Style: Essays



The modern essay is a fairly short piece of work of between 500 and 3,000 words, written on a well-defined subject intended for reading in a
single session. Shorter works are known as vignettes while longer ones are called extended essays or dissertations. A doctoral thesis can
reach100,000 words, after which the work becomes book size.

Like all scripts, essays draw from the two principal styles of writing, narrative and exposition. To summarise –

      Narrative is

      •  entertaining
      •  expressive and pictorial
      •  emotional
      •  impressionistic
      •  creative
      •  imaginative
      •  sensuous
      •  subjective
      •  formally or informally written

      Exposition is

      •  informative
      •  explanatory
      •  rational and impersonal
      •  lucid and precise
      •  scholarly
      •  detached
      •  clinical
      •  objective
      •  formally written

In short, narrative is artistic writing and exposition is academic writing. 

This is not to say that these two forms of writing never converge. On the contrary, the works of journalists, travel writers and biographers often draw
heavily upon the techniques of both, b
ut exposition and narrative remain recognisably different styles, and essays, for the most part, are written in
one or the other.

The narrative and expository essay each has a close relation. The descriptive essay is an offshoot of the narrative essay, and the argumentative 
essay, an offshoot of the expository. Four kinds of essay are thus discussed here, followed by a few tips on drafting –

      the narrative essay (telling a story)

      the descriptive essay (painting a picture in words)

      the expository essay (analysing, defining or explaining)

      the argumentative essay (persuading by reasoned argument)



The Narrative Essay

Narrative is storytelling, the chronological relation of events. It is the most natural way of writing because it is the most natural way of speaking (first I
did this and then I did that
) – which is why it is the most deceptively simple of styles. Consider, for 
example, how one person can relate an anecdote
about her children and have us in fits of laughter while another does the same 
and bores us to distraction. Some people are skilled narrators while
others are not.

What goes for speech, goes for writing. To write narrative well is difficult; to write it badly in the belief that it has been written well is unfortunately all
too easy. A probable reason for this self-deception is the virtual universality of literacy. Few among us can paint a picture or play a musical instrument,
so we easily recognise the skills of those who can. But everybody ‘writes’. Little wonder, then, that far more people say they are going to write a book
one day than say they are going to master the violin, while they are as ill-equipped to do the one as do the other. 
Many useful learn-to-write books are
available, and one of their most frequent pieces of advice is worth repeating:
If you suspect it’s rubbish, it is.

Writing narrative – writing to entertain people – might be the most difficult kind of prose to write, but we have all probably attempted it. The most 
examples are the time-honoured titles we tackled in primary school: 'A Rainy Day'; 'How I Spent my Summer Holidays'. More
sophisticated examples 
range from the short stories of such masters as Saki and O. Henry to modern novels, the consummate form of narrative.
Narrative essays, in fact, usually appear in the form of short stories or biographical anecdotes, and the author, just like the novelist, needs to appeal
to the reader's emotions and draw him into a world of the author's creation. 
How this is achieved, of course, is more easily said than done, yet there
are several devices that can be recognised in the works of successful authors.


Writing in the first person

Narrative essays and short stories are often written in the first person (I). This lends them authenticity and allows the reader more easily to identify 
with the character experiencing the events. The drawback is that the first person constrains the writer to one point of view, allowing nothing to occur
in the script that the central character does not himself or herself directly experience. There can be no he thought and she thought, only I thought.

(See person and speech.)

The narrative hook

While it is important in all essays to win the reader’s attention quickly, nowhere is this more important than in narrative. With an expository essay, as 
we shall see, the reader is looking for information or explanation. Entertainment is a bonus. With the narrative essay, on the other hand, entertainment
is expected. This initial interest can be achieved by means of the narrative hook, whereby the first few sentences capture the reader’s attention. The 
hook can be dramatic, funny, thought-provoking, mysterious or controversial, just as long as it motivates the reader to turn the crucial first few pages..


Narrative almost always focuses on some form of conflict: a conflict between people, between a person and the elements or between one person’s
desires and conscience. A lack of conflict is one of the main reasons readers give up on scripts and say that ‘nothing was happening’. Conflict also
helps to create tension and suspense, and the writer needs to learn the skill of revealing information partially and slowly. The denouement (plot
resolution) finally resolves the conflict or tension and creates that sense of satisfaction that readers of narrative expect.

