When you write an essay or answer an exam question, it’s not enough merely to know the answer. Knowing the answer is certainly important, but you also have to be able to write the answer down in a way that will convince the examiner that you know the answer. Most people find this difficult. Follow these top tips for success.
The kind of knowledge that you need to demonstrate in academic essays and exam papers is called declarative knowledge. Philosophers sometimes refer to this as knowledge-that (e.g. the knowledge that I have a cat). There are other kinds of knowledge too, for example knowledge-how (e.g. I know how to ride a bike), but written exam papers don’t ask for this kind of knowledge. You are supposed to be able to declare declarative knowledge (hence the name), but how exactly should you do it? Here are some dos and don’ts to bear in mind when writing what you know.
You are not writing a mystery novel. Put all your spoilers at the start. “In this essay, I will…” is a fine way to start an essay. Tell the reader what to expect in the coming paragraphs. Then mention again that you’re now telling them that thing. And then once you’ve told them, tell them that you just told them. It is difficult to sign-post too much.
Sentences can quickly get out of hand. It’s better to keep them short. If you have a big idea, you don’t necessarily need a big sentence. Try to make one point per sentence. It’s much easier to get your ideas straight, and it’s easier on the reader, if you stick to this rule (the one about keeping sentences short), because long sentences often end up containing structural or semantic oddities or errors, which may cause the reader to have to look up a word or re-think some tricky aspect of what’s written (especially if the lexical or conceptual density becomes precipitously augmented), and if a reader loses their place, they might have to start the whole sentence again, which is arduous.
If you write a sentence that contains technical terms, it’s a good idea to paraphrase it immediately. In other words, say the same thing again in a different way if (a) there’s any danger that the reader will get lost, or (b) the reader might not be convinced that you know what you’re talking about. This can also be done with examples, introduced with “e.g.”, in order to illustrate what you mean. Offer more paraphrasing than you think is necessary. Don’t worry about your word count (yet).
When you write up experiments, you may have been told to write in the passive voice (e.g. a test tube was placed in a rack). The passive voice removes the agent from the sentence. In other words, when we use the passive voice, we remove the agent (the doer) from the sentence. This may be an attempt to make the writing sound more objective, but the passive voice doesn’t guarantee objectivity. “A test tube is rumoured to have been placed in a rack” is a passive sentence that doesn’t sound very scientific, while “I placed a test tube in a rack” is no less scientific than “a test tube was placed in a rack”. Sometimes you have to use the passive voice, but, if you’re going to use it, make sure that you’re not erasing relevant information: does the reader actually need to know who’s doing the thing you’re talking about? In the case of the test tubes here, they don’t, and so it doesn’t matter, but if it’s some historical event or social process that you’re passivizing, then you’re probably missing out something important for the sake of trying to sound objective.
You need a plan, and you need to get the thing written. These two aspects of the task rarely follow one another neatly. You often figure things out as you go along; writing is a cognitive technology: it allows you to think bigger and more structurally complex thoughts than you would be capable of on the fly during a conversation. So, rather than trying to write the perfect plan and then settling down to write, just start writing! Have a vague plan and start writing the bit that seems easiest to get going with. Then revisit your plan. Then write a bit more. Then revisit your plan again, and so on. This is easy to do when you’re working on a computer, and, once you’ve developed a few model essays, you’ll be able to recall the plans more quickly in the exam and bypass some of this back-and-forth process of simultaneously planning and writing.