The importance of answer writing in UPSC Mains cannot be overstated. And if it is still not a priority for you, you need to change the strategy.
Having very good answer-writing skills is like having good marketing in business. While you may have world-class products, it is of no use unless people are aware that your products exist and someone or something, shows them how it is much better than the competition. Similarly, having a good knowledge of UPSC subjects is of no use if you’re unable to articulate it properly. You’ll still get marks like a novice, may not get an interview call, and a golden chance after clearing Prelims with so much hard work will get wasted.
Ideally, students start UPSC Prelims preparation in January / February onwards. Before that, it is expected that an aspirant has
- Developed a good understanding of all GS Subjects including Optional
- Completed the entire syllabus at least twice
- Finalized the study material(s) he/she will be using for UPSC Mains
- Done sufficient UPSC Mains answer writing (including optional) practice and developed a skill around it
- Written a good no. of essays and developed a skill for it as well
While I’m writing this in October, you still have a lot of time left to ensure that you meet these goals before you shift your focus to UPSC Prelims. In this article, we’ll focus on 4th objective i.e., UPSC Mains answer writing.
And Ideal Mindset for UPSC Mains Answer Writing
Please know that writing is an art, not a science.
In science often there is only one way things can be done, and if you follow it step by step, you’re sure to get your result. Thus, there is an SOP (standard operating procedure), and if you understand the process, you can produce the same result every time. It takes initial efforts to know the process and afterwards, it’s just a repetition.
For art, it doesn’t work like that. It’s like building a muscle in the body. While there is a process, it will vary slightly for everyone. Further, more than having an understanding of the process, it is more about practice, doing it daily. Hence beyond some initial understanding of how to write good answers, it all boils down to how much you’re able to commit, regularly.
So, it takes time. Even if you’re giving your 100%, you’ll not get results instantly. You’ve to practice day by day, mindfully. On average, it takes 2-3 months to develop good answer writing skill, which will fetch nice marks in UPSC Mains.
Criteria of a Good UPSC Mains Answer
A good answer is one that will fetch you good marks. Everything else revolves around this. So, your answers should satisfy the examiner, and he should feel happy after seeing them. It should delight him, and create an impression that you’ve studied nicely, you’re a mature person, worthy to become an elite civil servant.
A good answer should have the following 3 components.
- It addresses the question.
- It doesn’t get distracted from what is asked
- It has a very good articulation/presentation of the subject matter
Steps in UPSC Mains Answer Writing
The first component (discussed above) may seem obvious, but you’ll be surprised how many students don’t even achieve that. Sometimes questions are straightforward, sometimes there are two or more sub-questions in question, and sometimes it’s difficult to understand what is exactly asked in the question. In any case, you have to 1st understand what is being asked. Just understand the question itself. Do not rush to write the answer. If you get a wrong understanding of the question, all your hard work was of no use. This step is easier for GS 1-3, where the questions are factual and straightforward, and slightly difficult in GS -4 and an optional like PSIR.
After understanding the question, break down how you’ll write the answer. Prepare a structure for your answer. This structure should be something that even a person from outside the field of UPSC should be able to understand. Having a good structure helps you achieve the 2nd component of a good answer i.e. you don’t get distracted from what is being asked. Again this will be easier for GS 1-3, and slightly difficult for GS 4 & PSIR like optional subjects.
Then the last stage is to write an answer according to the structure you’ve prepared. At this stage, you may also realize that some things, which you thought you knew, you don’t know. That’s totally fair because it is one purpose of answer writing – to clearly know the gaps in your knowledge. Even if you don’t know some parts of the answer, go ahead and write it.
After writing, it is time for self-evaluation.
Self-Evaluating UPSC Mains Answers
Please know that even if you’ve joined the best of the best test series, self-evaluation is must. Because nobody else will understand your answer the way you can. You know the intention behind every sentence in your answer and thus you have access to something nobody else has.
Self-evaluation is not as difficult as it seems. However, it takes some mental effort and dedication to do it regularly.
You’ve to evaluate your own answers based on above given 3 Components of a Good Answer. And it is easy to judge yourselves at least on the first 2 components.
To self-evaluate, once again, try to understand the question and see if you’ve addressed the question completely. Try to think if the question has a sub-question in it, and if you have addressed that as well. If all is good, congratulate yourselves and move ahead. Even if it is not good, move ahead, soon we’ll discuss how to improve.
Now assess yourself against the 2nd criterion of a good answer. Have you written something that is not asked? Did you get distracted while writing the answer? This is important since it shows how good your understanding of the subject is, and how good you’re mentally to not get distracted.
Even to evaluate yourself against these first two criteria, it takes a good understanding of the subject. For most of us, we’re in the process and such understanding we may not have for all the subjects/topics. Hence there is the next stage.
It is time, you should refer to your notes/book on the subject. Try to find the answer to the question in your book. Then assess your answer based on points you got from the book. This step is needed for everyone, even if you’ve written a good answer.
