Alamak! GE2016 coming! (A tongue in cheek guide to writing “wall of text” essays for the general reader)

tl;dr — use tl;dr paragraphs, deal with all the evidence, keep to a single idea per paragraph, don’t assume prior knowledge (assume that your reader is an idiot), end with a bang.

Bonus: this is also relevant to O- and A-level students. The principles of writing are the same, just avoid the acronym (tl;dr) and snark.

1. If you plan on posting a wall of text, always, always have a tl;dr.

Your tl;dr paragraph is necessary. People online don’t have infinite attention spans. In fact, our attention spans have been shrinking.

Your tl;dr paragraph should contain the brilliance of your entire essay. There have been complaints that the tl;dr phenomenon has been dumbing down online discourse (online discussion), but the tl;dr has actually had a long and storied history. You may recall from your GP lessons a thing called the “introductory paragraph“. This is your tl;dr paragraph.

The reader should be able to guess at the purpose of your wall of text from this paragraph. If he can’t, he may just lose interest and not read your essay.

2. Deal with all the relevant evidence

When you are trying to decide on which shiny bicycle to buy, you don’t go around only comparing prices. You look at what you get for your money —  Does it have good parts? Will I be comfortable on it? Will it make me look like a clown? — and so on.

Likewise, in your wall of text, avoid looking only at limited evidence. Look at ALL the relevant evidence. For example, if you want to buy a certain bicycle, you cannot only look at the benefits it might bring you, you also have to look at the benefits the next bicycle might bring you — and all their drawbacks.

Please do the same for political parties. As your teacher might have once said, please give me a balanced argument!

3. One idea, one paragraph

This is a rule that is frequently broken, but still serves as a good guideline.

The purpose of this rule is crucial to understand: readers are stupid cows (but not you, heheh!) who can’t keep a huge amount of information in their heads. Breaking your wall of text into smaller bricks of text will help your reader understand and retain information.

You see how I’ve broken down my tips into numbered sections? Ah.

4. Assume a stupid reader (really, not you)

(This tip comes from my JC Economics teacher!)

While you may be an expert in political philosophy, your reader almost certainly won’t be. If you use a set of words in a specific way, be sure to define it for your reader.

Think about how everyone knows the definitions of these words: kings; divine; of; right. But if I say “they rule as if they had the divine right of kings”, most people wouldn’t understand that I am talking about the old kings (the real ruling kind, not the “only good for TV” kind) who claimed that their authority came from God Himself.

5. End with a bang

If your wall of text deserves to be read, your last paragraph should be a knockout. Remember that human beings now have very short attention spans, and may need some prodding to actually process what you are saying.

Lazy readers also have a tendency to skip the middle to get to the end.

So, it’s true. Your GP teacher wasn’t wasting your time. Academic principles of writing are useful in ‘real’ life. Now go forth and write! (But go read my whole post again if you skipped the middle. Naughty!)

Essay writing tip: question everything

I first heard this tip from my GP teacher, way back in 2000 when phones could only make calls and send messages (no internet on phones!), and when one of the five co-founders of Facebook (Mark Zuckerberg) was only 17 years old. At the time, I didn’t know that this quote was attributed to Einstein (The Albert!), but that’s how far this quote has travelled to get to you. Depending on who you ask, the idea may even have originated in the discourses of the ancient philosophers (wow). WOW!

Here it is, the idea that has survived longer than any of us has been alive: question everything.

Question everything.

A fellow blogger puts it in naked terms:
…let me tell all my fellow citizens that deception comes from everywhere. Your parents probably have lied to you before. Your teachers have not told you everything. Newspapers conduct misleading, shabby polls and print biased news. Life isn’t like they show on TV. Magazines publish more articles about brands that pay more ad dollars. And yes, governments – they withhold information too, manipulate statistics, spin the news, censor, mislead, distract, fight dirty, dirty wars online.” (Read Daniel’s original blogpost here — DRUMS and Dumb Singaporeans)

When you are writing an essay, check your arguments. Question your arguments, try to find flaws in them, and plug the holes. When you first begin to do this, it may feel slightly strange, and you may even end up writing essays that start with a particular stand but end with the opposite viewpoint (please don’t do that!). This is where essay planning comes in — you question your arguments at the planning stage, not the writing stage.

Even when you graduate from school, the habit of questioning everything is going to be helpful. The blogpost I linked to above shows how useful the habit can be when we deal with the media and the discourse of politicians. I’ll say that it’s even useful for querying the very meaning of life. (WAH).

How to do it? Well, most people question life and ask what it has to offer them. So, I questioned my question. Instead of asking what life had to offer me, I asked: what do I have to offer life? Hmm.