Writing a good Essay in UPSC Mains, Explained

By | June 8, 2018

Novelist Stephen King put it beautifully when he said, “I write to find out what I think.”

Writing is a window to your thought process. What you write on paper will tell the reader how you think, how you argue and the way you substantiate your viewpoint. This is why for most competitive examinations and academic entrance tests, essay is mandatory.

In the Civil Services Exam too, we have a paper worth 250 marks, equivalent to a General Studies paper. Despite its importance, essay paper often does not get the attention it deserves from aspirants. First timers think they will write an excellent essay in the final exam itself, whereas experienced aspirants believe that since they had already studied a ton for GS, it will alone be enough to write a good essay. This is a fatal miscalculation.

I was one of those who made these errors in the past, and it is not a coincidence that I scored only 100 in CSE 2015. But in 2017, I devoted adequate time to this paper. I collected useful quotes, prepared notes and even made rough essay drafts for frequently asked topics. All this effort in essay paper helped me score 155.

What follows is an elaborate post on how you should tackle the Essay paper. I’ve organised the content as follows:

  1. What UPSC says about the essay paper
  2. How and from where to prepare?
  3. Improving language and expression
  4. On subheadings and rough drafts
  5. What you must avoid
  6. How to write a powerful introduction?
  7. Developing the content of an Essay
  8. Substantiating your arguments
  9. How to conclude an Essay
  10. My notes, quote collection and sample essays

What UPSC says about the essay paper

“Candidates may be required to write essays on multiple topics. They will be expected to keep closely to the subject of the essay, to arrange their ideas in an orderly fashion, and to write concisely. Credit will be given for effective and exact expression.”

Essay distinguishes itself from GS in the sense that in GS, marks will be awarded purely for content. But in essay, examiners will pay special attention to not just the content, but also the language, coherence and the way you organise your write-up.
So you must take adequate care to arrange your ideas properly and not commit any fundamental spelling or grammatical errors.

How and from where to prepare?
Most of the content you write in Essay will come from your GS preparation. Apart from this, the following sources will help:

  • Reading non-fiction helps you develop a matured thought process. Apart from imparting knowledge, they will also let you come across good figures of speech, art of argumentation, powerful rhetoric and unique content etc. For example, in an essay on Artificial Intelligence, I took arguments from Yuval Harari’s Homo Deus to argue that AI is an imminent threat to humanity. Or if you read Why Nations Fail, a book replete with examples, you will understand the importance of innovation, political and economic freedoms in propelling a nation forward. So my suggestion is, apart from UPSC related material, develop the hobby of reading non-fiction books. I do not mean to suggest that you should start reading one non-fiction book per topic to get good scores in Essay, but reading them occasionally in your free time will benefit you in the long run.
  • Referring to specific magazines: For certain topics, you can refer to specific issues of Yojana/EPW/Economic Survey etc. Example: for an essay on tribal issues or public health, you can go through specific issues of these magazines for getting the latest statistics (IMR, MMR, malnutrition levels etc) and also about the positives and criticisms of govt schemes in that sector.
  • Collecting good stories/anecdotes and quotes: Anecdotes, quotes and real life stories you see in newspapers and books which can be used in essay should be noted down. In most of my essays, I used to start with a relevant story or an anecdote that has the essay topic as its underlying theme. Apart from these, I also used a couple of quotes of eminent persons.
  • List of quotes, anecdotes I collected are available in the link at the end of this article.

Improving language and expression

Language in essay must be simple and clear with as little jargon as possible. If you want to use complex definitional terms such as, say, ‘Constitutionalism’ or ‘Sanskritisation’ please define it in sentence just before you use it. Examiner will also understand clearly what you want to convey. Clear writing is clear thinking. And that is what any reader looks for.

Keep your sentences short and powerful. Long, winding sentences makes it difficult to read and understand. If you tack on one clause after another through conjunctions, what you get is a bad sentence sprawl.

Example of a bad sentence sprawl:

At the end of World War 2, on the one hand, while capitalism was successfully championed by the nations in North America and Europe, on the other hand, it was USSR that put Communism at the forefront due to which there was an ideological clash between the the two superpowers which had led to proxy wars in various parts of the globe, a nuclear arms race and a rapid deterioration of the security of the world.

