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Before we begin, a Common Sense check (because Common Sense is becoming increasingly uncommon, especially in Singapore). What is an introduction? It is something to introduce: to give people a basic idea of something (in the context of a GP essay, that ‘something’ is the topic under discussion), and it’s written as though the reader knows nothing about it.
Perhaps the reader knows even more than you, but certainly we should not make any such assumptions. That’s one reason why we have introductions.
What are the other functions of an intro?
1. To warm up the reader.
A GP essay is a tiring, intellectually challenging thing to follow. That’s why we must have an introduction that gives a broader sense of the issue and its general context before we throw the reader into the deep waters of the specific and detailed arguments. Therefore your intro must be of sufficient length (I recommend 80-120 words), to give the reader an adequate warm-up.
2. To ‘hook’ the reader.
In case you haven’t realised, a GP essay is an English essay, and an English essay is a work of art. Please don’t write a GP essay like a science or economics essay, with no feeling or style. In the art form known as a GP essay, the introduction also serves to draw the reader in, much like the opening of a song or a movie. You can also think of it as an invitation to a conversation (but don’t make your essay too conversational – for instance, addressing the reader too directly “Do you believe that democracy is a panacea? Let me show you why it is not!”).
How do we ‘hook’ the reader? Well, I can (and will) give you a list of techniques but first let me say, use your imagination! Yes! Unlike many other General Paper or English teachers, I have no intention of killing the joy of language, expression and learning by just drilling you in a whole list of formulas. Everyone has a divine spark of creativity within, and that creativity is essential to solving problems in life and making life beautiful. Never let any stuffy, narrow-minded person kill your desire to express yourself or explore your individuality and your ideas.
There is no limit to the range of ideas, techniques and angles for getting a reader interested in the argumentative writing you are about to engage in. Exercise your creativity, just like you would when you’re trying to get your friend (or that cute girl from 2A31) interested in what you have to say in the canteen. For inspiration, you can also look at how the master writers open their commentaries in the newspapers (and yes, every newspaper from the Guardian to the Boston Globe to the South China Morning Post has a commentary section – it’s usually called ‘Opinion’, ‘Commentary’ or ‘Voices’).
I will now share with you a small selection out of the multitude of possibilities (of course, whatever you use has to be relevant to the question!):
(a) Fascinating figures (statistics)
Q: ‘People who do the most worthwhile jobs rarely receive the best financial rewards.’ To what extent is this true of your society?
In Singapore, a senior teacher makes about S$8,000 to S$9,000 a month. A senior banker makes more than that in a day. Senior lawyers earn that amount in three hours. (This example also involves another technique called the Power of Three. What we say has more power when it is presented as a set of 3 – try it!)
(b) Examples (specific instances of people, places, organisations, events and so on that get the reader thinking about the topic and question – this is one of the easiest techniques to use)
Q: Is competition always desirable?
The Argentinian football superstar Lionel Messi pushes his Portuguese rival Cristiano Ronaldo to play more inventively and score an even more breathtaking goal. The entry of a fourth telecoms company into the Singapore market drives the incumbents to lower their prices and improve service. But the onslaught of global offshoring hollows out the manufacturing industry in Pennsylvania, the United States – leaving factories to rust and thousands of workers jobless and unable to feed their families. Competition is a fact of life – and globalisation powered by modern communications and transport now makes the effects of competition more intense and pervasive than ever.
(c) Compare and Contrast
This is a subtype of the example technique – one that uses strong contrasts to capture the reader’s attention.
Q: How far is it possible for one country to forgive another for its past actions?
Until today, the sentiments of Koreans are inflamed whenever a Japanese prime minister visits the Yasukuni Shrine where some Japanese war heroes (to the Koreans, war criminals) are buried as the emotional scars of World War II are opened anew. But by contrast, the Vietnamese have recently welcomed the United States’ leaders to visit the country, as former President Barack Obama did in 2015. Trade and security cooperation between the once bitter foes in the Vietnam War have also grown steadily in recent years, and the appalling memories of the more than two million Vietnamese killed by American troops, and generations of children born with deformities possibly as a result of America’s use of Agent Orange, are increasingly being put aside.
(d) Quotable Quotes
I know this is a traditional favourite and I love a profound or witty quote applied in a relevant manner to a question. But I must add a critical caveat here – it is not the only way to open an essay! So for the love of God please don’t use a quote that has no connection to the question or worse – make up a quote! That is a huge insult not only to the person you attributed the quote to, but the teacher and the subject of GP as well.
If you can’t think of a quote that works for the question, there is no shortage of other methods to use for ‘hooking’ your reader.
Q: ‘No cause is ever worth dying for.’ Discuss.
“A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live,” said Dr Martin Luther King Jr., a man who was true to his words and paid the ultimate price for his life’s convictions.
3. To frame the discussion.
GP questions, just like many issues in life, need to be broken down in order for clarity on exactly what the question involves. Clarity is often needed on what certain words mean, because they may be complex or open to interpretation. For instance, what is success? Quality of life? Democracy? What is a newspaper? Is it only the physically printed daily publication that reports and comments on current affairs, or is the digital version of the same publication (eg the New York Times app) also a kind of newspaper? Of course different people will have different notions of what a term refers to, but try to adopt a definition that is reasonable and even if someone disagrees with it, he will not find absurd or overly far-fetched. Where the definition is particularly debatable, it is advisable to provide a brief justification for why you define it that way.
Definitions should be reasonably precise, but don’t be overly obsessive or pedantic. Few markers would like such definitions.
