How to score high marks when your work is reviewed. Tips from a reviewer.

Surgeons at work on a teenager rebuilding his face in an 8-hour operation. The teenage boy had previously spent two years as a hermit avoiding human contact after a flesh eating virus had burrowed through the middle section of his face.

We came across the story when we recceing one of Ghana’s advanced hospitals in its capital, Accra. A team of international surgeons had flown into the country and we swiftly negotiated access to the operation.

But what else would be required of the story for its TV audience? How would channel bosses view the doc before its potential transmission? What direction inspired us, and in consultation with others, would lead reviewers to give the story the thumbs up?

Myself as director and producer working with a production crew of four swiftly draw up a plan and start asking ourselves questions.

January tends to be a busy month. This time of the year I’m reviewing submissions from the Royal Television Society (the EMMYs of UK TV Journalism) as a juror. It’s where the best of television journalism is being judged. It’s also the time when I’m assessing academic essays; some of which occur as an external examiner.

If you’re new to academia the idea of producing an essay can seem a little daunting. How do I know what I’m doing is right? How do I avoid obvious mistakes and how do I zing my essay to get the top marks?

There are some basics which we all share; me as filmmaker, Royal Television Submitters and MAs and they are foundational: follow the rules, guidelines or feedback given.

Hence, read back through literature and guidelines and make sure you stay true to the provided instructions. So a 27-minute programme for me has to be 27 minutes. A 1500 words essay means 1500 or near to.

Remarkably, not everyone abides by this. In broadcasting it’s the equivalent of having your programme spiked, or returned to you because it’s over the limit.

So here’s my check list on assessing essays.

The Approach

First thing I do when I pick up a piece of work is read the title to make sure it’s one of the approved titles provided and then I swiftly scour the document, before a deep read. The layout will show if the submitter has taken care to use sub headers or equivalent to make the document easily accessible.

Remember, when I was making my film, it wasn’t about what I wanted, but how the viewer would respond. So layout, and line spacing of 1.5 or 2.00 shows consideration for the reader.

Ideally essays follow a patterned layout. Usually and broadly:

  • an Introduction,
  • the Body of the text
  • and Conclusion
  • followed by Bibliography.

Each performs its own function, along the lines of “tell the reader what you’re going to say” (the Introduction) “tell them what you’re saying” (the Body) and “tell the reader what key points you made” (conclusion).

I then scan through the introduction that informs me what the essay is about and what it’s not and where possible starts with a strong hook. That hook gives the essay purpose and might refer to something important that’s contemporaneous. The introduction involves framing. I’ll come back to this in a moment.

Then I flit to the bibliography, because here I’m easily informed about the depth and level of work that’s gone into the essay. A generalisation for 1500 words is a minimum of 10 references. That’s about a reference every one to three paragraphs. Note I said minimum because when reading the text, the number and quality of references will become obvious. I’ve seen text hover between 10–15 generally. But it’s not just about the number but how the references are used in a critical, analytical fashion.

The bibliography should show a good range of relevant sources from journals, video, radio, newspapers, class lectures, and book chapters spread across a period. This is about the diligence of the author and their research. Please ensure the bibliography follows the recommended citation procedures e.g. Harvard.

The point with references is they support something you’re trying to make. That point may be contained in a paragraph, or across two. That’s where you make the judgement of using an adequate number of references. Some references too are cannons. For instance if you were writing about 17th century playwrights who influenced modern theatre, then the absence of a certain Mr Shakespeare doesn’t bode well. If you’re writing about foreign correspondence and Prof Richard Sambrook is absent from your bibliography, I’d be concerned.

Back to “framing”. It sounds like an alien concept if you’re going to write about climate change, because doh! it’s pretty obvious in the text. But, climate change is a huge subject and without framing, you’re setting up expectations for the reader which may not align with yours. It’s all about the reader again.

So saying it’s about climate change, but you’re going to focus say on flooding, particularly in the UK in the last two years, guides the reader. Of course give a reason why flooding in the UK in the last two years is your focus so there’s a logic to your choice.

If it’s the first time you’re writing an essay, framing seems inbuilt. When you’re having a conversation with a friend about you going to the cinema, your friend takes cues from you on which cinema and what film you’re likely to go to. Hence you don’t have to stress these points. But what if you were talking to a complete stranger. That’s the point with the reader. They don’t know you, so need guidance.

Framing in the introduction allows you to map out what you’re going to say in so many points.

The simplest way to assess whether you’ve framed something adequately is to send it around to acquaintances and take their feedback seriously. “What do you mean you don’t understand?” is the wrong thing to say when the feedback comes back. “How do I make it clearer?” is the right tone.

Inside the operation (my body text)

The body of the text is the main argument of the essay. For my film it’s literally the body of the surgery.

What’s the points you’re seeking to make and how do you support them? How do you support them too when there may well be a counter argument. Being a good researcher/ journalist means you’ve read and considered different sides to the argument you’re making. And that’s usually reflected in your essay.

In planning you might choose to take a finite number of points that you’re going to layout for your argument.

Is technology good for journalism? You could argue it has been, giving examples, but you wouldn’t be able to ignore the copious articles that show how technology e.g. Facebook and Social Media has kicked journalism in the teeth. You can’t ignore the elephants in the room, when trying to construct a persuasive and coherent argument.

The major area that trips up beginners is often the lack of attribution, and a voice that comes across as an expert rather than a researcher/ journalist pulling the views of other sources together.

The trick when you’re writing in every para is to ask the question, “How do I know this?” Knowledge is derivative and has a source. Experts build on this knowledge from first citing others, to at some point using themselves as the source. That’s when they used the reference, “I”. Assume you’re not quite the expert quite yet, so statements like Alex Crawford says, or according to Clive Myrie are standard ways of writing.

Accordingly, if you’re making any conjectures, propositions, or thoughts of your own it pays if the previous or following sentences are supportive of this. This is what is meant by evidence-based.

If the introduction is between 200–300, then the body is 900–1100 and the conclusion 200–300 you’re on the right path. The bibliography is not part of the word count.

End of the Operation.

So what did you just say, and how might you summarise it? That’s the conclusion. But the essay is not quite over yet.

It can generally take 5hrs to 3 days to complete a 1500 word essay. But that’s your first draft. Typically an essay goes through a number of rewrites to proof read, but also test areas where your argument might be weak and needs enhancing. This is where study groups come in. If you’re in a 4–8 person plus study group circulate your work, or even outside your group for critique.

Use track changes if you can. There’s a question I often ask myself after every project. Whom might it be compared to and if so how is mine different, or otherwise adds something? Thank goodness for google, because pre-indexing before 2000 there were many days spent in the library.

At the heart of every essay is the question for a reviewer. Has the writer or filmmaker demonstrated engagement, via the quality and depth of their research and how they’ve laid out their argument. That’s the litmus test.

And then there’s nothing better than reading a good piece of work, and having to feedback about it too.

Dr Gyimah is a senior lecturer and one of the top writers on @Medium behind viewmagazine.tv and videojournalism.co.uk

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