Is Stand-Up Comedy a Science?

Is Stand-Up Comedy a Science? No, that’s not a joke. Watching confident, established comedians ‘trying out new material’ reveals the use of scientific methods. This approach is also taught on stand-up comedy courses. In this post I’ll outline some key issues in science, how comedians adopt these principles to hone their craft and how this approach can be applied to all areas of personal and professional development.

Science is all about probabilities not absolutes

One of the biggest misconceptions about science is that it deals in absolutes. It doesn’t. Scientific method is all about probability. Scientists don’t prove anything but simply demonstrate, statistically, that there’s a slim possibility that their results occurred due to chance. Scientists design experiments to control for noise, those extraneous variables that may confound results. The aim is to demonstrate a strong probability that there is a cause and effect between variables (by eliminating chance). For the stand-up comedian, the aim is to demonstrate that a joke causes laughter.

Objectivity versus subjectivity in science and comedy

It’s often stated that science is all about objectivity. In my own research work (as a social psychologist) I challenge this notion. I maintain that science is about bounded subjectivity. If you claim to be objective you are still taking a stance. This is not objectivity. The only true form of objectivity is indifference. Scientists as human beings will have a vested interested in the outcome of their research. There is a whole body of research in psychology to demonstrate experimenter effects. Sometimes scientists are blinded by their own unconscious biases and see the results they want to see. The idea of ‘bounded subjectivity’ is a useful concept for stand-up comics. It’s ludicrous to suggest that comedians don’t care about the results of their efforts. However, it’s helpful to control for unconscious bias. This is achieved by trying jokes out in front of different audiences, at different times and in different places.

The science of stand-up comedy

Watching professional (and gifted amateur) stand-up comedians emphasizes the value of taking a detached, scientific approach. A stand-up comedian begins by writing some material (jokes) and then tests them out in front of an audience. It begins with what makes the comedian laugh (subjectivity) and then the hypothesis that ‘this stuff will make other people laugh’. Testing the material yields results: people laugh or they don’t. People may laugh in unexpected places. This feedback is useful in refining comedy hypotheses. Of course it’s important to replicate the experiment and test the material out on a number of samples and in different contexts (bounded subjectivity). In research terms this is similar to controlling for confounding variables. With this approach, it’s the smallest of changes that can make a joke work on a more consistent basis. I have seen comedians who repeated try out a joke (that they particularly like) without a change and without a laugh, over and over again. If they took the time to use the feedback they might see where to make the adjustment.

The art of not taking it personally

I’ve heard my scientist colleagues complain that they got bad results, which emphasizes the lack of objectivity. Science is often built on a determination to get the ‘right’ results. ‘Mistakes’ in science can be expensive. I’ve also seen comedian friends allow a ‘bad gig’ to send them into a ‘depression’ for days. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard for comedians is The Eleven O’Clock Rule by British stand-up comedian, Sarah Millican. Put simply, after a gig, you have up until eleven o’clock the next day, irrespective of whether it’s a ‘disaster’ or a ‘triumph’. You can either whine or gloat until then. After that, you move on.

One comedian who also adopts a scientific approach is Tom Stade. I was lucky enough to attend a new material night and Mr Stade turned up as a special guest to try out new material. He takes to the stage and switches on a digital recorder, places it on a stool and then he’s off. After ‘bringing the house down’, he turns, switches off the recorder and off he goes. I saw him perform the same material in a more polished form a few months later and get even more laughs. Many comedians would have been overjoyed with the first attempt. I suspect there were a few recordings between the first and subsequent version. Tom Stade is economical with words. He doesn’t waste them. Pauses and gestures and tone all wring laughter from the material. Another more extreme example of a scientific approach is Emo Philips where not a single word is wasted. His idiot-savant like manner disguises the absolute precision.

Some comedian friends adopt  a scientific approach and record everything, as you are advised to do on comedy courses. Others ignore the advice and keep delivering the same punch lines in the same way and come off stage bemused and frustrated when they don’t get the laughs they think it deserves. One comedy friend set himself the goal of coming up with a great five minutes of material and continually honed this material. His persistence paid off as he persistently wins gong shows up and down the country. I’ve seen others, randomly throwing together sets and complaining when it doesn’t ‘go down a storm.

