Vulpes Libris (Latin for the Book Foxes) is a lovely site, with some beautifully written and very erudite book reviews, so I was thrilled when they asked me to produce something for them, and I can't believe the incredible response I have had - I am really touched by all the wonderful comments people have made, and delighted that there are so many people out there who love books and reading.
Anyway, I am sticking with the writing theme, because I am still reading The Far Pavilions. I’ve been reflecting on the art of essay writing - this is what comes of studying on an Open University course! Now I’m not going to reveal exactly how long it is since I left school, but when I tell you that BR (Before Redundancy) I was a journalist for more than 30 years, you will realise that it is a very long time indeed since I last engaged in any kind of formal study, let alone attempted to write an academic exposition.
The learning process is not so difficult. It’s simply a variation on the ‘Three Rs’, with a fourth thrown in for good luck: reading, research, writing notes – and remembering!
Writing essays presents more of a problem. I quickly established that years of writing for a newspaper in no way prepares you for composing university assignments. Creating a 300-word front page lead right on deadline is one thing, but an essay cannot be approached in the same light. It needs much more thought and much more planning.
For example, when I was a very young rookie reporter an older and more experienced colleague once told me to imagine any article as a verbal rather than written exercise. Ask yourself what’s the first thing you would tell your best friend, partner, mother etc because generally whatever you say to them will be the most interesting or most important thing about the story, so that should be the intro. This advice works fine on a newspaper, but is not necessarily to be followed for an essay, which demands a more formal and structured approach, with an introduction outlining the argument you will use to answer the assignment.
There is also the question of attribution. Contrary to popular opinion, reporters don’t make things up, and you are expected to tell readers where the information came from. You know the kind of thing: ‘Mrs Beryl Bloggs said’, or ‘according to a council planning report’….
What you don’t have to do is to give chapter and verse of exactly where your data came from, thus avoiding any accusations of plagiarism, and proving that you are able to locate and interpret the necessary facts. Referencing has become something of a nightmare, which I feel I am failing to get to grips with. I do not seem to have progressed at all, and still end up in an eleventh-hour panic, desperately searching through my sources, while trying to insert the right reference, in the right way, in the right place. Worst of all referencing is included with word count, so my method of adding it at the last minute is a Bad Thing (Sellar WC and Yeatman RJ, 1066 and All That: A Memorable History of England, comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates, Penguin Books Methuen, 1963) as I then have to start cutting.
Bother, I forgot the page numbers! And as if that isn’t enough, you also need a bibliography, listing every ‘publication’ you used - the books, articles, websites, CDs, DVDs and anything else – all listed in the correct format under the conclusion, which should draw all the threads of your argument together and hark back to the intro and the original question.
And quite apart from all that there are stylistic differences. The short snappy paragraphs I’ve always used are too disjointed for an essay, and don’t go into nearly enough depth, while Journalese puns and cliches are frowned upon.
However, there are similarities and some of the skills I have acquired over the years can be put to good use in my studies. I’ve always enjoyed researching, and I can usually weed out extraneous details and focus on the relevant facts. In addition I know just how important it is to be accurate, so I’ve developed an eye for detail, and will keep on checking facts.
And checking is what editing is all about. It’s the final process, before hitting the ‘send’ button. After all, editing OU essays is not so very different to editing copy on a paper, and it must also be akin to editing literary works in progress. I amass my notes, create a plan, write a draft, add things, take things out, put things back, shriek with horror at the word count, try to sub it down, remember I have forgotten the referencing, swear loudly, start again, panic in case I haven't answered the question, start again... and worry about that elusive perfect ending!