Showing, not telling

Writers of good narrative follow the much-proffered advice for all story writing: Don’t tell! Show! In other words, readers should be allowed to see
characters in action rather than have those actions described for them.

Telling –

      My partner, John, had taken a new teaching post at St. Giles’, a tough
      new comprehensive school, but after only a month it became obvious
      that the job was wearing him down. He came home from work one
      evening, looking dreadful and clearly very upset, and announced that
      he couldn’t take any more.

Showing –

      I sighed as the front door slammed again with unnecessary force. Just
      four weeks at St. Giles’ Comprehensive and John was turning into a man
      I neither knew nor liked. He walked into the living room and sank into the
      settee. That facial muscle had begun to twitch again as he stared at nothing
      at all. Then he looked at me, as if surprised to find himself at home.
         ‘I can’t take it any more, Sue.’

In the same way, characters’ moods and feelings should be revealed rather than described, an end achieved by using nouns and verbs more than
adjectives and adverbs. Adverbs, in particular, are often apologies for poor narrative –

      Samantha stared worriedly out of the window. (Describing)

      Samantha stared out of the window, gnawing her lower lip. (Revealing)

Sometimes, the adverbs can simply be deleted –

      I hate the damn place!, he said angrily. (The character’s anger is evident by his speech.)

Readers want to infer the moods and feelings of characters for themselves, not be led by the nose.

The writer should also minimise the uses of he said and she said. But where necessary, it is wiser to keep to said rather than employ the so-called
‘elegant variation’ that is characteristic of the amateur: she exclaimed, he retorted.

Feelings, not evidence

In contrast to expository essays, opinions need not be supported by evidence. Feelings more than reasoned arguments are what interest the reader.

Breaking grammatical rules

Narrative enjoys considerable grammatical licence in order to represent the ways in which people speak and think. The fused sentence is never
advisable, but sentence fragments, the one-word ‘sentence’ and sentences that begin with conjunctions are 
all effective devices for emulating
thought, as if the character were actually thinking aloud –

      How dare he talk to me like that! And in front of Katy, too. I said
      nothing. Just watched him strut off to the kitchen in his socks. Then
      he cried out and swore as he stubbed his toe against the leg of the
      table. Good!

Unity of person, place and time

Finally, short narratives (in distinction to longer works such as novels) often follow one or more of the ‘unity’ principles: unity of person, place and
time. Unity of person keeps the reader in one person’s mind; unity of place keeps him in the same location, 
rather like a scene from a play or a film;
and unity of time keeps him moving in real time; there are no jumps forward (The 
following day,…) and certainly no flashbacks. Everything unfolds in 
an unbroken duration. Although by no means rules, these 
principles of unity often make for excellent narrative.1


The Descriptive Essay

Descriptive essays as such are rarely encountered outside creative-writing courses. Their nearest approximations elsewhere are passages or entire
chapters from larger works, such as novels, where the plot is temporarily suspended in order to linger on something of interest. But the description
must be graphic, not encyclopaedic. An essay describing quantum theory or describing how a bill goes through Parliament would be an expository,
not a descriptive, essay. A descriptive essay creates a vivid 
and colourful picture of something, along with a central mood or impression, and the
writing is sensuous, appealing to as many of 
the five senses as possible; at appropriate times, the writer will describe not just sight and sound, but
also touch, taste and smell.

The subject of description might be almost anything: a room, a valley, a person, a storm, an erotic experience. The important thing is that the reader
feels he is vicariously experiencing something rather than simply reading about it –

      It was near midnight, and ever since dusk I had been tramping the naked
      moors, in the teeth of as vicious a nor’-wester as ever drenched a man to
      the skin, and then blew the cold home to his marrow. My clothes were
      sodden; my coat-tails flapped with a noise like pistol shots; my boots
      squeaked as I went. Overhead, the October moon was in her last quarter,
      and might have been a slice of finger-nail for all the light she afforded. 
      Two-thirds of the time the wrack blotted her out altogether; and I, with 

      my stick clipped tight under my armpit, eyes puckered up, and head bent
      aslant, had to keep my wits alive to distinguish the road from the black 
      heath to right and left. For three hours I had met neither man nor man’s
      dwelling, and (for all I knew) was desperately lost. Indeed, at the cross-
      roads two miles back, there had been nothing for me but to choose the
that kept the wind on my face, and it gnawed me like a dog.
      (Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, ‘The Two Householders’)2