The scientific approach just doesn’t have to apply to the material but also about other aspects of the performance, such as what needs to happen for me to have fun at the gig, relax and create rapport with the audience? The science shouldn’t take the heart out of it, just help to encourage continuous development and help to create a bit of distance, a buffer zone between the disciple and the discipline, the art and the artist.

Extending the scientific approach to personal and professional development

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodI went on stand-up comedy course, in part, as research on my book Unlock your Confidence. The same approach works for all goals in any area of personal and professional development. Use personal experiments to ‘try things on for size’ with the threat of failure. It’s all about the feedback. There’s no beating yourself up when things go wrong or taking things to personally. Just as with the stand-up comic, the lack of a laugh (‘the right result’) shouldn’t reduce you to tears. Neither should it be taken as an indication of self-esteem. It’s just a sign that you need to make adjustments and try again. Building confidence in anything takes two types of courage: the courage to take the first step and the courage to persist (in line with feedback). Confidence is a process.

Be scientific, be detached, be persistent, collect data, use the data, refine your approach, have fun!

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Reset Your Goals – First Day of Spring

The euphoria of the New Year has long evaporated by now. Stumbling with our goals is often interpreted as failure and a reason to give up. However, going off track is more likely feedback that the goal’s action plan needs to be adjusted. As we seem to put a significance of key dates as starting points for our goals, there’s a good argument to revise, refine and reset out goals on the first day of Spring. It’s the perfect day for new beginnings.

Working as a coach I work with clients to set goals all year round. That’s not to say we can’t borrow a little momentum from a significant date. The most common reasons for stumbling on goals are that the goals are unrealistic. Usually people take on too much given their circumstances. Goals may have been vaguely described which means it’s difficult to keep a track of when you are on track or not. The other main reason is one of motivation. The significance of a particular day is simply not enough to carry us through when times get tough. So spend some of this first day of Spring reading the following posts, renewing your goals and getting back on track.

More on goals:

Never Mind. . . the Great Procrustean Binary Gender Swindle

After publishing my Gender & the Social Construction of the Sewing Machine post, I checked the things automatically linked to it by WordPress and found a fascinating and brave post. I was going to add a comment of support, but the comments had been turned off. Not long after the whole blog disappeared. The writer, a trans woman, had a lot of thought-provoking things to say about binary gender. Unfortunately the blog had been subject to a lot of abuse, surprisingly from other trans people. I found a draft of this post languishing in the nether regions of my blog and decided to finish it off. I have lost contact with the blogger, so if you read this, please drop me a line.

Many people, trans and otherwise, criticise the binary model of gender. It used to irritate me no end at university when students designed experimental studies and just threw in ‘gender differences’ without justification. This underlying assumption that men and women do everything differently was rarely challenged in our psychology department. I began to disparagingly refer to such gender differences as ‘counting shirts and blouses’. I took great delight in challenging fellow PhD students looking at gender differences. My own PhD was on gender stereotypes and intolerance of ambiguity. Knowing full well what the answer would be I’d ask ‘Are you taking a social constructionist view of gender?’ On one occasion, one student became very animated as he karate-chopped the air shouting ‘No!Men and women! MEN AND WOMEN!” This tale was retold often in later lectures and tutorials, and much to the delight of one of my colleagues Dr Petra Boynton.

Some of the key influences on my early research were Martine Rothblatt and Kate Bornstein (both trans writers) and Mark Simpson, the writer who coined the term metrosexual. As an undergraduate I’d quoted from a Simpson piece in Deadline magazine (in 1994) with the provocative title ‘Coming Over All Queer’. It raised a few eyebrows in our rather conservative degree programme. These writers more than any helped me to the conclusion not that there was more than binary but perhaps more importantly, we don’t necessarily have to put a label on it.

