One big attraction to writing essays is often the idea of the cash prizes that comes with winning one. Some call it “free money” as all needed is just to sit behind your desk and churn out a specific amount of words, and boom! You win cash prizes and other stationeries ranging from a hundred thousand naira to a million naira in rare cases. But it is not as easy as it seems to win an essay – in fact, out of probably thousands of people who participate in the competition, only three, or ten in rare cases, actually make the podium finish and win the mouth-watering prizes. What then separates the winners from the losers? What are the necessary additions that make for a winning essay entry? How do you write an essay entry that is bound to win amidst the thousands? Here are a few tips that I have particularly found helpful and interesting to learn:
ANALYZE THE QUESTION FIRST BEFORE BRAINSTORMING FOR IDEAS
One major error most newbie writers commit is to dive straight into writing on a topic after a surface understanding of what is required of them. Anxious to get on with the work and not fall behind, we skip interpreting the question and launch straight into gathering materials. As a result, we read sources and take notes without a clear idea of what’s relevant and what’s not. Then finally, after hours of toil, tired and frustrated, and no clearer about what we’re doing, we’re left with a pile of irrelevant, unusable notes. Yet, just an hour or two interpreting the question would not only have saved us this wasted time, but it’d have also given us a distinct idea of what the question is getting at and a better understanding of what the examiner is looking for in our work. Without this, our work can seem routine and predictable: at best just the re-cycling of the ideas that dominate the subject. The main question then is; what should you be looking for when you interpret a question? All essay questions tell you two things: the structure your essay should adopt for you to deal relevantly with all the issues it raises; the range of abilities the examiner is expecting to see you use in answering the question.
Unravelling the structure of an essay question involves analysing the key concepts raised in the question. No matter the subject of an essay question, analysis of the important concepts is the main focus when we come to interpret such questions like these. They may be couched subtly in everyday language, like ‘unacceptable inequalities’, ‘oblige’, or ‘efficient levels’, or they may stand out like beacons warning the unwary not to ignore them, like ‘Paretian Optimum’, and ‘anomie and subculture’. By analysing these important concepts, you’d not only give your essay a relevant structure but, also, you’d qualify for the highest marks on offer. If, however, you do not pay attention to the significance of these concepts by analysing their implications, you will certainly fail to analyse them in your essay. This will not only indicate that you have not seen the point of the question but, more seriously, that you do not have that thoughtful, reflective ability to question some of the most important assumptions we make when we use language.
How do you recognize the important concepts in an essay question? Analyse the words – start with the way we use them in daily conversations. Consider this essay question;
Using relevant examples, critically analyse the role of digital technology in transitioning higher education in Nigeria to a post-pandemic system. (NHEF Essay Competition, 2021)
Firstly, a glance at the question points to “the role of digital technology” as the main concept but in reality, it isn’t. The question to be answered lies embedded in the opening words – “critically analyse”. This phrase gives the range of abilities, logical reasoning and presentation that the examiner wishes to see in the essay write-up.
Analyse (in this context as an instructional verb means): Separate an argument, a theory, or a claim into its elements or parts; to trace the causes of a particular event; to reveal the general principles underlying phenomena.
Criticize (in this context as an instructional verb means): Identify the weaknesses of certain theories, opinions or claims, and give your judgement about their merit. Support your judgements with a discussion of the evidence and the reasoning involved.
With these simple definitions and analyses, it is quite clearer and easier to write on the question.
- ESTABLISH YOUR FACTS AND AVOID UNNECESSARY DIGRESSIONS
After analysing and outlining your approach to the question, the next important step is to support your claims with verifiable facts. There is often the temptation to include sentiments, rumours and unconfirmed news within a write-up in order to prove, accuse or support a claim. It is highly unadvisable to follow such traps as it portrays you as making up facts to prove your non-existential points. Rather, search for published and verified facts that can be referenced and referred to as credible sources as they lend more credence to your reasoning. The logic is this: nothing is exactly new in the modern-day world, and there is always a cause or reasoning behind every occurrence. So it is your duty to establish your logic in already published works and to support it with facts.
