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Vol.29, 2017

 
Essay Writing in Civil Services Main Exam

Somen Chakraborty

The Civil Services main examination of Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) is scheduled to commence from 28th October 2017. Among the subjects in General Studies, Essay writing holds special significance. Out of eight essays a candidate has to write two essays one each from Section A and B. Two essays of around 1200 words each are to be written in 180 minutes (3 hours). Total number is 250.
Civil Services main is one of the most prestigious competitive examinations participated by talented, well informed, intelligent, sincere and extremely dedicated young Indians. Yet, many of them struggle hard to even secure 50% marks in essay writing. It is estimated that majority of the students score around 100-110 out of 250 total number. A sizeable section score between 125-135 while a very few candidates cross 60% (150+) marks.
 In most of the cases the reasons behind the low score lie with the candidates who make uncalled for mistakes either due to faulty understanding of the essay topic or tension or undue hurry. Writing a good, well-composed essay is, indeed, a combination of several aspects - comprehending the topic correctly, structuring it properly, making minimum spelling/grammatical mistakes, inserting suitable facts/figures/references and taking it forward with an easy flow till the end. After deducting the time taken for selection, analysis and framework preparation, a candidate gets net around 75-80 minutes in average to write an essay. The amount of pressure that naturally creeps in this highly competitive examination often becomes a factor to make errors. With a little effort the mistakes can be significantly minimized. A calm and composed candidate writes the essay better and can raise number by taking care of a few essentials.
There are eight essays divided into two sections. Of them, normally, one or two are philosophical essays, 4/5 are topical and 1/2 are on the issues of international importance. Philosophy aside, the essays are selected from a wide range of subject - Environment, Women/Gender, Development, Education, Health, Social Justice, Nationalism, Science & Technology, the flagship programmes of the Union Government and recent major happenings. An UPSC main candidate is well informed about the current events and the government programmes. They are quite thorough about environment and development debates. The GS curriculum modules make them aware about major social and political concerns. This apart, most of the candidates follow the toppers' blogs and travel through various websites for better insights. They also undergo essay test series and get hand holding supports to improve essay writing skill. Thus, essay topics never appear very strange or unknown to them and selecting two out of eight essays is never so difficult.
Very often candidates look for catchy topics and model essays. This may not be the right approach to develop writing skill. Delving into all possible subjects and looking for topics may become a counter-productive exercise. There is, in fact, no end of themes. UPSC picks up topics after meticulous scrutiny and phrases them with high professional prowess. Similarly, every individual has own style of writing and expression. Instead of following the style and language of other persons, it is better that a candidate identifies her/his own strength. It is important to know where one's knowledge and confidence lie better. A candidate may be very good in philosophical essay but lacks command over topics on science and technology. Someone can have better knowledge about environment and gender issues. Identification of one's own strengths and weaknesses is very important to make appropriate selection of topic.
One needs to be prepared with topics from at least 7/8 subject areas. The selected subject then needs to be analysed from various angles. For Instance, the subject of Gender can be examined from equality, development, nation building, social harmony, environment, conflict, peace and some other perspectives. From each perspective an essay topic can be composed. The candidate having confidence on a subject must examine it from all possible angles and develop a comprehensive view so that s/he can write essay on any topic coming from a given subject.
Right selection of the topic is crucial for writing a good essay is certainly. But then proper assessment about UPSC's expectations from an essay is also important to take it toward right direction. For example, in the topic 'Social Media is changing the Way we Communicate and the Way we are Perceived both Positively and Negatively', there are two aspects. One, 'Social Media is changing the way we communicate' and two, 'the Way we are perceived'. Both the components need reflection on their respective positive and negative changes. Unless discussion on both the areas is done in a balanced manner, the essay will end up as an incomplete work. Take another topic: 'While Digitization in National Life is Inevitable there has to be Way out to Prevent Ransom ware Attack too'. Again there are two major arguments, one 'Digitization in National Life is Inevitable' and two, 'there has to be Way out to Prevent Ransom ware Attack'.
Once the topic is selected and conceived correctly, various points underlying explicitly or implicitly in a topic need to be arranged properly. For example, in the first topic one has to see what are various ways people used to communicate before social media has emerged. And the specific changes that social media has brought about in communication. Which are various social media and what significant role do they play in people to people contact? The second essay requires logical analysis about 'inevitability of digitization' and then the consequential impact of hacking or malware attacks on it.  This can be discussed both from micro and macro points of view. One needs to remember that anecdotal statements or controversial arguments may not go well with essays.
Three parts of an essay, viz. introduction, main paragraphs and conclusion have their specific role to play. The basic objective of an introduction is to introduce the topic. The topic selected by UPSC carries some significant meaning and a candidate is expected to analyse that in the introduction part itself. Once that is done then candidates need to explain which way s/he will approach the essay. A candidate is free to take a position, which may be in favour of the topic or may even contradict it. Introduction comprising around 250 words thus gives an impression whether a candidate has understood the topic correctly and which way s/he is taking the essay forward. The main body of the essay can have five/six key components. Each component needs to be critically analysed with support of appropriate facts, figures, reference, quotations. examples and citations whichever is applicable. One must remember that critical analysis is not criticism but examining an associate issue analytically and synthesize various logics /arguments systematically. Here a candidate has huge opportunity to bring some out of box ideas or illustrations (citation of acts, policies, reports, findings) to make an essay stand different from others. Thus each component may take 150-200 words.
Candidates are often in confusion if using tables/charts/matrix will be appropriate or not. One must know that UPSC has not prohibited usage of graphics but anything done on an answer paper must be neat and clean. More so, a table or chart needs to be prefixed or suffixed by an explanatory paragraphs. The entire exercise may take 5-10 minutes time. Some candidates prefer to give sub-headings to draw attention of the examiner to the main points. There is no need of doing it as the examiners are experienced enough to understand the arguments underlying in an essay. Long sentences and paragraphs need to be avoided. This may make an examiner tired of reading and comprehending the arguments placed in that. Also in long sentences the chances of errors increase and articulation of ideas becomes difficult.
There is often a tendency to discuss an essay exclusively from the context of India. It is not mandatory that all essays have to be discussed from Indian perspective only or there is a need to give examples only from India. It is contextual and depends upon the subject matter of an essay. Instead of narrowing down the focus of an essay it is better to broaden the canvas of analysis.
The conclusion is simply summing up of the arguments that are placed in the main parts of the body. A conclusion must end up with optimism. It needs to establish that in spite of constraints and challenges there is a solution and way out to a problem, an aspiration, a mission. It bears the indication  how one perceives the future direction of a given concern. Conclusion conveys a message of hope or constructive change.
(The author is a researcher and academic. E-mail : c_somen@yahoo.com)Views expressed are personal.
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