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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I wish I had spent more time with my sister
1st place $50
By Bellen Avelar,Clark Magnet HS (La Crescenta)
Bellen wears a jacket and pins that belonged to her sister Quira, who died almost three years ago.
Photo by Jean Park, 16,
Harvard-Westlake School (North Hollywood)
I have always heard people say, “Don’t have any regrets.” For some reason I believed it was true. Why regret something if there is nothing you can do to change the past? On January 14, 2007 I realized that I did have one regret—not spending more time with Quira, my sister. Quira was a loving and caring person, someone who could make you smile. She had cerebral palsy and on January 14, 2007 she passed away.
I remember the day as if it were yesterday. The day before, my mom, Quira and I went to a birthday party. We got home late and woke up late the next morning. I had to run an errand and my mom went to the kitchen to make breakfast. I was with my sister Elsy’s husband when he got a phone call. He told me to run to his car. I was scared not knowing what was going on. It felt like the longest car ride of my life. When we were about five minutes away from my house he told me that maybe my sister had passed away. I could not move. I could not cry. My body went cold. When I got home I saw the ambulance and my family around my house. I ran and saw my mom and Elsy crying and I knew it was true, Quira was dead. I have never felt so much pain in my life. I started to cry and hugged Elsy.
For the next few days my life was a blur. I would go to school and forget Quira was dead and feel that she was still alive, but when I would get home, the day of her death replayed. It was a recurring nightmare.
As time went by I started to think of all the things Quira and I had not done together, all the things she missed in life. I regret not doing more for her. I regret not telling her thank you for all the things she did for me. I regret not saying sorry for making her feel bad or for upsetting her. I regret not making an effort to help her when she needed my help. I regret not being there to defend her when people made fun of her. I regret not accompanying her when she had doctor appointments. I have many regrets when it comes to all of the things I could’ve done and did not do.
Now that she is dead I realize how much I didn’t do for her. If I could go back in time and be a better sister I would do it without thinking. I would change my attitude and help much more. I would stop being so selfish. I know death is a part of life, but that doesn’t stop death from hurting.
It has been almost three years since Quira passed away and I still feel terrible. When I heard about this contest I knew it was the perfect opportunity for me to let go of all the pain I feel. I want people to know to never go to sleep mad at someone or without telling the person “I love you” because you never know if they will wake up.
I want people to learn from my mistake and appreciate their loved ones. Now that I have written this I feel a lot better and hopefully I will no longer hold on to all these regrets. My sister passed away and holding on to regrets will not bring her back to life. Instead of thinking of all my regrets, I should focus on the beautiful moments we had together.
My father is in prison
2nd place $30
By J.S., Washington Prep HS
When I was 11, I didn’t make a good choice. One night I was watching TV with my cousins while my dad was drinking with his friends in the other room. A few moments later I heard a lot of commotion and arguing. I went to check on my dad and he was ready to fight. I pulled him out of the room to talk but he wasn’t willing to listen to me. I then told him to take me home.
We were walking down the street because we lived just down the block. He seemed pretty mad about what had happened, but I had no idea how he felt. As we walked up the steps he kissed me on my forehead and said “I love you.” At that point I knew something was wrong. He then walked away as I went in the house.
The next day I received some bad news. Two of my neighbors had been reported dead. Then it hit me—the reason my dad didn’t stay the night and the reason he didn’t tuck me into bed and the reason he didn’t eat dinner with me. I regret not pushing him to stay the night with me and my mother, sister and brother. Maybe I would still have my father to look up to and count on instead of him being in prison. He was my everything, my other half, my best friend and a loving father. I didn’t get why this would happen to me at such a young age. I figured I was cursed or just had bad luck with the things that were most important to me.
As the years went by I cried a lot, but as I got older I realized I had to live with it. I never forgave my dad for leaving me. He would write me letters but I would never reply. I didn’t know what to say. When I was mature enough to understand everything I wrote him back and expressed all my feelings. I was just so angry because he said he would never leave me again. Maybe if I would have had a clue or was old enough to change his mind that night, I would still have my father.
