Tuesday, February 21st, 2017
When I said in the previous post that you must write at least 100 essays, I was not joking.
There are a number of reasons why this must be done.
First, writing, unlike speaking or reading, is not a natural process we follow every day. Therefore, when we sit down to write, we are filled with self-doubt.
Second, every writer, on most occasions, needs to motivate themselves to write. In the case of a WAT taker, the perceived disincentive for writing a bad essay outweighs the perceived incentive for writing a good essay. In other words, most WAT takers feel that a bad essay can do more damage to their chances than a good essay can benefit them. Therefore, there is always a fear of failure accompanied by a feeling of pointlessness and resignation which interferes with the writer’s attention and thought process.
Third, the fear of failure (more specifically the fear of failing to impress the reader) may force the writer to try resort to verbal acrobatics – such as highfalutin words (yes, I just did that!), verbose sentences, outmoded writing styles – which first distract and then confuse the reader.
Fourth, writing forces the writer to be mentally disciplined in order to just organise the thoughts, let alone to write fluently. Most of us generally live a life of no thinking or undisciplined thinking. We usually do not observe the world around us unless we perceive the possibility of a personal benefit (for example, “I shall begin to study current affairs two weeks before the PI!”). We rarely try to dispassionately make sense of everyday events in our lives. We constantly allow our pre-conceived notions to interfere with our understanding of the present. Our reason and logic are dominated by our emotions. We either accept authority slavishly or are in a perpetual state of revolt and aggression. Our dogmatic adherence to our beliefs forms the core of our assumptions about the world. We resist any change that forces us to question our assumptions. We allow gadgets of desire and base entertainment to rule our inner world. We refuse to alter the routines of our behaviour, the predominant concern of which is the pursuit of pleasure. And for what is worse, most of us live our entire lives without being the least bit curious about what we do and why we do it. Instead, we brand our mental and physical dullness as depression.
In short, our heads are usually not in order. While we continue to exploit the benefits of external order – such as our smartphones and other well-ordered technologies – we lack the internal order of thought and the resultant conviction. This makes writing – a process that necessitates order and clarity above everything else – extremely difficult for most of us. That writing forces us to go against the usual nature of our decadent existence is the reason why most of us seldom write. And that is the reason why most WAT takers, despite knowing full well that their careers hang in balance, seldom write.
Sosai Mas Oyama, the founder of Kyokushin karate and one of the strongest fighters I have ever seen, once said that after you hit ten thousand practice kicks, you are ready to hit one proper kick. I shall bring that proportion down to 100:1 for essay writing. To write one good essay, we must first be prepared to write one hundred bad essays. We must be willing to drop all our assumptions about the issue, look at the facts dispassionately, understand the concerns of all the involved parties, and let analysis, reason, and logic replace empty rhetoric.
One of the simplest pieces of advice that I once received on essay writing brought the process down to 3 simple steps:
A: Say what you are going to say
B: Say it
C: Say that you have said it
Step A presents the beginning of your essay, step B the core, and step C the conclusion. Let us understand in detail what to do at each step, so that we are ready to write our first 100 essays.
A poor approach: “I feel that we should not….”
A better approach: “Let us first understand what the topic means.”
Look at the difference in these two. In the former, the writer has begun with a clear position, but the supposed clarity may not have necessarily come out of a sound analysis of the issue. In fact, the word ‘feel’ indicates the opposite. The writer begins the essay by forcing his/her opinion on to the readers, immediately alienates the readers who may not share that position, and prevents a ‘mutual exploration’ of the topic. This is a ‘with me or against me’ kind of stance.
On the contrary, the second approach is a warm prelude to the definitions of the keywords of the topic, and further analysis. It does polarise opinion from the word go. It seeks to create a dialogue with the reader by treating the reader as an intelligent being.
The first is a ready position for boxing, the second, arms open for an embrace.
DO NOT misinterpret the second approach as a line you must start the essay with. What I describe is not a template for the opening, but rather the spirit in which you open the essay.
To a writer there is nothing more elusive in the world than a good beginning. It is stuck in your teeth. You know it’s there, but you just cannot find it. Yet, you must find it.
Many students receive a common piece of advice from many quarters that a good essay should always begin with a ‘hook’ – a shining introduction that engages the attention of the reader. While a great beginning does indeed engage the reader, it is incredibly difficult to come up with it in short time. This hook is usually a startling fact (fabricated, in most cases of WAT takers), or a mental journey (“Imagine if you were…” kind of hackneyed beginning), or a memorable quote (which is my personal pet aversion), or something humorous (which always carries the danger of being irrelevant to the topic).