The Expository Essay

Expository and argumentative essays are the ones most commonly encountered in academia, and are much more formal compositions than those
described above. Exposition means ‘explaining’, ‘analysing’ or ‘defining’, and the subject of an 
expository essay is anything so exposed: the meaning
of a poem, a political doctrine, a philosophical idea, the causes of a war, an 
economic development and so forth. The  exposition, moreover, is
precise. A philosophy essay, for example, will need 
scrupulously to define its central concepts, a task that requires a fastidiousness of thought for
which the impressionistic language 
of narrative is wholly unsuited. In some cases (explained below), elements  of narrative might be permissible, but
this shifts the 
essay closer to the journalistic article, a move of which some academics might disapprove.

A. Structure

As we might remember from school, the expository essay comprises three sections: the introduction, the body and the conclusion.


The introduction typically consists of about ten per cent of the essay and normally includes a thesis statement: usually one or two sentences that 
explain the purpose of the essay. The thesis statement is to the essay what the topic sentence is to the paragraph: a brief outline of what is to
follow. Its length and position, however, will be determined by the nature of the material and by the reader’s requirements, although it should not
normally appear later than the second paragraph.

In the most intellectually demanding of essays, the entire introduction might be a virtual thesis statement, forming, so to speak, the writer’s briefing 
to her readers before taking them on a journey. That journey is likely to be difficult, so her readers will need a map. They will need to know their 
destination and what the main stopping places are to be along the way. And while there might be a few relevant diversions en route, there will be no
radical change of direction from that plotted in the introduction (which is why the introduction is often the last part of the essay to be written). In this 
way, the introduction becomes an encapsulation of the entire essay, including the conclusion –

      To examine the concept of justice in Plato’s Republic, we need first to
      distinguish the several ways in which that concept can be understood.
      Having outlined the four principal meanings of the word, we shall
      proceed to investigate which (or which combination) of them the
      Platonic Socrates most likely has in mind in his dialogues, first with
      Glaucon and then Thrasymachus. We shall conclude that the
      preponderant concept is distributive justice, with possible connotations
      of remedial justice, and that, given Socrates’ paradoxical belief that ‘no
      one does wrong willingly’, retributive justice does not figure at all.

Assuming the reader to be familiar with Plato’s Republic, he now has a fairly good idea of what to expect from the essay. He knows from the opening
clause that the purpose is to examine Platonic justice, while the rest of the paragraph (and there might be two or three) brings the thesis more sharply
into focus for him. An introduction such as this might also include an explanation of any unfamiliar or stipulated terms to be used in the essay (We
shall understand procedural justice to mean…
), but it is arguably wiser to deal with them as they occur in the body of the essay where they are likely
to be better remembered.

In expository essays of a less intellectually rigorous nature, the thesis statements will be correspondingly shorter –

      The subject of inquiry is how AIDS is being combated in developing

      The problem to be addressed is why, in spite of the government’s ban
      on hand guns, there has been a dramatic rise in armed crime since the
      late nineties.

      What do we mean by ‘freedom of the press’? This is the question we
      shall attempt to answer.

      The evidence will be considered both for and against the claim that
      David Copperfield was Dickens’s clandestine autobiography.

      Jazz is arguably America’s greatest contribution to world culture. Here
      we will examine its three main early influences: ragtime, gospel and the

Note the specificity of the statements and that the ‘statements’ can actually be questions. A thesis statement that proposes to discuss ‘the problem 
of AIDS’ or ‘the problem of armed crime’ could be considered rather too general.

The most natural place for the thesis statement is at the beginning. As the opening sentence or sentences, the statement immediately informs the
reader of what the essay is to be about before he settles down to read it. This is probably the wisest 
course if the essay is being written for an
exclusively academic readership (e.g. a college tutor). 
If, on the other hand, the essay is to appeal to the wider readership of, say, a magazine, the
writer might wish to build up some interest before coming to the thesis 
statement. This technique, called funnelling, feeds the reader a little
anecdotal information that gradually tapers to the thesis statement, usually at the end of the first paragraph.