By the time readers finish reading it, they will lose their breath and the point of the sentence. So I had a simple rule: If you run out of your breath while reading a sentence, then probably you will have to break it into two.

Rewriting the aforementioned example after breaking it into two (which makes it much easier to read and comprehend):

After World War 2, while the North American and European nations championed capitalism, USSR put communism at the forefront. This ideological clash between the superpowers led to several proxy wars, a nuclear arms race and a rapid deterioration of world security.

Vocabulary

There is no need to memorise complex words for writing a good essay. But an occasional use of a powerful word, or a good phrase definitely gives your write-up an edge.

Also, I believe that learning numerous words by rote will not make them stick in your brain for long. The best way to build your vocabulary is by reading non-fiction and English newspapers. While reading these, if you come across a good turn of phrase, or a word that you don’t recognise, please note it down in a book, find its meaning and understand the context in which the word was used. This helps in long term memory. Having a dictionary app on your phone also helps.

Building vocabulary is a slow process, but with consistency, anyone can become better at using an expansive set of words.

Subheadings & Rough Drafts

We can be a little innovative in our subheadings. Instead of bland subheadings such as ‘Benefits of Nuclear Energy’ we can use “Nuclear Energy: Promise or Peril?’ Similarly, for the essay on Social Media, instead of writing ‘Advantages and Disadvantages of Social Media’, I wrote “Social Media: A Double Edged Sword”

You can find my collection of a few such subheadings in the link to my notes, given at the end of the article.

I also prepared a rough draft for a few essay topics (link given at the end). You may need to modify the structure as per the demand of the question.

What you must avoid in Essay

  • Do not focus excessively only on one point, or one dimension (such as the historical or political aspect) Your essay needs to be expansive and multi-dimensional.
  • During preparation, we read a lot and it’s understandable that we feel strongly about certain topics. And since essay offers freedom to write, it’s very easy to get carried away with such a topic. But make sure that you write what is asked, not what you know or feel like. No mann ki baat. Always stick to the subject of the topic. It helps to read the question in the midst of your essay to ensure that you are not steering away from the topic.
  • If you are not comfortable writing about abstract philosophical topics (I am terrible at writing them), avoid such questions. Your choice of topic has no bearing on the marks and that is why, selecting an unpopular topic just for the sake of it is unwise. Also, if there’s a technical term in the question, be doubly sure that you understand it correctly. For instance, in 2014, there was a question on ‘standard tests’, which is a technical term. I misunderstood it and wrote a generic essay. I got 112.
  • When you take a final stand on an issue, it’s best to avoid extreme or highly unpopular opinions. We are free to have any opinion in the privacy of our minds, but in UPSC essay why take that risk? For instance, in an essay on Capital Punishment, in the main body content, you should present a case for both abolition and retention. But when you take a stance, it’s best to be an abolitionist.
  • No ranting. You might be a great fan of Karl Marx, but if there’s a question on Capitalism, do not rant or rail against it 🙂 You must present both the positives and negatives of Capitalism and end the essay on a balanced note.
  • Do not dedicate disproportionate amount of time for the first essay and scamper through the second. Both carry equal marks, so please invest equal time.

How to transition smoothly from one para to the next

This can be done in three ways.

Through a link sentence at the end of a para:

Here, at the end of a para, you write a sentence that signals to the examiner what’s coming next. For example, let’s say you have just written a para about the threat posed by Artificial Intelligence (AI) to jobs. At the end of that para you can write a link sentence— “Further, we must be mindful of the fact that Artificial Intelligence poses a major challenge not just economically, but also ethically.” And in the next para, you can write about the ethical issues concerning AI.

Through a question:

Instead of a link sentence, you can also add a question at the end of a para so that examiner’s attention is helplessly carried to the next. To take the similar example as above, the question can be something like— “Thus we have examined the threat posed by AI to our economy, but what about the challenges brought by AI to our ethics and morals?” And in the next para, you can write about the ethical issues concerning AI.