A sketchy Internet relationship
3rd place $20
Author’s name withheld
Not too long ago, I was in a “relationship” with someone I met on MySpace. We had never met and I had never even been in a relationship. The fact that we were both gay and had to keep it secret from our friends made the situation more awkward. We first had to come out to each other and our “relationship” grew from there. Soon after we started our conversations, we decided that it was time to hear each other’s voices, so we started to talk on the phone. Now, keep in mind that I still had never met this person. For all I knew, he could’ve been a 50-year-old man pretending to be a young adult, yet I stupidly continued to talk to him.
We talked on the phone nightly until the wee hours of the morning. This left me grumpy in the morning, and my schoolwork became sloppy. This relationship with a person that I really didn’t know was affecting every aspect of my life. My friends didn’t know why I was mad, my teachers didn’t know why my work kept getting worse and worse, and my parents didn’t know what was happening to their son.
Things felt OK for a while, but the guy slowly began to show his true colors. Every conversation we had, online or on the phone, kept getting more and more sexual. All that mattered to him was sex. What’s worse is that I played along with everything that was happening.
Eventually, we decided that it was time to meet. Deciding on the place was difficult. I wanted a public place like the mall, but all of his suggestions were private places. He invited me to his house, or a little cove with plenty of deserted areas where anything could happen. It was clear that he was either an online pedophile or a guy my age who was looking only for sex. Whichever it was, I refused to go along with it. I finally made the decision not to go.
After I missed the first meeting, we stopped writing. We essentially broke up. However, this could barely be labeled a breakup because it wasn’t much of a healthy relationship to start with.
The decisions I made while talking to him were stupid, and I still feel unbelievably angry with myself for doing it. I am constantly asking myself, “Why did you play along with what he was saying?” I knew that I wasn’t ready for what was going on, yet I pushed myself to do it anyway, thinking that somehow it was what I needed.
I regret trying to force myself to find someone, and I regret doing the things I did to try and keep a boyfriend. I regret feeling that I needed someone because I felt like everyone else had someone. I regret every decision I made during the entire ordeal, and am glad that I had the power to say no. Although I said no after so many things had gone by, I am proud that I didn’t go through with meeting him. I learned valuable lessons that I will never forget. I learned about the strength I possess. And I know now that drawing the line, and saying no to something you don’t believe in, is not a bad thing to do. Stand up for yourself and say no when you know something isn’t right.
I’m sorry I bullied my brother
By Kevin Melendez, Birmingham Community Charter HS
Bullying my brother is my biggest regret. It’s something I should’ve never done.
I know what you’re probably thinking, that I’m a cruel brother. I don’t hit my brother anymore. One reason is because I got in trouble too much. The second reason is he got hurt badly. My brother rarely got bruises. Then there were times that I made him cry. Not really a good feeling when you think about it.
For a while my brother wouldn’t want to be around me, not even when we were at a party where we had no one to talk to and didn’t know anyone. He avoided me at home and anywhere else he could. I don’t blame him for what he did. I mean getting hit in the arm just because your brother is angry or jealous isn’t something you want. It probably made him fear me. I should never have let my anger get the best of me.
I wonder how my relationship with my brother would be if I hadn’t been so cruel and evil. I see my friend’s strong and healthy relationships with his siblings, knowing that could have been my brother and I. We have an “OK” relationship now, but I can’t raise my hand without him flinching. It’s not as bad as it used to be because he rarely does that anymore. Still it makes me feel like a monster when he does.
I wish I could go back in time and take it all back, make sure that my anger didn’t get the best of me. No one should let their anger get the best of themselves or pick on someone just because you’re angry, no matter what. Trust me, it’s not a great feeling when you pick on someone. It makes you feel like a monster. You should have a relationship that has trust and a strong bond. Don’t have a relationship that’s based on fear.
Next essay contest—What don’t your parents understand about you?
Your parents were once teenagers and they probably think they get you and know what it’s like to be a teen. But do you think they do? Do they get on you about the way you dress, the music you listen to or the friends you hang out with? Do they question your interests or think you don’t spend enough time studying? Do they expect you to follow in their footsteps? Tell us what you wish your parents understood about you. MAIL YOUR ESSAYS TO:
5967 W. 3rd St. Ste. 301
Los Angeles CA 90036
OR E-MAIL THEM TO:
DEADLINE: Friday, Dec. 11, 2009