The following piece of guidance was written by Flight Lieutenant A.W. Panton, M.A., Dip. Ed. in 1973 when he was a station education officer at RAF Lyneham, Chippenham, Wilts. For more information about the circumstances in which such guidance was produced, please look at the introduction to the item on this blog entitled "Strategy for Writing "O" Level History Essays, dated 4th February 2013. For RAF personnel wishing to achieve the 5 "O" Levels minimum qualification for commissioning, the General Paper was a relatively straightforward subject to attempt.


The Examination
Why do a self-study course?
The objectives of this course
Schedule of work

The need for planning your essays
The structure of an essay
The choice of essays
The types of question
Planning the essay
Writing the essay

A.  Specimen examination paper
B.  Example of a General Paper essay


1.  As its name implies, the General Paper is not an examination of any specified syllabus. Its intention is to test candidates' maturity of thought and expression in answering questions of contemporary interest. In discussing these problems you are not required to reel off facts and figures in great quantities, but you are expected to be able to demonstrate a general awareness of some of the problems or issues which face modern society.

2.  The Examination.  The General Paper examination, which is 2 hrs. 30 mins. in length, is divided into THREE sections, each consisting of six essay questions. You have to answer ONE question from EACH section. The subjects of each section are as follows:

A.  Political/ social/ economic

B.  Scientific/ environmental

C.  Cultural.

You have 50 minutes in which to answer each question. A specimen of an examination paper is at Annex A to the course notes.

3.  Why do a self-study course?  Although a regular class, which students could attend regularly, would be preferable educationally, a self-study course is well suited to the General Paper as no particular course of study is to be tested. Even in a regular class, it would be pointless for a lecturer to provide you with information on particular subjects; we must assume as a pre-requisite of this course that you are reasonably well informed about matters of topical interest. A self-study course is therefore both an appropriate and convenient means of preparation for this examination.

4.  The objectives of this course.  As you have previously passed "O" Level English Language, you have indicated that your English grammar is at least adequate for this examination, and there is no specific content for you to learn or master. What remains is essay-writing technique. You will already have written essays for "O" Level English Language, and will therefore have some experience of what such answers require. However, the General Paper requires a rather more refined essay technique: you will need  to analyse the different requirements of different types of question, to plan your answers in such a way that that provide appropriate answers to particular questions, and to express  your ideas so as to bring out clearly the points you make. Finally, it is to be hoped that in doing these things you will acquire a deeper insight into some of the problems or issues of our age, and hence improve the quality of your thought. The objectives of the course are summarised as follows;

a.  to enable you to analyse the different requirements of different types of essay question;

b.  to enable you to plan your essay answers in such a way that they provide appropriate answers to particular questions;

c.  to enable you to express your ideas so as to bring out clearly the points you make; and

d.  to enable you to acquire a deeper insight into some of the problems or issues of our age.

5.  Schedule of work.  This self-study course contains notes on the 'strategy for writing General Paper essays', a specimen examination paper, and an example of a General Paper essay. Your first task is to read the notes very carefully and thoroughly. When you have done this, you will be required to answer at least TWO of the essay questions from EACH section. A reasonable essay would amount to two and a half to three pages of the exercise book provided with the course. You will be expected to complete those SIX questions - you may do more if you wish - a week before the mock examination that will be set to test your readiness to sit the paper. The week after the mock examination there will be debriefing and revision class, and the examination proper will follow a week after that. Dates and other relevant details are attached in the covering letter that comes with this course.

NOTE:  Although this is a self-study course, you are welcome, in the case of difficulty, to seek advice or assistance from the education officer in charge of the course.


6.  A specimen of a General Paper examination paper is attached at Annex A to these notes. As you will see, these essays require you to present a case or argument in written form. This argument has to be both well thought out and well expressed. In addition, it should not be one-sided, as politicians' arguments so often are, but show both sides of a question. However strongly you may feel concerning a subject about which you are writing, it is advisable to express your self with moderation, and not to over-simplify matters or descend to abuse.

7.  The need for planning your essays.  The writing of an essay involves three distinct processes. These are as follows:

a.  Planning the essay;

b.  Thinking about how to express your ideas; and

c.  The physical act of writing.

Many people try to do all three processes simultaneously; the result is usually a poor piece of writing. The reason for this is simple: if you try to do all three processes at the same time, the quality of each will suffer. Although it is reasonable to do processes b. and c. together, it is essential to separate the planning stage. Indeed, the key to the writing of a competent essay lies in the planning of it.

8.  The structure of an essay.  An argumentative essay contains the following components: an introduction; the mainstream or central paragraphs, and the conclusion. The characteristics of each component are shown below: 

a.  Introduction

(1)  Should EITHER answer the question clearly and then indicate how the answer will be substantiated OR outline how the answer is to be reached. (Which method you adopt will depend on the type of question you are answering. For 'The types of question', see para. 10.)

