you might be an expert in the workings of the Athenian political system in the fourth century BC. However, neither point is necessarily relevant to the question, and should therefore should be given much less precedence in your mind then, for example, Kleisthenes’ reforms of the Athenian tribe system.

Secondly, once you have established what the question is asking, and which evidence is most relevant, you must work out, based on the evidence, what you believe the answer to the question is. In this case, you must ask yourself: Did the reforms actually cause any changes at all? If so, how did these changes manifest themselves? How significant were they from a wider perspective? These are not easy questions to answer, and this step is therefore perhaps the most difficult part of the essay writing process. In this case, having considered the evidence, I came to the conclusion that Kleisthenes’ reforms did have an effect on the distribution of power, and tangibly shifted control to a wider portion of the population. This is a fairly obvious and broad conclusion, and you might argue that you could have reached it without the process I am describing. However, the exercise is still really important, because of the confidence and clarity it will instil in your own mind. You will be aware of what you yourself think, and that is crucial: it is much harder to show people what you think, if you yourself have not taken time to consider what exactly it is that you think.

Thirdly, having worked out what you believe, and having established in your own mind a strong argument, it is important that you make it clear to the reader of your essay. The simple way to do this is to set it out clearly in your introduction, make sure it remains an underlying thread in all your paragraphs, and reiterate it in the conclusion. This sounds both obvious and simple. However, it is essential, and the best way to show this is to give an example. Here is a version of an introduction to the question of ‘What difference did Kleisthenes' reforms make to the distribution of power in Athens, ca. 508–461 B.C.?’:

The conventional view is that Kleisthenes should be viewed as the ‘father of democracy’ and that the reforms he implemented in 508/7 BC mark the true beginning of the political system that took Athens to prominence in the Greek world in the fifth century BC. However, the coverage in the source material of the exact nature of these reforms is far from thorough. Herodotus allows the reforms the briefest of mentions (5.66), infuriatingly spending more time discussing the strange tribal reforms of Kleisthenes of Sikyon (5.67-9), Kleisthenes of Athens’ maternal grandfather. The Athenian Constitution (Ath. Pol.) is slightly more detailed, but there are clear issues in assessing how trustworthy a source it is. The first is authorship. It is attributed to Aristotle, but modern scholars baulk at putting a work so imprecise and disjointed alongside the works that have established Aristotle’s reputation as such a towering intellect, so it is usual to attribute it to one of his students (called pseudo-Aristotle henceforth) at the Lyceum instead. This obviously creates doubt over over how much faith we should put in a document that could be no more than a piece of ancient ‘homework’. The second issue is the date of the work. It was written at the end of the fourth century BC, as many as two hundred years after the Kleisthenic reforms, so not only is much of the information no doubt derived from other, unknown works, but the risk of anachronism and back-projection is very real (particularly given the doubt that already exists over the author). Therefore, we are left working with two main sources that are not without issues.

This is, in many ways, a good introduction. The author makes it clear that they are familiar with the sources and their issues, and there is enough background information to show the author’s wide-ranging knowledge. This fills the reader with faith that what they are about to read is well-informed, and sets the tone for some close analysis. However, this introduction can be improved significantly, by some simple tweaking. The author starts the paragraph by telling us the conventional view of Kleisthenes’ reforms. However, nowhere do we get the author’s own view. To change this introduction from good to very good, all that would be required is a couple of lines at the end of the paragraph, outlining the argument of the essay. This would perhaps work best if the first sentence of the passage was embedded at the end as well. The introduction would therefore read:

The coverage in the source material of the exact nature of Kleisthenes’ reforms is far from thorough. Herodotus allows the reforms the briefest of mentions (5.66), infuriatingly spending more time discussing the strange tribal reforms of Kleisthenes of Sikyon (5.67-9), Kleisthenes of Athens’ maternal grandfather. The Athenian Constitution (Ath. Pol.) is slightly more detailed, but there are clear issues in assessing how trustworthy a source it is. The first is authorship. It is attributed to Aristotle, but modern scholars baulk at putting a work so imprecise and disjointed alongside the works that have established Aristotle’s reputation as such a towering intellect, so it is usual to attribute it to one of his students (called pseudo-Aristotle henceforth) at the Lyceum instead. This obviously creates doubt over over how much faith we should put in a document that could be no more than a piece of ancient ‘homework’. The second issue is the date of the work. It was written at the end of the fourth century BC, as many as two hundred years after the Kleisthenic reforms, so not only is much of the information no doubt derived from other, unknown works, but the risk of anachronism and back-projection is very real (particularly given the doubt that already exists over the author). Therefore, we are left working with two main sources that are not without issues. Nevertheless, despite these apparent uncertainties, there exists a firm conventional view that Kleisthenes should be seen as the ‘father of democracy’ and that the reforms he implemented in 508/7 BC mark the true beginning of the political system that took Athens to prominence in the Greek world in the fifth century BC. I would argue that this conventional view is, broadly-speaking, the correct one. Kleisthenes’ reforms, particularly the creation of the boule, the implementation of the process of ostracism and the altering of the system of generalship, had a tangible effect in tilting the balance of power at Athens in the first half of the fifth century BC towards a wider portion of the population and away from the elite.

This version of the introduction is far better and clearer. Now, the author not only presents the conventional view, but puts forward their own argument as well. Moreover, they set out the crucial points as they see them, therefore flagging what they will be discussing in the rest of the essay. From this introduction, the reader can have no doubt of what the author believes, and will assume that they have gone through something like the steps I outlined above. Already, they will feel more comfortable and, crucially, they will feel more generous in giving out marks!

Therefore, it is possible to improve your essays significantly by establishing and emphasising a strong overarching argument. The best way to do this is by going through three steps: reading the essay title closely, coming to a firm decision about your own views, and setting out your argument clearly.

Mark T. GCSE History tutor, GCSE English tutor, GCSE Maths tutor, GCS...

12 months ago

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