Clarity is sometimes also needed on what approach the author proposes to take to resolve the question. Take the question “How far is increased prosperity for all a realistic goal in your society?” If we are to answer this question, we need to figure out how you achieve greater prosperity for all in the first place. Thus I would state in the intro that in order to achieve increased material well-being for every member of society (paraphrased), we first need to grow the economic pie (the overall economy) and then slice the pie (distribute the gains) more equally. This breaks down the issue and lays out the approach I am going to take – assess first how realistic it is for us to grow the overall economy and then how realistic it is to distribute the consequent wealth more equally – so that the reader becomes clearer on how I will resolve this issue.
It’s good to give the reader a clear sense of the approach the essay will take. But please don’t go overboard and turn the intro into a blow-by-blow synopsis of every point it is going to make. Not only will this make the intro terribly tedious, it will also show all your cards too early and destroy the suspense for the reader.
4. To answer the question (duh!)
Now what’s the most basic part of answering the question? It’s having a stand (thesis statement)! This is probably the second most commonsensical part of essay writing (after reading the question C-A-R-E-F-U-L-L-Y, double duh), yet so many students forget to actually state their stand in the intro. It’s like someone asking me whether Donald Trump is a good president, and me going on and on about everything that’s good and bad about him – but never stating clearly whether I believe he is a good president or not (at least to a specific extent). Now in real life you can sometimes get away with sidestepping people’s questions or sitting on the fence. But in a GP essay, this is suicide.
So please have a stand, and state it at the end of your intro. Not at the beginning because that would be (a) premature – you haven’t introduced the topic, haven’t framed the discussion and are already telling us your bottom line and (b) aesthetically displeasing (ie ugly!) – the opening line of your intro is a first impression, a chance to charm the reader, an invitation to a dance. Don’t waste it by using it to do something as boring as stating your stand. Therefore, save your stand for the end of your intro.
Some suggested formulations for your stand:
(a) I believe that… (the simplest – where in doubt, keep things simple!)
(b) It is my view that…
(c) It is my position that…
(d) It is my conviction that… (stronger – but use it with sincerity and you’d better be able to back it up!)
(e) It is my considered opinion that… (high class)
(f) I hold firmly to the view that… (also a strong expression – same comments as in point d above)
Some teachers tell their students not to use the personal pronouns ‘I’ or ‘my’ in their stand/ thesis because, they argue, it is ‘too personal’ and ‘compromises’ the essay’s objectivity. I take the opposite position: I insist that my students use ‘I’ or ‘my’ in their stand. Why?
(a) Yes a GP essay should maintain a degree of emotional detachment and avoid excessive personal involvement in order to project an image of objectivity. However, what could be more personal than your own stand? It is your individual position on a controversial matter that has been considered from your own perspective. Yes, objectivity is important, but it would be disingenuous and insincere to write as if your stand were a statement of absolute objectivity (like 1+1=2). Yes, you have tried to consider the facts and logic objectively, but ultimately all that is filtered through the lens of your individuality as a human being.
Your stand/ thesis is a statement in the subjective realm of personal opinion and belief.
(b) It distinguishes your stand from every other sentence in your essay. The stand is not just any other sentence. It is the ultimate point of the essay.
(c) It signals that you take responsibility for that central statement. You take ownership of it, and you stand by it.
I would agree that you should minimise the use of ‘I’ and ‘my’ in other parts of the essay. But for the stand, to me it is a must to use either of these words.
Last but not least – I’ve noticed a growing tendency among Singapore students in recent years to avoid answering the question. They provide a so-called ‘stand’ that basically does not address the question fully, or at all. I would strongly recommend that you always let Common Sense lead the way. My hypothesis is that ‘Common Sense’ is increasingly dying in Singapore students as the education system grows in its demands and the complexity of its curriculum year after year. Students are mentally stretched to such levels of complexity that they have lost the ability to think simple and maintain a focus on the basic things in life. Thus I observed a steady rising trend in students failing to answer the essay question precisely. Many do not even read and understand the question properly.
In the GP exam, the essay makes up half your score, and essay questions are framed with little nuances of language that are easy to misapprehend if a student is not careful and using her Common Sense. I believe this is the reason why GP grades can be so unpredictable – even an A student can abruptly find himself with a D at the A-levels. Take a deep breath, calm your anxiety and get your basics right first at all times. Otherwise all the hard work you have put in over two years will go down the drain at the A-levels. Understand the question thoroughly.
Having understood it, answer it precisely. Don’t avoid the question, hijack it or dance your way around it. I suspect some students do these things because they find it difficult to answer these profound questions of life, or they take a memorise-and-regurgitate approach to GP. They ‘crammed’ themselves with model essays and lecture notes and just want to puke the contents out to hopefully score an A. But when the question does not fit what they memorised, they unconsciously hijack the question and answer the question they wish had been set, instead of the one that actually was. That is really the road to disaster.
This truly highlights the dangers of the memorise-and-regurgitate approach which, sadly, too many students are using (and too many teachers promote). Yes, I know it is difficult for you, a 17 or 18-year old, to write your own essay in answer to these profound questions of life. Even adults struggle with them. But the purpose of your education is to prepare you to answer such questions in your own life, is it not? When you are 30, 40 or 50 years old and facing an ethical dilemma, a family problem or a tough decision on what direction to take in your life, I assure you there isn’t going to be someone to hand you a model answer.
Wrestle with it, and grow as a GP student. Grow as a person.
Blogger and website owner Steven Ooi, a First Class Honours grad from NUS, retired from a distinguished 14-year career as an English and GP tutor in 2016.
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