How to write a good Essay in UPSC Mains, Explained
By Anudeep Durishetty
UPSC Civil Services Exam Topper, All India Rank – 1 CSE-2017
Novelist Stephen King put it beautifully when he said, “I write to find out what I think.”
Writing is a window to your thought process. What you write on paper will tell the reader how you think, how you argue and the way you substantiate your viewpoint. This is why for most competitive examinations and academic entrance tests, essay is mandatory.
In the Civil Services Exam too, we have a paper worth 250 marks, equivalent to a General Studies paper. Despite its importance, essay paper often does not get the attention it deserves from aspirants. First timers think they will write an excellent essay in the final exam itself, whereas experienced aspirants believe that since they had already studied a ton for GS, it will alone be enough to write a good essay. This is a fatal miscalculation.
I was one of those who made these errors in the past, and it is not a coincidence that I scored only 100 in CSE 2015. But in 2017, I devoted adequate time to this paper. I collected useful quotes, prepared notes and even made rough essay drafts for frequently asked topics. All this effort in essay paper helped me score 155.
What follows is an elaborate post on how you should tackle the Essay paper. I’ve organised the content as follows:
- What UPSC says about the essay paper
- How and from where to prepare?
- Improving language and expression
- On subheadings and rough drafts
- What you must avoid
- How to write a powerful introduction?
- Developing the content of an Essay
- Substantiating your arguments
- How to conclude an Essay
- My notes, quote collection and sample essays
What UPSC says about the essay paper
“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 an orderly fashion, and to write concisely. Credit will be given for effective and exact expression.”
Essay distinguishes itself from GS in the sense that in GS, marks will be awarded purely for content. But in essay, examiners will pay special attention to not just the content, but also the language, coherence and the way you organise your write-up.
So you must take adequate care to arrange your ideas properly and not commit any fundamental spelling or grammatical errors.
How and from where to prepare?
Most of the content you write in Essay will come from your GS preparation. Apart from this, the following sources will help:
- Reading non-fiction helps you develop a matured thought process. Apart from imparting knowledge, they will also let you come across good figures of speech, art of argumentation, powerful rhetoric and unique content etc. For example, in an essay on Artificial Intelligence, I took arguments from Yuval Harari’s Homo Deus to argue that AI is an imminent threat to humanity. Or if you read Why Nations Fail, a book replete with examples, you will understand the importance of innovation, political and economic freedoms in propelling a nation forward. So my suggestion is, apart from UPSC related material, develop the hobby of reading non-fiction books. I do not mean to suggest that you should start reading one non-fiction book per topic to get good scores in Essay, but reading them occasionally in your free time will benefit you in the long run.
- Referring to specific magazines: For certain topics, you can refer to specific issues of Yojana/EPW/Economic Survey etc. Example: for an essay on tribal issues or public health, you can go through specific issues of these magazines for getting the latest statistics (IMR, MMR, malnutrition levels etc) and also about the positives and criticisms of govt schemes in that sector.
- Collecting good stories/anecdotes and quotes Anecdotes, quotes and real life stories you see in newspapers and books which can be used in essay should be noted down. In most of my essays, I used to start with a relevant story or an anecdote that has the essay topic as its underlying theme. Apart from these, I also used a couple of quotes of eminent persons.
List of quotes, anecdotes I collected are available in the link at the end of this article.
Improving language and expression
Language in essay must be simple and clear with as little jargon as possible. If you want to use complex definitional terms such as, say, ‘Constitutionalism’ or ‘Sanskritisation’ please define it in sentence just before you use it. Examiner will also understand clearly what you want to convey. Clear writing is clear thinking. And that is what any reader looks for.
Keep your sentences short and powerful. Long, winding sentences makes it difficult to read and understand. If you tack on one clause after another through conjunctions, what you get is a bad sentence sprawl.
Example of a bad sentence sprawl:
At the end of World War 2, on the one hand, while capitalism was successfully championed by the nations in North America and Europe, on the other hand, it was USSR that put Communism at the forefront due to which there was an ideological clash between the the two superpowers which had led to proxy wars in various parts of the globe, a nuclear arms race and a rapid deterioration of the security of the world.