Signalling the shift at the start of next paragraph:

Here you can simply add a word or two at the beginning of a para that signals a shift in your subtopic. For example in an essay on Globalisation, let’s say you have just written a para about its historical evolution and impact. You can start the next para with something like— “Politically too, globalisation has had a tremendous impact……” This way examiner immediately knows what to expect.

These steps will ensure that the transition between paragraphs is not abrupt.

How to write a good Introduction to your Essay?

Essay introduction can be:

a fictitious incident or story (where you introduce a character);
a real life anecdote;
a quote; or
a simple definition of the words in the question (not recommended in Essay)

In GS, definitional approach is a great way to introduce your answers. But in essay, they are rather stale, lacking in any human element. I always believe that a good way to start your essay is to have that touch of humanity and warmth in your introduction.

In my Mains exam, this was my introduction to the essay ‘Destiny of a nation is shaped in its classroom’

“The year was 1945. Towards the end of a gruesome world war, the world powers decided to carve up the Korean peninsula along the 38th parallel.

“Before partition, North and South Korea might have been homogeneous in every respect, but after the division, they steered onto different paths. While schools in the North chose to ‘educate’ their children in the worship of a cult leader, ideological indoctrination and servility, its southern counterpart focused on liberal education, innovation and economic growth.

“Today, almost seven decades later, the difference in the fates of these people and the trajectories of both these nations cannot be more stark. One is known for gross violation of human rights, while the other a champion of liberal democracy. One is known for gut-wrenching poverty, while the other unbridled prosperity.

“This only proves the age old adage that the destiny of a nation is indeed shaped in its classrooms.”

Similarly, for the Social Media essay, my introduction sought to bring to the fore the paradox of Social Media. I wrote on how social media was leveraged to crowdsource help and rescue during Chennai floods in 2015. At the same time, I mentioned how it was used nefariously in 2012 to cause mass exodus of northeast people from Bangalore. And taking cue from this introduction, in the main body, I discussed about the inherent selfishness and altruism associated with social media.

These real life stories, anecdotes and incidents are everywhere in our books and newspapers. So when you come across them, note down and ponder as to how you can use them in your essay.

Developing the Main Content from the Topic

This is like spinning the web from a thread. Depending on the topic, you can choose among the following options that fits best.

  • Temporal: Past, present and future
  • Sectoral: Media, Science & Tech, Business, Sports, Religion, Politics, Administration etc
  • Walks of Life: Individual, Family, Professional workplace, Society, Community, National, Global
  • Problem & Solution: Concept (historical evolution+status), benefits, problems, solutions
  • Standard: Social, Political, Economical, Administrative, International, Environmental, Historical, Scientific, Security/Defence, Legal

Example: for a topic like “Has Globalisation delivered on its promise?” I find the problem & solution method an apt way to develop your narrative. So choose as per the question.

Substantiating your arguments

In the main body of the essay, each para must have an argument or an idea and a reasoning to back that argument. You can substantiate it through a real-life example, a statistic, an authentic committee or organisational report etc.

For example, if you are arguing that Capital punishment is an expensive form of justice, you should be able to given an example or a statistic or Law Commission’s opinion as to how the subjects of death penalty are overwhelmingly from poor communities.

Statistics, examples, expert opinions and constitutional provisions are crucial and they make your arguments authoritative.

Concluding an Essay

Conclusion needs to be on a futuristic, optimistic note. You need to summarise the complete essay in 3-4 sentences, after which you can write your vision for future.

You can source some useful terms from the speeches of PM Modi. Phrases like Sabka saath sabka vikas, Reform-Perform-Transform, Building A New India etc can come handy. Rhetoric, lofty expressions, constitutional ideals, Sanskrit slokas and quotes are a good way to conclude your essay.

But suppose in your introduction, if you had written about a fictitious character, then it’s always advisable to end your write-up with a reference to that character. It gives a sense of completeness to the essay.

My Notes

Readers should keep in mind that these notes are written rather haphazardly (I mean who makes notes thinking that in future, they might have to make them public :D) They are fragmented in certain parts and illegible at others, so you may not be able to comprehend them completely. But nevertheless, I hope you take home something useful.

