You really don’t want to get off on the wrong foot with your examiners. Minor irritations such as misspellings and poor handwriting can put the examiner in a negative frame of mind and affect your overall grade, even if your essay content is solid. You want to give yourself every chance of getting top marks. I’m sure you’ve heard this kind of thing a million times before. Teachers stress the importance of good handwriting and spelling over and over again. There is one particular issue I’d like to address here that is not quite as easy to fix: vocabulary and expression. In the following paragraphs I will discuss common problems with expression, focusing on the use of long, supposedly more ‘sophisticated’ words.
A strong vocabulary can certainly help to improve your writing. The use of sophisticated vocabulary – in the right situations – showcases your eloquence and knowledge. However, there is a fine line between good expression and excessive, over-the-top attempts at sophistication. There are four points I’d like to make on this subject.
- Don’t force it – Students can sometimes attempt to throw all sorts of fancy-sounding words into their essays. I don’t know why. Maybe they think it’ll make their essay sound more intelligent. Maybe they are trying to adopt a more ‘scholarly’ voice. Whatever the reason, this kind of thing can actually get the examiner in a bad mood and hurt your grade. If you’re going out of your way to throw big words into your essay, chances are it’s going to sound forced. I don’t mean to say that you should cut out all that sophisticated vocabulary. When used correctly, those big words will certainly strengthen your expression and help you to communicate complex ideas. However, it’s usually quite obvious to the examiner when you’re forcing these words in where they don’t belong. Excessive use of complicated vocabulary is likely to distract from the points you’re making. It can disrupt the flow of your piece. Remember that you’re trying to effectively communicate your ideas to the reader. Try to keep that point in mind as you write.
- Be comfortable with your vocabulary – This is immensely important! I’ve said that you shouldn’t force sophisticated words into your writing. You can overcome this by having a sound knowledge of a word’s meaning and its typical context of use. In those essays that force the sophisticated vocabulary, it often sounds as though the writer has simply gone through the dictionary and picked out a bunch of words. Do not do this! You need to be comfortable with a new word before you can start using it effectively in essays. The best way to get comfortable is to read widely. This will give you as much exposure as possible to new vocabulary, and its use in context. You can also try out some new vocabulary in your practice essays. Get feedback from your teacher or tutor, ask them to focus on your vocabulary choices and see if there’s anything you need to work on. It takes time to get comfortable with new vocabulary, so get reading!
- Less is more – Basic vocabulary can often be much more effective in communicating your message clearly. Why use a ten dollar word when an everyday word will do? Short, sharp sentences with clear and unambiguous expression can be a whole lot more impressive than long, winding sentences filled with long, confusing words. I will stress the point again here; aim for clear and effective communication! When you get to university, you’re going to have to read academic papers that are chock-full of extremely long sentences and pretentious scholarly rhetoric. It’s a nightmare trying to make sense of some of these papers. Sometimes it’ll feel like they’re actually trying as hard as possible to hide the message of their writing. I’ve never really understood why. If you get to try your hand at writing a thesis or dissertation, there are a number of conventions that must be followed and your writing must be a lot more scientific. A lecturer once said to me that you’re doing ‘academic style’ right if it feels like you’re losing a bit of your soul with every sentence that you write. That’s definitely how I felt. There’s not much room to show off your own linguistic flair and expression – at least until you’ve mastered academic writing. You have a fantastic chance in VCE English to show off your writing ability and be creative. So try to make the most it! Just don’t think that good writing has to resemble that dry academic style, with long sentences and fancy words. Impress your examiner by showing clear, unambiguous writing. Impress them with writing that flows and conveys your own personal style. Which brings us to my final point:
- Be yourself – Don’t try to be someone else in your writing. The most engaging essays are those that can show something unique. As mentioned in earlier blog posts, examiners are marking hundreds of essays on the exact same topics. Your personal writing style can spice up an essay and distinguish you from other students. It’s important to stick to the required formal writing style, with correct grammar, spelling, punctuation and so on. However, you can play with your sentence structure and vocabulary. Add your own flair to leave your signature on your essays. Your expression will only improve through practice, so write as often as you can! If you have truly engaged with the subject matter and have something interesting to say about it, let that enthusiasm shine through in your prose.
I hope that it’s clear from the paragraphs above that it’s perfectly fine to use sophisticated vocabulary – in fact, it’s encouraged! Just make sure that you fully understand the words that you’re using. Don’t use fancy words just for the sake of it. Make sure that your word choice actually improves your essay and adds clarity to the points you are making. Use your sophisticated words alongside your more basic vocabulary. Find a balance that makes your writing entertaining and engaging, while still maintaining effective and clear expression. Let your engagement with the text shine through in writing that is coloured with your own personal style. Be creative and, most importantly, have fun!