(By the time readers finish reading it, they will lose their breath and the point of the sentence)
So I had a simple rule: If you run out of your breath while reading a sentence, then probably you will have to break it into two.
Rewriting the aforementioned example after breaking it into two (which makes it much easier to read and comprehend):
After World War 2, while the North American and European nations championed capitalism, USSR put communism at the forefront. This ideological clash between the superpowers led to several proxy wars, a nuclear arms race and a rapid deterioration of world security.
There is no need to memorise complex words for writing a good essay. But an occasional use of a powerful word, or a good phrase definitely gives your write-up an edge.
Also, I believe that learning numerous words by rote will not make them stick in your brain for long. The best way to build your vocabulary is by reading non-fiction and English newspapers. While reading these, if you come across a good turn of phrase, or a word that you don’t recognise, please note it down in a book, find its meaning and understand the context in which the word was used. This helps in long term memory. Having a dictionary app on your phone also helps.
Building vocabulary is a slow process, but with consistency, anyone can become better at using an expansive set of words.
Subheadings & Rough Drafts
We can be a little innovative in our subheadings. Instead of bland subheadings such as ‘Benefits of Nuclear Energy’ we can use “Nuclear Energy: Promise or Peril?’ Similarly, for the essay on Social Media, instead of writing ‘Advantages and Disadvantages of Social Media’, I wrote “Social Media: A Double Edged Sword”
You can find my collection of a few such subheadings in the link to my notes, given at the end of the article.
I also prepared a rough draft for a few essay topics (link given at the end). You may need to modify the structure as per the demand of the question.
What you must avoid in Essay
- Do not focus excessively only on one point, or one dimension (such as the historical or political aspect) Your essay needs to be expansive and multi-dimensional.
- During preparation, we read a lot and it’s understandable that we feel strongly about certain topics. And since essay offers freedom to write, it’s very easy to get carried away with such a topic. But make sure that you write what is asked, not what you know or feel like. No mann ki baat. Always stick to the subject of the topic. It helps to read the question in the midst of your essay to ensure that you are not steering away from the topic.
- If you are not comfortable writing about abstract philosophical topics (I am terrible at writing them), avoid such questions. Your choice of topic has no bearing on the marks and that is why, selecting an unpopular topic just for the sake of it is unwise. Also, if there’s a technical term in the question, be doubly sure that you understand it correctly. For instance, in 2014, there was a question on ‘standard tests’, which is a technical term. I misunderstood it and wrote a generic essay. I got 112.
- When you take a final stand on an issue, it’s best to avoid extreme or highly unpopular opinions. We are free to have any opinion in the privacy of our minds, but in UPSC essay why take that risk? For instance, in an essay on Capital Punishment, in the main body content, you should present a case for both abolition and retention. But when you take a stance, it’s best to be an abolitionist.
- No ranting. You might be a great fan of Karl Marx, but if there’s a question on Capitalism, do not rant or rail against it You must present both the positives and negatives of Capitalism and end the essay on a balanced note.
- Do not dedicate disproportionate amount of time for the first essay and scamper through the second. Both carry equal marks, so please invest equal time.
How to transition smoothly from one para to the next
This can be done in three ways.
Through a link sentence at the end of a para:
Here, at the end of a para, you write a sentence that signals to the examiner what’s coming next. For example, let’s say you have just written a para about the threat posed by Artificial Intelligence (AI) to jobs. At the end of that para you can write a link sentence— “Further, we must be mindful of the fact that Artificial Intelligence poses a major challenge not just economically, but also ethically.” And in the next para, you can write about the ethical issues concerning AI.
Through a question:
Instead of a link sentence, you can also add a question at the end of a para so that examiner’s attention is helplessly carried to the next. To take the similar example as above, the question can be something like— “Thus we have examined the threat posed by AI to our economy, but what about the challenges brought by AI to our ethics and morals?” And in the next para, you can write about the ethical issues concerning AI.
