Magoosh GRE

Answer the question, don’t tell the story

| November 18, 2011 | 0 Comments

If you are answering a question on Alexander II’s emancipation of the Russian serfs, it’s a safe bet that your tutor knows most of what there is to know on the subject. This assumption doesn’t stop countless undergraduate students from repeating the narrative of events when they have been asked a specific question that requires them to analyse the topic.

Let’s look at a typical academic question you might encounter and then discuss how to avoid narrative pitfalls.

If the question is something like: ‘Alexander II failed in his attempts to free the serfs and also failed to modernise Russia,’ how valid is this statement? You are not being asked ‘describe all the things Alexander did’, but instead ‘is it fair to say that the things that he did were ineffective?’

A certain percentage of students who are presented with this essay title might feel confident with tackling it (normally the ones who have been to the lectures) but for many, a feeling of mild panic is far from unusual.

The result of this panic is the urge to story tell, and story telling is the result of a lack of reading and effective time management. If you are familiar with one historian who likes Alexander II and one historian who doesn’t, you can compare both of their arguments and see which one is more compelling, based on the evidence that you also have.

If you don’t know which historians to read in order to give you a clear picture of what the arguments about Alexander (or anyone else) is, ask your tutor or lecturer, they are employed specifically for their expert knowledge and should be able to tell you.

Steering your way around story telling is one of the most important things you can do as an academic writer, it is essential you avoid narrative at all costs.

There will be moments in your essay when you have to provide some description in order for the answer to make sense, descriptive passages should be limited and relate strictly to the question; if you find yourself describing something ask yourself ‘does this actually do anything to answer the question, or is it merely related in some way to the topic?’

The easiest way to avoid narrative babble is to start with a clear line of argument in your introduction, which means expressing a opinion that is based on clear reasoning and plenty of research reading.

Category: Articles & Advice

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