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Point of View/Yoshiaki Shinoda/ESSAY CONTEST: Logic is elementary for clear communication
09/04/2008Special to The Asahi Shimbun
The acceleration of globalization makes it increasingly important for those in business, government and academia to have a good command of written and spoken English. In short, the ability to communicate in a logical and convincing manner is becoming an indispensable tool to survive and prosper.
The reality in Japan is that students and professionals spend a great deal of time studying English, but unfortunately the results for the most part are still poor. As an expert on scientific and technical writing in English, I think it is imperative that universities and colleges put more emphasis on writing.
The primary purpose of the annual English language essay writing contest sponsored by the International Herald Tribune/ The Asahi Shimbun is to encourage students to develop their English writing abilities.
The idea cannot be more timely because the importance of being able to impart information is rapidly growing due to globalization. This makes it imperative for people involved in business or academia to be able to write well in English.
This year was the third time the competition has been held, and I again had the honor of serving as chief judge. Nearly 500 essays were submitted by students from not only Japanese but also foreign universities and colleges. They chose one of three subjects:
How Japanese society should change;
My thoughts on environmental issues; and
How I use the English-language media.
The essays on the first and second subjects fall under the problem/solution pattern, while those on the third subject under the analytical pattern.
We evaluated the essays with three key factors in mind: the writer's originality; command of written English; and structure.
Overall, almost all of the essays showed great originality. They were unique and convincing. This was probably because of the nature of the subjects. Those who chose the first subject, "How Japan should change," wrote about their dreams, whereas students who tackled environmental problems offered various proposals and suggestions to deal with such pressing issues as global warming and recycling.
Students who chose the role of the English-language media were naturally very positive about learning and expanding their frames of reference by using English as a communication tool.
Most of the essays also satisfied the judges regarding their command of written English.
However, many of them had major organizational problems with the third key factor of structure.
Writers must follow certain basic rules if their pieces are to be precise, easy to understand and convincing. They must consider three key principles: unity, organization and coherence.
The principle of unity refers to the need for the writer to make sure that every topic and subtopic in each paragraph is related to the common theme.
The principle of organization refers to the presentation of details in a logical sequence. The universally recognized sequence is summary (or introduction), text (or body) and conclusion.
In the introduction, writers must state a clear purpose. This purpose statement provides the organizational context necessary for the reader to understand the summary of important information that follows.
The second paragraph, or the information immediately following the purpose statement, should summarize the main points in the essay.
Then, as the paragraphs proceed in the "body", each point should be explained logically and supported by details selected from data. That is to say, each paragraph should start with a general statement followed by particulars that explain or justify it.
Finally, the conclusion is used to restate the purpose of the introduction and sometimes to state future action the writer proposes should be taken.
The principle of coherence means tying together the various ideas and topics to make the essay's points clear and vivid. Each idea should be related to the next, and unconnected topics should be omitted.
As I stated earlier, many of the essays had major structural weakness because students have not mastered these writing principles. The writers come from universities and colleges where true/false and multiple-choice tests have become the norm. This is not helping them develop the skills needed to speak and write logically and effectively in English.
In this sense, the English essay writing contest sponsored by IHT/Asahi is well-timed and serves an extremely useful purpose.
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The author is professor emeritus of Business and Technical Communication in English at Waseda University. He was chief judge of the English essay contest sponsored by the International Herald Tribune/ The Asahi Shimbun.(IHT/Asahi: September 4,2008)
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