Signalling the shift at the start of next paragraph:
Here you can simply add a word or two at the beginning of a para that signals a shift in your subtopic. For example in an essay on Globalisation, let’s say you have just written a para about its historical evolution and impact. You can start the next para with something like— “Politically too, globalisation has had a tremendous impact……” This way examiner immediately knows what to expect.
These steps will ensure that the transition between paragraphs is not abrupt.
How to write a good Introduction to your Essay?
Essay introduction can be:
a fictitious incident or story (where you introduce a character);
a real life anecdote;
a quote; or
a simple definition of the words in the question (not recommended in Essay)
In GS, definitional approach is a great way to introduce your answers. But in essay, they are rather stale, lacking in any human element. I always believe that a good way to start your essay is to have that touch of humanity and warmth in your introduction.
In my Mains exam, this was my introduction to the essay ‘Destiny of a nation is shaped in its classroom’
“The year was 1945. Towards the end of a gruesome world war, the world powers decided to carve up the Korean peninsula along the 38th parallel.
“Before partition, North and South Korea might have been homogeneous in every respect, but after the division, they steered onto different paths. While schools in the North chose to ‘educate’ their children in the worship of a cult leader, ideological indoctrination and servility, its southern counterpart focused on liberal education, innovation and economic growth.
“Today, almost seven decades later, the difference in the fates of these people and the trajectories of both these nations cannot be more stark. One is known for gross violation of human rights, while the other a champion of liberal democracy. One is known for gut-wrenching poverty, while the other unbridled prosperity.
“This only proves the age old adage that the destiny of a nation is indeed shaped in its classrooms.”
Similarly, for the Social Media essay, my introduction sought to bring to the fore the paradox of Social Media. I wrote on how social media was leveraged to crowdsource help and rescue during Chennai floods in 2015. At the same time, I mentioned how it was used nefariously in 2012 to cause mass exodus of northeast people from Bangalore. And taking cue from this introduction, in the main body, I discussed about the inherent selfishness and altruism associated with social media.
These real life stories, anecdotes and incidents are everywhere in our books and newspapers. So when you come across them, note down and ponder as to how you can use them in your essay.
Developing the Main Content from the Topic
This is like spinning the web from a thread. Depending on the topic, you can choose among the following options that fits best.
- Temporal: Past, present and future
- Sectoral: Media, Science & Tech, Business, Sports, Religion, Politics, Administration etc
- Walks of Life: Individual, Family, Professional workplace, Society, Community, National, Global
- Problem & Solution: Concept (historical evolution+status), benefits, problems, solutions
- Standard: Social, Political, Economical, Administrative, International, Environmental, Historical, Scientific, Security/Defence, Legal
Example: for a topic like “Has Globalisation delivered on its promise?” I find the problem & solution method an apt way to develop your narrative. So choose as per the question.
Substantiating your arguments
In the main body of the essay, each para must have an argument or an idea and a reasoning to back that argument. You can substantiate it through a real life example, a statistic, an authentic committee or organisational report etc.
For example, if you are arguing that Capital punishment is an expensive form of justice, you should be able to given an example or a statistic or Law Commission’s opinion as to how the subjects of death penalty are overwhelmingly from poor communities.
Statistics, examples, expert opinions and constitutional provisions are crucial and they make your arguments authoritative.
Concluding an Essay
Conclusion needs to be on a futuristic, optimistic note. You need to summarise the complete essay in 3-4 sentences, after which you can write your vision for future.
You can source some useful terms from the speeches of PM Modi. Phrases like Sabka saath sabka vikas, Reform-Perform-Transform, Building A New India etc can come handy. Rhetoric, lofty expressions, constitutional ideals, sanskrit slokas and quotes are a good way to conclude your essay.
But suppose in your introduction, if you had written about a fictitious character, then it’s always advisable to end your write-up with a reference to that character. It gives a sense of completeness to the essay.
Readers should keep in mind that these notes are written rather haphazardly (I mean who makes notes thinking that in future, they might have to upload them publicly :D)
They are fragmented in certain pages, so you may not be able to comprehend them completely, but nevertheless I hope you take home something useful.
Link to handwritten notes:
List of Topics one needs to prepare: