How to get top marks on your essays

I’m just past the half-way point of writing the draft for the 6th edition of this text and included some interesting information this morning about the dilemma in cross-cultural teams between disagreement and groupthink. I mentioned the French essay-writing method in passing and stopped to double-check my facts. What I was finding was so interesting, I kept digging and found what seems to be a great way to write essays, answer questions in class and even to learn about a topic.  So here we go:

Here is the format for writing an essay: Thesis – Antithesis – Synthesis. This approach is so much part of the culture that it’s also used in business: Present the idea (thesis) – Present any possible objections to it (antithesis) – Sum up your conclusions (synthesis).

The basic idea is to hold your own opinion until after you have stated and explained both sides, one for and one against. It’s powerful because it shows you’ve done your homework and you know what you’re talking about. That makes it great for grades and great for learning and understanding.

Step 1: State the problem. State the essay topic or problem in one sentence in one of three ways: 1) pose a question which you will address (e.g. Have managers passed their use-by date?); 2) implied (e.g. Management’s use-by date is nigh); 3) the main theme (e.g. Management’s use-by date).  One source suggests when you’re given a general topic to write about, you turn it into a problem and write that as your problem statement.

It is around this statement that you build your essay. Before moving on to Step 2, pause and organise your paper. Write an outline showing where to put the examples you’ve dug up in your research, organising them into the three groups, (thesis, antithesis, synthesis–explained below), each with sub-groups.

Step 2: Present the thesis. This is the argument. It is usually supported by three examples and sub-examples, generally structured from the simplest and least important to the most complex and most important, each contributing logically to building a coherent argument contained in the thesis.

Step 3: Present the antithesis. This is the opposing argument, again supported with examples and sub-examples, following the same structure as Step 2.

Step 4: Present the synthesis. This is a new idea that combines the thesis and antithesis. You can think of it as the middle ground, or an attempt to reconcile the thesis and antithesis.

Step 5: Write your introduction and conclusion. Your introduction provides the problem statement from Step 1, and explains the topic and how the essay is structured (e.g. ‘In the first section, I examine … In the second section, I consider … In the third section, I conclude with …).

In the conclusion, you finally get to give your opinion–but only after offering a summary of what you’ve already said (keep it brief), making a case for the most powerful argument. This summary should give rise to your opinion. If you’ve stated the problem as a question, answer it.

If you want to get fancy, you can now point to another question or area of research. Remember to include a bibliography, or list of sources you’ve consulted.

Your essay can be as short as five paragraphs or as long as a book. One source I consulted says that he began answering questions in class and writing essays this way while studying in Belgium and Switzerland. He continued with the format when he went back to the US, and his professors were totally impressed with the comprehensiveness of his answers, essays and understanding of the subject–and his marks reflected it. When he began teaching himself, he taught his students this format with ‘spectacular’ results. Their essays and grades improved and using the format in other classes gave them an advantage over the other students in terms of marks, too.

I plan to have a go at the thesis-antithesis-thesis format myself for the next few blogs;  if I like it, I’ll probably stick with it. So stay tuned and see what you think!

Discussion questions

How do you think this thesis-antithesis-synthesis format would work for you? Do you think the discipline of writing this way would enhance your learning?