The UPSC-CSE Mains season has begun. The Essay Paper is one of the nine papers in the UPSC civil services mains exam. Shabbir A. Bashir, an expert on UPSC Essays, has been mentoring and guiding UPSC aspirants for more than twenty years. He answers some very relevant questions regarding Essay writing which aspirants will find highly valuable.
What are the essential points to keep in mind while attempting an Essay for UPSC-CSE?
Essays have different purposes in different examinations. UPSC essays are not language proficiency comprehensions, just a tool of creativity, or mere work of art. An essay is not about filling pages. The CSE Essay is a representation of oneself that is going to be evaluated by one of the most esteemed institutions of the nation- UPSC. It is one of the most important papers which helps UPSC to select the best candidates to lead the nation as civil servants. UPSC essay tests analytical skills with a deeper understanding not superficial ones. UPSC wants insightful and thoughtful essays. Do not leave preparation for Essays to the last moment.
Writing good UPSC-specific essays take time. Such essays have to be rich in terms of references. As the essay topics of UPSC are becoming more abstract students are facing a lot of problems to understand the topic. The reason is shallow reading skills.
Thanks for pointing out that topics are becoming more abstract or philosophical. What are the challenges you see with such topics?
There are certain problems that the students face with abstract topics. Firstly, they face a problem in understanding and interpreting the topic. Secondly, proper planning of the essay is missing. They must understand that an essay should have a sense of flow, organized ideas and logical links. Also, students usually follow some technique called the PESTLE technique. It is not a bad tool but does not always make sense in an abstract essay. Don’t go by any formula. The depth of your points matters not the number of your points. Essay scripts with abstract topics sometimes fail to be meaningful writeups. The major reason is that the reading width and ability of aspirants are not up to the mark. The outcome is that such essays lack expression skills and the ability of narration. The bare minimum that aspirants can do to come over such challenges is to read newspaper articles and editorials.
Since you have mentioned newspapers, how relevant do you think are newspapers for essay preparation?
Newspapers are the best source for Essay preparation. Look at an editorial or an article in the newspaper as an essay. Candidates must learn from those articles how to write an introduction, body, and conclusion. Identify authors and columnists who are subject experts.
From The Indian Express, students can follow articles of notable writers like Udit Misra who writes on the economy, Harish Damodaran who writes on agriculture, Amitabh Sinha who writes on the environment, and C. Raja Mohan who contributes to international relations, etc. Newspapers help in developing analytical skills and writing styles.
What should be the supporting tools which aspirants should use in their Essays?
Essays of UPSC are not purist Essays. They are more like reports. Such an essay must have mostly paragraphs embellished with points, one or two flow charts, and a good graph or a table. However, do not use many pictorial tools. I can suggest one important tool in an essay- subheadings. Subheadings make the essay look structured, and organized and it stands out.
What is your advice regarding quotes and anecdotes used in Essays?
My advice to aspirants is to not force irrelevant quotes and anecdotes. You must know some good quotes. But you will not get high scores on the basis of the number of quotes you have written in the essay. Also, a quote is not always a proverb. A quote should be meaningful and should enrich your essay. One has to ‘mine’ good quotes from books or novels, articles or editorials from newspapers, or from some reports or surveys like the Economic Survey. Remember, a quote or anecdote is written to give some credibility to your arguments.
What are the absolute don’ts that the aspirants must keep in mind while attempting an essay?
Essay writing has no rules as such. Essays, in general, are a script of the free flow of ideas and thoughts. But since UPSC-CSE is a part of a test that selects civil servants, there are certain aspects that should be avoided by the aspirants-
1) Do not see an Essay as an ‘innocent creativity’ tool. Essays encourage creativity but aspirants must be careful about certain things like not challenging or writing against constitutional values, ethical issues, environmental sustainability, women’s rights, freedom fighters, etc.
2)Do not show frustration, anger, or biases in your essays. There are certain lines that you shouldn’t cross as future civil servants.
Other than these two points, I will like to mention a point on ‘balanced essays’. Firstly, one must understand what is a ‘balanced essay’. A balanced essay is one that is unbiased and critically objective. There is no compulsion to unnecessarily balance the essay with an equal number of pros and cons points. One’s essay should portray a balance of mind not a balance of points. Secondly, one must not force generic solutions just for the sake of giving some. Writing that ‘not cutting trees is a solution to deforestation’ is a very generic solution not expected from bright minds. Solutions should have dimensions, like legislative, governance, administrative, ethical, etc. They should be backed by authentic, relevant and credible sources. Take the help of case studies, white papers of organizations, surveys, and reports, UN resolutions, etc.
As a beginner in the journey of UPSC-CSE, what should a candidate keep in mind for essay writing?
There are five important points to answer this question for beginners-
1. Reading should go beyond GS and Essay guides. As mentioned earlier utilize newspaper articles and develop a habit of reading good sources.
2. Develop the habit of thinking and reflecting on your ideas. It takes time. So, keep patience. I tell my students that an Essay is like a relationship- you have to invest, nurture and develop.
3. Start writing practice. The best way to write on an abstract topic is to review something, like reviewing a book.
4. Keep trying to improve your language and style. Regular newspaper reading will help you.
5. Do not wait for the last moment ( which is after the prelims) to start preparing for Essays. Start early.
Exclusive takeaways from Shabbir Ahmed’s interview
1. I tell my students that an essay is like a relationship- you have to invest, nurture and develop.
2. Look at an editorial or an article in the newspaper as an Essay.
3. One’s essay should portray a balance of mind not a balance of points.
4. Do not wait for the last moment ( which is after the prelims) to start preparing for Essays. Start early.
Shabbir Ahmed’s message for UPSC Aspirants:
Firstly, be honest and sincere about your ambition. Secondly, know your competencies and skills to be developed for this exam. Thirdly, a maniacal focus is needed. UPSC-CSE is not a regular career to flirt with.
Shabbir Ahmed’s special message for students who do not clear this exam:
Firstly, accept and move on. Not everyone is supposed to qualify. Secondly, stop playing the victim card. The world has no obligation to sympathize with your failure. Thirdly, the world outside UPSC needs people who are team players, risk-takers, innovative, confident and passionate. Enter a new world with a balanced IQ and EQ.
Shabbir Ahmad’s source of motivation:
It has evolved with time- from survival at the beginning of his career to delivering excellence with time. He believes that a teacher lives his dreams through his students. Teaching is a kind of parenting. He feels a real sense of satisfaction when he helps his student on the path to success. Now, he wants to strive for larger goals contributing to the education process, teacher’s training etc.
Shabbir Ahmed’s favourite past times: Travelling, driving and reading
Shabbir Ahmed recommends: The Reader ( he likes the movie for the sensitivity involved in it), Oscar-winning and nominated movies and The Lunchbox.