Essays in Different Academic Cultures

  • Notes for Japanese-speaking learners of English

    In English, it is important to write an essay logically and clearly. To do so, you must remember to:

    • State clearly your argument (主張をはっきり書く)
    • Support your argument by clearly stating your reasons ‘why’ (主張の根拠を述べる)
    • Avoid vague expressions (あいまいな表現を避ける)

    For example, in Japanese essay writing, even when expressing your argument, you might end your sentences with ~ではないだろうか/~でよいのだろうか which are similar to saying I wonder/I guess in English. If you do this, you are asking your readers to judge for themselves whether your argument holds true or not. Similarly,  if you use ~ではないかと思う/~と思われる which is similar to saying I think that~/It is thought that~,  in your English essay, even if you are confident in your argument, your argument cannot be seen as an argument, but just a thought. So, you should avoid these vague expressions when putting forward your argument.

  • Essay writing in French

    There are several key differences between writing an essay in English and writing an essay in French.  Often, lower marks are given to French students if they express their opinion in the Introduction of their essay, because the French convention is to leave opinions for the concluding sentence(s) of the whole essay.  So, in many ways, the structure and organisation rather than the content and style are the most important aspects of a French essay.

    In universities across France, students are often evaluated on their ability to write 1500-word dissertations, or what in English we might call the ‘argument driven essay’.  These dissertations can be thematic (in which a given subject is analysed, such as “The Films of Audrey Tautou”); interrogative (in which a question is posed, and an argument developed, such as “What is Audrey Tautou’s best performance?”); or implicit (in which the student links two or more themes to each another, such as “Love and Sadness in the Films of Audrey Tautou”).  Having received the subject of the essay – in the above case, Audrey Tautou, her films, and the themes in those films – the student then needs to do something quite different to what we do in English essays.

    To start the essay in French, students are told to find the ‘problem’, or what the French call the problématique.  This is a bit like the research question, the thesis statement, or the research topic, and will often involve a series of complicated, interlinked questions. Indeed, French students are often reminded of the great French ethnologist and anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who stated that “Le savant n’est pas celui qui donne les bonnes réponses mais celui qui pose les bonnes questions” (“the scholar is not he who gives the right answers, but he who asks the right questions”).  In other words French essays do not ask you to argue for one point of view over another; instead, the essay should elucidate and provide concrete examples of the various aspects of the problématique.  This is not easy, and takes a lot of practice, but it is something all French students are expected to do, and to do well – argumentation, rhetoric, dialectical logic.  Once the problématique has been identified, the rest of the essay will flow logically from this.  Jacob W. Getzels and Mihaly Csikszentmilhalyi, in The Creative Vision, define this approach: “the critical ability which distinguished successful artists was not technical skill, but what the authors called problem-finding — the ability to envision, pose, formulate, or create a new problematic situation.”
    On finding the problématique, the argument and the structure then develop. Usually, the dissertation will have three distinct parts, each consisting of one paragraph only, so that the final essay will contain five paragraphs (if we also add the introduction and conclusion).  Each paragraph is then subdivided, often into three parts, so as to introduce one major argument plus shorter examples.  In this way, the three main paragraphs will present an argument (“Audrey Tautou’s films are some of the best in French cinema”), a counter-argument (“Audrey Tautou’s films are some of the worst examples of French cinema”), and a synthesis (“Audrey Tautou’s films – whether good or bad – reveal a great deal about contemporary French cinema”). 

    Each paragraph will be of equal length (students are often penalised if there are word-count imbalances in their overall structure) and will contain a series of mots charnières (linking words) to help the writer sum up the last paragraph and introduce the following one, and provide an easy, comprehensible road-map to the reader so that they know which part of the problématique is now being discussed.  For example, in French, common words and phrases that introduce an opposite or opposing idea include mais (but), cependant (nevertheless), toutefois (however), pourtant (yet), and au contraire (on the contrary).

    Once the three main paragraphs have been completed, students will then go back to retrofit the Introduction and the Conclusion.  As we have seen, the introduction will outline the problématique but must not contain opinions which are personal to the reader.  An overview of the structure of the essay will also happen here, such as “In our opening part of this essay, we will look closely at…” and so on.  It is only in the conclusion that students may finally offer up their opinion, by relating that opinion to the series of arguments put forward in the preceding four main paragraphs.

    So, to sum up, French essays:

    • pose the problem (la problématique) in the introduction so that it is immediately clear, to someone who has not seen the question, what the topic for discussion actually is.
    • do not answer the question or give opinions in the introduction—that is left for the conclusion!
    • do not, under any circumstances, introduce extraneous information:  students may assume that the reader knows who the author/director is, when he/she lived, when the book was written/the film made, who the characters are and what the story is, etc.

Jacob W. Getzels and Mihaly Csikszentmilhalyi, The Creative Vision: A Longitudinal Study of Problem Finding in Art (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1976)… (accessed 15 August 2014)