(2)  Should cover any important preliminary points which cannot be conveniently fitted in elsewhere. (For instance the meaning of a word in the question might need to be clarified.)

(3)  Should be brief and should not include details.

(4)  Should be stimulating.

b.  Mainstream (or central) paragraphs

(1)  Should contain the central points or factors of the argument.

(2)  Each paragraph should begin with a topic sentence, which both makes the point of the paragraph and shows the relevance of it, and of the details which follow, to the question.

(3)  The details within each paragraph substantiate or illustrate the points made in the topic sentence.

(4)  Paragraphs should be linked if possible, and should follow one another in the most effective order.

c.  Conclusion

(1)  Should EITHER reinforce the answer given in the introduction by summarising the argument presented in the essay, OR tie together the threads of the essay in such a way as to produce an answer to the question. (Which method you adopt will depend on the type of question you are answering. For 'The types of question', see para. 10.) 

(2)  Could contain a final clinching point in support of your argument.

(3)  Should be clearly and concisely written, and should be stimulating.

9.  The choice of essays.  The choice of which essays from each section you should answer is obviously largely up to you, but as a general guideline it is wise to choose those that afford you the best opportunity to write from personal interest, experience, knowledge or involvement. However, the type of question is also an important factor to consider. These types we shall now examine.

10.  The types of question.  In the General Paper, questions are EITHER controversial (i.e. they require you to present both sides of a prominent question concerning which people disagree) OR they demand an explanatory answer. If the question is controversial, it can require EITHER a delayed or an immediate verdict. Examples of these THREE types of question can be found in your specimen examination paper in Annex A at the end of these notes:

a.  Controversial: delayed verdict:

Sect. A: 2,3,4; Sect. B: 7; Sect. C: 14,16,18.

b.  Controversial: immediate verdict:

Sect. A: 1,5; Sect. B: 8; Sect. C: 15.

c.  Explanatory:

Sect. A: 6: Sect. B: 9-12; Sect. C: 13,17.

NOTE:  Although you may think that questions A: 2 and 3, and B: 7 do not require any verdict, it is nevertheless desirable to attempt one at the end of the essay. You will notice that the spread of questions is not even. Controversial questions are frequent in sections A and C; those requiring explanatory answers predominate in Section B.

11.  Planning the essay.  It is particularly important in the General Paper to plan your essays with care. In "O" Level History and Geography your essay answers will largely have been pre-packaged in your minds beforehand, but, as you cannot anticipate any of the questions in the General Paper you must therfore prepare your answers in the examination room. Because of this, you are given a generous allocation of 50 minutes to each question; of this you spend at least 15 minutes planning your answer. How you plan an essay is a personal matter, but you will have gathered already that different types of question demand different types of answer. Your planning will obviously reflect these differences. Laid out below is a suggested procedure for you to follow when planning your essays. You should remember that paragraphs are the structural units of your essay; each mainstream paragraph should contain one major topic contributing to your answer. 


1.  Decide which type of question you are answering, and bear in mind the exact wording of the question.

2.  Jot down on rough paper all your thoughts on the subject under discussion. For a controversial answer these thoughts will consist of points both FOR and AGAINST the statement at issue; for an explanatory question they will be the points or factors that your answer will contain. (NOTE: you must expect these thoughts to occur to you in a random rather than a logical order.) 

3.  Form the topics or themes of your paragraphs from the points you have jotted down. A number of points will probably have something in common, which is of importance to the answer. That common factor will be the topic of a paragraph. Groups the points together under this topic, which will become a paragraph heading; the points will become the details contained in that paragraph. (The paragraph heading will be translated into a topic sentence, when the essay is written.)

4.  Add any further details that may occur to you while you are forming your paragraphs.

5.  Decide on the most suitable order for your paragraphs, and list the headings accordingly.

6.  Decide the contents of your introduction and conclusion in the light of the type of essay you are planning. Note that you must plan the introduction as well as the conclusion AFTER the mainstream paragraphs have been planned, for you obviously cannot plan an introduction to something which you have not yet thought out.

When completed, your rough plan should resemble the formats laid out below. These formats include the number of paragraphs, the paragraph headings, and the details of the paragraphs. A typical General Paper essay might have 4-6 paragraphs: 1 for the introduction; 2-4 for the mainstream; and 1 for the conclusion. A format is shown below for each of the THREE types of essay answer: 


1.  Controversial: delayed verdict:

Introduction ...... (Show how answer will be reached)

(Points 'for')

1............... (Paragraph heading: details) .................. 

