Writing a good essay is a skill that combines syntactical discipline with a capacity for structured thought, but if you thought it was an art that has been lost now, in this age of hash tags and emails, think again.
Back in 1874, more than half of first-year students at Harvard University failed an entrance exam in writing!
More recently, educators have been throwing their hands up in despair over the ability of students entering university to put together a coherent and persuasive essay.
Part of the problem now seems to lie in the fact that we read less than we used to. One of the few escapes from the torture of an eternal Sunday afternoon in the 1970s was a good book. Now, there are a million different options usually involving a screen of one size or another and, as noted by Dana Goldstein, a journalist with The New York Times, while “the Snapchat generation may produce more writing than any group of teenagers before it, with copious text messages and social media posts, when it comes to the formal writing expected at school and work, they struggle with the mechanics of simple sentences.”
This is curious, considering that 81% of Americans believe that they can write a book and 10 per cent of Icelanders actually write one. There have never been so many aspiring writers as there are today. So clearly, the desire to pen our thoughts is out of sync with our ability to do so in anything educators might describe as effective communication.
According to author and the UK’s former children’s laureate, Michael Rosen, “The more you read, the more ideas you get for the way in which you frame things, the way in which you write sequences of words down… it starts going into your system.”
Clearly, the root of the problem lies not in the dearth of ideas themselves but in their expression. Finding one’s voice is important but so are the building blocks of language. An idea lazily expressed will not sustain the reader’s interest.
Judith C Hochman who founded an organisation in the US called The Writing Revolution, set up to counter-balance free expression and combat lazy expression and sloppy grammar, says, “It all starts with a sentence.”
Expounding on this, Goldstein of The New York Times points out, “Before writing paragraphs, children do need to practice writing great sentences” and adds that “Some of the touchy-feel stuff matters” too.
A report called Writing Matters produced by the Royal Literary Fund in the UK in the 2000s had plenty to say about students’ level of writing on entering UK universities. Six years after planting established writers in universities across Britain to help students get a handle on this basic skill, they published their feedback.
According to Nicholas Murray, a biographer, novelist and poet who was sent to mentor students at Queen Mary University of London, “I have first-year English undergraduates arriving with essays so incoherent I’m not sure they would have stood up at O-level. After 13 years of education these students are just desperately unable to express what they want to say.”
The conclusion was that, “Students are finding the intellectual transition from school to university difficult… they find that their writing is letting them down… There are certain skills needed to be acquired – how to write grammatically correct prose, how to use punctuation, how to define what they think and then say it, how to structure an essay.”
In 2018, 40 heads of British universities called on the government in the UK to ban companies churning out essays for students for a fee. In the US, one such site claimed that 70% of students used an essay writing service at least once over the course of their degree course. Another leaving a review said they would be “leaving the essay writing to the professionals.”
It probably hasn’t helped that the A Level curriculum has reduced its essay writing quota, yet Paul McNally, an English teacher at King’s College Madrid, who taught the student who got the highest grade in the world for English A level, Miranda Imperial, says that with the introduction of the Level 3 Extended Project Qualification, essays have made something of a comeback at King’s College at least, beyond the obvious essay-oriented subjects like English and History.
The Level 3 Extended Project Qualification, which is, according to Paul, highly regarded by many of Britain’s top UK universities, requires students to choose a topic of their choice as long as it can be shown to be academically useful, being related in some way to their current studies or the career they hope to pursue. Though students can produce a piece of music or drama, they can also pen a 5,000-word essay, which puts both their research skills and rhetorical abilities to the test.
“We have had dozens of students choose to do it each year for the past few years, and most go for the very long essay option,” says Paul, who adds that the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma course, expected to begin at King’s College Madrid in September, has the Extended Essay as a compulsory component, also exploring a subject of the student’s choice.
“In both cases, the key is to encourage students to see essays as the chance to explore and refine their thinking, then express their thoughts about a subject that they love or are fascinated by via an essay question that is both proposed by them and is, ideally, unique to them,” says Paul.
“I find when bright young people realise this, they not only produce great work, but relish the process of defining an initial idea, researching information about it, looking at other people’s work who might have written well on a similar topic but forging ahead with their own discrete vision of the topic,” he adds. “In short, when a student realises they can write about a topic they adore and make a contribution to culture or education by uniquely personalising it, essay writing becomes a pleasure.”