Wednesday, 21 May 2008

How to be the cream

I had this scheduled to post a while back before all the exams kicked off but something went wrong with Blogger for some strange reason. Here it is now though.

A pint of Guinness tonight and a couple of emails from you lot got me thinking about the difference between a 2.1 and the a First. What does it take to be the cream at the top?

Having produced essays that range from shrugging 2.2 all the way up to a party-throwing nineteen, I have had a crack at analysing what I think works.

I know it says a little bit in the handbook about what a makes a First but here's my take on the sine non qua of the undergraduate black belt.

Flawless basics

Getting the basics right might sound obvious and easy but it is often neither. Perfect writing takes skill, which means practice. You might also be thinking that it is the quality of your ideas inside an essay that are of importance, not other things like proper spelling, grammar and vocabulary. You'd be wrong. Basic errors will piss off your marker and reduce your essay's readability. You have to respect that these guys have spent years grooming their own writing and they are seriously sharp and unforgiving on errors. A First class essay will have mastery over these basics. This is the first hoop.

Advanced understanding

This is the single most important thing to have if you want to write at a First class level. Not only does this tell the reader you know your stuff but it also sets you up for all those other things a First needs, which I'll speak about in a sec.

How to do it? Read. Read. And then read a bit more. A good benchmark for when you have read enough is that the references start becoming achingly familiar and no important new ones pop up. Considerable investment of time is needed; cramming simply won't work at this level.

Once this is done you will need to get it straight in your head. There are several effective ways to do this: teach someone else what you know, write a brief article about for a newspaper, make a diagram.

In all these cases, you are translating your knowledge into a simpler form that forces you to be clear by getting intimate with the logic flowing through material. It also gives you the chance to enliven and have fun with the concepts, which should forge better memories.

Once you have reached this level you will be fluent with in-house debates (e.g. modularity/connectionism, user-centred design/system-centred design, mind-brain dichotomy/mind-brain holism, serial/interactive, nativism/empiricism and so on). These arguments, their proponents and the evidence that is used in their support should be achingly familiar to you. Beyond this bifurcated, black and white - 2.1 - view, you will know the subtleties of theories and arguments - you will be at one with grey.

This refined understanding of the big picture and its smaller brushstrokes will mean you can quickly set out an argument in a pithy introduction, write with brutal clarity and relentless relevance and - most important - be unabashedly critical and glitteringly creative. I'll expand on each of these a bit.

A super-concise introduction

See my post on introduction writing for more on this. Briefly though, you should have a quick introduction to the area, a specific statement about the issue at hand, an idea of the route you are going to take and the conclusion you will arrive at. (Note how this is almost identical to an abstract.)

Brutal clarity

This means the reader is treated to an effortless journey through your argument, free from tangling structure, overgrown vocabulary and irrelevant obstacles. Every sentence will be suffused with a crispness and will elegantly pass the baton from the previous sentence to the next.

Relentless relevance

Every sentence should be working for you; use it to answer the question, or lose it. Anything not maintaining the flow of logic or evidence will be spotted by a marker's keen eye and cause upset. So many essays fall down because they give answers to adjacent questions. Keep referring back to the question with explicit sentences that actually answer it.

Unabashed criticism

Take a very low view of academic papers. Assume they are wrong and that they have something to prove to you as you are reading them and you will see the weaknesses more easily. When you do this don't tip-toe around flakiness, attack it explicitly. Don't be afraid of published scientists with lots of letters after their name. The whole point of this degree is to get you thinking for yourself. It's a great feeling taking giants down a peg and actively looking for the opportunity to do so will sharpen your nib.

Glittering creativity

There is usually a painful discord in the recent literature. That's what being at the fractious, creative edge of science is like. Armed with your advanced understanding and critical outlook you will be able to spot weaknesses in how people are uncovering and making sense of the unknown. Critiquing is good but real rewards await for those not only satisfied to criticise the food, but go ahead an open their own restaurant. That is, propose your own theory.

One way of doing this is to hook up the best bits of other theories that haven't met before. This is something I did lots. Another way of doing this is to come up with something truly new and amazing. I've never been good enough to do this.

And a conclusion to hold all the strings together and announce lift off

See my post on conclusion writing for more on this. Briefly though, gather up all the points you have made and then package them up for the reader in a neat sentence to finish the essay on, which undeniably answers the question and avoids the platitudes.

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