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.”
'I felt guilty when I got my results': your stories of buying essays | Guardian readers and Sarah Marsh
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.”
Applying to university? It's time to narrow your choices down to two
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.
Essays for sale: the booming online industry in writing academic work to order
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.”
Keep up with the latest on Guardian Students: follow us on Twitter at @GdnStudents – and become a member to receive exclusive benefits and our weekly newsletter.
We live in a beautiful world.
Look around you, it is amazing: skyscrapers, gravity, daisies, peaches, archipelagos, children, languages, music, wars, phosphorous, galaxies, snow, literature, human existence.
We live in such a breathtaking environment that is full of magic and wonder. Although we can feel intense sadness, profound happiness can be just around the corner. One step away. One thought away. One kiss away. Sources of joy are literally everywhere; one just has to overlook all of the negative things trying to cover them up.
The world conspires for you to be happy, not unhappy. It is all a matter of perspective, of stepping back and taking a good look at the world around you. How can you ever be bored, depressed, frustrated, annoyed or jealous in a world of such infinite possibility?
Are you discontent with your current situation? Then change it. Move elsewhere. Do something else. Befriend other people. This world is not a single plane; it is vast and varied and waiting for you to experience it.
If today is not a good day, wake up tomorrow and start a better day. Better yet, close your eyes for one minute and open them looking for the beauty, the complexity, the awesomeness that is this Universe. Forget the ugliness, the adversity, the vacuous nature that so many impose upon the world around them for those details are not worth paying attention to, nor remembering.
What good do negative thoughts and actions serve? They only hurt, cramp and suppress positivity. It is only with optimism, altruism, and compassion, that we can cure this world of its ills. Judgment, hatred, egotism, bitterness, and despair only bring more evil into a world already riddled with problems. Even a very small amount of a good can exponentially spread because it is so much more rare than bad in this universe.
Regarding good, people are the ultimate source of it. Every single human being is completely different with their own flaws, skills, experiences, secrets, and dreams. Every man and woman hold inside them a story so infinitely interesting that it could never be told completely in a film, book or conversation. People cannot be defined as ignorant, pretty, selfish, purple, happy or conservative. Every person is a unique being shaped by the infinite amount of variables that our Earth-bound existences offer us. The Earth is a museum, and we all are the art within it. Study all of the art regardless of its shape, color or texture, and you will gain a greater understanding of the museum.
Life is what you make of it. Life is perception: sight, taste, smell, sound, and touch. Reality depends upon the intensity and angle with which light hits our eyes. Reality sounds only because of the way our brains decipher the vibrations of the air around us. That same air is only felt because of the stimulation of our nerve endings and the subsequent signals to our brains. We are only told what is around us; it is our job actually to interpret that information. A “negative” sensory input can be a source of anguish, or simply an inspiration to change everything and attract more positive inputs. It is up to you, and you alone. No one thing or one person can decide or influence how you feel. That is completely up to you. Decide to be happy about life, and you will remain that way. It is your perception, so why not make it a positive perception?
We live in a beautiful world. It is time that you see the beauty. It is ever-pervading and impossible to miss unless your eyes are closed. So open them.