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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Where will I be in twenty years … what will my life look like? Have you ever asked yourself this question? Since I don’t know where I want to be, I don’t know how to answer. Every now and then – as I attempt to write this out – I need to distract myself so I don’t make my head explode or crawl under my bed and tuck into a fetal position.
I am remarkably immature and hilarious – yet delightfully knowledgeable – for a 43 year old architect. These traits have served me well in the past because I lack substantial body strength and if you are going to be a know-it-all, you’d better have a good sense of humor about it. I have chosen to believe that working with me is so much fun (while delivering a top-notch product) that I have escaped the swirly twirly stink-hole of death (AKA the last 3 years) relatively unscathed. I don’t need to tell most of you that the economy has re-purposed umpteen thousands of architects into the role of meeter/greeter or coffee barista over the last few years. The idea that I am one (more) crazy House & Senate vote away from losing my job because nobody has any money to spend on luxury items (like hiring me) has kept me awake at night.
How will I provide for my family? Can I continue to make my mortgage payments? Jokes don’t pay the bills … unless you are really funny (which I am not) and can sell them to other people. (sigh) Carrot Top already has the bad jokes/ stupid look angle covered and working together with the stage name “Carrot Top and Whitey” just doesn’t sound right.
One thought that passed through my head was if I do get laid off, I would hang my shingle out and make a go at this myself. For most architects, this thought rattles around the noggin a lot. If you don’t like the piece of the pie you get where you work, (or there is no pie) go out on your own and make your own pie. Most of my friends are reaching that stage in their lives where they could benefit from someone with my talents, I suppose if push came to shove, this would have to be something I’d consider.
In twenty years, what will the field of architecture look like and will that be something that I want to be a part of? The fun bits of my job are getting smaller and smaller every day and I have to look for new items of interests, some way to stay engaged. This post is getting depressing but I suppose that is something that all architects are having to deal with. I can tell people my houses appreciate more than builder homes, I can point out that a large percentage of my architectural fee is normally recovered during the cost of construction by identifying issues before they’re built rather than solving the problem by pulling out the checkbook. How do I make the next 20 years better for me? I don’t have a clue … I can’t easily make people believe in doing something that they aren’t already inclined to believe.
What that means, to anyone who has stuck with me this far, is that I need to make the next twenty years about the journey and not the destination. I need to be a better father and husband. I need to wrestle with my daughter more often … I need to wrestle with my wife more often. I need to laugh a little harder, judge a little easier, drink by myself a little less and drink with friends a little more (not counting the 8 glasses of water a day since we’ll all be eating our food in capsule form).
In twenty years I’ll be 63 years old and just hitting my stride. I hope that things have gone well for me and my family, hopefully my daughter still loves me like she does right now, hopefully my wife still remembers why she married me, hopefully in twenty years…
.. I’ll still be hopeful.
photos are from icultist’s photostream on Flickr (used under creative commons license)
Filed Under: Architects, Life in General, ObservationsTagged With: a day in the life, bob borson, career, Setting Goals