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How to write an Effective Essay in IAS Exam

Novelist Stephen King put it beautifully when he said, “I write to find out what I think.”

This is the basic premise of having an essay paper worth 250 marks, equivalent to a GS paper. While GS papers are designed to test your knowledge of various subject matters, Essay papers in UPSC contrast to same tests the thought process of an individual. Since writing is a window to your thought process, what you write on paper is directly related to what you think, how you formulates your view point, how you articulate and substantiate.

Its a measured tool to get a deep insight into the thought process. The interlinked chain of thoughts when portrayed through words on paper gives an introduction about the individual. This has been used for judgement of personality in various competitive examinations since an individual character is made up of his thoughts. It also gives a good picture about the clarity of thoughts & comprehensive skills possessed by a person.

Despite Essay paper being equivalent to a GS paper, it often does not get the attention it deserves from the aspirants. Beginners think they will produce a masterpiece in the exam hall itself, while experienced aspirants believe that since they had already studied a lot for GS, so need not do something special for essay and they will be able to write a good essay in exam.

Both strategies are bound to fail. Essay papers in UPSC exam demands serious efforts to be able to score well. Numerous essay practices are required before the exam. Several important topics often repeated in exam need to be prepared beforehand with rough essay drafts along with collection of useful quotes and preparation of notes.

UPSC view point about the Essay Paper

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 an orderly fashion, and to write concisely. Credit will be given for effective and exact expression.”

It needs to be understood here clearly that Essay papers in UPSC exam is quite different from GS. Since in GS, marks will be given for the quality of content. But in essay, apart from the content, other aspects such as language, coherence, structure of essay, organization and arrangement of ideas would be given due attention while awarding marks. Make it very clear that essay is not about the content.

A topic is given, you have to give a holistic and multidimensional analysis of the topic backed by rationale arguments. E.g. If you write an essay paper on a topic “Social media is a double-edged sword”. In this, you are expected to present both the pros and cons of social media. You may talk about how social media is leveraged during disaster relief, getting information, for employment related opportunities and so on. But also highlight the challenges posed such as spread of rumours leading to social tensions, violence, mass exodus, spread of hatred etc.

Then you may conclude suggesting ways to enhance the effectiveness of social media while curbing its negative use. Thus, essay paper written has to be balanced, multidimensional, futuristic with coherence of ideas, clear expression, good language, without spelling errors.

GS Paper Eassy

Content of the Essay

Primarily essay can be considered to be an elongation of any typical GS answer with an introduction, body content and the conclusion. An essay should also have these three aspects to be comprehensive and a well-structured one. Writing an essay paper is like spinning the web from a thread. Depending on the topic, you can choose among the following options that fits best.

  • Temporal : Past, present and future
  • Standard : Social, Political, Economical, Historical, Cultural, International, Environmental, Security, Geographical, Scientific
  • Sectoral : Business, sports, religions, media, administration, infrastructure, education, health etc
  • Walks of Life : Individual, Family, Professional workplace, Society, Community, state, national, global
  • Problem & Solutions : Concept (historical evolution and current status), benefits, Causes of problems, solutions

Example: For a topic like “With greater power comes greater responsibility” I find both ‘Standard’ & ‘Walks of Life’ method an apt way to develop your narrative. In standard method, you can describe about different aspects (social, political, economical etc) one by one giving examples how those in power (economic, decision making, technological, control over army) needs to undertake more responsibility. Applying ‘walks of life’ method, you can discuss about power bringing responsibility at the level of family(parents), district(DM), community, state, nation, world(United Nations) etc.

Subheadings and Rough Drafts

Generally, I have seen candidates being averse to using sub headings in the essay. Frankly speaking, there is no standard approach to writing an essay. Neither UPSC issues any such guidelines. But I believe that, using sub headings can provide an orientation to your essay giving a direction to examiner about what may follow in following paragraphs. This helps in producing a well-structured essay.

Also, it ensures that you don’t deviate from the topic as you would try to restrict your writing to the sub heading used. And it’s a common problem with aspirants in writing an essay paper that they end up writing what does not serve the purpose of topic.