Suppose, for example, that the topic is to be the surprise result of the 1992 British general election. If the work is an undergraduate politics essay, 
the writer would be wise to open with the thesis statement –

      The topic of investigation is why, in the run up to the general election of 
      April 1992, the opinion polls so spectacularly failed to predict a 

If, instead, the work is to appear in a journal or magazine, the writer might choose to funnel it with an introduction such as this – 

      On the morning of 9 April, 1992, Neil Kinnock, Leader of the Labour
      Party since 1983, was in buoyant mood. He had good reason to be. Under
Conservatives, Britain was going through its worst recession since
      the 1930s, 
and the devaluation crisis of ‘Black Wednesday’ was still
      painfully fresh in 
people’s minds. He sensed victory, and the opinion polls
      encouraged him. 
Labour, they said, was heading for a clear victory.
      Thirty-six hours later, 
notwithstanding 39 Tory losses and 42 Labour
      Gains, it was clear that John 
Major would be the man to walk back
      through the door of Number Ten to lead 
his party in its fourth consecutive
      term of office. Why, then, did the opinion 
polls so spectacularly fail?

Here, the writer has included an element of narrative in her exposition in order to generate interest in readers who, unlike college tutors, are under no
obligation to read the script.


Assuming all the research has been completed, the writer now has to organise her information into a coherent body of paragraphs, each setting out
one or more points that develop the thesis statement. This can be done in a number of ways, but it is worth noting that readers tend to remember the
beginning and the end of the body more than the middle. The recommended technique, therefore, is to arrange the material into a hierarchy of
arguments from the most to the least important and then to present them accordingly. To continue with our election example, this might be achieved
as follows.

In her notes, suppose, the writer has randomly listed six explanations of why the polls were so wide of the mark –

      1.  So-called ‘floating voters’ are notoriously fickle and apt to change
           their minds even in the polling booth.

      2.  The Tory press, especially The Sun, organised an unprecedented
           campaign against the Labour Party in the last few days before the

      3.  Although John Major presented a softer image than Margaret
           Thatcher, the latter’s ‘uncaring’ legacy was such that many
           Conservative supporters were afraid of being perceived as immoral
           by revealing their party allegiance to the opinion pollsters.

      4.  Opinion pollsters need quick, unambiguous answers, and Conservative
           supporters are traditionally more circumspect about their voting
           intentions than their Labour counterparts.

      5.  Opinion pollsters are almost always racing against the clock, and among
           their temptations is to avoid knocking the doors of houses with long
           drives, the more likely dwellings of Conservative supporters.

      6.  The Labour Party seemed to be celebrating victory prematurely, and
           many of their potential voters resented this ‘arrogance’.

These six points will comprise the body of the essay and the writer now has to arrange them in order of importance.

The first thing she spots is that only three of these points specifically address the 1992 election as opposed to elections in general, namely 2, 3
and 6. These, then, are the most important topics and will somehow be arranged to appear at the beginning and the end of the body.

Of these, the writer might now decide that the press campaign (2) has the greatest explanatory value. For while the Tories’ uncaring image (3) and
Labour’s premature celebrations (6) were contributory factors, they were nothing like as decisive in thwarting the opinion polls as the final press
onslaught on Labour’s taxation policy led by The Sun. Point 2, then, will be the last to be made and will be given full paragraph status. Next, she
decides that point 6 is more important than point 3, so 6 will come somewhere in the first paragraph and 3 in the penultimate.

So far, then, the arrangement of the six-point body is –

      6 – ? – ? – ? – 3 – 2.

Of the remaining points, those most likely to provide new and interesting information to the reader are probably the problems and practices of opinion
pollsters (4 and 5), while the prevarication of floating voters (1) is fairly common knowledge. In fact, our writer decides that 1 has the least explanatory
value and might as well be got quickly out of the way in a dependent clause as a point of small consequence –

      [1] – 6 – 4 – 5 – 3 – 2.

Here, then, is the completed body with the introductory paragraph again –

      On the morning of 9 April, 1992, Neil Kinnock, Leader of the Labour
      Party since 1983, was in buoyant mood. He had good reason to be.
      Under the Conservatives, Britain was going through its worst recession
      since the 1930s and the devaluation crisis of ‘Black Wednesday’ was
      still painfully fresh in people’s minds. He sensed victory, and the opinion
      polls encouraged him. Labour, they said, was heading for a clear victory.
      Thirty-six hours later, notwithstanding 39 Tory losses and 42 Labour
      Gains, it was clear that John Major would be the man to walk back
      through the door of Number Ten to lead his party in its fourth consecutive
      term of office. Why, then, did the opinion polls so spectacularly fail?

