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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Learn English Writing
Most ESL students learning to write an English passage have a hard time understanding the purpose of a thesis statement.
Here’s a simple approach: one thesis sentence pattern suitable for intermediate+ level students.
Part 1. What’s a Thesis?
A thesis has a few important features:
- usually one sentence
- tells the reader the main idea
- is the focus of the essay or story
Everything in the story, passage or essay explains and proves the thesis. If someone asks what your essay is about, the best answer is to say the thesis.
Bad Thesis Examples
I asked a group of students to write an essay. The subject was poverty. I gave them a question to start their thinking:
- What is the best way to stop poverty?
Their job was to write the introduction paragraph with a clear thesis sentence. Here are some of their answers.
- “My essay is about poor people.”
- “My essay is about Iran.”
Well, none of these answers are good.
Part 2. How to Write a Thesis Statement
Here is a four-step process to write a thesis sentence using the above example about poverty.
First, choose a narrow topic. Poverty is a big idea. Be specific. So let’s pick an area. Poor villages in Africa is a good start.
Second, find the key parts of the topic. In this case, the question is, “What is the best way to stop poverty in a poor African village?” There are two parts in the question:
- a) stop poverty and b) the best way.
Third, change the two parts into two questions. Here is an example:
- a) how can we stop poverty in a poor African village? and b) why is it the best way?
Fourth, create a thesis by answering each of these questions in one sentence. I suggest a sentence pattern like this:
- HOW (your idea about what to do) because WHY (the benefit or reason)
Two possible thesis sentences:
- Donating money to World Vision is a great way to stop poverty in poor African villages because this organization helps children by giving them food, clothing and shelter.
- Helping people in poor African villages start their own businesses is a good way to stop poverty because it builds independence, creates wealth that stays in the local communities and reduces their need for donations from charities.
In each thesis sentence, we have described two parts:
- the way to stop poverty
- why it is a good idea
Part 3 Practice the Sentence Pattern
Here are a few practice questions. Download the worksheet here and try writing some thesis sentences.
Ask students to chose one of the thesis sentences from the worksheet and write a 3 to 5 paragraph essay or story.
Part 4. More Practice
Another writing activity to apply this knowledge. Here’s the task.
- Watch the video below.
- Work with a partner to brainstorm a thesis. Use the sentence pattern described above.
- Think about reasons, evidence and details.
- Make notes.
- Individually, write a 1 to 2 page story or essay with a clear thesis plus reasons, examples and details.
- Be sure to include a paragraph or two which describes your response. Do you agree with the thesis in the video?
blind from YUKIHIRO SHODA on Vimeo.
a Decade from Treehouse Studio on Vimeo.
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