1. The Social Studies Essay - An Introduction
1. Why write an essay?
There are lots of ways of writing about society and lots of reasons for doing it. You can chat on the Net with a friend and tell her about some issue you have just seen a programme about on the television. Or you might be the sort who keeps a diary or a blog in which you give your opinions on current events. Some people write articles or letters to a newspaper or a magazine to share their views with a wider audience.
The way of writing about social issues that you will encounter most often at school is the expository essay. Expository means explaining or revealing, and there are at least two good reasons for writing one: One is because your teacher has told you to. It is part of your course work and you are given a grade for it. In fact, at the end of this year your ability to write expository essays is likely to play be an important part in deciding your final grade.
But there is another answer too, and it is related to the origin of the essay as a written genre. The word “essay” comes from the French “essai” and means a try or an attempt. What you are trying or attempting to do is to understand an issue, and to share that understanding with somebody else. Writing an expository essay is a way of getting to grips with an issue and finding out what your own viewpoint is. Put simply, an essay is an attempt to answer a question.
We have all seen those final courtroom scenes in TV series, where the opposing attorneys, one for the defence and one for the prosecution, are summing up for the jury. They are both talking about the same events – a murder, for example – and the same individuals. But they are presenting perhaps very different understandings of those events: what actually happened and why, and what the motivations of the people involved were. Their ability to persuade the jury of the defendant’s guilt or innocence will depend on the evidence they can put forward and on the plausibility of their understanding of events, i.e. how well they can make all the details of the case fit together.
The writer of an expository essay is doing something similar. Let us say you are writing about the British Empire, for example. It is an immensely complex subject, of course. As you will have learnt from the first chapter in Access to English: Social Studies, it is also largely in the past. Like the murder, it has already “happened”. But that does not mean that everyone agrees on WHAT happened. For example, some people see the British Empire as a positive step in world history on the path towards globalisation and development. Others see it as an essentially repressive regime which is to blame for many of the world’s present conflicts.
When you write about the subject, you will have to decide what your point of view is going to be. Obviously, you do not have to choose one extreme or the other – it is perfectly admissible to argue that there are both negative and positive aspects. But whatever your view is, the success of your essay will depend on how well you argue your case.
2. Characteristics of the expository essay
Just as with the courtroom summing up, there are a number of accepted norms and traditions for how an expository essay should be.
a. Who are you addressing?
The “members of the jury” in the case of the expository essay are fine, upstanding citizens like yourself! They are well acquainted with the issue you are writing about, they have a wide vocabulary, although they may need to have special expressions or usages explained. Not least, they have an open mind and are prepared to be persuaded by your arguments.
The expository essay is a formal genre. “Formal” does not mean “boring and stilted”, though. It simply means that you should try to be serious and correct in your choice of language. That means you must write in proper sentences and abide by the rules of grammar, punctuation and spelling. It also means that you should avoid typically oral language. Don’t use slang (“it’s a bloody scandal”) or abbreviations (we’re, you’ve, doesn’t). Avoid “chattiness” (“Now I expect you’re wondering how Britain came to own Hong Kong!”) and steer clear of typically oral phrases like, “you know”, “kind/sort of “, “if you see what I mean”.
“Formality” also means it must have a clear form; that is to say, the essay should be well organised and give an impression of cohesion (i.e. hanging together).
You may be writing about an issue on which you have strong feelings – or it may be something that leaves you cold. Strong feelings can be an advantage when it comes to motivation for working on an essay, but it is important to remember that an essay should be based on argumentation, i.e. on reasoned discussion. Therefore your essay should not primarily be about how you feel about an issue, but about what facts and interpretations you are basing your understanding on.
“How long should it be?” This is a question students often ask when they have been given an essay task. Like “How long is a piece of string?”, it is not an easy question to give a straight answer to. Essays may vary greatly in length, depending on the task. We have already said that an essay should have a form and an argument. Whether an essay is short or long, the form should feel complete and the argument carried through. The shorter an essay is, the less room there is for reasoned discussion.
3. The Writing Process
Writing is a creative process, and as such it is a bit of a mystery. It is not like cookery, where you can simply follow a recipe and produce great results. Some people can look at an essay task, stare at the wall for a minute or two, take a couple of deep breaths – and then pick up their pen and start writing a well-structured and well-reasoned essay. These people are very fortunate – and extremely rare. Most of us do not have that gift. We have to work a little bit harder to achieve the same result. As we said, there are no recipes, but briefly we can say that there are three main stages in the writing process:
Not everybody tackles the three phases of writing in the same way, and there is no “correct method”. But a general tendency among students, which often leads to disappointment, is to spend too much time on the last phase and not enough on the first two. In other words, they pretend they are the fortunate but rare student we just mentioned! Let us look more carefully at each phase:
a. Gathering material
It is important to be absolutely clear about what you are gathering material for. Look very carefully at the task and be sure that you have understood what it is asking you to do. As we said earlier, an essay is an attempt to answer a question. Make sure you are answering the question you were asked! Is it asking you to do more than one thing, perhaps?