2................(Paragraph heading: details)...................

(Points 'against')

3................(Paragraph heading: details)....................

4................(Paragraph heading: details)....................

Conclusion .........(A statement of reasoned answer + ? clinching point.)

2.  Controversial: immediate verdict:

Introduction..........(Provide answer by a clear statement, and then show how it will be substantiated.)

(Points 'for')

1................(Paragraph heading: details)....................

2................(Paragraph heading: details)....................

(Points 'against' - See note below)

3................(Paragraph heading: details)....................

4................(Paragraph heading: details)....................

Conclusion.............(Summary of argument + ? clinching point)

NOTE:  Although you have stated your view in then opening paragraph, the rules of debate require you to cover the points that might be raised in opposition to your case. By mentioning them you will demonstrate that you are aware that they do present difficulties. However, in this type of essay you are advised to try to make light of the points 'against', or at least to show that in comparison with the points 'for' your case, they are insignificant. 

3.  Explanatory:

Introduction.............(General coverage of answer)

(List of the factors presented in explanation)

1................(Paragraph heading: details)....................

2................(Paragraph heading: details)....................

3................(Paragraph heading: details)....................

4................(Paragraph heading: details)....................

Conclusion...............(Summarise answer in the light of above analysis)

Before you commence the writing of any General Paper essay you should have before you a plan closely resembling the above formats. The existence of a plan will not enable you to concentrate fully on the writing and expression of your ideas , but will also give you the confidence that comes from knowing exactly where you are going and what you are going to say. A coherent plan will also help you to avoid repetition of points, or the need to add something in at the last moment when it should have been included at an earlier point in the essay. Such flaws are almost unavoidable in the absence of a plan. In order to practise the planning of essays, you are asked to include a rough plan at the head of each practice essay in your exercise book. An example of a rough plan can be seen at Annex B to these notes.

12.  Writing the essay.  You should write the essay following your plan exactly; the time for thinking about content had now passed, and at this point you should concentrate exclusively on how best to express the ideas you have before you. Express yourself precisely and with vigour. The more carefully you think out your ideas, the more likely you are to choose the right words to express them. Clear thought and clear language go together. Do not put your point of view too strongly, for if your argument is a sound one, powerful language will be unnecessary. The requirements of formal writing apply; as your ability to express yourself is one of the factors to be tested in the examination, you must expect to be penalised for errors of grammar, punctuation and spelling. By thinking out the structure and content of a sentence before you begin to write it, you can avoid mistakes in sentence construction. Such dangers also arise from sentences of excessive length. Variations in the length and structure of your sentences can contribute towards an attractive writing style. It is also preferable that you express your views impersonally (e.g. 'It is felt by many that ... '), rather than in the first person (e.g. 'I think that ... '). To illustrate these many points an example of a General Paper essay is included at Annex B to these notes.

Annexes to notes on 'Strategy for writing General Paper essays:

A.  Specimen of a General Paper examination.

B.  Example of a General Paper essay.


Time allowed: Two and a half hours.

You MUST answer ONE question from EACH of the following THREE sections.


1.  Do you agree that, as far as Great Britain is concerned, the days of the railway are numbered?

2.  What are the arguments for and against equal pay for women?

3.  'Education should be removed entirely from the realm of politics.' Argue the case for and against this statement. 

4.  Do you think that Britain still has a role to play East of Suez?

5.  Is there a case for the abolition of Opinion Polls?

6.  What do you think should be done to stop football hooliganism?


7.  Exploration below the sea may well bring richer rewards than exploration on land. Discuss this statement.

8.  Electronic computers are sometimes referred to as electronic brains.

9.  Scientists are working to improve human fertility, yet all nations recognise the need to control world population. How do you reconcile these two facts?

10.  What solutions would you suggest to combat Britain's every increasing water shortage?

11.  How would you attempt to attract more boys and girls to careers in science?

12.  What success has attended recent efforts to cut down the pollution of the atmosphere?


13.  Why do you think the 'Western' is still the most popular type of film?

14.  Can we afford not to have censorship of drama and literature?

15.  Do you agree that television is destroying reading as a pastime?

16.  Should minority languages be preserved? State the case for and against.

17.  In recent years, several national newspapers have disappeared. Suggest reasons for this.

18.  Is any music worthy of the name being produced today? Illustrate your answer with suitable examples.


'Discuss the case for introducing the referendum into our political system.'

1.  PLAN

Introduction:  Confusion with Common Market issue; state intention to consider cases 'for' and 'against'; issue is referenda v. general elections.


(1)  Political dangers of referenda:  Instability; anarchy; lack of respect for govt. abroad; general elections provide stability and democracy; blackmail in France; lack of confidence in MPs; electorate too ignorant.

