O Levels English Essays Form

The above passage captures an English professor�s perspective on the importance of English essays� introductions for students. In order to write successful essays we must write effective introductions. Unfortunately, many of us have problems writing good introductions; we often receive our essays back with complaints from professors about our introductions, and with poor marks as well. As two English majors who have written good, and not so good English essays, we decided to further investigate the composition of introductions.

Many of us have been programmed to write a specific form of introduction, one which does not always produce the best results or high grades. We have been told specifically by some English professors that our introductory paragraphs should be between seven to nine sentences, and must contain the thesis statement, preferably at the last sentence of the introduction. This formula approach is often taught in high school and first and second year university level, but when students arrive at third year level courses there are different expectations. We found through our scholastic experiences and personal research that there is no inflexible method to writing an English essay introduction, and that students do not have to limit themselves to formulas.

Methodology:

For the purpose of this project we studied forty submitted English essays, ranging in "A+" to "C" grades (see graph A), reviewed their structure and the professors� feedback of the papers, and consulted numerous books about writing English essay introductions. In addition, we talked to two university English professors, and received their comments on writing introductions.

Professors� Comments:

Professor Number One who we spoke with teaches upper-level English courses. Professor One detailed what he looks for in an exceptional introduction. The idea of devoting an entire project to the topic of introductions intrigued him; he said the introduction was crucial to writing a good paper because of its sheer placement it has "automatic double emphasis." Professor One was quick to assert that although a traditional introduction is "good" his preferences lay elsewhere.

When probed about what he meant by "traditional" he explained that he does not like it when the introduction states "in this essay I will explain . . . " Professor One prefers short papers, where the reader does not need to be told anything, because the content becomes apparent as he reads the paper. He does not want to be manipulated: he feels that this demeans the reader, and it is not about manipulating an audience, but about "expressing the writer�s own fascination with the subject." If the writer is enthusiastic about her own essay then the reader will naturally become interested. Professor One felt that it is extremely important to define the topic in the introduction; he was quick to say that this does not mean a "thesis statement," but a defining of the topic meant introducing the "area" the writer will be discussing. The introduction needs to be as "clear as possible": there should be no confusion or loss of direction. Professor One said it is like "tak[ing] the reader by the hand," and that persuasion comes out of showing and explaining, not manipulation.

Professor Number Two, also an upper-level English professor, focuses on the thesis of the essay, often an important part of the introduction:

Professor Two gives us insight into the flexibility of the introduction. Professors don�t always expect that our first paragraph will include a thesis, but instead the professor suggests other attention getting methods. As long as the reader is oriented in your paper you can use creative means to enhance your introduction.

The professors both emphasized the importance of clarity for the reader. The length of the introduction and the placement of the thesis was not as important as clarity. Professor One stated that he does not want an explicit thesis in the introduction, but does want to have the topic defined. Professor Two differentiated between traditional and contemporary styles of introductions, and stated that students have flexibility in creating their thesis.

Thesis Placement:

Our research concluded that the "A" papers which received the highest percentages were the ones that did not have a thesis statement taking the form of a sentence, at the end of the introduction (see graph B). While this method is not the only way to achieve an exceptional introduction, it is implied that if you genuinely aspire to become a more proficient writer and want to receive grades in the 90 percentiles, this may well be worth your attention.

Essay Analysis:

Then how, exactly, does an "A+" essay introduction succeed? And where does a "C" introduction fall short? By taking two essays from a 400 level class we will examine this issue. Starting with the "A+" paper (98%):

"A+" Paper Introduction:

The relationship between modernity and the voice of the minority writer is very strong, and unrivaled in its poignancy. By breaking with the white poetic tradition and looking to his own culture for inspiration, Langston Hughes embodies the very soul of modernism. He depicts the savagery and alienation of modernity by creating new poetic forms to match this wretched content. After all, who could better give expression to the oppression, the alienation, and the violence of the early twentieth-century than a black man. A black man (or woman) has an intimate relationship with brutality and injustice - he lives with it every day of his life. In his poetry, Hughes was faithful to this reality. His commitment to an accurate portrayal of black life and culture revolutionized what it meant to be a black poet, and redefined the black identity according to black ideals. Langston Hughes gave us one of the best possible examples of his poetic modernism because his highly innovative poetry broke with the traditional forms of anglo poetry by using a completely different cultural source.

The cultural forces which served as a source for Hughes� poetry were fueled by the Harlem Renaissance.

Points to consider when evaluating an introduction are:

  1. Identify
  2. Background information (supported by details)
  3. Thesis
  4. Some support for thesis
  5. Relationship between thesis and theme
  6. Transition, introduces the discussion of a specific scene (Garrett-Petts)

Referring to this checklist, let�s take an in-depth look at this essay. The second sentence of the introduction identifies the author, but since this student draws from many of Hughes� works it was not necessary to list them all. The second item on the checklist, background information, is evident in sentences three through five. With the phrase "poetic modernism" a framework for the thesis is achieved. Support for the writer�s thesis is achieved in the same sentence with the phrase: "broke with the traditional forms . . . by using a completely different cultural source." The transition seems to be accomplished effortlessly. The writer ends the introduction and begins her next paragraph by taking the phrase "cultural source" and using it as a lead in for the next paragraph. The last sentence of the introduction and the first sentence of the second paragraph are closely related.