This exercise of seeing from the book will make you realize what else you could have written in the answer. For example, you’ll realize that there are 10 points you could have written in which 2 were most important. But you would have written only 7 points which includes only 1 important point. Then you should think, “While it’s okay to write 7 out of 10, it’s not okay to forget 2 important points. It’s good I know the 7 points, but now I’ll remember this 2nd important point as well. It doesn’t matter even if I forget the other 2 points.” Doing this will improve your understanding of the topic at hand. Which is an important purpose of answer writing.
Going back to the 4th para under this heading, if you’ve not addressed the first component of a good answer, it is time to ponder. There are two possible explanations. Either you did not understand the question properly or you don’t know the topic well. If you did not understand the question, probably because you didn’t give it sufficient time, or you don’t understand certain word(s)/phrase(s) used in the question.
Whatever may be the case, pinpoint the reason for not being able to achieve the first, basic component of a good answer. This will give you clarity on where you need to work. Sometimes it can happen that question itself is out-of-syllabus, and then you don’t have to beat yourself up for that. (To understand which questions are out of the syllabus, we suggest referring to the previous year questions and the official UPSC Syllabus. Our PYQ books might come in handy in this case).
The Last Component of Good Answer
If you’re able to achieve the first two components of answer writing consistently, it shows you have a good understanding of the subject matter. It shows you’re giving time to understand the question, and you don’t get distracted while writing an answer.
If you’ve all of it, then only you should start worrying about 3rd component of Good Answer. Having a very good articulation/presentation in your answers. We’ll discuss it in a separate article, which will be available in 2-3 days.
Also note that the UPSC Mains Answer writing approach need not be different when it comes to PSIR (or any other) optional. The same principle applies for General Studies as well as Optional Answer Writing.
UPSC Mains Answer Writing Illustration
In the view of the declining average size of land holdings in India which has made agriculture non-viable for majority of farmers, should contract farming and land leasing be promoted in agriculture? Critically evaluate the pros and cons. [2015/Q3/12.5m/200w] (Reference)
Step 1: Understanding the Question
In essence, the question is about evaluating the pros and cons of contract farming and land leasing.
However, there is a backdrop of declining avg. size of land holdings which had made agriculture non-viable for most of the farmers.
So, in our answer, we need to acknowledge this backdrop, the reason why agriculture is becoming non-viable for most farmers. And then discuss how contract farming and land leasing are two possible solutions. And then go about mentioning the pros and cons of both.
Step 2: Structuring the Answer
The answer can be structured in different ways. But you’ve to choose what seems most logical to you.
In this question, I’ll break down my answer into 5 components.
- Discuss how the decline in land size makes agriculture non-viable
- Say that contract farming and land leasing are two suggested solutions, among others.
- Explain what is contract farming & and what is land leasing.
- Discuss the pros, followed by the cons of both.
- Conclude, giving my opinion/assessment of the matter. We can also include an opinion of some committee/scholar etc. if we’re aware of it.
As mentioned in the article, you don’t need specific knowledge to prepare a structure. Even a person who’s not an aspirant should be able to prepare and understand such a structure.
Step 3: Writing the Answer
Question: In the view of the declining average size of land holdings in India which has made agriculture non-viable for majority of farmers, should contract farming and land leasing be promoted in agriculture? Critically evaluate the pros and cons. [2015/Q3/12.5m/200w]
An average farm holding in India is 1.3 ha/family, which is not sufficient. Coupled with inadequate irrigation and the vagaries of nature, it is making agriculture impossible for most Indian farmers.
Among other things, contract farming and land leasing are often suggested as possible solutions to help Indian agriculture. Contract farming denotes production carried out according to an agreement between the buyer and farmer(s). Land leasing, on the other hand, denotes the act of leasing out agricultural land like any other property, establishing a tenant-owner relationship.
Benefits of Contract Farming & Land-Leasing
> Land leasing will allow the consolidation of small farmlands making them economically viable
> Large operational holding will reduce cultivation costs and increase profitability
> It will free the agricultural labour for other economic activities, at the same time ensuring small farmers a regular income in the form of rent
> Contract farming will bring in investment in agriculture
> It will reduce volatility in agricultural product prices, ensuring assured income for farmers
Disadvantages of Contract Farming & Land Leasing
> Small farmers have little bargaining power and education, this may lead to unfair terms in contract farming or land leasing
> In certain scenarios, the companies, may not respect the contract terms
> With land leasing, the freed agricultural labour may lead to unemployment
The agricultural sector in India, employing almost 50% of its population needs urgent and serious reforms. There should be an active effort to explore contract farming and land leasing while trying to address their downsides. [248 words]
The answer is mostly based on Vivek Singh’s Economy Book.
Some of you may find the things mentioned in the article very simple, while some may find it complex. For the former, please know that this is the way. Answer writing is not a quantum mechanics, it is simple. What matters is, how much you’re willing to do it, day after day, every day. For the latter, who think that the article was complex, please read it again. Maybe take notes and try to understand.
We’ll be discussing some more aspects of answer writing in the next article. If you have any queries or suggestions, please mention them in comments. I’ll try to answer them here or incorporate them in the new article. Best wishes!