We can be a little innovative in our subheadings. Instead of bland subheadings such as ‘Benefits of Artificial Intelligence’ we can use “Artificial Intelligence: Promise or Peril?” Instead of writing ‘Advantages and Disadvantages of Social Media’, you may write “Social Media: A Double-Edged Sword”. You may prepare rough drafts for several essay topics (asked in previous years) and may modify the structure as per the demand of the question for using it to write different essays.

Maintaining coherence in the Essay : Transition from one para to the next

The coherence in the essay should be akin to the flow of a river. The river deviating from its path ends us causing havoc. Similarly, UPSC essay paper without the proper flow is bad in taste. The reader must not feel disconnected while moving to next para. Any abrupt change of para breaks the flow of essay and makes it an unorganized one.

Essay should be having such coherence that if one starts reading then should be tempted to stop only when finished. This depends on the transition across the para, how smooth they are, and how one is connected to the next.

This can be done in several ways.

Through a link sentence at the end of a para :

At the end of a para, write a sentence that signals the examiner what’s coming next. For example, let’s say you have written a para about the challenges posed by Climate change. At the end, write a link sentence – ‘Climate change poses a severe challenge not just economically, but also socially’. And in the next para, write about the social issues caused by climate change.

Through a question :

Instead of a link sentence, a question may be raised at the end of para to carry examiner’s attention to the next para. Taking the similar example from above, the question may be raised like – Thus we have examined the economic impact of climate change, but what about the challenges posed by climate change to our society? And in next para, you can write about the social consequences of climate change.

Signalling the shift at the start of next paragraph :

Here you can add simply a word or two at the beginning of a para that signals a shift in your subtopic. For example, in an essay on climate change, let’s say you have written a para about the political impact of climate change. You can start the next para with something like – “Ethically too, climate change has turned out to be a reflection of the degeneration of morality across the world”. This way examiner knows that following para addresses ethical aspects of climate change.

A good Introduction: First impression is the last impression

An essay must start in an impressive way. The introduction should have that touch of humanity and warmth so as to catch the attention of the examiner. It should set the ball rolling for the reader so as make him get lost in the depth of the writing. If the reader can finish reading the essay paper without much of a pause, then examiner would be tempted to award a good score.

Introduction may start in various ways. It may begin with a fictitious incident or story, here you may introduce a character too. But make sure that, you conclude the essay with mention of the character. You may also start with a real-life anecdote, a quote, or any conversation. You may also start by raising few questions emphasizing the essence of the topic of the essay. Bottom line is that, you should start on a good note which provides a good take off to your essay. Because anyway, well begun is half the job done. 

Role of Language and Expression

Essay language should be simple and clear with less of the jargon. Complex terms should be avoided, even if used then should be defined. The whole purpose of writing an essay is to test the clarity of thoughts rather the power of vocabulary. Try not to show-off your linguistic skills but focus on the coherence and structure of the essay. Essay language should be such that even a layman would be able to understand what the writer has to convey. That reflects clear thinking, which leads to clear writing. That is what any reader looks for.

Sentences should be short but powerful. Long sentence not only makes it difficult to read & understand but also makes the reader lose interest in the essay. By the time reader may finish reading it, he will lose his breath and the point of the sentence. So, if you run out of your breath while reading a sentence, then probably you will have to break it into two. Also, don’t stretch the sentences by using excessive conjunctions, as that provides a bad sentence sprawl. 

Does Vocabulary matter?

There is no need to memorize tough words for writing a good essay. Because even if you memorize they may not stick to your brain unless those words are used frequently. So instead of memorizing words, you should expand your reading base. The more you read newspaper, you will develop a sound vocabulary which may be sufficient enough to write a good essay. Building vocabulary is a slow process, but with consistency, anyone can develop the skills of using an expansive set of words. That would make one a better and a fluent writer. Because words are the lifeline of expression and essay is about expressing yourself.

Apart from newspapers, you should read non-fiction to enhance vocabulary. When you come across unknown words or a good phrase, then note it down, find the meaning and understand the context in which it was used. This will build a long-term memory. Keep working on improving your vocabulary, that will help you enormously for mains.

How and From where to prepare for Essay?

You need not do any special preparation to build your content for essay in UPSC exam, as whatever you read for GS will become the backbone of content to be used in essay. But few other sources may also help:

Reading specific magazines: Certain topics may be prepared from some specific issues of Yojana/EPW/Kurukshetra/Economic Survey etc. For an essay on Rural development or agriculture, you can go through specific issues of these magazines for latest updates and various government schemes in that sector.

