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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Honestly, throughout most of high school and college, I was a mediocre essay writer.
Every once in a while, I would write a really good essay, but mostly I skated by with B’s and A-minuses.
I know personally how boring writing an essay can be, and also, how hard it can be to write a good one.
Writing an essay? Don’t pull your hair out. Here are 10 tips to write a great essay. Photo by Stuart Pilbrow (Creative Commons)
However, toward the end of my time as a student, I made a breakthrough. I figured out how to not only write a great essay, I learned how to have fun while doing it.
That’s right. Fun.
Why Writing an Essay Is So Hard?
Here are a few reasons:
- You’d rather be scrolling through Facebook.
- You’re trying to write something your teacher or professor will like.
- You’re trying to get an A instead of writing something that’s actually good.
- You want to do the least amount of work possible.
The biggest reason writing an essay is so hard is because we mostly focus on those external rewards like getting a passing grade or our teacher’s approval. The problem is that when you focus on external approval it not only makes writing much less fun, it also makes it significantly harder.
Because when you focus on external approval, you shut down your subconscious, and the subconscious is the source of your creativity. What this means practically is that when you’re trying to write that perfect, A-plus-worthy sentence, you’re turning off most of your best resources.
Just stop. Stop trying to write a good essay (or even a “good-enough” essay). Instead, write an interesting essay, write an essay you think is fascinating. And when you’re finished, go back and edit it until it’s “good” according to your teacher’s standards.
Yes, you need to follow the guidelines in your assignment. If your teacher tells you to write a five-paragraph essay, then write a five-paragraph essay! However, within those guidelines, find room to express something that is uniquely you.
I can’t guarantee you’ll get a higher grade (although, you almost certainly will), but I can absolutely promise you’ll have a lot more fun writing.
10 Tips to Writing a Great Essay
Ready to get writing? Here are my ten best tips for having fun while writing an essay that earns you the top grade!
1. Your essay is just a story.
Every story is about conflict and change, and the truth is that essays are about conflict and change, too! The difference is that in an essay, the conflict is between different ideas, the change is in the way we should perceive those ideas.
That means that the best essays are about surprise, “You probably think it’s one way, but in reality, you should think of it this other way.” See tip #3 for more on this.
2. Before you start writing, ask yourself, “How can I have the most fun writing this?”
It’s normal to feel unmotivated when writing an essay. I’m a writer, and honestly, I feel unmotivated to write all the time. But I have a super-ninja, judo-mind trick I like to use to help motivate myself.
Here’s the secret trick: One of the interesting things about your subconscious is that it will answer any question you ask yourself. So whenever you feel unmotivated to write your essay, ask yourself the following question:
How much fun can I have writing this?”
Your subconscious will immediately start thinking of strategies to make the writing process more fun. Here’s another sneaky question to ask yourself when you really don’t want to write:
How can I finish this as quickly as possible?
Give it a try!
3. As you research, ask yourself, “What surprises me about this subject?”
The temptation, when you’re writing an essay, is to write what you think your teacher or professor wants to read. Don’t do this. Instead, ask yourself, “What do I find interesting about this subject? What surprises me?”
If you can’t think of anything that surprises you, anything you find interesting, then you’re not searching well enough, because history, science, and literature are all brimmingover with surprises. When you look at how great ideas actually happen, the story is always, “We used to think the world was this way. We found out we were completely wrong, and that the world is actually quite different from what we thought.”
As you research your essay topic, search for this story of surprise, and don’t start writing until you can find it.
(By the way, what sources should you use for research? Check out tip #10 below.)
4. Overwhelmed? Just write five original sentences.
The standard three-point essay is really made up of just five original sentences, surrounded by supporting paragraphs that back up those five sentences. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, just write five sentences. Here’s what they might look like:
- Thesis: While most students consider writing an essay a boring task, with the right mindset, it can actually be an enjoyable experience.
