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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It’s My Life
My name is Ann Smith. I am a senior in high school. Everyone can agree that I am a good student and that I like to study. My favorite subjects are chemistry and biology. I am going to enter the university because my goal is to study these subjects in future and to become a respected professional in one of the fields.
I can say that I am a responsible and a hard-working student. Moreover, being a sociable person, I have many friends since I like to communicate with people and get to know new interesting individuals. I enjoy my time at school: it is really nice to study and the students are very friendly and ready to help. The atmosphere cannot but make me want to go there every time. I like to receive and deal with challenging tasks. I am a very enthusiastic student and I think this is a strong point of mine.
My friends say that I am a very funny and an interesting girl with a good sense of humor. As soon as I meet new people who are happy to meet me, I feel extremely comfortable with them. I believe that friendship is one of the most important values in human life. We exchange new ideas, find many interesting things about each other and experience new things. I appreciate friendship and people who surround me.
Every time I do my best to be a…
Some Essential Tips On How To Write An Essay About Yourself
No matter what’s the purpose of your essay, there is a preset number of points that you will be expected to address.
The main line should be that you are not a robot, and that it is your feelings and emotions that define you as a personality. Do not get stuck with material possessions and what you have achieved in life. That has to do only with a small portion of who you are.
- Avoid overly simplified ideas. You are a human being after all, and your life is not as simple as it may seem after years of school. You wouldn’t want to seem or sound too simple. The more substance you create out of your daily activities, the better. Longer sentences will be good.
- Include a few dream-like paragraphs to stress the point that you are not a robot. Sometimes it can get hard explaining your feelings and emotions, you may say.
- The best way to get to know people is to see how they react to stimuli. Use your essay to pick a few incidents or just more or less regular events to attempt and define what your character is at its core.
- Find amusing in ordinary and showcase that. Your job is to present the ordinary stuff that happens to you in a way that will make the reader want to know you better. It’s all a matter of the right perspective. You have to take multiple stands on what you are as a person, and include that all in an ordered form.
- How do you fit with your friends, family and just immediate surrounding? Where is your place in the world?
- What the purpose of your life? If a question like that is too global for your work, you can just include the things that you enjoy. Don’t forget to say why or explain any symbolism connected with the things you love.
Avoid Unclear Definitions
It is really easy to get lost when you are writing something as vague and as perspective-oriented as an essay about yourself. People tend to choose a number of themes of who they are and try to describe them all.
That would be very confusing for the reader. Not to mention that it would be hard to write and navigate in between those themes. After all, very few people know you well enough, and it is almost certain that your essay is going to be read mostly by strangers or just people who know you marginally.
What you do instead is pick one theme: which light do you want to be seen in? Once you have answered that question, you are ready to go. Stay true to the theme, and you will get a coherent piece that will get you a good grade.
If you are going to write your own essay from the scratch, our manual on «How to write an essay» will be useful for you.