      Apart from the notoriously fickle behaviour of floating voters, who have
      been known to prevaricate even with the pencil in their hands (1), the
      Labour machine was celebrating victory early. No one admires pessimism
      in politics, but this flamboyant optimism - the almost indecent haste of
      moving the Kinnock furniture into Number Ten before the count had
begun - was perceived as rather un-British. This would almost
      certainly have been enough to tip the 
scales to the Tories for potentially
      first-time Labour supporters (6).

      A second reason is the considerable difficulty opinion polls encounter in
      acquiring truly representative samples. Pollsters require neat unambiguous
      answers, and Labour supporters are traditionally more forthcoming in this
      respect than their Conservative counterparts (4). To exacerbate the problem,
      they are almost always racing against the clock, and among their temptations
      is to avoid knocking the doors of houses with long drives, the more likely
      dwellings of Conservative supporters (5).

      Odd though it might seem, another factor that contributed to the inaccurate
      predictions was embarrassment. For thirteen years, the image of the
      Conservative Party had inexorably been hardening. During Margaret
      Thatcher’s premiership, it came to be seen, rightly or wrongly, as the party
      of naked capitalism, a capitalism no longer tempered by the noblesse oblige
      of gentleman Tories such as Edward Heath and Lord Carrington. Both by
      her rhetoric and her deeds, the Iron Lady seemed to have revived the
      nineteenth-century belief that it is a necessary condition of progress that the
      weak go to the wall. That John Major might have presented a softer image
      could make no impact on the legacy of successive governments that were 
      clandestinely privatising the health service and binding the hands of trade
      unions with legal tape. Little wonder, then, that many of its supporters were
      reluctant to stand and be counted (3).

      No one, however, was prepared for the unprecedented onslaught against the
      Labour Party led by The Sun. In just a few days, the paper managed to turn
      the tide to the Tories’ advantage by raising the spectre of Labour’s taxation
      policy (‘Will the last person to leave Britain please turns off the lights’).
      Notwithstanding that many of those frightened by the tax Bogey Man were the
      low waged who stood materially to benefit by Labour’s progressive income tax,
      the campaign succeeded, sealing Labour’s fate and causing some red faces
      among the professional pollsters (2).

Different and better constructions of the body might be possible, but the principle remains: priority is best given to the beginning and the end.


One of the weaknesses of conclusions sometimes is that they exist at all. Having produced a reasonably good essay, the writer will often feel 
constrained to write ‘a conclusion’ because this is what she has been told she should do, not realising that she might already have concluded it
well. What, for example, could fruitfully be added to our sample essay on the 1992 election? If we accept that the main purpose of a conclusion is 

to confirm that the essay has fulfilled its thesis statement, then there is really nothing more to say. At 500 words, on the other hand, our sample 
essay is very short. In longer essays, with a correspondingly greater number of paragraphs in support of the thesis statement, the case for a formal 
conclusion would be stronger. What, then, should a conclusion look like? Firstly, it should not merely be a summary of the essay; it must have
something  original to say. 
Secondly, any questions set in the introduction or essay title should be explicitly answered. The  evidence will have been
provided in the body and 
now is the time to formulate it into answers. These answers might be preceded by a summary of the arguments that
appeared in the body, but 
only if those arguments have been sufficiently great in number or sufficiently complex to warrant one. A summing up in our
short essay above 
would be unnecessary and appear amateurish. Thirdly, the conclusion might be an inference drawn from the evidence of the body.
Had it run 
to 2,000 words, say, the conclusion of our essay on the 1992 election might look like this –

      Predicting human behaviour, then, is perhaps an art more than a science.
      However much the opinion pollsters agonise over their ‘blunder’ of 1992,
      it is inescapably the case that the factors influencing human conduct are
      ones that are not easily amenable to scientific study.

Lastly, the conclusion could draw the reader’s attention to the wider implications of the thesis statement, indicating that there are other important
questions which can be raised. It will be beyond the scope of the present essay to answer these questions, but they can be posed in order to
stimulate interest and further research. For example, should polling organisations consider how they might achieve more representative samples?
Should the apparent power of the press be a cause for concern?


