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’ve been teaching university courses and grading student essays for twenty years. A lot of students need help with their writing, and I really enjoy working with students on their essays. But I’ve noticed that there’s a curious mismatch between the kind of advice I usually find myself giving, when I start working with students, and what students are commonly taught in writing classes.
In a writing class, the curriculum usually starts with grammar, sentence structure, elements of style, and moves up to paragraphs and paragraph structure, and then toward the end of the course, gets to essays and different essay types. So they start from the smallest units of writing and scale up to the larger units.
For me, from the standpoint of a teacher trying to help students write better essays, this gets things entirely backward.
In this video I’m going to explain exactly what I mean by this, and why the most efficient way to improve your essay writing is to fix the problems with the the largest unit first — the problems with essay structure.
The 80-20 Rule
There’s a rule known as the 80-20 rule that originated in economics but is commonly taught in management and business. It states that, in many different situations, roughly 80 percent of the effects arise from 20 percent of the causes.
In business, it might imply that 80 percent of your sales come from 20 percent of your customers. Or, 80 percent of your company’s profits come from 20 percent of the time your staff spend. 80 percent of customer complaints come from 20 percent of your customers.
The exact percentages aren’t important, the point is that certain inputs have a disproportionate influence on outputs, and knowing what those inputs are can be very important if you’re looking to diagnosis problems in your organization or optimize performance.
An 80-20 Rule for Essay Writing
I want you to consider what an 80-20 analysis would look like when applied to essay writing.
When I get an essay from a student that has problems, I’ve got some choice when it comes to deciding what sort of feedback would be most helpful.
Most essays have a mixture of problems — there are problems with spelling, word choice, grammar, sentence structure, paragraph structure, and so on, all the way up to overall essay structure and organization. I could start anywhere. I could fill up the pages with red marks just focusing on grammar and style issues alone.
But that’s not what I do, and it’s not what any good instructor or editor should do. I want to make the most efficient use of my time and the student’s time. So I’ll focus on fixing the problems that have the greatest impact on the overall success of the essay.
And that’s not spelling and grammar.
What I need to focus on is essay STRUCTURE, essay ORGANIZATION. Fixing problems with structure will fix the majority of the problems with your essay, and make the greatest contribution to improving the grade on your essay.
Let me say that again. Fixing problems with overall essay structure will fix 80% or more of the problems with your essay.
In an 80-20 analysis, this would be the input that makes the greatest contribution to the overall success of the essay. Again, don’t take the exact percentages seriously, they’re just to illustrate a point, which is that structural issues have a disproportionate impact on the the success of an essay.
Why Fixing Problems with Structure Fixes Most of Your Essay Writing Problems
Why is this?
We have to remember that the primary goal of an essay assignment isn’t to write beautiful sentences or even beautiful paragraphs.
The goal is to communicate a main idea, a thesis, and to use the essay format to organize ideas in the most effective way to successfully communicate that main idea.
An essay’s success or failure is primarily a function of the organization and flow of ideas, at the highest level of organization, at the level of the essay taken as a whole, not at the level of individual sentences or individual paragraphs.
The priority of structure in essay writing is familiar to anyone who has graded papers. I’lll repeat what I said before — when a student hands in a draft of a paper that is poorly written, it almost always has a mix of spelling, grammar, sentence structure and organizational problems. If I wanted to I could start identifying every grammar and stylistic problem, and I could write a long document with editorial tips on grammar and style issues alone.
But I don’t do any of that.
What I do is make a few comments about the overall organization of the paper and invite the student in to talk about them. Often I don’t even bother commenting on the spelling and grammar and style issues.
Why? Because that’s not the priority. That’s not the part that is most important to the success of the paper. Even if all the spelling and vocabulary and grammar and sentence structure problems are fixed, if the organizational parts aren’t fixed, I’ll never give this paper a top grade. No instructor would.
So we, as instructors and editors and graders, focus on the most important feedback first, which is structural. Once that’s fixed it would make sense to look closer at style issues, on a second or third draft.
But even on second or third drafts, most of the constructive feedback your teachers give you will still be feedback about structure, because (a) it can take several tries to fix the structural problems, and (b) it’s only at the structural level where you can move a paper from being merely good to excellent.
So, the take-away is that not all the skill sets that are important for good writing are equally important.
In essay writing in particular, there is a HUGE asymmetry — structural and organizational factors are far more important in determining whether an essay is successful or not, than spelling and vocabulary and grammar.
It follows, then, that a program of instruction that aims to improve people’s essay writing should focus on principles of structure and organization at the essay level.
And that’s I’m trying to do in this course — I have relatively little to say about grammar and style and usage, except when it relates to structural and organizational features at the essay level.
Now, maybe some of you watching this will think that none of this is surprising.
But the principle that I’ve tried to articulate here, about the priority of structure in essay writing, is for the most part, completely unfamiliar to students entering college.
I can’t speak for the way that essay writing is taught in high school (when it’s taught at all), but the fact is that in my 20 years of experience working with students on their writing, I have yet to encounter a student who recognized this principle, prior to receiving some formal instruction specifically about it.
Let me say this again. What I would regard as the single most important principle of essay writing — the one that is most important for successful essay writing — is unfamiliar to most of the students entering college.
This is disturbing to me, as a teacher.
Now, this isn’t to say that there aren’t good writers among the students who enter college, because there are.
But I’m convinced that in most cases these students became good writers in spite of their formal training in essay writing, rather than because of it. They’ve picked up their skills through extensive reading and assimilation and modeling, rather than through formal instruction.
And that’s great, that’s wonderful, but the fact is that it’s something you only see in a fraction of students. There are many more students who could benefit from some formal instruction in structural principles for successful essay writing, but who have never been exposed to them.
So, in the next video we’ll get started doing just that.