Reading Non Fiction: This is something you can try to improve your vocabulary, articulation, writing introduction and to expand knowledge base. It also helps the reader develop a matured thought process. You can also pick arguments directly from the book to substantiate your view points in the essay. Apart from UPSC Exam preparation, you should develop some hobby too. And if you select ‘Reading Non-Fiction’ as one, then it will definitely pay you rich dividends in the long run.

Collect Quotes, anecdotes, stories: You may start your essay with an anecdote or a story, which has the essay topic as its underlying theme. Some quotes by eminent persons may be used to conclude the essay. So, if you find something worth in newspapers or books to be used in essay, note it down.

Mistakes to be avoided in an Essay Paper

  • Be assured that you don’t excessively focus on one aspect or one dimension. Essay must be multidimensional, covering various aspects possible (social, economical, political etc). That will do justice with the subject matter of the essay.
  • While writing the essay paper, it is easy to get distracted and write something which we feel very passionate about. Given the freedom while writing essay, it’s easy to get carried away. Always write what is asked, what is relevant and what addresses the core demand of the essay topic. There is no credit for beating around the bush in an essay, better write the point clearly and explicitly.
  • While selecting the topics, you should not be emotionally attached with any particular one. For example, if you find a topic related to optional subject and then you select it without considering anything else. Don’t let that happen. You should be excessively sure that you understand each words in the topic and the essence of it.

Sometimes, topics are not very clear and different interpretations are possible. It would be wise to select any other topic than to fish in troubled waters. If you are not very comfortable writing philosophical topics, then avoid them. Don’t fall for them just because they sound interesting and intellectually provoking.

  • While taking stands, avoid extreme or highly unpopular viewpoints. You have the freedom to express yourself but be aware about the platform you are sharing your opinions. Can you afford to take a chance in an exam for which you have prepared for years? For example, in an essay on climate change, in body content you can criticize development heavily for its contribution to climate change. But can you altogether stop developmental activities? Its better to strike a fine balance between two in pursuit of a sustainable development.
  • Never go against the question raised in the topic. Let’s say, topic is, “Since men have failed the world, let women take over”. Now don’t just keep justifying how men have not failed the world but have done better than women. Instead you present both the failures and success of men so far; and argue in favour of women that they too deserve the opportunity to make this world a better place to live.
  • There are two essays to write in UPSC exam and both carry equal marks so focus on time management. Provide equal time to both essays so that you can do justice to both essay topics.
  • Your handwriting should be such that an old man should be able to read it without much difficulty. Make it as legible as possible. Maintain uniform gaps between words and sentences. Don’t try to make it too fancy by using different colored pens. Time may not permit that. Keep it simple and clean.
  • When you stuff your essay with so many quotes, it tends to lose its effect on the reader. To some examiners, it comes off as a lazy ploy to reduce your explanations for your talk points. In that case, most graders will not hesitate to give you a low score for making this mistake. So, don’t use more than a couple of quotes.

Concluding the Essay

The essay ends up in a state of distaste if you don’t finish it well. It is like you have played well for most part of the cricket match but failed to finish the game in dyeing overs. A good conclusion gives a finishing touch to your essay. It leaves a good impression on the examiner. Once he feels having read something worthwhile, he would be generous in awarding score.

Conclusion should be on an optimistic and futuristic note. It should give some food for thought in mind of the reader. You should summarize the complete essay in few sentences, after which you can write your vision for future. You should use powerful words, lofty expressions, rhetoric, constitutional ideals, quotes by eminent persons, phrases from powerful speeches, mission of government schemes (Sabka Sath sabka Vikas) to conclude the essay on a stronger note. Just make sure your conclusion takes your essay forward on a visionary note. The reader should feel a fire ignited within after having finished the essay.

To sum it up, essay paper in UPSC exam can really make or break your entire progress in this exam journey. Please don’t ever take it casually, its way far too significant than you may realize it to be now. So, devote quality time to prepare it well. Before exam, practice writing minimum 7-8 essay papers in a time bound manner from previous year questions.

Please do remember, ‘The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war’. Choice is yours.

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