B. Person

      In order to investigate the relationship between working-class occupations 
      and voting behaviour, I first interviewed five people from social grades C2 
      and D who consistently voted Labour. Next, I interviewed five people from 
      the same grades who consistently voted Conservative.

This way of writing is probably the one that comes most naturally to us all, and the way an uninstructed first-year might produce her first expository
essay. The passage is clear and grammatically correct, but the use of the first person I is inappropriate.

To make matters worse, the writer is using the first person to describe what she is doing rather than what she is thinking. The reader does not need
to be told who carried out the research since the author’s name will be on the document. In the text, the 
writer should concern herself only with what
was done and what was discovered, not with the fact that it was she who did or 
discovered it. As we shall see, the first person is sometimes justified
in the argumentative essay to express the writer’s opinions, 
but mere exposition should be completely impersonal.

One method by which this impersonality might be achieved (and the method sometimes recommended) is to use the more detached third person –

      In order to investigate the relationship between working-class occupations
      and voting behaviour, the author first interviewed five people from social
      grades C2 and D who consistently voted Labour. Next, she interviewed five
      people from the same grades who consistently voted Conservative.

But this merely adds affectation to the problem. The writer is still drawing attention to herself by explaining what she did, succeeding only in
compounding the issue by the inauthentic and archaic practice of referring to herself as if she were someone else.

A better technique is to avoid reference to herself altogether –

      In order to investigate the relationship between working-class occupations
      and voting behaviour, five people were interviewed from social grades C2
      and D who consistently voted Labour. Next, five people from the same
      grades were interviewed who consistently voted Conservative.

The writer is now well out of sight. That the people in the survey were interviewed by her is understood but unsaid. The writer has maintained
authorial invisibility by using passive rather than active sentences. But the drawback with a series of passive sentences is that they can make
for rather dull reading. One way around this problem is for the author to combine passive sentences with active ones in which he survey, or its
results, are the subject rather than she herself 

      The results of the survey show that… (active with a third-person subject)

Another of the writer’s options is to use the first-person plural we as the subject of active clauses and sentences. It is straying a little into informal
territory, but it is established academic practice and has the advantage of engaging the reader by creating the impression that he is sitting side-
by-side with the author –

      As can be seen from the diagram…(passive and formal)
      As we can see from the diagram…(active, engaging and formally acceptable)

      What conclusions can be drawn from this?
      What conclusions can we draw from this?

      Two things need to be clarified…
      We need to be clear about two things…

In expository essays, then, the writer is best advised to keep her head down by using a combination of –

      •  passive sentences

      •  active sentences in which the subject is the research method
         (the survey, interview, questionnaire, experiment, etc.)

      •  active sentences in which the subject is we
         (the author and her readers)


The Argumentative Essay

A. The nature of argument

In a sense, all academic essays are argumentative. The explanations and definitions of expository essays can always be challenged, so that even
they have a necessarily persuasive element. But argumentative or persuasive essays, per se, are much more explicitly prescriptive compositions
and are generally encountered at and above the undergraduate rung of the academic ladder.

Such essays (called papers if they are published or read to learned societies) might ostensibly appear as expository essays that purport merely
to explain something, but the original, radical or controversial nature of that explanation transforms them into argumentative essays. Sir Isaiah
Berlin’s essay, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’,3 for example, sets out ‘to examine’ two kinds of freedom, but it rapidly becomes clear that the definitions
are not ones with which everyone will agree. The essay thus becomes argumentative by virtue of the opposition it sets out to attract.

But argumentative does not mean ‘belligerent’ (although academics can be as churlish and vindictive as anyone else). There is a world of difference
between persuading someone of something and merely winning an argument. The polemics of the party-political pamphlet, or the diatribes of
‘Disgusted’ in the correspondence pages of the local newspaper, have no place in an argumentative essay. Such scripts must be just what they claim
to be: argumentative, not a series of unsubstantiated or one-sided claims. It takes at least two to argue, so that the essay must either express at least 
two points of view (one challenged and the other defended) or be ‘one-sided’ only in the sense of throwing down the academic gauntlet. If the former
technique is chosen, the author must create a genuine dialogue of ideas with her opponent, real or imaginary, expressing the opposing view fairly and 
acknowledging any difficulties with her own.