(2)  Operational difficulties of referenda: Public have no alternatives; over-simplification of issues; the actual wording; distortion in Norway; general elections lead to reasonable atmosphere; high cost.

(3)  Arguments in favour of referenda:  More democratic; useful where part system fails to reflect public opinion; for issues of great importance; high polls; education and media.

Conclusion: Final judgement difficult; tradition important; potential dangers can be overcome; referenda might be desirable in some circumstances; Govt. and border poll.

NOTE:  For the sake of clarity this plan is very elaborate. In your plans, which are of course written in rough, you will no doubt employ your own shorthand and abbreviations.

ESSAY (NOTE: Topic sentences are shown in italic script; links to the previous paragraph or paragraphs are underlined.)

One of the more interesting of recent political controversies has been the question of whether referenda should ever be used to decide issues of vital national importance. This question became for a time inextricably bound up with the argument concerning British entry to the Common Market, but it is a political issue in its own right. As in most political controversies, a balance sheet of advantages and disadvantages must be drawn up and considered before a rational judgement can be made. In Britain the argument centres around the comparison of referenda and general elections as instruments of political consultation between government and people.

The opponents of referenda cite a host of dangers and abuses that their introduction might bring to our political scene. Regular employment of the referendum to determine public approval of government policy might lead to a succession of short-lived governments. The consequent state of instability might deteriorate into anarchy and cause a lack of respect for out government overseas. In contrast, the traditional system of a general election every five years ensures conditions for stable government, while leaving the people ultimately in control of their own destiny. The referendum might become a means by which a government could bulldoze through controversial legislation by blackmailing the electorate with the threat of resignation in the event of a negative outcome. The late General de Gaulle was criticised for using referenda this way in France. Referenda also imply a lack of respect for our elected representatives in Parliament, who are, it is maintained, better informed than the ordinary citizen and the more able therefore to take important decisions on our behalf.

Apart from the dangerous consequences, which it is alleged referenda might bring, there are also various operational difficulties that militate against their introduction. Because a referendum usually demands a 'YES/NO' answer, it gives the people no opportunity to state alternatives to the policy on which it is voting. The result tends to be an over-simplification of complex issues. Furthermore, the matter of the wording to be referred becomes a matter of critical importance. By concentrating on one question, a referendum may encourage demagoguery, and the distortion that comes from over-emotionalising a political issue. This was demonstrated in last year's referendum in Norway on the Common Market issue, where the xenophobic tendencies inherent in most people were fully exploited by opponents to Market entry. Finally, the high cost and inconvenience of regular referenda are further arguments against their use.

In spite, however, of the reasons that can be brought against the use of the referendum, there are positive factors in its favour that must be considered too. The referendum is certainly a more democratic instrument than a general election, and can show, as a general election can never do, just what the wish of the electorate is on a clear-cut issue. This could be particularly valuable in a situation where an important political controversy is not adequately reflected in the party political system. The Common Market issue in Britain succeeded in cutting across party lines. In situations like that, particularly where a matter of overriding national importance is involved, a strong case can be made out for testing public opinion through a referendum. Referenda also seem to produce higher polls than general elections do, something which increases their democratic value. In addition, the increasing availability of public education and the news media suggest that as time goes on the ordinary citizen will become more able to decide important issues for himself.

A final judgement on this question is difficult; strong arguments can be produced both for and against the use of referenda. Opponents are right to stress the importance of traditions which have served us well in the past.  Unless circumstances require it, we should be wary of change. However, the need to be cautious with regard to political innovation should not lead to a refusal to innovate.The political dangers of referenda can easily be exaggerated, but, if care is taken, these can be avoided. In certain circumstances, where an issue vital to our nation's future is at stake, a referendum could be desirable. Has not our present government admitted as much, by holding recently, in conditions of particular difficulty, a referendum on the border issue in Northern Ireland?


1.  Note that the introduction makes clear that both sides of the argument will be considered before a conclusion is reached. The reference to the Common Market issue is an attempt to introduce a topic of current interest, and the statement concerning general elections covers an important preliminary point that might have caused confusion elsewhere.

2.  In the three mainstream paragraphs, you will see that the paragraph headings of the plan have been translated into topic sentences at the start of the paragraphs. These sentences show the position of the paragraph in the essay as a whole and relate the details that follow them to the question. Also, by alluding in some fashion to the content of the previous paragraphs the topic sentences provide a link between the paragraphs.

3.  In the conclusion a brief summary of the main points is attempted, a qualified verdict is suggested, and a final clinching point - the N. Irish border poll - is included both to emphasise the conclusion, and, by bringing us back to the very recent past, to make a final impression on the reader.

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