I’m a natal male and I spent my formative years in a state of gender confusion as I described in Gender & the Social Construction of the Sewing Machine. Much of the ‘confusion’ caused me distress but I came to I interpret it and my lack of conformity as something special whereas no I realize that it was quite ordinary and quite common. We are all gender deviants because ‘true gender’ does not exist. Bornstein is on record as saying that she might not have made the transition from male to female had she known at the time that there were other options. This was also what the trans blogger was saying.

At a certain point in our cognitive development we achieve gender constancy. This is the certainty that boys become men and girls become women. Up until then, it’s quite ordinary to assume that people can swap back and forth between genders. The milestone is on average around five to seven years. So we can’t count as reliable evidence, any early childhood memories of gender identity confusion or discomfort. It happens to us all.

Confusion surrounding gender is exacerbated because the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are so often interchanged, when they are not the same thing at all. Sex is the biological designation based on physiology, whereas gender is the social interpretation of sex. Gender is not natural. Further problems occur because we deny any other options but binary gender. However, if we examine the biological evidence, there is not a neat divide between the sexes, there are definite shades of grey. This greyness is intensified when we consider the social interpretation of gender. Do all men have the same gender? Do all women have the same gender? Don’t factors such as age, ethnicity, education, upbringing, socio-economic class, sexuality all colour our gender to varying degrees?

We all have the right to feel comfortable in our own ‘gendered’ skin, but the chances of being able to do this are limited simply because we have limited options. It’s not gender democracy if you only get to vote for two parties in the same system.    Maybe the reason why I shelved this heretical piece was that I couldn’t figure out a way to word it without sounding like a homophobe, transphobe orbiphobe. In truth, I am a binariphobe. I think the rights of people transcend socially constructed boundaries. I don’t believe in homosexuality or bisexuality or heterosexuality. Fundamentally because I don’t recognize the either-or imperative. Biology has not produced a dichotomy. We did that. Reproductive differences and genital shape do not make a gender. Real life is much more complicated than (karate chops air) ‘Men and Women. MEN AND WOMEN!’

The trans blogger made the point that many trans people decry binary gender because they were born into the wrong one. It’s a challenge to suggest that maybe they weren’t. Maybe the gender you got was your unique gender.  Many people have made the choice not to succumb to the Procrustean system and inhabit a gender place in  the ‘grey area’ (or ‘Technicolor area’). Some people have become their own immaculate conception. Their gender, sexuality and physiology do not line up according to the black-and-white rule. They have made a decision to occupy the middle-ground, which is, after all, where we all are anyway. I think it’s more important to respect and value people’s spot on the gender continuum rather than fight for a system that limits diversity and our options.

After completing Kate Bornstein’s gender quiz in My Gender Workbook, I was thrilled with my designation of gender freak. Throughout the quiz I was dreading the prospect of being ‘normal. It’s a shame that the trans blogger was ‘persuaded off’ the blogosphere by a few people who see it as their ‘god-given’ right to police binary gender boundaries. It’s a great fear that if we let go of labels we will all disappear. Without gender binary divisions the concept of transgender would be less meaningful. Making a transition from one state to its polar opposite reinforces binary gender as much as it challenges it. Again the same applies to sexuality. We can only swing both ways if there are only two ways. Sometimes we fight for something that’s at the root of the oppression.

I recognize that I am still more traditionally gendered than I would like to be. I’m still working on it. There are still options open to the ‘other side’ that I would like to enjoy. However the barrier has much more to do with social convention  than it does with the shape of my genitals.

LInks:

Kate Bornstein’s Memoir: Queer and Pleasant Danger

Poem: Anatomy of Doubt

Gender & the Social Construction of the Sewing Machine

Life, Fun, Gratitude and Regret… a call to action

Sometimes life gets us down. We get stuck in a routine, become overwhelmed by circumstances or paralyzed  by fear. We claim not to know what we want except we know that we don’t want more of ‘this’. Knowing that you do not want more of the same is a start. Describing what we want to move away from is the first step in describing what we want to move towards. It also helps to take stock of what we already have. It’s often described in self-help speak as acquiring the attitude of gratitude. Simply be focusing on what we are thankful for (however small), helps to retune our perceptions to potential positive opportunities. It’s become a key strategy in my confidence building approach (See Unlock Your Confidence).

