Writing an RE essay, How to get it right…..


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1. Know the topic really well and have access to accurate and specific facts, names, quotations, terminology and so on, ideally from memory. To get you started there are handy quotes by most of the main subjects in the Student Zone, which also offers recommended Tablet articles and other websites and books for further reading.

2. Spend time planning your answer, preferably on paper.

• Consider carefully how your essay will begin – the opening paragraph sets the tone for your essay and first impressions count with examiners – how each of your middle paragraphs contribute to your answering the question and how your conclusion will argue your answer clearly, succinctly and effectively.

• Each paragraph needs to be a unit of argument, it should contain a Point, some Evidence and should then be related back to the Argument (PEA). Take, for example, this paragraph from an essay entitled “Can any version of the teleological argument be convincing after Auschwitz?”

William Paley put forward the most famous version of the teleological argument in his book Natural theology (1802) [which was required reading for all undergraduates at Cambridge University for over a century]. An argument from analogy, it asked the reader to accept that there are similarities between a watch and the universe. [POINT]

A watch has signs of order and purpose, its cogs and wheels fit together in a complex but predictable way which together serve to turn the hands of the watch and so to tell the time. For Paley the universe also has complex processes which work together in order to support life. As he put it: “Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design which existed in the watch exists also in the works of nature.” [EVIDENCE]

The argument stands or falls by the analogy. If it is held to be invalid then the a posteriori conclusion, that the universe must have a designer to explain evidence of order and purpose and this is what everybody calls God, does not stand up. Is the universe ordered and purposeful like a watch? The existence of gratuitous evil and suffering, that which cannot be explained as giving us an opportunity to learn or to better appreciate the good, suggests that the universe is at least ill-designed and, as Hume put it, that any designer might be suspected of being senile or working as part of a committee. [ARGUMENT]

• The conclusion should refer back to the argument made through the body of the essay and then explain your view, stating the reasons you have for holding it, the evidence that you have found convincing and how your would respond to those with different views who might criticise you. For example, the conclusion from the same essay:

It is clear that traditional teleological arguments such as that put forward by Paley are shown to be simplistic, even crass, by the experience of the twentieth century. Nevertheless there are more subtle teleological arguments which modern believers find compelling despite a universe which seems mysterious, even malign in parts. The aesthetic argument put forward by Tennant speaks to people even in the depths of suffering – prisoners speak of the beauty of jasmine flowers and keep faith despite the logical challenge of defending God against charges of being responsible for the lime-pits. No teleological argument can conclusively rebut those like Mackie who ask why it had to be this way, why a perfect God could not have created another world better than this one. Yet proponents of ‘intelligent design’ today do not look to win such academic arguments. Most scholars who are engaged in the business of developing teleological arguments come from a position of pre-existing non-propositional faith, they are reformed epistemologists seeking only to show that believing is not irrational. In answer to the question it seems that teleological arguments may not be exactly convincing – but they can at least offer support to faith after Auschwitz.

3. Your work should refer to a variety of different sources (never just one textbook or website) and must specifically attribute these through footnotes and bibliography. Be very careful about this as teachers and exam boards are rightly sensitive about any copying (plagiarism) and have now got sophisticated digital tools to check whether your work is original. Any sentence which matches another sentence in a book, article, website or previously submitted coursework essay and so on without attribution will be flagged up by the computer and could mean you getting disqualified from sitting public exams. Handwritten exam-scripts and coursework essays are now routinely scanned into computers before being marked.

4. Take care with spelling, punctuation and grammar. If you must use abbreviations, write them out in full the first time (e.g. Santity of Life (henceforth SOL)). The use of fluent written English is a key skill in RS and you will lose marks either directly or indirectly for sloppy communication.

5. If this is a piece of coursework or a weekly assignment try to draft and re-draft your work. Using a computer helps. Often by re-reading an essay it becomes obvious where the balance of the argument is wrong, which paragraph is irrelevant or where more detail is needed. Practice makes perfect – having written a few good essays by drafting and redrafting eventually helps you to plan and write good essays under exam conditions.

6. Try to get used to assessing your own work. Get hold of a copy of the mark-scheme your teacher or the examiner will use and then apply it to a piece of your own work. Be honest – what are your strengths and weaknesses? How could you improve your work? You might know that better than your teacher! You might also try marking a friend’s work and getting them to mark yours – this gives you access to more regular feedback than would otherwise be possible.

7. For exams, preparation is everything. You must make time to learn facts, vocabulary, scholars and quotations if you want to get the top marks. Use flash-cards or even record notes onto your iPod. Practise past exam questions under timed conditions and get used to planning your response to unseen questions in a couple of minutes. If time is short get a friend to set you three essay questions and give yourself 15 minutes to brainstorm an essay plan for each onto scrap paper. It is this process of selecting and organising information appropriately when under pressure that is most difficult to acquire.

8. Be ruthless, reflect on your own performance and set yourself some very specific targets. Don’t just say “I must do well in this exam” say “I must make sure to read all the questions thoroughly before starting to write” or “I must not include irrelevant information in my answers”. Tell somebody what your targets are or write them down and then, straight after the exam, at least you can celebrate meeting your targets.

9. Remember that your examiner (or teacher) is human. Nobody likes to be presented with indecipherable handwriting and nobody is really psychic. Be clear about what you mean and you will get credit – don’t assume that examiners will have the time or patience to work out what you were probably referring to and give you the benefit of the doubt. If you have time, underline key terminology so that it is obvious that you have used it and that you have planned your work carefully.

10. Sometimes writing frames or guides can help when you are nervous. A good way of making sure you produced a balanced answer was to use the guide FACY – argument For, argument Against, a Christian point of view, Your view. Your teacher probably has lots of these tips relevant to the board and exam you are sitting. Remember the key word in RS is because. Never be satisfied with saying, “X thinks” or “I think”; explain why.