When this is clear, it is time to start collecting ideas. Sometimes this process is called “brainstorming” and there are many different ways of doing it. Some people find diagrams useful and fill whole pages with them. Others right down sentences and even paragraphs that occur to them. Some people do not write at all, but just, like our gifted friend, stare at the wall – only for longer! Others again find talking and discussing the best way to get thought processes working, either with somebody else or even out loud to themselves. (This last method is a little impractical in examinations!) Whichever method you choose, the idea is simply to get as many ideas as possible to bubble up, without worrying too much about “quality control” at this stage.
If we return to our courtroom comparison, the procedure of the trial is not unlike the material gathering process described above. Evidence, clues and testimony have been put forward and argued over. Some witnesses have proved to be unreliable or irrelevant, and some connections have been revealed that perhaps neither attorney was prepared for. What must be done now is to turn all these elements into a reasoned argumentation.
Unlike the attorneys, you are not paid to have any particular bias. You are free to argue whatever you please. But like them, your success will depend on your ability to persuade. Some essay tasks invite you to show that you have understood a particular conflict or development. For example: What are the main reasons behind Britain’s changed role in the world today compared with to its role one hundred years ago? (See task 4, p. 51) Such tasks are relatively straightforward; you need to find the necessary information – in your textbook, in the library, on the Net – and then put it together in a clear and logical way. Other tasks may require more of you in terms of opinions and interpretation. For example: Looking at the modern world, do you see the legacy of the British Empire as being mostly positive or negative? There is obviously room for very different opinions here. The success of your essay will depend on how well you base your arguments in historical facts and logical interpretation of them.
Let us imagine that you have “brainstormed” on this second task. After looking at the evidence, you have decided that your thesis is this: While there may have been positive effects in terms of infrastructure and administration, the cost in terms of ethnic and regional conflicts that are directly attributable to the British colonial period far outweigh the benefits.
Let us say that this is what you are going to argue in your essay. (This is just one of many perfectly arguable views on this issue. Historians at the very highest level disagree fundamentally about this question.) You will need a logical structure to do so. In a way the formulation of your thesis gives you a hint about this structure. There are two main parts here: A. There are positive legacies of Empire. B. These are secondary to the point: that the main legacy is of conflict. Each of these two main parts can be divided up again: A: What are these positive legacies? How unambiguously positive are they? B: What sort of conflicts have arisen as a result of Empire? Where can we see these conflicts in the modern world?
It is often said that an essay has three parts: 1. the introduction, 2. the body and 3. the conclusion. What we have planned so far is the second part. All that is required to finish off this essay plan is an introduction and a conclusion. It would make sense in an essay like this to introduce your thesis in the introduction and to sum up your answer to it in the conclusion. This gives us an essay plan that looks like this:
Thesis of the essay
A. There are positive legacies of the British Empire:
I. Many countries’ infrastructures – roads, railways, ports – were built during the colonial period. (Although they were often built with British colonial interests in mind.)
II. The British have passed on their legal and educational system to many of their former colonies. (But particularly the educational system has been seen as furthering a class system.)
III. The English language has taken root as a first or second language in most former colonies – putting them at an advantage in an increasing globalised and English-speaking world.
B. The chief legacy of Empire is conflict:
I. The randomness of the old colonial borders that ignore ethnic and linguistic divisions. (Examples from Africa).
II. Migrations of work forces during the colonial period have created new ethnic conflicts. (Examples from Ireland, Sri Lanka, Fiji.)
III. Colonial policies towards indigenous peoples have left them as second-rate citizens. (Examples: Australia, New Zealand, Canada.)
IV. Countries colonised by the British were not able to develop their own culture of government and administration, but where forced into the British model. When the British left, they were more susceptible to corruption and dictatorship.
Summing up of thesis
Your plan does not have to look as orderly as this. Particularly if you are writing in an examination, your plan is likely to look more of a mess, with crossings out, comments written in, arrows etc. (Every plan needs to be amended as work proceeds.) But for most essay writers, some sort of plan is necessary. It prevents you having to think about where you are going all the time and it keeps your writing focussed on the thesis of your essay.
c. Drafting and writing
The next phase of the essay writing process depends on the time available. If you are writing a long-term home assignment, for example the in-depth study that your curriculum requires, then you should be prepared to write at least one draft of your essay before you consider it finished. This gives you the chance to evaluate and make changes to the overall argumentation, to improve on language and eliminate errors.
If, however, you are writing in an examination setting, and you are writing by hand rather than on a computer, you are likely to be pressed for time. What some students do – with dire results – is to cut down on (or cut out completely) the planning and keep the drafting. Perhaps it is because we feel better when we are busy writing – at least we are doing something! But the sad truth is that in many cases, the only difference between the final draft (innføring) and the first draft (kladd) is the hand-writing. The weak arguments, the imprecise language and grammatical mistakes all miraculously survive in the finished essay! This is a terrible waste of energy that could be better spent planning a good essay. It is still possible to make changes by neatly crossing out and writing over.