I saw ‘International Fun Smuggler’ Mrs Barbara Nice’s show at Edinburgh Fringe. Mrs Nice takes great delight in celebrating the small things in life (and it’s difficult to come away from her shows feeling anything but uplifted). In the show she also touched on the regrets in life. These provide clues to what we might do to escape ‘more of the same’. Bronnie Ware, palliative nurse recorded the top five regrets of dying patients and at first glance seemed all rather un-sensational. However they provide a recipe for living without regret. Here are our biggest regrets:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

Consider how you allow the expectation of others to limit your choices and perpetuate more of the same. Consider what small thing you could do today that brings you a tiny bit closer to your idea of your true self. It could be starting a new hobby or attending an evening class. Start with a small thing to build your confidence and create momentum. Do it today.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

Consider how you can create a little balance in your life. What do you do to relax? What small things can you let go to make time for yourself? When I run confidence building workshops I ask about the moments when people have more confidence invariably they report times when they are relaxing and having fun. In Don’t Wait For Your Ship to Come In…Swim Out to Meet It, I wrote that a melody consists not just of the notes, but also of the rests in between the notes. Taking time out can improve efficiency at work and can have a knock on effect in other areas of your life. What will you do today to create some moments of fun or relaxation?

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

Often bottled up feelings can lead to resentment and bitterness and sometimes people turn those feelings in on themselves. Many people spend years in work meetings saying nothing until one day they speak up. At that time it didn’t matter if anyone else agreed, it was just enough for them to ‘say my piece’. Like anything else, if you have little practice at expressing your feelings (saying your piece) then start small, with something almost inconsequential, as long as it’s a first step. Expressing our feelings will engage others in feedback. Sometimes they will agree and sometimes they won’t. Either way the act of speaking up and dealing with the feedback is a way of building self-esteem. Of course, it can be positive expressions of feelings such as gratitude to another person.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

Sometimes we take friendships for granted and let other aspects of our lives get in the way. The same applies to family members. We just assume that they will always be there. They become part of our ‘psychological furniture’ rather than real people. There have never been so many ways to communicate as there are today. A group text message to all of your contacts is not staying in touch. It’s going through the motions. When looking back over our lives we realize that all the things in life that, at the time, mattered more than people, don’t. Forget Facebook (for a while) and focus on facial expressions and vocal inflections with real people, off line. So who can you reconnect with, voice to voice, face to face?

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Getting the ‘gratitude attitude’ helps to create a foundation for happiness as does making time to have fun. It’s interesting that the regret here is ‘let myself’. This implies that the opportunities were there but not seized. A key way of finding more happiness to set goals that stretch in areas of life that interest us. In his classic book Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Chick-sent-me-high) offers a simple message. To be happier we just need to spend more time ‘in flow’. These are the moments when we become so totally engrossed in what we are doing that we lose all sense of time. We set goals to improve our personal best and develop skills, engaging blissfully in the present moment. So what would that be for you? What start can you make today?

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodNothing here requires massive life changes. All that it takes is small affirmative steps. In my coaching practice, the emphasis is on creating small, shifts in perception and action. It has always amazed that clients do far more between coaching sessions that we agreed or that either of us expected. It’s not bungee jumping or fire walking that transform lives, but small steps of persistent action in the desired direction.

What will you do today, to build happiness and regret-proof your life?

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Job Interview Essentials

Like all skills, interviewing well takes practice. It also helps to recognise that interviewing is a two way process. Often people assume that it’s all about being interviewed by a potential employer to assess suitability as an employee. However, it’s also your opportunity for you to assess whether a particular employer is a match for your skills, strengths, values and personality. So be prepared to ask questions to check out the employer and the organization. This requires self-reflection and a bit of research on your target employer. It starts by reading the job specification, the person specification and finding our more about the organization.