- Body #1: Most students think writing an essay is tedious because they focus on external rewards.
- Body #2: Students should instead focus on internal fulfillment when writing an essay.
- Body #3: Not only will focusing on internal fulfillment allow students to have more fun, they will write better essays.
- Conclusion: Writing an essay doesn’t have to be simply a way to earn a good grade. Instead, it can be a means of finding fulfillment.
After you write your five sentences, it’s easy to fill in the paragraphs they will find themselves in.
Now, you give it a shot!
5. Be “source heavy.”
In college, I discovered a trick that helped me go from a B-average student to an A-student, but before I explain how it works, let me warn you. This technique is powerful, but it might not work for all teachers or professors. Use with caution.
As I was writing a paper for a literature class, I realized that the articles and books I was reading said what I was trying to say much better than I ever could. So what did I do? I just quoted them liberally throughout my paper. When I wasn’t quoting, I re-phrased what they said in my own words, giving proper credit, of course. I found that not only did this formula create a well-written essay, it took about half the time to write.
When I used this technique, my professors sometimes mentioned that my papers were very “source” heavy. However, at the same time, they always gave me A’s. Like the five sentence trick, this technique makes the writing process simpler. Instead of putting the main focus on writing well, it instead forces you to research well, which some students find easier.
6. Write the body first, the introduction second, and the conclusion last.
Introductions are often the hardest part to write because you’re trying to summarize your entire essay before you’ve even written it yet. Instead, try writing your introduction last, giving yourself the body of the paper to figure out the main point of your essay.
7. Most essays answer the question, “What?” Good essays answer the “Why?” The best essays answer the “How?”
If you get stuck trying to make your argument, or you’re struggling to reach the required word count, try focusing on the question, “How?” For example:
- How did J.D. Salinger convey the theme of inauthenticity in The Catcher In the Rye?
- How did Napoleon restore stability in France after the French Revolution?
- How does the research prove girls really do rule and boys really do drool?
If you focus on how, you’ll always have enough to write about.
8. Don’t be afraid to jump around.
Essay writing can be a dance. You don’t have to stay in one place and write from beginning to end. Give yourself the freedom to write as if you’re circling around your topic rather than making a single, straightforward argument. Then, when you edit, you can make sure everything lines up correctly.
9. Here are some words and phrases you don’t want to use.
- You (You’ll notice I use a lot of you’s, which is great for a blog post. However, in an essay, it’s better to omit the second-person.)
- To Be verbs
Don’t have time to edit? Here’s a lightning-quick editing technique.
A note about “I”: Some teachers say you shouldn’t use “I” statements in your writing, but the truth is that professional, academic papers often use phrases like “I believe” and “in my opinion,” especially in their introductions.
10. It’s okay to use Wikipedia, if…
Wikipedia isn’t just one of the top 5 websites in the world, it can be a great tool for research. However, most teachers and professors don’t consider Wikipedia a valid source for use in essays. However, here are two ways you can use Wikipedia in your essay writing:
- Background research. If you don’t know enough about your topic, Wikipedia can be a great resource to quickly learn everything you need to know to get started.
- Find sources. Check the reference section of Wikipedia’s articles on your topic. While you may not be able to cite Wikipedia itself, you can often find those original sources and site them.
The thing I regret most about high school and college is that I treated it like something I had to do rather than something I wanted to do.
The truth is, education is an opportunity many people in the world don’t have access to. It’s a gift, not just something that makes your life more difficult. I don’t want you to make the mistake of just “getting by” through school, waiting desperately for summer breaks and, eventually, graduation.
How would your life be better if you actively enjoyed writing an essay? What would school look like if you wanted to suck it dry of all the gifts it has to give you?
All I’m saying is, don’t miss out!
How about you? Do you have any tips for writing an essay?
Use tip #4 and write five original sentences that could be turned into an essay.
When you’re finished, share your five sentences in the comments section.
And remember, have fun!
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