Link to handwritten notes:
https://drive.google.com/open?id=1jmVMGOzAk2d9B5Y0HQ9XpVF5Mh2IXGku

Quote collection:
https://drive.google.com/open?id=1jk71jLao60hHwJoTuGYaIDgJWccxa5Xn

List of Topics one needs to prepare:

https://drive.google.com/open?id=1q0W0PeH-80EKt6ucJTFOVPUlmXvCIzd-

Sample Essay:
https://drive.google.com/open?id=1jqfUi1FXdG0icBdJpdQvwH1wlAizCMvo

 

Until next time,
Anudeep.

115 thoughts on “Writing a good Essay in UPSC Mains, Explained

  1. Anonymous

    Anudeep sir anthropology optional lene ka reason,benefit nd books nd materials k liye bta dijiye….as yu told that yr batch mate helps yu for preparing optional than can she provide the material in Hindi…

    Reply
  2. Sarvesh Kaushik

    Great article !!
    Waiting for Mains and Anthro strategy.

    Reply
  3. Srujana Reddy

    Its like a printed ruled note sir… You have a beautiful heart with beautiful hand writing 🙂

    Reply
    1. Anudeep Durishetty Post author

      Hope you make good use of it, Yogesh 🙂

      Reply
  4. Anonymous

    Thanks alot sir. That is too much effort that you put in for all of us..

    Reply
  5. dimple90

    Sir I have read your blog and it has motivated me to prepare again for civil services. I have given 3 mains(2015, 2016,2017) before but have not qualified either.i have not given prelims this year. 2019 would be my last attempt(6th and final one) I have scored below average in gs and essay in all my mains. In 2017 my gs score is 376 and essay is 110. I have been living in Delhi since my preparation. In my successive mains I have joined nearly all coaching institute for mains test series LOOKMAN, VISION, FORUMIAS etc but to no avail. I am poor in Essay and Gs 4 esp. I have applied for IASBABA mains program but i am confused about whether it would help me or not. If you have any idea about insights or IASBABA. Please inform me on dimpleknankani@gmail.com
    Sir please guide as to whar shoush be my strategy.
    Regards

    Reply
    1. Anudeep Durishetty Post author

      Hi dimple90,

      During my preparation, I did not join any programme from IASBABA, so I do not have much idea about it.

      Irrespective of where you join, after you write a test, have a look at answer books of candidates who are scoring well. Take a printout, and analyse what is lacking in your answers, and then work on them. That is how you should consistently keep improving.

      Reply
  6. Anonymous

    Thank you sir your hlping nature shows ur personality how humble u are thnx once agin sir it hlps alot

    Reply
  7. Krishna Chaudhary

    Thank u so much sir . Plz share ur optional anthropology strategy

    Reply
    1. Anudeep Durishetty Post author

      I’ve uploaded them. Please find those articles under the ‘Optional’ tab.

      Reply
    1. Anudeep Durishetty Post author

      No. Please check my blog post on Prelims booklist.

      Reply
      1. Sadhana Kapoor

        Sir,I am CS aspirant. Do we have to study the syllabus of prelims and mains at the same time and is maths important in the prelims.

        Reply
  8. Anonymous

    Thankyou for your valuable efforts for aspirants like us….its a relief.

    Reply
  9. Sonika

    You are superb sir…an intellectually combined source of knowledge and experience.

    Reply
  10. teja

    Really helpful article that i ever read!!!! simply admiring!!!!

    Reply
    1. Anudeep Durishetty Post author

      Thank you. I am glad you found it helpful.

      Reply
  11. Anantha Ramakrishna Durishetty

    Doing a great job.. standing up like a beacon of light to the aspirants.. Tough I am not a competitor for anyone.. I follow to guide my students..

    Reply
  12. Aparna Ajith

    Great,Sir! The theory of everything pertaining to essay writing is captured in a commendable writing style.I guess it is time for me to learn another art of writing-reframe sentences to reform and transform sentences to perform🤔…Best wishes and keep going.Good Day😎

    Reply
  13. Anonymous

    Really helpful sir, Plz make a note on remaining papers also. including reference books.

    Reply
  14. AVINASH SINGH

    Congratulations dear, you proved yourself as a hero of this journey, prove yourself as a hero in beaurocratic journey . India needs honest beaurocrates

    Reply
  15. Anonymous

    Sir, please tell us about your anthropology optional strategy. It would be of great help.

    Reply
    1. Anudeep Durishetty Post author

      It’s updated. Please check the “Optional” tab on this site.

      Reply
    1. Anudeep Durishetty Post author

      I did not take any test series for Anthropology. So I’m afraid I don’t have any answer books with me. You can refer to Sachin Gupta’s (AIR-3) articles on insightsonindia.com He uploaded his answer books.

      Reply
  16. Anonymous

    simplicity is the ultimate sophistication ………
    NOW i can see………
    thanks a lot sir …..

    Reply
  17. Anonymous

    Thank you sir! The article is really helpful. India is really proud to have such a humble officers like you.

    Reply
  18. Anonymous

    Please do the same for GS1 to 4 as well. Would be really helpful. Thank you sir. ☺️

    Reply
  19. Anonymous

    Sir I am really inspired by your journey.You are Simplicity at its best.

    Reply
  20. Anonymous

    Sir I am unable to subscribe …..whenever I am entering my email it’s always showing invalid

    Reply
  21. Nijara Konch

    Sir thank you for giving this unique opportunity to sharing something with you..when you have changed your optional subject from PA to anthropology, how much did you take to complete the entire syllabus?? And in general without having any prior base on the subject, would you advise someone to opt another optional?

    Reply
    1. Anudeep Durishetty Post author

      I took around 6 months to complete the syllabus. But you must keep in mind that this time duration varies from person to person. So even if you take more time to finish the syllabus, always focus on getting conceptual clarity first. Ultimately, that’s what determines whether you get good marks.

      Reply
  22. DAYASINDHU

    This kind of detailed explanation is vulnerable. Million tons of Thanks sir.
    Please give some tips for GS answer writing also, if possible

    Reply
    1. Anudeep Durishetty Post author

      Thank you. A detailed post on GS answer writing will be updated soon.

      Reply
      1. Anonymous

        popular demand on answer writing awaits your response.

        Reply
  23. Jitendra kumar

    Respected Sir, please suggest me some good reference books for political science and IR optional… Sir I am asked to many success candidate but no one reply back… Please sir reply me, it means a lot for me…

    Reply
  24. Sanaval taha

    Hello sir !
    I am preparing for upsc 2020 but i am too confused for current affairs how to cover it so many materials are available, which is right material ? Plz help me !

    Reply
  25. Rohini

    First of all my heartly congratulations to you sir… Really it’s a great article and good message to all…Definitely it will help full to all civil services aspirants sir..Thanks a lot sir…once again Congratulations sir…keep smiling 😊

    Reply
  26. swarn kumar

    well ready to eat… i was searching for such material…. thank you sir G

    Reply
  27. viji teja

    How much the marks depends upon the handwriting and what are the scoring to be alloted depending upon the handwriting.

    Reply
    1. Anudeep Durishetty Post author

      As long as your handwriting is legible, it does not carry much importance in marking.

      Reply
    1. Anudeep Durishetty Post author

      Thank you, my fellow BITSian 🙂

      Reply
  28. Anonymous

    Sir what was ur strategy for public administration? What were the mistakes u have done in PA ?

    Reply
    1. Anudeep Durishetty Post author

      My public administration scores in all my four previous attempts were disastrous. Surely my strategy was not good. I am not really the right person to guide anyone on Pub Ad.

      Reply
  29. Anonymous

    Sir, I just gone through your GS papers published in ForumIAS. Was it because of your writing speed you have given more pictorial representations or because it will give an edge ?

    Reply
    1. Anudeep Durishetty Post author

      Pictorial representation along with good content will definitely give an edge to your answers.

      Reply
  30. Hema

    Hello sir,
    Firstly hearty congratulations for ur great success…
    I have given two attempts and still struggling at prelims stage itself. ..
    I’m not confident about my answer writing..
    July to next June how should be the plan…
    Optional and ethics to be completed before prelims only.??
    Please give a rough structure of year long time table sir…
    Would it help on joining mains test series before prelims which starts in Aug 2018.
    Please help me sir. .
    Thank you

    Reply
    1. Anudeep Durishetty Post author

      Prepare in the next 3-4 months seriously for Mains, as if you have cleared Prelims this time. Give adequate time for answer writing practice and revision. Join a test series too, if you can.