Possibly in an effort to make the process a little less boring for themselves, interviewers may dream up creative questions that sound more difficult than they really are. Some interviewers may not be experienced or comfortable interviewing which may be reflected in questions that add very little to the process. So, it’s worth being clear about what the interview process aims to achieve. Top Executive Recruiters agree that interviews need to assess three key topics: Strengths, Motivation and Fit. These translate into three main questions:

  1. Can you do the job?
  2. Will you love the job?
  3. Can we work with you?
Interview questions are most often these three themes ‘dressed up’ to varying degrees. Getting to the yes/no answers requires sifting the evidence. As an interviewee you need to provide evidence of skills, qualifications and experience to demonstrate that you can do the job. This is not about repeating what’s on your CV, it’s about giving examples that demonstrate how you have applied your skills and strengths. It’s also helpful to identify transferable skills. I use a number of tools and techniques to help clients to identify their strengths. It’s the basis from which all else proceeds. It’s also worth considering when things didn’t go smoothly. How did you handle ‘failure’? How did you move forward?
‘Loving the job’ is all about motivation. What will continue to make the job worthwhile when the going gets tough, apart from the money? The job may fit in with your values, that is ‘what you stand for’ or may tie in with your long term goals. It’s all about knowing what makes you tick, what gets you out of bed in the morning and what keeps you going when the going gets tough. I’ve coached students in applications to MBAs to the highest ranking Universities in the world. Most of the questions are about goals and values. Knowing yours is absolutely essential for job interviews. Again, I use values elicitation exercises with clients and also to see if existing goals are supporting these values.
As well as providing insights into our motivation, knowledge of our values can also help us determine how well we may fit in with organizations and teams. You may have all the skills for the job but if you have a strong social conscience and the organization is a ‘do what ever it takes’ enterprise, then there may be a values clash.
As well as self-evaluation you also have to do your home-work on the organization. Don’t be like the woefully unprepared candidates on the TV show Dragon’s Den who pitch an idea for stationary not knowing that one of the dragon’s sells paper-clips or pitching a new dessert not knowing that one of the dragon’s once owned an ice-cream van. It shows a lack of professionalism and respect. There is no excuse for not doing an internet search and finding out about your potential employer. It’s the only way you are going to properly assess that there will be a match.
Self-knowledge and a little background research can transform the interviewing process so that it’s no longer a mystical ordeal but instead a personal and professional development opportunity.
For further information see:

Give Up the Routine and Predictable for Lent – Give Up On Giving Up

Lent, in the Christian calendar is marked by prayer, penance, repentance, charity andself-denial, for forty days leading to up Easter. It is usually summed up in the phrase ‘giving up something for Lent’,  and is often seen as a test of will-power. However, there is more than one way to ‘give up’ and make sacrifices. So if we consider Lent from a secular, personal development angle, you don’t have to be religious to observe lent.

One aspect of prayer is about giving thanks and practising gratitude. So over, the next 40 days, take a moment each day to take stock and be thankful what the things, situations, opportunities and people in your life. To help, here’s a link to my Gratitude and Anticipation Experiment. Another aspect of prayer is giving time to reflect quietly, so you could also include 40 days of meditation, for a couple of minutes, three times a day. Try my Two-Minute Stress Buster and give up on stress.

Penance and repentance are about facing up to mistakes and seeking forgiveness. So use the next 40 days to build bridges with people and put things right. Also, spend the next 40 days forgiving people whom you feel have wronged you. Sometimes we hold on to past hurts and don’t allow ourselves to move on. Also, spend the next 40 days giving up on collecting new hurts. Start by forgiving yourself. Give up on beating yourself up about past mistakes. Give up on holding on to the past. Give up on that inner-self talk that puts you down.

Charity involves giving something to others. It’s easy to give money (when you have it to spare), but more difficult to actually give time. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. So, over the next 40 days you could do a random of act of kindness each day.

Self-denial is what is most associated with Lent, but need not be about giving up our favourite treats. Instead, think about giving up routine by trying something new. We often get stuck in a rut, so use the next 40 days to deny ourselves that ‘luxury’. Opt for novelty over familiarity. Increase variety of the foods. Get more exercise. Read a book or start learning a new language. Deny the part of the self that likes to get stuck in a routine. Give up on saying ‘that’s just the way I am‘.

