Essay Writing 101 Lesson #1 - Accurate Words
If you realised the pencil is an owl, you're superior. To what? That's not the point.
Welcome to Essay Writing 101, brought to you by Anqi.
This post marks the beginning to a series of short blog lessons specifically created to help Australian high school students in preparing for HSC English. However, it will be helpful for anyone looking to start English literary essay writing.
Why do we write essays?
Put simply, essays are a formal expression of your thoughts. It's has the same function as when you have a chat with your friend to tell them your opinions, only that an essay is super formal and you have to communicate your ideas clearly in one large lump (because the reader cannot ask you questions while they read to clarify your ideas). Due to this need for clarity, accuracy is crucial in essay writing.
Aim for accurate, not for complex.
Have you ever been in the middle of a miscommunication? Maybe one of your friends misunderstood what you meant by a certain word or sentence over text or Instagram. Maybe you texted 'k.' which to you meant "ok sure" but to them it meant "I hate you".
The key to all effective communication is accuracy. As the communicator it's your responsibility to share information in a way that is clear and reflects your thoughts closely. As I write this blog, I must take on the responsibility of sharing ideas with you in a way that doesn't make you feel:
am I showing my age with this meme?
From as early as you can remember, teachers have encouraged the use of "bigger" or "better" words because it "makes your writing better". An incorrect connection between "bigger words" and "more accurate words" is formed. Using more sophisticated-sounding words may have worked in primary school when you received full marks for your creative writing because you wrote 'vermillion' instead of 'red, but eventually you have to learn that accurate language is not the same as complex language.
Take the following example:
I used the printer yesterday.
I utilised the printer yesterday.
'Utilised' is arguably the more complex word. It has more letters, it sounds fancier, and it's in the thesaurus as a replacement for boring old 'use'. However, 'use' is the more accurate word.
Utilise means 'to make practical and effective use of', meaning that efficiency must be present if you choose this word. If there's no reference to efficiency, you sound like you're choosing 'utilise' for the sake of sounding smart (yes, teachers can tell).
A more accurate use of utilise is:
The instructions manual helped me utilise the printer to its full potential.
The bottom line is: complex words do not make for accurate writing.
Why do teachers hate the word 'show' then?
Teachers hate 'show' and want you to use 'highlight' or 'illustrate' instead. How can I explain this if complex vocabulary is not important? That's because 'show' is not hated for its simplicity, it's hated for its lack of clarity.
The word 'show' is vague. Vague means that something can be interpreted in many different ways.
If I was asked: "Where are you going?"
And I say: "Out."
My answer is vague, because 'out' can mean:
to the shops
to join the Yakuza
Luckily, the asker can ask me: "To join the Yakuza?" and I can proceed to assure them of the impossibility with my inability to strategise a simple hoax let alone a complicated heist. But a reader can't clarify the meaning with you, so you must avoid vagueness so you don't force them to guess what you mean.
In the same line of logic, 'show' tends to be vague because it could mean:
show angrily (condemn)
show to make you do something (promote)
show to support a cause (advocate)
show to make you change your ideas (challenge)
show as an example (illustrate)
Therefore it is important when writing essays to use specific verbs dense in meaning.
Ok, but I don't know which verb to use - help!
The Strategic Alternative Learning Techniques Centre of Arizona (bless them) has been a pillar of support for me and my students in times of dire need. They have compiled the Grandpapa of all essay verb lists which you can refer to at the following link:
Use this list as a starting point but do not mindlessly swap out 'show' with the words on this list. Make friends with a dictionary. Figure out the differences between each word and use them accurately.