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.
WRITING INTRODUCTIONS & CONCLUSIONS
Even when you know everything about your paper's topic, it's hard to know how to create a "hook" that makes a reader want to read it. And how in the world do you end satisfactorily? The fact is that many of us anguish over our intros and conclusions. The problem of introductions and conclusions is really one problem. They are linked, not only in anguish but in content; they are almost mirror images of each other.
First, however, there are two common misconceptions to dispel. Your thesis is
not an introduction. An introductory paragraph starts with a "hook," which leads into the thesis. You do need an introduction as well as a thesis. Second, a simple restatement of your thesis is not a conclusion. To create that satisfying sense of finality in your conclusion, you must revisit the stuff of your introduction. If you start with a story, return to the story. If you start with a definition, return to the definition, even if only to contradict it.
From the TIP Sheet "How to Start (and Complete) a Research Paper," you already know to start writing your paper in the middle, with the thesis statement and body. When you are ready to finish with the introduction and conclusion, choose from several strategies:
- Illustrate: Show instead of tell.
- Challenge: Raise reader expectations.
- Quote: Make use of the wordsmiths.
- Compare/contrast: Evoke familiarity by comparing or create tension and expectation by contrasting.
- Define: Define-or redefine in a unique way.
- Make a provocative statement: Offer an amazing statistic or personal insight.
An illustration can be as simple as a personal story or anecdote. It's natural to think of a personal anecdote as an introduction to a personal narrative, but stories and anecdotes can be effective introductions to any kind of paper. The following anecdote introduces a research paper on vegetarian and vegan diets. The conclusion returns briefly to the story:
We took our sons fishing in the spillway next to the dam one moonlit night. In the hush of the night, one of them hooked a small trout. But when the landed fish screamed aloud, my son fled the scene in horror and has never eaten flesh since.
People adopt vegetarian and vegan diets for different reasons, not all of them out of horror, as my son did. Whatever their reasons, they are finding more options in grocery stores, restaurants, and cookbooks than ever before.
An example taken from local or world news events is another kind of illustration. This is the introduction and conclusion to a paper on urban growth problems in California:
The Chico city council recently approved six hundred new homes to go in on the east side of the city. The impacts this development will have are likely to be extreme, illustrating the problems all California cities face in managing growth.
How well Chico will cope with the increased traffic, pressure on schools, and impacts to the watershed is yet to be seen. But Chico is not alone in having to find solutions soon.
A composite illustration is a fiction that you create in order to make a point. (Composite means including a bit of this and a bit of that.) The advantage of a composite illustration is that it can be perfectly crafted to fit your point. A composite can illustrate extreme examples that are possible though not likely ("Suppose that..."), or distant consequences that are possible but not yet observed.
An analogy is an extended comparison between one thing and another (the development of a balanced state budget compared with a shopping list, perhaps). If you come up with an apt analogy, it can be very effective; however, a so-so analogy is better abandoned sooner than later. You are better off with a good story than with a mediocre analogy. For more on analogies, see the TIP Sheet, "Writing an Analogy."
A challenge raises reader expectations and creates tension. A challenging opening statement is effective for a thesis that calls for changes to be made in public policies or personal actions, such as in persuasive essays and argument or analysis papers:
Chances are, if you live outside city limits in any of California's twenty-one rural counties, you couldn't use public transportation if you wanted to. There isn't any.
Sure, Californians need to get over their love affairs with their cars, but having a better system of public transportation in place would help. Then, perhaps, I could get from rural Durham to rural Oroville, where I live, without putting yet another car on the road.
A question is another type of challenge:
Does it make sense to prohibit minors from carrying calamine lotion with them at school without two kinds of written permission, and yet allow them to leave campus without parental knowledge or consent for invasive medical procedures?
Even more than many of the zero-tolerance laws in place in our schools, this one should be ditched. Does it make sense? Clearly it doesn't.
Note that a question is an introductory strategy, not a thesis statement. A thesis statement should answer the question, and in some detail-not just "yes" or "no."
Make good use of the wordsmiths of history. Online quotation banks, usually searchable by topic, are a great source for quotations on practically any subject. You have some latitude in how you choose a quote for an introduction; it can be offbeat or unexpected. In the following example, an unusual quote by Albert Einstein is used to introduce an essay on restricting cell phone use while driving:
Albert Einstein once said, "Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves."
It doesn't take an Einstein to realize that cell phones are not the first, nor will they be the last, driving distraction. We don't need more restrictions on cell phones; we just need better drivers.
Song lyrics or familiar sayings sometimes make good introductions, but avoid clichés such as "Haste makes waste." If a familiar saying draws on jargon or sayings familiar only to a particular group, you have to provide the context for those who are unfamiliar with that group:
Computer programmers have a saying: "Garbage in, garbage out."
The next time you read the results of the latest poll, consider the polling method, the sample, and the source, and remember, "Garbage in, garbage out."
Compare or contrast
Comparison shows similarities and creates a sense of familiarity. Contrast shows differences and creates tension and expectation. You do not have to be writing a compare/contrast paper to use this as an introduction strategy. For example, this is a contrast intro to a personal narrative:
When I was seven, I thought my father was all-powerful and could do no wrong. When I was seventeen, I thought he was a jerk.
My father wasn't the god he seemed when I was seven, but he was sure a lot better and wiser than I thought he was when I was seventeen.
A definition can make a good introduction. You don't have to be writing a definition paper to use definition as an introduction strategy. You can use a standard dictionary if you want, but consider using books of quotations or online quotation banks for more interesting definitions:
Here is how Ambrose Bierce defines a conservative: "Conservative. noun. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from a liberal, who wishes to replace them with others."
In the matter of agricultural subsidies, we are better off sticking with existing evils than replacing them with others that promise far worse results.
Another interesting use of definition is to use it as a starting point to re-define something in your own terms:
Webster says friendship is mutual feelings of trust, affection, assistance, and approval between people. However, I say friendship sometimes is knowing when to walk away.
Walking away that day was the biggest favor Mai ever did for me.
Make a provocative or startling statement
If the provocative statement is someone else's, treat it as a quotation. If the provocative statement is statistical, make sure you cite the source. If you have a way with words or an insight all your own, by all means use that:
It is ridiculous and immoral to allow congressmen to give themselves pay raises.
Restricting the ability of congressmen to vote themselves raises would go a long way to restoring morality and a sense of public service to public servants.
As you can see, introductions and conclusions are closely linked. Once you decide on a strategy, try simply over-writing the introduction (as one student we know regularly did) and then split off part of it to use as the conclusion. When you begin to think of introductions and conclusions as two pieces of a single puzzle, you will probably find them much easier to write.