As the government begins its crackdown on essay mill websites, it’s easy to see just how much pressure students are under to get top grades for their coursework these days. But writing a high-scoring paper doesn’t need to be complicated. We spoke to experts to get some simple techniques that will raise your writing game.
Tim Squirrell is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, and is teaching for the first time this year. When he was asked to deliver sessions on the art of essay-writing, he decided to publish a comprehensive (and brilliant) blog on the topic, offering wisdom gleaned from turning out two or three essays a week for his own undergraduate degree.
“There is a knack to it,” he says. “It took me until my second or third year at Cambridge to work it out. No one tells you how to put together an argument and push yourself from a 60 to a 70, but once you to get grips with how you’re meant to construct them, it’s simple.”
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The goal of writing any essay is to show that you can think critically about the material at hand (whatever it may be). This means going beyond regurgitating what you’ve read; if you’re just repeating other people’s arguments, you’re never going to trouble the upper end of the marking scale.
“You need to be using your higher cognitive abilities,” says Bryan Greetham, author of the bestselling How to Write Better Essays. “You’re not just showing understanding and recall, but analysing and synthesising ideas from different sources, then critically evaluating them. That’s where the marks lie.”
But what does critical evaluation actually look like? According to Squirrell, it’s simple: you need to “poke holes” in the texts you’re exploring and work out the ways in which “the authors aren’t perfect”.
“That can be an intimidating idea,” he says. “You’re reading something that someone has probably spent their career studying, so how can you, as an undergraduate, critique it?
“The answer is that you’re not going to discover some gaping flaw in Foucault’s History of Sexuality Volume 3, but you are going to be able to say: ‘There are issues with these certain accounts, here is how you might resolve those’. That’s the difference between a 60-something essay and a 70-something essay.”
Critique your own arguments
Once you’ve cast a critical eye over the texts, you should turn it back on your own arguments. This may feel like going against the grain of what you’ve learned about writing academic essays, but it’s the key to drawing out developed points.
“We’re taught at an early age to present both sides of the argument,” Squirrell continues. “Then you get to university and you’re told to present one side of the argument and sustain it throughout the piece. But that’s not quite it: you need to figure out what the strongest objections to your own argument would be. Write them and try to respond to them, so you become aware of flaws in your reasoning. Every argument has its limits and if you can try and explore those, the markers will often reward that.”
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Fine, use Wikipedia then
The use of Wikipedia for research is a controversial topic among academics, with many advising their students to stay away from the site altogether.
“I genuinely disagree,” says Squirrell. “Those on the other side say that you can’t know who has written it, what they had in mind, what their biases are. But if you’re just trying to get a handle on a subject, or you want to find a scattering of secondary sources, it can be quite useful. I would only recommend it as either a primer or a last resort, but it does have its place.”
Focus your reading
Reading lists can be a hindrance as well as a help. They should be your first port of call for guidance, but they aren’t to-do lists. A book may be listed, but that doesn’t mean you need to absorb the whole thing.
Squirrell advises reading the introduction and conclusion and a relevant chapter but no more. “Otherwise you won’t actually get anything out of it because you’re trying to plough your way through a 300-page monograph,” he says.
You also need to store the information you’re gathering in a helpful, systematic way. Bryan Greetham recommends a digital update of his old-school “project box” approach.
“I have a box to catch all of those small things – a figure, a quotation, something interesting someone says – I’ll write them down and put them in the box so I don’t lose them. Then when I come to write, I have all of my material.”
There are a plenty of online offerings to help with this, such as the project management app Scrivener and referencing tool Zotero, and, for the procrastinators, there are productivity programmes like Self Control, which allow users to block certain websites from their computers for a set period.
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Look beyond the reading list
“This is comparatively easy to do,” says Squirrell. “Look at the citations used in the text, put them in Google Scholar, read the abstracts and decide whether they’re worth reading. Then you can look on Google Scholar at other papers that have cited the work you’re writing about – some of those will be useful. But quality matters more than quantity.”
And finally, the introduction
The old trick of dealing with your introduction last is common knowledge, but it seems few have really mastered the art of writing an effective opener.
“Introductions are the easiest things in the world to get right and nobody does it properly,” Squirrel says. “It should be ‘Here is the argument I am going to make, I am going to substantiate this with three or four strands of argumentation, drawing upon these theorists, who say these things, and I will conclude with some thoughts on this area and how it might clarify our understanding of this phenomenon.’ You should be able to encapsulate it in 100 words or so. That’s literally it.”
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Why does the word “essay” strike terror into the hearts of students?
Maybe because a blank page can seem like the size of Antarctica when you’re not sure how to fill it.
Tip 1: Begin with the end in mind
This will give your work direction. Trying to write an essay without this is like the difference between getting on a horse that gallops straight towards its destination and wandering around aimlessly without a map. Yes, you might find your way eventually but it’ll take a lot longer.
Know where you’re going and make that clear to the reader from the outset.
Tip 2: Give it a striking title
Try to avoid giving your essay the same title as everyone else in your class. For instance, if your essay is about the causes of World War 2 then 90% of your classmates will probably call their essay “The Causes of World War 2”.
But you’re more original than that, so prove it – for instance, you could use a relevant quote about your topic or create a startling image that pulls the reader in. George Orwell’s famous essay, Shooting an Elephant, does the latter.
Tip 3: Open with a hook
You’ve created a great title – now what? Well, ideally you want your first sentence to be equally great. Good openings include:
– A question.
– A quote.
– A bold or controversial statement (that you’ll attempt to either prove or refute).
– An attention grabbing statistic or piece of information.
– An anecdote – the perfect opening anecdote should be relevant, interesting and illuminating. For inspiration, read the work of Malcolm Gladwell – he’s a master at using them.
Tip 4: Don’t let the reader go to sleep!
Remember – your teacher is marking dozens of essays so if you keep your work interesting they’ll love you for it. Try:
– Linking from paragraph to paragraph to create flow.
– Including well-chosen quotes.
– Addressing questions to the reader.
– Using appropriate humour – satire and irony can be very effective in an academic essay. Use both sparingly though.
– Experimenting with misdirection – create an expectation that you’re making a particular argument then turn things on their head midway through.
– Including short, relevant anecdotes.
Tip 5: Omit unnecessary words
This will tighten your work and give it flow. Don’t be tempted to pad.
Tip 6: End it well
Ever seen a brilliant movie with a rubbish ending? Didn’t it spoil the whole film with you? Exactly. Don’t do the same for the essay you’ve spent hours slaving over. Effective endings include:
– Linking back to your opening sentence.
– Finding a quote that sums up your argument.
– Using a strong piece of concluding imagery.
– Asking a final question (which can can be rhetorical).
Remember – your essay is a journey that you’re taking the reader on. Make it as enjoyable as possible so that when they reach their destination, they feel that it’s all been worthwhile.
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