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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"When I came to write my first assignment, I cried," says Daphne Elliston. "I just didn't know what I was doing."
Elliston graduated with a degree in health and social care from the Open University. Though she's hugely proud of her achievement, she says that in the early days she worked up to three hours a night for weeks on end to construct an essay she was happy to submit.
"At the beginning, the most difficult thing was just understanding the academic words," she says.
"Then putting my own words into academic language was hard. And it was difficult to believe I was entitled to my own opinion or to disagree with all these academics who'd done years of research."
Elliston started her degree after decades out of the education system, and with just one NVQ qualification to her name.
She believes the gap in her education was to blame but, according to some academics, many of the current crop of students gearing up to A-levels will feel exactly the same when they start university this autumn.
Margi Rawlinson, academic skills co-ordinator at Edge Hill University, says it is wrong to think that only so-called non-traditional students wrestle with writing essays.
"We have people with A-levels who are arriving poorly equipped for academic writing," she says.
"I think one of the issues at A-level is that they're not being taught to research independently, and [with essays] it's not just the writing – that's only part of it."
At Worcester University, Helena Attlee, fellow of the Royal Literary Fund and writer in residence, agrees.
"It seems to me there's a lack of interface between A-levels and degrees, so the thing that people are required to do to get very good A-levels isn't equipping them to do what is required to get a degree."
Over the last year, part of Attlee's role has been to offer one-to-one sessions with students to help them develop the skills needed to complete a well-written assignment.
"The absolutely common thing is they have no clue that there is a recipe for an academic essay. That can make life considerably easier for you if somebody bothers to tell you," she says.
"Students can have no idea of the concept of making an argument so their essays are entirely descriptive. You know, 'and then this happens, and such-and- such an academic says this about it, and then this happens, and so-and-so says that'."
With the ability to think or write analytically "there's no end of the reading you can do," she says. "And, at that point, students start to say they feel overwhelmed."
Kate Brooks, principal lecturer and student experience co-ordinator in the faculty of creative arts at the University of the West of England (UWE), has carried out research into students' experience of the transition between school and university, and says that essay writing featured strongly in their comments.
"One issue was time management – do they start writing weeks before or the night before?" she says.
In the workshop sessions she runs, she tries to explain that, in fact, writing is a small element in creating an essay.
"Students can have an idea that it's a linear thing – you do your reading, then you get a cup of tea and sit down to write. We try to get across that it's a much more cyclical process; do some research, draft a bit, read some more, think, consider what you've written, redraft... I'll explain that it's like that for academics, too – after all, I don't just sit down one day and think, 'Right, I'll write a book!'"
Some universities are now actively addressing the problem in individual faculties or by creating generic cross-subject courses delivered by their study skills departments. But some students resist the help on offer.
"The English department here put on a compulsory module called 'Writing at degree level', but dropped it because the students rebelled," says Attlee. "They felt it was remedial and offensive and they wouldn't go."
Attlee's one-to-one sessions are voluntary and very popular. Having individual attention, she says, can make all the difference to someone who is embarrassed to say that they're failing to master a basic – though far from easy – skill.
At Essex University, the head of philosophy, Professor Wayne Martin, is passionate about the voluntary module on essay writing he's created for MA and first-year undergraduate students – and he needs to be, because it sounds distinctly time-intensive and is not an official part of his job.
"Students do it because they want to. They're not assessed, but it's really hard work," he says.
"In philosophy, a particular skill that's needed, and which needs time to develop, is the representation of argument so you don't get tangled up in writing long, ugly sentences. And then, some very smart students can write, but they get to university and they overreach themselves, using phrases like 'hegemonic dialectical superstructure'!"
Sessions are run with all the students together in a room, so there's an element of having to cope with a bit of gentle public ribbing at some of the more desperate clangers. Creating an atmosphere of trust and constructive criticism is therefore essential to helping people feel safe and ensuring they want to come back.
Essays are due into Martin's inbox at midnight on Sundays. He is up the following morning at the crack of dawn reading them, so he can selects excerpts for the entire group to discuss and rewrite together.
As he points out, this form of tuition doesn't appear to make economic sense, especially with universities under tremendous pressure to teach in more efficient ways. But, he says, it is more cost-effective than it sounds. "My strategy with that is for universities to be offering a combination of very high-efficiency lectures – [he means with hundreds of students] – but then use that efficiency to offer this kind of intimate instruction."
But is it realistic to think that people's essay-writing skills can improve significantly if they've not already been developed over years in a school setting?
"Yes, incredibly. And the biggest improvement is generally in the first five weeks," he says.
Elliston is living proof . By absorbing and working through all the feedback from her OU tutors over the six years it took her to get her degree, her marks went up from 56% on her first assignment to 84% in her last essay of her final year.
"That feedback, and the nice way it was given, was so important," she says. But she wishes she had been better prepared for the shock of leaping into an academic environment.
"I think an access course might have helped me, before I started, to ge t the skills that were going to be expected of me."