Think of any aspect of your life or self that you’d like to develop such as confidence, social skills or self-esteem. Give up on the feelings that are holding you back and take the first steps to try the very things you’d like to do. Give up on excuses.

At the start of the 40 day experiment, rate your happiness on a scale of zero to ten. Rate your life satisfaction and also optimism of the same zero to ten scale. At then end of the 40 days, rate your happiness, life satisfaction and optimism again. What’s changed. Is there any thing that you’d tried during the 40 day experiment that you’d like to continue doing?

Give up on giving up. . . but not just for Lent.

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Writing a Critical Essay Does Not Mean “Rip to Shreds” Armed only with an Introductory Textbook

For many people the words ‘critical’ and ‘criticism’ have negative connotations. Of course it’s not helped by the impression many people have of professional critics who spend their lives reviewing the accomplishments of others. Tales are told of critics who can ‘make or break’ plays or restaurants who can with the flick of a pen and a few well chosen acid-tongued ‘put downs’. It’s therefore perhaps not surprising that when students are faced with the prospect of writing their first critical essays that they think they have to don a black cape and mask and go MwaahhHHHAHAHAHAHA a lot.

Critical essays should offer balance. They are not  opportunites for students to be ‘smart arses’ armed only with the knowledge on an introductory textbook. Many students fall into this trap. The general rule is: the more you’ve read the more critical you can be. If you try to dazzle with insights and wit based on a chapter in a textbook, it simply comes across as immature academic development, laziness and arrogance.

Often students rely too heavily on introductory texts because it is easy. It’s important to recognise that they serve the function only to introduce you to a topic, not become the fount of all of your knowledge. The publishing process in academia is notoriously slow. With the review process, it may take two years to get research into a journal. Then the textbook authors get their hands on it and after the editing and publishing process the information finds its way to you. By that time it is already out of date. Remember that textbook authors are often generalists rather than specialist researchers. So, once the textbook has set the scene and context, you should head for the journals.

Another main problem is that students are not necessarily taught how to write critical essays and so fall back on erroneous assumptions of what it means to be critical. This is more often than not ‘rip it to shreds’. Rarely, if ever, is this a wise approach. So what it?

Start by imagining that you are writing the essay of an intelligent fifteen year old. If you’re ask to ‘critically analysis’, don’t launch in with ‘theory X is a load of old rubbish and Dr X has a drink problem and was molested by gibbons when he was a child”. Instead begin by giving the reader a neutral account of the theories in question. Once you have established that, you can give an account of the pros (positives) of the theories, and then the cons (negatives). Obviously, reading around a topic will help to develop your critical skills as you  encounter different perspectives. You are hardly likely to get this level of detail in a textbook.

This approach will communicate to your tutor that you are developing good academic skills. Yes it’s more work, but you aren’t studying to regurgitate what you already know or to demonstrate that you can get by for three of four years paraphrasing one book. Unfortunately some students do try this approach. Learning is about pushing the boundaries of what you know, and hopefully you may come up with critical analyses that is not in the textbooks.

Library cards to the ready and step away from that introductory textbook!

You can also find other insights of study skills and essay writing in my other posts:

Writing Good Essays: First Impressions Count (. . . and gain you marks)

First impressions count. So, it’s important when writing essays not to lose marks by not creating a good first impression. If an essay ‘looks the part’, it has a chance of being marked more favourably than one that looks like it was churned out the night before the deadline. Now, this is not a cue to rush out and buy expensive folders or ribbons or write on papyrus. Of course, it helps if the essay doesn’t look as if it has been wrestled from a toddler or used as a coaster. However, the most important thing is that it looks as if it might be a good essay by a diligent student. Here are five pointers that will gain you extra marks by just playing by the rules:

(i) Follow the submission guidelines and be conservative. If the guidelines ask for 12 point font on one side of the paper and 1.5 line spacing, then don’t submit something that can only be read with a magnifying glass. Different universities/colleges/departments/tutors have different rules about things like sub-headings. Obey them. The paper should always be white, not cream or powder blue or pink or monogrammed or ‘wibbley-edged’. Just basic paper, preferably recycled so you can do your bit for the planet. Although you won’t be marked down for  not being ‘green’. . . you may well be if the paper is the colour of lark’s phlegm. As your academic career advances,  if you submit a paper for publication in a journal, there will be submission guidelines. If you don’t follow the rules you won’t even be considered, so get into the good practice now.