In the process of establishing your facts and ideas, take careful note not to be side-tracked from your actual course of action. Every point you make probably carries several linked ideas that might not necessarily or effectively answer the question. Thus, it becomes important to stay strictly on course and avoid extra ideas that jump at you while researching especially when they do not answer the main question more directly than the ones you earlier outlined. Every digression from the question cost you valuable marks and it might turn out more difficult to tie up such while trying to refocus.
- PLAGIARISM AND REFERENCING
One raging evil you must avoid and run away from totally is plagiarism! Copying, stealing or using someone else’s work or ideas without acknowledging them. It is worse than evil – it robs you of any iota of claim to intellectual prowess. It paints you as a thief. In the words of Marianne Williamson, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. It is that we are powerful beyond measure. We ask ourselves: Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, or fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?”
So when next you feel your original idea isn’t good enough, that you can never write something so good to win any prize and you are tempted to steal someone else’s ideas, analysis, style and presentation, ask yourself, “Who are you not to be brilliant”? Rather than stealing, you should learn to acknowledge and give credit to your sources. An idea might not be totally yours, it may probably have been influenced by someone’s write-up you read somewhere – however, it is highly unethical and grossly undermining that you should take full credit for such an idea. THE PENALTY FOR COPYING IS AUTOMATIC DISQUALIFICATION AND PROSECUTION IN SOME CASES.
PS: You can check your essays for plagiarism on some free websites such as plagiarismdetector.net, smallseotools.com and duplichecker.com before submission.
Referencing might be a difficult task especially for newbies who are confused by the several styles and their requirements e.g. Harvard style, APA style, Chicago Style etc. It is advisable one takes some time to specifically learn all styles available and gain expertise in using them. A helpful hint on referencing is to cite your sources while you write to avoid confusion at the end.
- MIND YOUR GRAMMAR AND PRESENTATION
Has it ever occurred to you that all essays specify a particular demography of people eligible to apply e.g. undergraduates only, youths aged 18-35, secondary school students etc.? Maybe not. But here is the logic behind that: for every specific demography, there is an expected level of comprehension, knowledge and vocabulary. An undergraduate is expected to be more advanced in comprehension and logical presentation of ideas than a secondary school student due to more exposure. Thus, it is highly necessary to note this expectation while writing. You should not just assume or present an idea without establishing a basis for it in other published literary works such as articles, journals etc. In essay writing, there is never an absolute side of the argument –it is your duty to convince the examiner logically to your side of the story. Also, the vocabulary and use of words matter a lot. Imagine an undergraduate writer who includes in his essay “…that is why…”. Grammatically and structurally, the expression is correct and quite easy to understand but it is highly unexpected of an undergraduate to write such due to the abundance of other synonyms that could have accurately depicted his argument at that point such as “thus”, “therefore” etc. Your choice of words goes a long way in either condemning your work to the examiner or convincing the examiner of its excellence. A renowned essayist, ‘Kunle Adebajo, who won several international and local essays during his days as an undergraduate at the University of Ibadan has this to say: “Good writers know how to write, but great writers are make-up artists: They also understand how best to present that which they have written. It is all about first impressions. It is about grabbing attention and sustaining it. You will be laid off if you do not understand layout.”
In all, this is not a fully comprehensive guide on writing a winning essay – this is just a collation of tips and basic knowledge that I consider crucial towards writing one. There are tens of hundreds of resources out there on the internet that teaches essays in totality – the best logic is to familiarize oneself with such. Just as the old maxim says; practice makes for perfection! You just have to keep writing and keep getting better.
Bryan Greetham. 2001. How to write better essays. Palgrave Publishers Ltd.
‘Kunle Adebajo, 2018. On Words and Awards: A book on writing to win and writings that have won. Ibadan, Nigeria.