Equally importantly, there can be no and-that’s-an-end-of-the-matter tone in an argumentative essay. There is, and can be, no end to academic
debate, and an essay’s conclusion will necessarily be one with which readers can disagree. If disagreement is not possible, then the argument has
been circular or tautologous. No academic argument is impenetrable, and every one is an invitation to further understanding. The purpose of the
argumentative essay is to show that the writer’s point of view is plausible and internally consistent, not that it is absolutely and incontestably true.


B. Structure

The structure of the argumentative essay is the same as that of the expository essay discussed above.

C. Person

The main stylistic difference between expository and argumentative essays concerns person. For while the first-person singular I is inappropriate in
the expository essay, it is occasionally permissible in the argumentative essay where the author is expressing 
a personal opinion. Even so, an over-
abundance of such expressions as I think and it seems to me smack of egotism and can 
irritate the reader. It is therefore wise to be frugal with the
first person.

The first person can, of course, be used freely in the early stages as the writer gathers her thoughts, but most occurrences are easily banished in
the drafting stages. The simplest way is often to delete them. Thus –

     In my opinion, Herzberg’s theory has two major weaknesses

becomes –

      Herzberg’s theory has two major weaknesses.

But in what circumstances may the author legitimately raise her head? Firstly, in cases where she herself has not set the essay, the title itself can
be a guide. For example, 'How Plausible is Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory of Motivation?' does not invite the use of the first person in quite the same
way as 'How plausible do you consider Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory of Motivation to be?' Secondly, as noted earlier, the first person should never
be used to describe what the author did, but only what she thinks.

First-person statements are best kept to a minimum, reserved for the most important or thought-provoking ideas in the script or, occasionally, to
indicate uncertainty –

      It seems to me, then, that the reasons for the fall in the birth rate have
      less to do with the advent of oral contraception than the conscious decision
      by women to balance their careers with their family commitments. However,
      I am less sure of Jones’s (2001) claim that such a fall could have resulted
      without the revolutionary ‘pill’.

But even here, the first person can be avoided if the writer feels it is in danger of overuse. Thus the opening of the first sentence is easily changed
to –

      Arguably, then, the reasons for the fall in the birth rate…

while the opening of the second sentence can be changed to –

      Less convincing, however, is Jones’s (2001) claim that…



Few writers will produce a satisfactory essay in one sitting. Most will find themselves with a lengthy first draft in considerable need of pruning and 
refining before it meets the requirements of quality and size – a task that can involve more work than was spent on the research. But while sweat 
is necessary, tears are not. If the writer is faced with the distressing prospect of having to dispose of substantial, well-written passages on which
considerable effort has been spent, then those passages are either irrelevant to the thesis statement or the consequences of its overdevelopment. 
Let us deal with irrelevance first.

A dangerous temptation for the unwary is to focus on a key word or phrase in the essay title and then to write down all that is known about it, which 
more often than not involves needless definition. The writer, that is, will unnecessarily define or explain a concept when what is required is the 
application of that concept to explain something else. Take, for example, the essay title, 'Assess the value of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs with 
reference to a business organisation'. Some students will immediately plunge in with something like this –

      Maslow’s Hierarchy comprises five levels of need from low to high which 
      people seek to satisfy in ascending order: (1) physiological needs (such as 

      food, water and shelter); (2) safety needs (security and freedom from 
      danger); (3) social needs (affection and acceptance in groups); (4) esteem 
      needs (being valued and respected by others); and (5) self-fulfilling needs 
      (being creative and effective).

True but irrelevant. The writer has wasted time (and probably marks) defining Maslow’s Hierarchy instead of getting on with the business of 
assessing its value –

      The investigation into Anyfirm revealed how it is possible to descend
      Maslow’s Hierarchy as well as ascend it. It became evident from the
      interviews with the staff that, following the announcement of possible
      redundancies, there was now far less concern with the satisfaction of the
      higher needs and a corresponding increase in concern with the lower.
      With their jobs under threat, the lofty goal of self-fulfilment was sacrificed
      for the humbler and more urgent goal of job security.

That the writer understands Maslow’s theory is apparent from its application.

Overdevelopment, on the other hand, is the result of poor planning. Academics writing papers for publication usually have some discretion in
respect of the length of their work. The hapless student does not. A victim of her own enthusiasm, she can find herself with a script so far in 
excess of what is admissible that to prune it without mutilation becomes impossible.