If you want to know what a fabulous hook looks like, here is an example. This was, if I remember correctly, a newspaper report that I read many years ago. It came from Australia and reported a forest fire that destroyed thousands of acres. It was not a natural wildfire, but a man-induced. A motorist passing through the forest had flung into the woods an unextinguished cigarette butt which started the fire. So here was the usual 3-column report accompanied by a standard photograph of the site. As a reader, I am looking at this piece without suppressing my first reaction: apathy. I do not live Down Under, nor do I personally know anybody who does. In my country the nearest forest from where I live is at least 500 miles away. I have never even seen a burning house, except in films, let alone a burning forest. Potentially, there is nothing in that news with which I can identify. My first reaction is, therefore, complete apathy. My eyes are already looking elsewhere on the page, and my fingers are twitching to turn over. This reaction of mine could have been significantly amplified by a boring headline such as “Great Fire Down Under”, “Thousands of Acres Destroyed by Fire”, “Irresponsible Motorist Burns Down Forest” etc.
But this did not happen. The writer took a simple fact out of the entire report, changed the perspective, and made the reader read the entire report. In six words the writer managed to break through my apathy, and gave me a point of reference with which I could identify. I could identify because I see it all around me.
The headline read: The Ash Left by One Cigarette.
This is what I mean by a fabulous hook.
Can you too do it? Yes. Does it always come by easily? No, perhaps with the exception of the best of geniuses. Can you wait till a great beginning strikes you? No, because you have 15, may be 20 minutes. If the flash of genius strikes, great. Otherwise get down to rigorously defining the topic keywords. No harm ever came by doing that properly.
Bertrand Russell’s world-famous essay “Why I Am not a Christian” does that. Therefore your essay can too do that. Without having any flashy beginning, that essay is simply the best I have ever read. It just knuckles down to business and keeps plugging away. Word after word. Line after line.
Having defined the keywords of the topic in the first paragraph, you may begin elaborate on the definitions with further details. For example, if we look at the XAT essay topic “Globalisation and Jingoism Always Coexist”, the first paragraph of the essay could offer the writer’s definitions of globalisation and jingoism. The second paragraph may talk about globalisation in detail, details such as its origins and brief history, the causes that led to the movement, the effects that have followed, along with suitable illustrations – both universal and local – wherever necessary. The third paragraph may repeat this process for the word jingoism. Only when we have sufficiently understood and made clear to the reader the facts regarding both the concepts can we begin to analyse in the fourth paragraph whether they have co-existed either always or occasionally, and why or why not. Through our analysis we even may conclude that they have never existed together.
Observe that any position we take on the issue is always the end result of our analysis. We are not assuming that they do or do not co-exist at the start of the essay, and then using the essay as a tool for propagating personal opinions. I made a few non-XAT takers write an essay on this topic, and most essays inexplicably (but unsurprisingly) deviated towards ‘the promotion of Make-in-India campaign as an alternative to globalisation’!
The first sentence of every paragraph serves as a ‘signpost’ for the entire paragraph. Therefore make sure that you first paragraph your essay, and that the first sentence of the paragraph gives the reader some idea of what is going to happen to in that paragraph.
Think of the headline of that report from Australia. It told the entire story – both in fact and in sentiment – in just six words.
Also make sure that your paragraphs ‘dove-tail’ with one another. They should not appear disjointed as if it were a bad copy-paste job. Use phrases that allow for a smooth transition from one idea to another, one paragraph to another. For example, a contrast of ideas can be expressed with pair of ‘on the one hand…on the other hand’, whereas words such as ‘additionally’ or ‘furthermore’ express complements. Make sure that your ideas do not convey the opposite of what you mean.
The last paragraph of the essay may comprise any or all of the following: a summary of your viewpoints, a solution to a problem discussed in the essay, a summary of effects that follow the causes analysed in the essay, extrapolation of thoughts in the essay, a foretelling of related events that are likely to occur, or even a call to action. The last thoughts you express in the essay are usually the ones that the readers will carry with themselves. DO NOT introduce entirely new ideas in the last lines. That would be tantamount to adding new themes in the conclusion of the ‘Para Completion’ question in the CAT. The last words are a logical culmination of what was discussed in the entire essay.
In conclusion, there is only one thing that stands in the way of you and a good essay.
Get yourself out of the way of your essay. Do not worry about the result of your essay. Do not think about whether the reader will appreciate it. Do not try to impress anyone. Do not ever care for it.
Instead care for the topic. Give it all your attention. Give it all your energy like you would give to a child that you must raise within 15 minutes.
If you want to be able to do that, practise rigorously. Look for all the WAT topics that you can find on the internet. Write at least 100 essays, make all the mistakes you can make, try everything you wish to try. Write an essay every night, read it again in the morning, and tear it away, and write afresh when you are having your morning coffee. Write the same essay 20 times and in 20 different ways. Astonish yourself. It is only then that your writing will truly begin to mirror who you really are.
Anthony Hopkins, in my opinion the greatest actor of his generation, practises each line of each of his dialogues in front of the mirror at least 200 times.
Even today. Even after six decades of most illustrious career with countless awards and recognitions.
That is commitment.
Ask yourself if you are ready to make such a commitment.