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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Sample longer essay questions.
[Wiarda 1-5] How have approaches to comparison -- and to the nature of development and democratization changed over time?
[Magstadt, Wiarda, Hauss, Steiner]. How can we approach the problem of classifying the many governments around the world? What approaches are most useful in guiding us to understanding the variety of nation states?
[Steiner 1, 2] Explain how European parties and elections differ from those in the US, and how parties are changing.
[Steiner 1-3, Commons Question Time video] Is the powerful party leader /prime minister system common in Europe -- and is it compatible with democracy? In your answer, discuss with examples the qualities of European monarchical and presidential forms of head of state. Explain the nature of cabinets in western Europe and contrast them with the US.
[Steiner 3] Discuss with examples the qualities of European monarchical and republican forms of head of state. What is the long term trend in heads of state?
[Steiner 3] Explain the nature of cabinets in western Europe and contrast them with the US. Is the British model typical?
[Steiner 3] Discuss with examples the qualities of European monarchical and presidential forms of head of state. Explain the nature of cabinets in western Europe and contrast them with the US. Is the British model really typical of western Europe -- or really untypical?
[Steiner 4] Is Europe likely to accept or reject American style judicial review, or the use of the referendum -- and why is it even experimenting with such processes?
[Steiner 4-5] Why is Europe experimenting with American style judicial review, or the use of the referendum -- and are these institutions democratic or anti-democratic in nature? [Don't forget to contrast European with American courts and deliberation in parliaments with direct democracy via referenda (or "plebiscites").]
[Steiner 6] Should the State cooperate with economic interest groups, or keep them at arm's length? Explain the argument in Europe between corporatists and pluralists (or anti-corporatists).
[Steiner 6] Explain the argument in Europe between corporatists and pluralists or anti-corporatists. Is the role of the State really different in West Europe than in the US?
[Steiner 7] Discuss the recent social and religious movements in western Europe. Which trends have gone further than the US and which have run behind?
[Steiner 7, 9-12] Explain how in the 1990s European communism and nationalism yielded to democracy, market forces and regional or ethnic identity. What institutions such as power sharing (consociational democracy) or devolution have been used to ease this shift?
[Steiner, Hancock] Explain the development of the European Economic community and its metamorphasis into the EC and eventually the EU. To what degree is this dependent on building (in the 1950s) narrowly functional, (in the 1960s) general economic or (in the 1990s) monetary and political integration?
[Steiner, Hancock] Describe the composition, powers and roles of the institutions of the European Union. Is it generally true that the executive, legislative or judicial branch is the most powerful? Is the EU a supra-national governmental system, or more of a confederation?
[New Europeans, Steiner, Hancock] In what ways has the EU attempted to create a trans-national economy, polity and culture? Is this process threatened by the rediscovery of regional identities within its nation states? Discuss with examples.
[Steiner, Hancock] To what degree is the United Kingdom a polity of similar politico-cultural traditions to the US but with contradictory institutions? Examine the political parties, elections, the legislature, the cabinet, the monarchy and the power of the Treasury.
[Steiner, Hancock] Compare and contrast the development of Italian and German government from 1945 to 1989, and from 1989 onwards.
[Steiner, Wilson] Italy and Germany were both fascist states in the 1930s and 1940s, but have been democracies since 1947. They both became different democracies in the 1990s than they had been for fifty years. Compare and contrast the development of Italian and German government from 1945 to 1989, and from 1989 onwards.
[Steiner, Hancock] Describe the composition, powers and roles of the institutions of French government, and the historical traditions that gave rise to the Fifth Republic. Is the system closer in design to the British or to the American?
[New Europeans, Steiner, Hancock] It used to be said that the European Union was founded upon French farming interests and the German Bundesbank interest. One wasted money lavishly and the other conserved it too carefully. With the recent expansion of interests (new countries, new social movements), and policy changes (monetary, environmental, social welfare) in the EU, which tendency would you predict will predominate in the next century, and why?
[Steiner, Hancock] To what degree is the United Kingdom a polity of similar politico-cultural traditions to the US but with contradictory institutions -- whereas Sweden has similar institutions but different culture?
[Curtis] To what degree can an American understand the influences on European politics via the classic theorists excerpted by Curtis? Are they most helpful in understanding socialism, monarchism, or some other influence that is "un-American". Explain your answer in the light of at least five European theorists.
[De Gaulle: A Vision of France, Steiner, Wilson] Describe the composition, powers and roles of the institutions of French government, and the historical traditions -- and De Gaulle's leadership that gave rise to the Fifth Republic. Is the system closer in design and traditions to the British or to the American? Did De Gaulle succeed in making France "marry her century?"