What needs to be remembered is that writing an essay of two or three thousand words is like furnishing a small living room; we can acquire some
beautiful items but, without the space, they merely transform the room into an obstacle course. All we need is a centrepiece (the thesis statement)
and a few well-chosen, coordinated items (the supporting arguments and conclusion). As the body of the essay is being constructed, therefore, the
writer should get a feel for the size of her creation and realise, sooner rather than later, whether it is going to fit into the available space. This is not
to say that interesting digressions should be ignored. They can be noted for future development, but it must be realised that they are unlikely to
find a place in the current essay.

These errors aside, the purpose of the drafting stages will be to refine the work in order to achieve optimum clarity and to rid it of dross. Advice on
how to achieve these ends can be found in the sections on expletive sentences and clichés, pleonasms and verbosity. The remainder of this page
consists of a few reminders.

      It is a well-known fact that…
      It has often been said that…
      There can be little doubt that…

All these verbose phrases are easily replaced with adverbs such as doubtless, evidently, generally, naturally and so forth.

We can also shorten expressions and improve the quality of English at the same time –

      When he had written his business plan, he arranged an interview with
      his bank.

      His business plan written, he arranged an interview with his bank.

      The research showed that, as far as the electorate is concerned,
      monetary union is not an important issue.

      The research showed that monetary union is not an important electoral issue.

Very often, we need make no change except to delete the expression –

      Ed Miliband was elected as the Leader of the Labour Party in 2010.

      The interviewees were questioned, the forms were collected and the
      information was analysed.

      Most of Bach’s orchestral works were written while he was in Cöthen.

      He specialised in selling while his partner specialised in accounts.
      (An elliptical comma is added after selling.)

      No one else but the secretary is allowed to sign cheques.

Other windbags include –

      as a consequence of – because of
      did not have – had no
      due to (owing to) the fact that – because
      in the absence of – without
      in connection with – about
      in terms of – as, by, in
      in spite of the fact that – notwithstanding that
      in view of the fact that – because
      on a daily basis – daily, every day
      the vast majority of – most
      the question as to whether – whether

We can also weed out the tautologies. Each of the following, for example, should have one word deleted –

      close proximity
      combine together
      component parts
      diametrically opposed
      end result
      famous celebrity
      first conceived
      forward planning
      merge together
      past experience
      root cause
      so therefore
      sudden impulse
      sum total
      underlying basis

Finally, we should also guard against our own naïvety. All writers want to impress their readers, but using verbosity to disguise a commonplace is
not the way to do it –

      The investigation method used to obtain the information necessary to
      complete this essay was the questionnaire.

      The information for this essay was gathered by questionnaire. (A reduction
      of seven words, or forty-four per cent of the sentence)

Some writers also fail to realise that what for them is a new discovery is common knowledge to their readers. They are consequently fond of the
grand announcement, rather like a drum roll before a circus feat that ends in a flop –

      In 1513, a man by the name of Machiavelli wrote a book entitled, The

      Machiavelli’s Prince appeared in 1513. (A reduction of ten words, or sixty-
      seven per cent of the sentence)

In these ways, the writer takes up more and more slack until the final version is as taut as a piano wire, the entire essay employing a minimum
number of words working at maximum capacity.



1 Among the many well-crafted short stories that exemplify one or more of these principles of unity are the following: Roald Dahl, The Hitch-Hiker
   in William Pattrick (ed.), Duel: Horror Stories of the Road, W. H. Allen, London, 1987, pp. 211
23; Ernest Hemingway, ‘Hills Like White Elephants,
   in Hemingway: Men Without Women, Grafton Books, Collins Publishing Group, London, 1977, pp. 4448; Richard Matheson, ‘Duel, in William 
   Pattrick (ed.), op. cit., pp. 14973; Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, ‘The Two Householders: Memoirs of Gabriel Foot, Highwayman’ in Selected Short 
   Stories, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1957, pp. 4960; and Saki (H. H. Munro), ‘The Open Window, in The Penguin Complete SakiPenguin 
Harmondsworth, 1984, pp. 25962.
2 Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, op. cit.
3 Sir Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty’ in Anthony Quinton (ed.), Political Philosophy, OUP, London, 1967, pp. 141152.


































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