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Issue No 40, 01 January -07 January 2022

Civil Services (Main) Exam

The Essence Of Essay Writing

S B Singh

Akeen and curious candidate preparing for the UPSC Civil Services (Main) examination must try to know the purpose of an essay paper in the exam scheme. There can be no better guide than the notification issued by the UPSC in this regard. The UPSC instructs the aspirants in the following words: "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 orderly fashion, and to write concisely. Credit will be given for effective and exact expression."


A candidate is required to write essays on multiple topics. There are two sections in the essay paper - Section A and Section B. In each section, there are four different topics. One topic each has to be chosen from one Sections A and B. Thus, a total of two medium-sized essays, comprising 850-1000 words each, need to be completed in three hours. Each essay carries 125 marks.


No competitive examination, including the civil services examination, can be cracked without a proper strategy to maximize chances of success and secure high marks. The two main papers that offer immense possibilities of securing high marks are: Essay and Ethics. Both these papers, if prepared sincerely and under proper guidance, can fetch better marks than the conventional General Studies papers. In fact, in the essay paper, the highest marks scored are above 150 out of 250, whereas getting even 130 marks in the GS papers is rare. Why is this so? The GS papers offer a formidable syllabus rendering it extremely difficult to command. As a result, balanced performance in GS papers is a challenging proposition. In contrast, the essay and ethics paper offer an opportunity to score well in the competition because of the very nature of their syllabus. Since both these papers are contextual and the topics are taken from experiences in our daily lives, the questions are pretty predictable. If you can prepare on around 50 selected themes, you will get at least two essays from these themes. But those 50 topics must be chosen wisely. The same is true of the ethics paper. Unfortunately, some civil services aspirants do not understand the scope of the essay and ethics papers and keep their preparations tilted in favour of GS only. There is no single book available that can serve the purpose in the essay preparation. Then, there are many self-styled, self-appointed experts who make the essay paper appear too technical and kill the authentic flavour of essay writing. All this makes it imperative to get original with the essay preparations, i.e., consult original sources, develop a standard writing format instead of imitating others and do extensive practice before the actual examination. It is advisable to write at least 100 practice essays on various topics, including topics asked in previous years. Unlike the GS papers, which seek to test a candidate's knowledge of various issues of general interest, the essay paper has been kept with a different purpose. It is intended to test the following.

·Organised presentation of ideas

·Linguistic skills, i.e., effective writing skills


·Capacity to develop both arguments and counter- arguments on a topic and ability to reach a conclusion.


Going by the dictionary meaning, an essay is a short literary composition on a particular issue. The term essay was first popularized by a French writer, Michel de Montaigne, in the 16th century, who described his works as essays. For him, "an essay was his attempt to put his thoughts in writing." Aldous Huxley, a British essayist of the 19th century has described the essay in the following words:" The essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything. By definition, the essay is a short piece. " Huxley divided essays into three broad categories.

·Personal essays: it is a reflective biography in which the essayist looks at the world from his own prism.

·The objective, factual, and concrete essays: Here, the authors do not speak directly of themselves, but turn to some theme. In this type of essay, the art of writing consists of setting forth, passing judgment upon and drawing general conclusions from the relevant data.

·The abstract-universal type of essays: these are neither personal nor objective essays; they are abstractions tilting towards philosophy.

In broad terms, essay topics being asked in the Civil Services examination for the last several years fall in the above three categories. However, it will be wise to simplify the categories further for greater clarity. A close scrutiny of essay topics chosen for the IAS exam helps to bunch the essays in the following categories.


Such topics are given in section A of the essay paper. For example, the following topics in last year's exam can be labeled as philosophical essays:-

·Life is a long journey between human being and being humane.

·Mindful manifesto is the catalyst to a tranquil self.

·Ships do not sink because of water around them; ships sink because of water that gets into them.

·Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

How to attempt philosophical essays: The answer to this lies in widening reading habits. Unless you have a basic familiarity with the thoughts of well-known philosophers like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, you cannot generate good content on a given topic. Other than philosophers, one also needs to be well acquainted with modern thinkers, statesmen like Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Abdul Kalam, etc. Reading about ancient monarchs, and statesmen like Ashoka, Kautilya, etc. will also help in organizing ideas on the topic of the essay. Famous quotes by these great personalities should be understood in a modern context. For example, the famous quote of Socrates, "An unexamined life is not worth living" has been asked in the UPSC essay paper in the past. Unless you know who has made this statement, it would be a wild attempt to write an essay on this topic as you are not familiar with the author of this quote and what he implies by this. To take another example, the 2020 essay topic: "Culture is what we are, civilisation is what we have." Now, this quotation again has been taken from the writings of a famous sociologist, R M MacIver, on culture and civilisation. Unless you are able to understand that your reading habits should be diversified in a manner that includes engaging with philosophers, thinkers, you will not make efforts to read such things because these are not part of your daily reading habits. Such habits can be inculcated only through continued reading over a period of time. It is impossible to read these at the last moment .


Quite a few essays will fall under this category. For example, in the 2020 essay paper, one topic was on social justice and economic prosperity, while another topic related to patriarchy being responsible for social inequality. Fortunately, these topics sound familiar to the candidates because they appear in public discourse quite frequently. However, writing a structured essay on these topics is different from just knowing about these topics. This is so because you will have to examine issues like patriarchy, social justice, from various perspectives, cite examples, and prescribe solutions. A holistic perspective on a social, economic topic is possible only when you make your essay multidimensional.

How to attempt essays on social and economic themes: You should list social issues covering women, children, weaker sections, and the poor. Also, attention must be paid to social evils like dowry, drugs, alcoholism, etc. Similarly, economic issues such as income inequality, pandemic-driven financial stress, adverse impacts of globalisation, universal basic income etc. should be kept in mind. Every week, you should contemplate a probable topic on a social or economic theme and prepare it.


Under this category, the probable topics are democracy, suitability of parliamentary democracy for India, federalism, the role of opposition in a democracy, issues pertaining to judiciary, the role of Panchayati Raj etc.

How to prepare for essays on political issues: First, one should list essay topics from a particular theme. For example on democracy, essay topics can be: democratic deficit, authoritarian democracy, global coalition for democracy. Similarly, on federalism, topics could be: cooperative and competitive federalism, fiscal federalism, coercive federalism. Once topics are selected, one should look for good writeups in newspapers, magazines, and books.


One essay on an international issue is invariably asked every year. It pertains to Indian foreign policy, or role of international bodies, or the present world order. For example, an essay on nonalignment has been asked. The likely themes on which essays can be asked this year are: The present world order, contours of an emerging multipolar world, deglobalisation, climate change, need for global efforts to tackle pandemics, a new cold war in the making.

How to prepare for topics on international relations: Newspapers are the best sources for global issues. However, reading the latest books on international relations will add to your concepts. The following books are recommended: - The New World Disorder and the Indian Imperative by Shashi Tharoor, India and Asian Geopolitics by Shivashankar Menon, and The India Way by S. Jaishankar.


One essay topic always comprises themes relating to science and technology. The current developments in emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, biotechnology, reproductive technology, space technology constitute topics for the essay paper.

How to prepare science and technology-related essays: It should be remembered that mere knowledge of scientific developments cannot help in writing an essay. What is needed is to probe their ethical, moral dimensions. For example, development of artificial intelligence has raised a number of ethical questions. Those questions should be addressed in the essay rather than explaining just the technical developments.


Though no word limit is prescribed for the essay, the ideal size of an essay should be 850-1000 words. The introduction, the body, and the conclusion must be arranged within this word limit. The introduction should comprise 170- 200 words. You must introduce the main theme of the essay and also what you are going to argue in the following paragraphs. This will make your stand clear to the examiner at the beginning itself. The essay's main body should comprise five separate paragraphs, each consisting of 125 words. Each paragraph should carry a central argument on the topic, and arguments should be presented in a systematic and connected manner in different sections. You should raise questions in these paragraphs and answer them. You should comment on both the argument and the counterargument on the given topic and form your own opinion. The conclusion should consist of 150-175 words. You should wrap up your arguments in a summarizing manner and also suggest a way forward. The conclusion should look different from the introduction.

(The author is an academician and IAS mentor. He can be reached at: sb_singh2003@yahoo.com.

Views expressed are personal)