How to write Essay in UPSC Mains

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The first paper in the Civil Services Examination (Mains) is the Essay writing paper. This paper doesn’t have any well-defined syllabus, so it is one of the most neglected paper during preparation. The vast syllabi of optional papers and general studies papers coupled with the lethargy of aspirants to practice answer writing often leads to unpreparedness for this paper. If prepared well, this paper can be a game changer.

The most commonly asked question by the aspirant is, “How to prepare for essay paper?”

Let us start by understanding what is expected from a candidate in this paper. The notification of UPSC mentions that “Candidates may be required to write essays on multiple topics. They will be expected to keep closely to the subject of the essay to arrange their ideas in orderly fashion and to write concisely. Credit will be given for effective and exact expression.” Thus, it is very clear that UPSC is looking for

  1. Discussion to be close to the subject ie; minimum digression from the topic.
  2. The arrangement of ideas in an orderly fashion ie; the structure of essay should be well organized.
  3. To write concisely ie; the assertions should be terse and succinct. One should avoid lengthy discussions on the same point in the essay.
  4. Credit will be given for effective and exact expression.

The evaluation of the essays written considers comprehension, originality of thought, clarity of expression and integrated thinking with the assimilation of ideas. Thus, the notification makes it very clear that UPSC is expecting short, precise, accurate and exact discussion on the topic. Describing your thoughts in fewer words requires practice.

We will now discuss in detail various aspects related to essay paper.

1. Choosing Essay Topic

Choosing the topic is the most decisive part of essay paper. One should deliberate seriously over the options given before starting to write. Below mentioned are some tips one can follow for choosing a topic.

  • One should deliberate about all the topics given by reading them carefully. One should not choose the topic haphazardly.
  • Rule out the topics that seem interesting, but you do not know much about them. One cannot make effective arguments without much knowledge.
  • There is no empirical evidence that one receives more marks in unconventional topics. You should choose the topics in which you can easily write 5-7 points in favour and at least 3-4 points counter to the topic.
  • Some topics are too specific and not much can be written about them. If you cannot think of at least 3-5 arguments for and against, you should avoid choosing such a topic.
  • You may have a lot of information on the topic, but merely reproducing information does not make for a good essay; you should have few good ideas around that topic.
  • After finalizing the topic, you can write down all the ideas you have around it before starting to plan the essay structure. This step will give you an idea about the kind of topic you have chosen and the arguments you are going to make. If you spot any problem, you can change the topic at this stage before it is late.
  • One of the better practices is to make a mind map related to the topic in a rough space. It helps in organising ideas. Also, it can be seen by the examiner and gives a good impression.

2. How to Write an Essay Introduction

The introduction is the first impression upon the examiner. Given the subjectivity in this paper, the introduction is the key to good marks. The introduction should be crisp and precise laying down the thesis statement in an effective manner.

  • The introduction should not be vague and general like “since the beginning of time…” It should be targeted to the topic. Given the paucity of time, if nothing comes to mind, try to incorporate the topic given in the introduction. It gives direction to the discussion.
  • The introduction can be in more than one paragraph. One should lay down the thesis statement and the relevance of the topic. One should also mention his plan of discussion in the introduction. This is a good method of transition from introduction to the main body of the essay.
  • Some techniques of evoking interest of the reader are:
    • Starting with a story.
    • Writing a statement/assertion at the beginning that evokes the interest of the reader.
    • Asking poignant or rhetorical questions related to the topic and your thesis statement.
    • Writing a quote. Although quotes should not be too commonly used and if you are using quotation marks, they should be exactly in a way written by the author. You can also paraphrase the quote and attribute it to the author.
    • Using relevant statistic. However, numbers can be boring. So, it should be used tactfully. Further, statistics should not be common or too obvious.
  • Following points should be kept in mind about thesis statements:
    • The thesis statement is essentially what you want to discuss in the essay. It will guide the tone of your essay and arguments that follow.
    • The thesis statement should not be too general.
  • The introduction should also mention the approach you are going to take for further discussion.
  • How can you transition from the introduction to the body of the essay?
    • The best way to transition is to talk about how the essay is structured; like tracing what arguments will be followed.
    • For instance, after the thesis statement one can write “this essay surveys major issues surrounding reproductive rights and then discusses arguments for and against for giving say over such issues to only women…”

3. How to Write Body of the Essay

The main body of the essay should exhibit your capability of coherent analysis. One should desist from discussing only one-sided view of the topic even if you are trying to take a one-sided stand in conclusion. Discussing both sides of the topics leads to an impression that you are open to discussion. Below mentioned are some points which can help in writing the main body.

  • Dividing the essay into different sections and giving subtitles helps the reader get an overall idea of the essay at the end without having to search for your line of thought. However, one should not write over simplistic subheadings like pros, cons etc.
  • A transition from introduction to body of the essay should be clear and one of the better ways to do it is through a subtitle suggesting next part of the essay.
  • Let each paragraph represent one argument. The best way to structure a paragraph is to write the argument in first sentence of the paragraph and then explain it or give examples in following sentences. Consider each paragraph to be a mini-essay, which will present an argument, explain it, provide example/s, and write a very short concluding remark or transitory sentence for the next paragraph. Paragraphs should not be too long as they make the essay monotonous.
  • As the time and space in essay paper is limited, one should refrain from giving too many examples to corroborate an argument.
  • Avoid using technical terms of your field or your optional subjects.
  • Do not use shorthand expressions and symbols such as “&,” “can’t” and “don’t” in formal essays even if the time is limited.
  • Do not spend time in making your language flowery and your sentences long and difficult. Write in simple, short sentences and words. The examiner is not checking your prowess over the language, but your ability to think critically, present arguments in a logical manner and produce a crisp yet convincing essay in a short period of time. At the same time, maintain a certain formality and avoid writing as if you are texting or e-mailing a friend.
  • Underline the quotations and important words, but do not overdo it.
  • If you are quoting, make sure that you write the exact quote in quotation marks. If you do not remember the quote, you can paraphrase it without using quotation marks and attribute it to the writer, but the essence of original quote should not be lost.
  • Your arguments should be balanced and logical. Do not write controversial statements or give controversial examples especially on polemic topics. Consider all the sides of arguments and always think of counter-arguments, which can be used to strengthen your arguments in following ways:
    • Show that the counter-argument is weak.
    • Demonstrate that the counter argument is irrelevant to your example.
    • Prove that the counter argument does not apply universally.

4. How to Write Essay Conclusion

The conclusion is the difficult part because of the short amount of time available for writing a conclusion. One should not write it in a haphazard manner.

  • There should be a clear transition from body to the conclusion. One of the common ways to do so is to use phrases such as “To conclude the discussion..,” “In conclusion…,” “Consequently…” etc. Do not merely say “As discussed above…” or “As shown in the essay…” instead of stringing the arguments together.
  • Conclusions that state main argument of the essay for the first time do not make an effective impression.
  • Given the word limit for this exam, at least two paragraphs should be written to conclude the essay.
  • The conclusion should not be too short and very generalist either.
  • Do not introduce new arguments/philosophers/examples in the conclusion.
  • The conclusion should contain a brief summary of the discussion done in the main body of the essay.
  • Generally, one should avoid concluding on a negative or pessimistic note. Conclusions should be optimistic, positive and forward-looking. Some practical suggestions given in the conclusion make the whole essay very effective.
  • The conclusion can be said to be reverse-introduction. In the introduction, we start with a general discussion to lay down a specific topic for discussion. In conclusion, we summarize the discussion on a specific topic and end with a general tone

-Vipul Shrivastav (IPS -2011 Batch)

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