Noteworthy as well is the obvious personal investment that is apparent after reading only the introduction. The tone of the introduction is charged with emotion: carefully selected words such as "soul," "brutality" and "ultimate" give the reader a sense that a genuinely close reading of this poetry has preceded this introduction.

Professor One, who we interviewed, believes that the writer�s enthusiasm and interest on the subject will translate into a positive experience for the reader. This is evident after reading this introduction. But, unfortunately, this is not always the case, as we move onto the discussion of an introduction from a "C" paper.

"C" Paper Analysis:

You will notice by the abundance of red ink that the task of reading this introduction was probably much more daunting for this reader. We chose to leave the introduction unedited, to demonstrate just how much this author�s credibility may have come into question. For instance, the inability to correctly spell the author�s name will surely indicate the lack of attention to detail. Grammar and structure are important parts of the writing process. If this is a trouble spot for you, there are many style guides available.

Granted, the author does identify the authors and their poems, but instead of framing the issue the writer attempts to "summarize" (sentence two) an issue that has not been addressed yet. The writer attempts to give background information from the text, but the quotes, seemingly chosen for their significance, lose much of their intended meaning because the issue has not been framed. As she states "The images from both these excerpts are quite vivid . . . ," this may be true, but the result is that they seem to be placed haphazardly, because where these excerpts deserve attention none is given. They are inserted to prove a point, but succeed in making implications that are not dealt within the introduction, which, of course, is not the reason for an introduction.

This introduction does not "take the reader by the hand," but rather pushes the reader into a busy intersection: which direction to turn becomes reliant on anticipating traffic, traffic that is approaching in all different directions. Direction is more attainable when the writer frames the topic; in this introduction four separate issues are raised, with the support for one issue coming by raising another issue.

This introduction lacks precision and is ambiguous, with statements like "in some cases" and "and/or." Because the topic is not focused, the reader is unable to discern what the writer is attempting to assert.

The transition of the last sentence of the introduction to the first sentence of the second paragraph does not succeed in utilizing the last sentence to expand an idea, but rather to raise another idea. The writer ends the introduction with the idea that poetry "evokes emotion and/or reaction from the reader," but starts the next paragraph with "paint[ing] a picture" and "imagination." This leaves the reader with the task of having to adjust to a new idea, rather than enjoying the natural unfolding of an essay, which comes, in part, by the ability to achieve seemingly effortless transitions.

Introduction Lengths:

As two English majors, speaking from experience, we have been taught since high school, and up to and including the first and second years of university, that a good introduction should be seven to nine sentences. We were interested to discover that our research did not support this claim. Essays that fell into the "A" category had an average of 5.1 sentences in their introductions, well below our expectations of what we considered being part of the defining characteristics of an exceptional introduction. Interestingly, the essays which did fall into the aforementioned category (seven to nine sentences) were the essays that received a "C" or "C+" grade; their average length was eight sentences per introduction (see graph C). The papers that received a grade somewhere in the "B" range had an average of 6.4 sentences per introduction (see graph C).

This information propelled us to conclude that depth is better than breadth. "A" papers were very focused: their ability to frame the issue was achieved with precision and clarity. Whereas, the "C" papers received comments such as "You are getting carried away already. You are into the development of your topic without having laid out the plan for the paper in your introduction" and "Use your introduction to identify your essay structure." The "A" papers had comments pertaining to "very detailed, well expressed" and this was a "good complex reading of the text (evident from the introduction)."

This is not to suggest that you should now aim for a five-sentence introduction; but, the next time you feel the urge to add arbitrary information for the sake of obtaining the assumed desired length (a practice not unheard of), you need to first refer to the checklist. If you cover these seven areas in less than seven to nine sentences, then the notion of tacking on more information is unneeded.

Writing With a Purpose:

In McCrimmon�s Writing With a Purpose, the two kinds of introductions are outlined clearly. The first kind of introduction "is often a relatively short paragraph that states the thesis of an essay, usually with a brief introduction" (217). This introduction "can suggest an author�s intentions in several ways. It can build a thesis and then clarify it . . . It can build toward a thesis... It can link a series of related, evocative sentences together . . . Or it can identify an issue or issues and state outright what the essay will deal with one of them"(218).

The second type of introductory paragraph is "intended to lure the reader into the essay" (218). This second type of introduction is often referred to as a hook, because it tries to lure your reader into your essay. Hooks for essays include:

Concluding Thoughts:

There is much flexibility in writing English essay introductions. We advise students to write creatively, and to avoid falling into the trap of formula writing: there is no set correct introduction length, and students do not have to place their thesis at the end of the introduction, or even in the introduction. We hope this information has given you some help in making the transition from second year to third year English paper introductions smoother.

We found that the most effective introductory paragraphs do not have to be a specified length, do not have to have the thesis statement at the end of the introduction, and, in fact, do not have to contain the thesis statement. Effective English introductions demonstrate an advanced writing ability, clarity, and command of the material being discussed.