      Once Mains gets over, start preparing for Prelims for next year. Practice question papers and consistently aim to score above 110.

      Reply
  31. Divya Shankar

    Sir, could you kindly write about what an undergraduate student should start off with, in order to start preparing for this examination ?
    Thank you and a hearty congratulations on your success. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Anudeep Durishetty Post author

      1. Develop the hobby of reading newspapers, non fiction books and watching documentaries.Then start with standard books I mentioned in my Prelims blog post.

      Reply
  32. Anonymous

    anna gs hand notes written unte pls upload cheyandi…..pls

    Reply
  33. arun kumar

    dearest Anudeep,
    i generally never comment anywhere but my friend you have given me such insights that i’ll be fool if i don’t pay my respect and gratitude to you.
    so from the bottom of my heart
    Thank you so much for your kindness and generosity.
    ATB for all your future endeavours.
    🙂

    Reply
  34. sanjana

    hello sir, i have a doubt. sir in your essay notes almost every ending is with ‘coda’ or ‘character coda’ can you please decode what is this and how to use it as conclusion…?THANK YOU.

    Reply
    1. Anudeep Durishetty Post author

      It merely means to end the essay with a reference to the character/story with which I started the essay. This gives a sense of wholeness to your write-up.

      Reply
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  36. Pingback: How to conquer GS in UPSC Mains, Explained by Anudeep Durishetty (AIR-1, UPSC 2017) – Civilsdaily

  37. Bindu BK

    Thanks a lot sir . May God bless you with a blissful and healthy life!

    Reply
  38. Vertika Jha

    I didn’t knew I was so ignorant until i read the beginning of your essay. I always began my essays like GS answers.I couldn’t be more wrong.
    Yours is a great beginning which is certain to ‘bind’ the reader. I sure am going to use your suggestions in improving my essays.
    Thank you taking out time to write this.

    Reply
    1. Anudeep Durishetty Post author

      Thank you. I’m glad you found the write-up useful.

      Reply
  39. Jayanthi Raj

    All the best for your great journey sir. Thank you thanks a lot sir.

    Reply
  40. Manikandan

    Super sir, I thought getting rank in UPSC CSE is just little hard work only needed. But after reading all your post, I wake up from my dream. Keep post your thoughts and ideas sir, It makes me feel motivated.

    Can you list some non-fiction books for UPSC related? Not only for exam related also to understand our nation in socially, economic point view, developments and culture variation etc.,

    Reply
    1. Anudeep Durishetty Post author

      An Uncertain Glory – Amartya sen
      Imagining India – Nandan Nilekani
      India- Patrick French
      India – John Keay
      Why Growth Matters – Arvind Panagariya
      The Difficulty of Being Good -Gurucharan Das
      Ideas for India- Bibek Debroy

      These are all good reads on India.

      Reply
  41. Saurabh Narendra

    Sir, you have mentioned about concluding essays with sanskrit shlokas.

    1) Would it be advisable to write shlokas in devanagiri script or english?
    2) Can these shlokas be used in GS4 also?

    Congratulations & Thanks for the write up.

    Reply
  42. Suman kumar

    This is Nice blog sir I am some Read but not understand in English medium I believe that you are grate author. Wish! Sir if given a Hindi paragraph so we are very happy .

    Reply
    1. Anudeep Durishetty Post author

      I am sorry, I am not well versed inHindi.

      Reply
  43. Varsha

    Hi sir,
    I am a great fan of you and even my role model. Because of you I get intense interest on upsc exam. And daily gets motivated on reading your success and the strategy you followed.
    I tried to contact you sir, for getting help from you. Because I am preparing for UPSC. And I would like to have any of your personal contact because I have around 2 yrs to write the exam, and I aim to reach the first position with your guidance and motivation.

    Reply
  44. G SRINIVAS CHARY

    sir i am medical graduate which is the best optional other than anthropology.

    Reply
  45. Anonymous

    Congratulation Sir, thanks for such brief and honest article.I request you to please share your GS-1,2,3,4 Mains Answer writing strategy in detail.
    .

    Reply

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