Essay: When attempts at insight go horribly wrong

18 08 2011

I love seeing essays that attempt to be insightful. Unfortunately, these attempts sometimes crash spectacularly, which is such a shame. Depending on the nature of the insightful argument that is being attempted, a different structure or approach is needed to prevent your clever comment from crashing. However, the following approach tends to work in most cases:

[Essay question]

First, answer the question “normally” – do not attempt to be insightful here.

Next, devote at least half* your essay to a balanced discussion (this means that you need to engage with and reconcile at least one significant counter-argument) of the question, based on a “normal” approach.

This is the point where you can start being insightful. In a lot of cases, being insightful relies on breaking or questioning an assumption in the question. This is what you need to state clearly. You need a transition paragraph (or a few transition sentences) that state something along these lines:

“The above discussion shows that [your “normal” stand]. However, this assumes one (or two, or three) thing(s): [state assumption]. Once this assumption is broken [note: This must be a reasonable challenge – some assumptions should not be challenged], it can be said that [insightful argument + continue with an explanation of your insightful argument. This could be just one short paragraph, or it might be up to half your essay].”

Finally, conclude by stating your “normal” stand, then clarifying that your “normal” stand is only relevant when the assumptions hold. Then state that once the assumptions are broken, a more accurate stand would be [modified stand].

For example,

The key to good health is lifestyle rather than medicine. How far do you agree?

One essay I read (see Example 1 in this post) stated in the introduction that both lifestyle and medicine are important for good health. I failed this essay because he has not real stand – he’s sitting on the fence. Turns out he was trying to be clever because what he meant was that taking medicine is actually part of a lifestyle, so “they’re both important”. But even this doesn’t answer the question directly – what he needed to do is find a way to incorporate this idea, while still making a stand. Here’s what he could have done:

Stand: Yes, lifestyle rather than medicine is the key.

[First, begin with two to four paragraphs on why lifestyle rather than medicine is the key, with counter-arguments and rebuttals included where necessary (so that balance is present).]

[Then insert this paragraph:] The above discussion shows that lifestyle, not medicine, is the key to good health. However, this assumes that lifestyle and medicine are mutually exclusive. But what if one were to consider the possibility of medicine being a subset of lifestyle? After all, someone with kidney failure would argue that weekly trips to the hospital for dialysis is now part of their lifestyle. Or an obsessive (vitamin) pill-popper might consider taking a handful of multi-coloured pills, and washing it down with an amino acid milkshake every morning part of his lifestyle. In this situation, we see that medicine becomes part and parcel of one’s lifestyle. But although both medicine and lifestyle are now part of the equation, we still see that lifestyle is key – for medicine is merely a subset of the larger idea. It all boils down to this: lifestyle.

[Conclude:] Thus, whether or not we see lifestyle and medicine as mutually exclusive, it is always lifestyle that is the key to good health.

This structure can also redeem an essay that intends to sound insightful, but ends up sounding contradictory.

The book has no place in modern society. Discuss. 

The failed attempt at insight:

Stand: No place

Main argument 1: There is no place because of the rise of alternatives to books (e-books, the internet, etc.) which have edged books out.

Main argument 2: Actually e-books are books, therefore there is a place.

Conclusion: Since e-books are books, there is a place for books. It’s just that the nature of books has evolved.

This essay fails because the stand is contradictory. However, the essay can be redeemed quite easily.

Redeemed essay (option 1):

Stand: There is a place

Counter-argument: Some argue that books have no place due to the rise of alternatives to books (e-books, the internet, etc.) which have edged books out.

Rebuttal: Thanks to the internet, the traditional book might no longer have a place in our libraries (or in Borders). However, the very fact that e-books are on the rise shows that there still is a place for books because e-books are, after all, books too. While there may not be a place for the traditional book, there certainly is a place – and a growing one at that – for the evolved descendent of the paperback: e-books in one’s Kindle or iPad.

Conclusion: Therefore, though traditional books might have lost their place, the book certainly has not, for it has merely evolved and adapted to fill a new “ecological niche” in society.

Redeemed essay (option 2):

Stand: No place

[First, begin with two to four paragraphs on why (traditional) books have no place.]

[Then insert this paragraph:] The above discussion shows that books no longer have a place in modern society. However, this assumes that the book is will never evolve; that it must be something that consists of pages, bound together at the spine.  But what if one were to consider the possibility of books evolving? After all, surely one could argue that an e-book too, is essentially a book. In this situation, we see that it is only the traditional book that has no place. If we were to break down this assumption and accept e-books as books, it is clear that the book hasn’t lost it’s place – rather, it’s place in modern society is growing.

[Conclude:] Thus, it is true that the book has no place in modern society. However, we must recognise that this conclusion is only valid if we assume the concept of a traditional book. Once this assumption is broken, the book has certainly not lost its place.

Note: Although this essay is redeemed, it would still make more sense to just edit the stand in the introduction and state, right from the beginning, the same stand that is used in the conclusion. Of course, if this is done, a signpost at the very start of the first main body paragraph will also be needed – something along the lines of “The traditional book has no place because…”. All other paragraphs will be the same from there.




3 responses

22 08 2011

Good stuff as always, Adrienne. But I just realised how Barnes and Noble came up with the ‘nook’. ‘N’ is really close to ‘B’ on the qwerty keyboard!

25 08 2011
Adrienne de Souza

Barnes and Noble appreciates your feedback, and has decided to take the nooks of their shelves.

24 10 2011
[Recap: The 'evolution' angle] Television is a thing of the past. Do you agree? « read, think, write.

[…] an excerpt from a post that dealt with the abovementioned question on books: Stand: There is a […]

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