Writing an Essay – Showing who you are, on paper. – Mittali Sethi, IAS (Essay -160 marks)
This will be the last in the series of articles I have written at Insights regarding preparation for Civil Services. As I leave for training in a day, deadlines are here and so, my sincere apologies to those who will be getting delayed replies to emails. I am trying my best to answer as promptly as possible.
Coming to Essay preparation, let me begin with two caveats:
- Essay is a subjective thing. It is completely possible that with a different examiner, I might have got very low marks. So if you differ strongly with something I tell you, please feel free to pay heed to your own opinions of things. Inner voices are important.
- There are no shortcuts to anything, and the least of all for writing. When I say that I did not prepare for Essay, it only means that I did not really buy a book on “How to write an Essay” and read it, but I was consciously thinking about what to write about many things. The thinking part is the most essential part, always remember that. What you are doing when you don’t have the book in front of you is an important component of your preparation.
Before I go any further, it will be easier if you read this:
Now, for many or at least few people out there, Essay will be an exercise that makes no sense. Why does UPSC want you to write an Essay at all? It is subjective, open to different interpretations, requires a good writing skill, a flowery language, has no co-relation to you being an administrator and is unnecessarily long.
Well, debates aside, it will be wonderful if we understand the importance of Essay first. The fact is that the whole world rests on sound communication. Not in terms of language but in terms of content. All of us have a favourite opinion-writer in The Hindu, and we read books written by so many people. So, if you think about it in an unbiased manner, writing, or communication – no matter what point in it you stand at right now – is an integral part of being good at any job. The UPSC examiner doesn’t know you as a person, your paper is what she/he has, to know who you are. If you are compassionate, honest, truthful, prove it on paper – as of now, that is the only way. Believe me, if you are all of that – it will definitely come on paper too, which is why I emphasise so much on thinking right.
- Essay paper is subjective – yes – but remember that what ultimately matters is the complete/overall impression you leave in the mind of the reader. In Psychology, the recency effect dictates that a normal human being tends to remember the beginnings and ends most of all. So, your introductions and conclusions must be eventful, impactful and something the reader can connect with.
Let me explain this with an example. I wrote the essay on “Water Disputes between States in Federal India.” This is how I began:
“I have learnt a new word today. It’s called paradox.
Meena says the water in her house is muddy,
But they put up a new fountain in my building last week.
Meena says there is no water to take bath on some days,
I sometimes bathe three times a day.
My mother says there might be wars on water,
Wars – now that is a word I learnt long time back.”
——-The “water world” of a 9-year old.
I understand that this is too philosophical for many. But the point that I am trying to drive across is that you don’t need flowery language or difficult words – what I wrote could be modified as an incident or a story – after all, we all come across it everyday.
In my second essay – “Internet as bane or boon” – I remember the topic only loosely, I wrote a story about a great educator who has influenced me. I had a heard a TED talk by Sugata Mitra and I mentioned how internet can bridge distances in education.
The bottomline is that when you begin, you must connect to the topic as a human being. Don’t become a robot and write mechanically. In my opinion – if I become the examiner – it would make me happy if you begin the essay being compassionate and empathetic – you can choose which segment a problem affects most. It can be farmers, children, depending on the topic. Think empathetically – think what would you do if you were in a situation and then break it down on paper.
Conclusions must be optimistic, and forward looking. You can choose to give solutions in conclusions or finish with a futuristic vision. That would be sufficient.
- For the body of the essay, the SPECLIH – Social, Political, Economic, Cultural, Linguistic/Local, International, Humanistic dimensions- given by Chandra Mohan Garg last year, work well. For example, in the water disputes essay, it is not enough if you mention only the Cauvery, Godavari river disputes, your essay will be much more complete if you mention Indus and Brahmaputra disputes because those are also state issues, albeit with other countries.
- Always make a flowchart on the rough page behind before you attempt an essay. I have tried writing an essay with and without a flowchart, and I can tell by at least my experience that the latter would give you a much more structured, and non random piece of writing. A lot of times I was too lazy to make a flowchart, but when I would be done writing about social and economical aspects, I would suddenly remember another point – it would be too late by then. Even if you are practising, make sure you make the last page a rough page and draw the flowchart. In fact, take feedback not only on the essay, but the flowchart as well. If you don’t have the time, practise just the flowcharts instead of the whole essay.
- You don’t need difficult words. Simple English will do. But your grammar cannot be wrong. As it forms the fundamental component of your language, wrong grammar or wrong spellings can lead to wrong meanings. The last thing you need is to be misunderstood! If your grammar needs improvement, make sure you face your insecurities and put efforts to improve it. If you are trying to improve yourself in any form, you are only exhibiting courage and determination. Don’t allow anybody to make you feel otherwise.
- No, it’s not necessary to have balanced opinions. You are allowed to have a strong opinion on something, but don’t be opinionated alone, be informed also. Present the situation, lay down the facts and then explain with logic why you hold a certain point of view. I, for one, have always been skeptical of the privacy rights being taken over by Aadhaar, and I did present my disagreement every time I wrote or spoke about it. But you have to understand that you are not allowed to be a spectator if you are coming over to other side. Do you have solutions in mind or are you only a cribber? Only cribbing is allowed if you accept the short term benefits someone else’s solution provides. You must be open minded and unbiased to accept that.
- I did not use any quotes written by anyone, so they aren’t necessary. But if you plan on putting a quote in double quote (like this :“…”), make sure you know the quote exactly – there is nothing worse than a wrong attribution when it comes to quote. If you are not sure about the exact quote, you can mention that you are paraphrasing or that “As___ said,..” followed by the quote. Then, changes in quotes are acceptable.
- Paragraph is fine, sub headings are fine. Don’t worry about all these issues a lot. You can draw something in the essay only if it is really relevant. For example, if you are writing an essay on tourism, drawing a map will be highly relevant and desirable. But generally, too many diagrams are not really required or wanted in an essay.
- When you practise essay writing, after initial writings, start practising brevity. Use less words to say what you want to say – try being concise so that you can touch on multiple dimensions and there is no repetition of topics or themes. Beating around the bush does not drive the point home any further, clear articulation of words does.
That is all I have to contribute to this topic of Essay writing. In case you have more doubts, please feel free to ask in comments, so that it can help everyone.
You can stay connected at Living The Writeful Way.
My best wishes to all of you to find the greatest meaning in whatever you do in your lives. Please be gentle with yourselves and remember that you are larger than UPSC, and that you as a human being have so much to contribute to this country and the world in different forms. Life is about excellence much more than ambition. Chase the right things, and right things will come to you.
Good luck, everyone!