The introduction sets the tone for the rest of your essay, so if your introduction is unclear or misleading, confusion will result. It is like making a long distance phone call to discover the connection is poor; you try to communicate, but because of the static understanding each other becomes difficult, and maybe even impossible. To avoid this do not be afraid to use resources already available to you:

We hope that this information will come in handy to you when you write your next English essay!

Mr Seah performing.. on stage! 😀

(The essay below is written as if I were 16 years old. You don’t have to be an old geezer to have memorable experiences!)

Things to notice:

  • The use of sensory details (i.e. things that engage the five senses)
  • The attempt to entertain and edify the reader
  • The evidence of planning (a clear introduction, paragraphs that flow together smoothly, a clear conclusion)

Describe an unforgettable event or experience in your life. Why does it mean so much to you?

I have had only a few unforgettable experiences in the sixteen years of my life thus far, but one of the most positive unforgettable experiences I can think of is my experience of learning how to play the guitar. It is also one of the most meaningful experiences of my life, because of how much I have learnt from it. Approaching the guitar as the beginner was also a considerably painful experience — but that pain made the experience so much sweeter.

Two years ago, after finishing my Secondary Two examinations, I decided to learn how to play the guitar. At that time, my family only had an old nylon string guitar that was extremely difficult to tune. It smelt funny, like dust and wood, and always left my hand aching when I tried to get my fingers round its large neck. I learnt two basic chords on it, but I was very quickly yearning for a new steel string acoustic guitar that one of my closest friends had. His guitar was so much louder than mine, and it sounded so much nicer. Its bright, percussive tone was exactly what I was looking for.

My parents are the sort who avoid giving their children too much money, so I did not have the option of saving up for the guitar. If I had tried, it probably would have taken me till now to save up for it! Consequently, I did what any child would do — I whined and begged for a new guitar. As I tried every trick in my begging book, I happened to confidently make my father a promise that I truly believed I could keep.

“Daddy,” I proclaimed, “I’m going to have so much time during the holidays. I’ll be able to practice all day, every day! If you buy me a guitar, I’m going to be just like the guitarists you see on stage. Maybe I won’t be as good as them, but I’ll definitely be able to go up on stage and play!”

With a prolonged sigh that must have lasted a week, my father eventually gave in, but not before he got a word in himself. “You’re going to be excited about it for a week or two, and then you’re going to give it up for something else, a computer game or something. And you’re definitely not going to be able to perform with only two months of practice.” With the brash confidence of a fourteen year old, I laughed that comment off. Thusly, I received my first ever guitar — a beautiful steel string acoustic.

I dived into my “all day, every day” practice regimen the moment I got home with the guitar. It was easy at first — the new guitar not only looked showroom-shiny, it sounded showroom-shiny. It was just so much fun. The problem with transitioning from a nylon string guitar to a steel string guitar is, as any guitarist can tell you, a painful one. There is a reason we wear clothes with nylon, and not steel, in them. Within the first week, my fingertips were aching like they had never ached before.

The novice guitarist’s fingers go through a journey that is like a hero’s quest. First, the hero is filled with confidence that he will emerge victorious. The hero plunges on ahead, but after awhile, pain arrives. The skin of my fingertips grew red and sore. The hero balks at the immensity of the task ahead. Strangely, I was able to play till my fingers grew numb, which meant that I could really practice all day without too much pain bothering me. It was only when I stopped that the blood would rush back to my fingers; now my fingertips were always throbbing, even as they were simultaneously growing tougher like the balls of our feet grow tougher when we walk barefoot. The hero drags himself onward, thinking only of the terminus of his journey.

I was a month into my journey when I realized that it was going to be almost impossible to keep my promise to my father, of being good enough to perform on stage at the end of the holidays. My fingers were still hurting, and I could ‘only’ practice four to five hours every day, instead of the nine to twelve hours that I was hoping for. Thankfully, it was also around this time that my fingertips hardened to the point where it was muscular fatigue that kept a limit on my practice hours. I kept practicing like a madman, because I was mortified that my father’s prediction could be right — that I would not be ready to step on stage by the end of the holidays. By the time the holidays came to a close, I was a fairly decent guitarist, but nowhere near ready to be on stage.

The experience of learning how to play the guitar has proven to be immensely meaningful and unforgettable. I still remember how my fingers hurt — the million pinpricks of pain whenever I picked something up with my left hand. I even remember how my fingers smelt, like a baffling mixture of steel, cake, and dead skin. However, the most unforgettable and meaningful aspect of the experience arose from the fact of my apparent failure. I was unable to keep part of my promise, but as a result, gained so much more out of it. I had developed an immense reservoir of discipline that has served me well to this day.

With the discipline and ability I have developed since that experience two years ago, I firmly believe that music will continue to play a large part in my life, even as I approach adulthood. Even if I do not become a working musician, the discipline and moral lessons that I have learnt from this experience will always stay with me.

(978 words)

Addendum
Note to sixteen year old self: by the time you turn 31, you would have made thousands of dollars of music. Keep on keeping on! 😉

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