(ii) Learn to use the appropriate referencing system. In psychology it’s usually the Harvard (author-date) system. You shouldn’t guess or make-up your own version. You learn the correct referencing format including how to to cite references in the text. Even with references included, you still have to be able to read the essay out loud. You don’t abandon the standard rules of punctuation. Learning the referencing system from the start will save you lots of lost marks on each essay. It also communicates to the essay marker, that you are a diligent student. This may mean that your essay is looked upon more favourably than one which looks like it was referenced by someone who doesn’t give a damn.

(iii) Write a good introduction. You will note that I didn’t begin this piece with ‘In this blog post I will outline how to pick up extra points on essays’. That would have been exceedingly dull. Do a little work to set the scene. It only takes about 50 words to set the context for the essay. It’s standard for all journalists of newspaper and magazine articles. Now you don’t have to be sensational, but you do have to evoke interest. Imagine your essay is found by someone who has to sleep on a park bench. Those first 50 words might mean that they take the time to read your essay to take their mind off the cold. If it starts ‘In this essay I will discuss’. . . chances are it will go straight up the vest or down the pants for insulation.

Your introduction, where possible, should contain the essay question paraphrased, so that anyone reading the essay will know exactly what the question is, without having to look at the question. It will also help you to stick to the point. Finally, your introduction should contain a brief statement of the path your essay will take – a very brief summary of what to expect. All of this makes your essay easier for the reader (marker) to process and it looks more professional. This good impression may mean that the marker may be a little more forgiving.

(iv) Follow the simple three point- rule. In your essay, (i)Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em (Introduction); (ii) Tell ’em (Main Body); (iii) Tell ’em what you’ve told ’em (Conclusion). The introduction as we have seen, sets the scene. In the main body you present your evidence. In the conclusion you briefly summarise the material you have already introduced and offer a conclusion. Think of it like a court case. Opening arguments, evidence then closing arguments.

(v) Write a good conclusion. This follows pretty much the same pattern as the Introduction. You briefly summarise the main themes in the main body. Again you offer a paraphrased version of the question and you offer a conclusion based on the evidence introduced in the main body. Now’s not the time to sneak in a few tasty morsels than you saved for the grand finale. If it’s evidence, it goes in the main body. Again think of a court case. You don’t start calling your star witness during your closing arguments.

Of course, you still have to write a good main body and support all of your points with up-to-date references from a range of sources. However, the five pointers above will ensure that the main body is received in a more positive light. To ignore these pointers is to needlessly throw marks away. Simply presenting your essay in a more professional and appropriate way could take your mark up into the next grade band. The sooner you present yourself as a serious or diligent student, however far from the truth that may be, the sooner you will stop losing valuable marks.

Contact info@drgarywood.co.uk to discuss one-to-one academic coaching for study skills, essay writing and  exam techniques

Links:

Never Trust a Tabloid with Statistics

I was alerted to the great news that a pair of conjoined twins have been successfully surgically separated. Reported in The Daily Mail, it is stated that only one in ten million survive this operation. A comment on facebook questioned whether ten million such operations had been performed or was the figure just “plucked out of the air” (. . . I’ve told you a million times not to exaggerate). Checking on the source of the statistic, the Facing the World website uses it slightly differently:

Cases of craniopagus (head-to-head) conjoined twins are extremely rare – only 1:10 million survive to infancy.

This is not the same as the Daily Mail’s claim. The practice of slightly altering statistics to fit the story or sometimes blatant misreporting often happens because journalists are on a deadline and often do not understand the things they report, or just want to tweak the facts and figures to make a better story. So the moral of this story is to check the sources of tabloid stories, or any news story for that matter.

If you need an easy-to-read crash course in statistics then I recommend: Darrell Huff’s entertaining book: How to Lie with Statistics

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