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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Back on that July morning in 1981, the moment my crush told my new friends and me of his finding, my mind raced. I’d stay in my impractical, wraparound skirt. This would give me an excuse to wait below while the others, dressed in shorts and sneakers, performed the impossible feat of climbing the tree. Once there, I made another split-second decision to lift my skirt and expose my mismatched calves. It was either that or admit that I couldn’t catch anything more challenging than a balloon in my clumsy hands.
Calculations of this kind were second nature to me. By the time I had language, I’d made an unspoken pact with nearly everyone I encountered. I won’t talk about my body’s awkwardness and limitations and neither will you.
“What happened to your leg?”
I hated when the pact was broken with questions like that. In grade school, I usually went with the clipped but accurate “Nothing.” After all, whatever caused my cerebral palsy occurred long before, during my birth. Also, it didn’t happen to my leg, but to the part of my brain that tells that leg to move.
Once, in sixth grade, a friend whispered that another classmate posed the question to her.
“I said you fell off the Empire State Building.”
“And she believed you?”
“I don’t know, but she changed the subject.”
After that, I told that 1,250-foot tall tale a few times myself. Though I’d stolen it, it seemed like a more original and interesting version of my other standby, “None of your beeswax.”
My form of cerebral palsy, right hemiplegia, includes among its symptoms numbness along one side of my body. When, at 5 years old, I asked my own first question about it, “Why do I feel more on the left?” my mother had an answer ready. Only it wasn’t an answer at all.
“Because your heart is on the left,” she said. “Like everyone’s.”
This memory is clear to me, but there must have been times before that when my parents talked to me about my disability. After all, I knew what I had and what it was called. Cerebral, a long C word like “carnival.” Palsy, which sounded a little like “pansy.” My disability had a nickname, C.P., and it was why I had to wear a leg brace to bed and visit a physical therapist once a month at a place my parents referred to as the Center.
“It’s nothing, barely noticeable,” my mother assured me as she helped me with my leg brace at night. I knew she was right, at least compared with some of the kids I saw at the Center whose C.P. was so bad they made strange grunts when they tried to talk and couldn’t walk at all. At the same time, I knew we were alike, those kids and I, in some deep, undeniable way. The only thing that separated us was luck, a tiny L word that, like “life” and “love,” was somehow big enough to make all the difference in the world.
As a child trying to understand something about living in my body and in our community, neither of my mother’s explanations was of much use. I don’t say this to fault my mother. She grew up, as most of us did, being told not to point or to stare or to ask questions when it came to ways that people differ. This is where that pact of silence originates, from our attempt to be thoughtful and careful with one another. Now more than ever, while the emotionally delayed bully who inhabits our highest office models baiting, cruelty and mockery instead, every attempt at kindness is essential.
But where does that leave me, and others like me, as we tiptoe around the sensitive subject of our otherness? For a long time, I felt unsure not only of how to talk about my disability but even how to think about it. Its meaning was slippery and ever-changing. When I was little it meant I couldn’t roller skate or run like the other kids. In my teens and early 20s, it was the flaw that made me less attractive than my friends. When, at 25, I became involved with a handsome, able, but very difficult man, disability was the scrim through which he looked like my one chance at love.
We married and had a child, and as I struggled with the physically demanding tasks involved in caring for a newborn, my disability revealed itself for what it was all along — a set of specific limitations that required modifications, creativity and, more often than I was comfortable with, that I ask for help. That first year of parenting was among the hardest I’ve lived through, and the most humbling. At the same time, it was what finally led me into an authentic relationship with my body, one based on what I needed to accomplish rather than how I was perceived.
Through it all, I was writing. But it would be several more years before I began to explore disability in my work.
What am I trying to say? What is this poem, essay, chapter about? What details belong in the piece and what’s extraneous? These are among the questions all writers ask ourselves as we stare at the blinking cursors on our computer screens. When it comes to how relevant my cerebral palsy is to a given piece, the question can seem even more complex.
“Would I have to be disabled on every page?” I asked a friend who is also a literary agent when she suggested I write a memoir on mothering with a disability. The question, in its muddled state, made us laugh. But what I was trying to ascertain was whether the narrator — the “me” on the page — had to be thinking about cerebral palsy in every scene of her story when, in life, this was far from true.
Over time I discovered a more useful line of inquiry as I wrote. Would details about my disability not only expand this passage but also deepen it? Would they bring forth something I’d yet to articulate, perhaps didn’t even know I knew?
The page is where I finally came to understand my own body and its evolving narrative, where I continue to learn when my disability informs a particular dynamic and when it’s beside the point.
Eventually, I rewrote the poem about the morning of the apricots, and it was only then that I realized how lonely I’d been, even among friends I nearly worshiped. After all, there was this important aspect not just of my experience, but of my very being, that I didn’t think I could share with anyone.
“Do something with your brokenness,” David Hernandez urges in his poem “Sincerely the Sky.”
It’s a call to all of us, since everyone is broken in places if we’re to tell the whole story. And especially in these factious times, telling the whole of our stories, whether on the page or in the flesh, gives us the best chance we have to truly connect.Continue reading the main story