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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The following is a response to the post “What Students Really Need to Hear” from the talented Angela Millar, an 11th grade gem from Plainwell High School.
It’s 2:46 a.m. I’m lying here in bed questioning why I’m still in high school. Why do I torture myself with the stress of a letter—a letter that can change my future for the rest of my life. A, B, C, D, F. Why do I go back day-after-day to be talked at by teachers, who despite having two ears and one mouth often speak more than they listen?
This is what teachers really need to hear:
First, you need to know that we do care. We do want to listen. We do want to succeed in your class. We do want you to know that each and every one of you have impacted our lives in some way.
But, you also must realize that high school is one of the most stressful things we have yet to accomplish in our lives. And we are stressed. Really stressed. I’m so stressed that I can’t do my school work. I can’t talk about school without thinking about that one rotten, cringe-worthy word that keeps me up at all hours of the night: Grades.
We aren’t average or below average if we fail a class or don’t turn in assignments. We are frustrated. We are infuriated. We are confused that every day when we get home after eight hours of sitting in odor-filled classrooms we are expected to do three more hours of homework.
The truth is we don’t all have time for school. “You don’t have time for school? School should be your first priority! School is your future. School makes your future. Maybe if you cared about something besides technology or partying you could focus more on your studies.”
We do care. We care about if our siblings have food to eat when they get home from school. We care to know that even though our classmate’s dad is a drunk and their mom walked out on them that they are still loved—that everything is going to be okay. We care that our parents are proud. We care that when our father gets lung cancer and asks us to run the family business and take care of mom, we do so.
We care about making extra lunches for the kids at school so that they can eat more than one meal a day. We care that when our school goes through tragic deaths—year after year after year—we can function each day with a smile on our faces even when we have scars on our hearts. We care about our families. We care about our classmates. And believe it or not we care about our teachers.
You need to know that we are terrified. We have all told ourselves at some point in life that we can’t do it. We can’t grow up. We don’t want to grow up because growing up means standing on our own—making our own choices and supporting them whether or not others agree. Maybe we act immature because we are expected to be. You need to know that we aren’t kids. We are young adults about to take on life. Real life.
No one will be there to tuck us in at night, no one will be there when a light bulb needs to be replaced or when groceries need to be restocked. That’s all on us. And believe it or not in eighteen years it is still a struggle to find a calling in life: that one thing that can set us apart from the rest and set a path for a bright future. There are billions of jobs and within our four years in high school, you are suppose to help guide us into the right direction to the point when we are fully sure of who we are and who we want to become.
Lastly, you need to know that we notice when teachers go out of their way to see how we are doing. Not just how we are doing academically but how we are doing in life beyond these walls.
That is when an evaluator becomes a teacher: when you take a step out of your comfort zone to see if maybe—just maybe—the constant bruises on Phoebe’s face aren’t from being clumsy. That maybe Lydia doesn’t want to answer the question because her parents are going through a divorce or a friend has committed suicide. That maybe Jackson didn’t do his homework because he doesn’t understand it. He doesn’t understand because he didn’t pay attention. He didn’t pay attention because his mind is set that he is too stupid to do the homework, too behind to catch up, too much the “dumb kid” with no aspiration. He doesn’t believe he has the ability to achieve and that is why he has no life long goals. Because, no one taught him to believe in himself. No one told him that grades are just letters. You’re either the ignition or the brakes. You either spark a desire and inspire us to do better or stop us from believing we ever will.
What you really need to know is that a teacher is meant to do exactly that: TEACH. Trust. Empathize. Accept. Care. Hope. And when a teacher really knows how to teach it creates this wonderful mix of present and future generations working together on improving a lifestyle, a study habit, a mind set. It gives us the power to choose what we want to do and where we want to be. It allows us to not only think on our own but to always know we have someone who wants us to be successful—someone to hold us accountable for those missing assignments and not let us fail classes. Not let us feel alone. Not let us feel like the world is just a heavy weight on our stressed shoulders.
When you made the decision to teach, you didn’t do it to try to convince us that getting a letter or a test score is the most important thing in our lives. You chose to help educate and advise our lives. You chose to make a difference. So do what you set out to do in the first place. Because, no matter what you do, each year students will leave you and if you don’t feel like each and every one of those students is empowered to take on the world then you haven’t done your job.
I am more than a letter. We are more than a letter. We are only in your classroom for a sliver of our lives. But when you teach—when you really teach —you are there forever.
Angela Millar is a bold girl with a love for journalism and poetry. She has a knack for brightening the world with random acts of kindness and has a warm heart for everyone she meets. The world is lucky to have her — and she’s only getting started.