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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Below we offer an example of a thoughtful reflective essay that effectively and substantively capture the author's growth over time at California State University Channel Islands (CI). We suggest that you write your own essay before reading either of these models-then, having completed your first draft, read these over to consider areas in your own background that you have not yet addressed and which may be relevant to your growth as a reader, writer, or thinker.
Any reference to either of these essays must be correctly cited and attributed; failure to do so constitutes plagiarism and will result in a failing grade on the portfolio and possible other serious consequences as stated in the CI Code of Conduct.
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Sample Reflective Essay #2
Author: Nekisa Mahzad
I have been a student at California State University Channel Islands (CI) for 5 semesters, and over the course of my stay I have grown and learned more that I thought possible. I came to this school from Moorpark Community College already knowing that I wanted to be an English teacher; I had taken numerous English courses and though I knew exactly what I was headed for-was I ever wrong. Going through the English program has taught me so much more than stuff about literature and language, it has taught me how to be me. I have learned here how to write and express myself, how to think for myself, and how to find the answers to the things that I don't know. Most importantly I have learned how important literature and language are.
When I started at CI, I thought I was going to spend the next 3 years reading classics, discussing them and then writing about them. That was what I did in community college English courses, so I didn't think it would be much different here. On the surface, to an outsider, I am sure that this is what it appears that C.I. English majors do. In most all my classes I did read, discuss, and write papers; however, I quickly found out that that there was so much more to it. One specific experience I had while at C.I. really shows how integrated this learning is. Instead of writing a paper for my final project in Perspectives of Multicultural Literature (ENGL 449), I decided with a friend to venture to an Indian reservation and compare it to a book we read by Sherman Alexie. We had a great time and we learned so much more that we ever could have done from writing a paper. The opportunity to do that showed me that there are so many ways that one can learn that are both fun and educational.
The English courses also taught me how powerful the written word and language can be. Words tell so much more than a story. Stories tell about life and the human condition, they bring up the past and people and cultures that are long gone. Literature teaches about the self and the world surrounding the self. From these classes I learned about the world, its people and its history; through literature I learned how we as humans are all related. By writing about what we learn and/or what we believe, we are learning how to express ourselves.
I know that my ability to write and express my ideas, thoughts and knowledge has grown stronger each semester. I have always struggled to put my thoughts on paper in a manner that is coherent and correct according to assignments. I can remember being told numerous times in community college to "organize your thoughts" or "provide more support and examples". These are the things that I have worked on and improved over the past couple of years and I feel that my work shows this. The papers I wrote when I first started here at C.I. were bland and short. In these early papers, I would just restate what we learned in class and what I had found in my research. I did not formulate my own ideas and support them with the works of others. The classes I have taken the past couple semesters have really help me shed that bad habit and write better papers with better ideas. I have learned how to write various styles of papers in different forms and different fields. I feel confident that I could write a paper about most anything and know how to cite and format it properly.
There are a couple of things that I do feel I lack the confidence and skill to perform, and that is what I hope to gain from participating in Capstone. I am scared to teach because I don't know how to share my knowledge with others-students who may have no idea what I am talking about. I hope to learn more about how teachers share their knowledge as part of my Capstone project.
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View sample reflective essay #1
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Careers in English and Writing
The English program at California State University Channel Islands prepares students for a wide range of exciting and rewarding careers, including:
- English teacher
- Social media strategist
- Media production (film, TV, internet)
- Print and digital publishing
- Corporate communications
- Foreign service
- Human resources
- Foundations/non-profit management
Learn more about CI's English Program