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.”
'I felt guilty when I got my results': your stories of buying essays | Guardian readers and Sarah Marsh
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.”
Applying to university? It's time to narrow your choices down to two
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.
Essays for sale: the booming online industry in writing academic work to order
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.”
Keep up with the latest on Guardian Students: follow us on Twitter at @GdnStudents – and become a member to receive exclusive benefits and our weekly newsletter.
Catching the Reader’s Attention
A good essay begins with an invitation into a rich discussion. The writing is crafted in such a way that it sparks anticipation and excitement in the heart and mind of the reader. Simply stating your opinion or the topic of the essay will never accomplish this. Engaging writing requires thoughtful attention to creating a hook for the reader.
Hooks can be created in an infinite number of ways, but here is a list of approaches that often prove valuable. Note that this is a list that you have likely seen before (most schools provide such a list), but be sure to read on as it is in the implementation of these ideas that they either succeed or fail:
- Start with a thought-provoking quotation.
- Start with a thought-provoking question.
- Tell a thought-provoking story.
- Make a surprising statement.
- Present a simile or a metaphor to introduce your essay topic.
Each of these options presents an approach to opening an essay that can work if it is implemented effectively. Of course, implementing them effectively is where things get tricky.
A Thought-Provoking Quotation:
Depending on the topic of your essay and the resources you have available, it can be very effective to begin with a direct quotation from a relevant source on your topic that brings up key ideas or presents controversial opinions. You, as the author, can then respond to them and establish your position in relation to this statement. Be certain the quotation you choose directly relates to your chosen topic.
A Thought Provoking Question
Opening essays with questions is dangerous because they only work if the question causes your reader to genuinely wonder about something. Simplistic or obvious questions turn your reader off, so try another approach unless you are sure you have a question that really ties your essay topic to something personal for the reader or to some intriguing idea in the world.
A Thought-Provoking Story
As a fiction writer, this is my personal favorite. There are two options available here. One approach is to tell a true story in close-up intimate detail that directly relates to your topic. The other option is to craft a story around the factual details of your topic and helps to humanize it—taking your reader into the personal human experience of someone in a given situation related to your subject. Simply be sure to tell the story well and don’t forget to craft the story in such a way that it leads directly to the central point of your essay.
Make a Surprising Statement
This one is also a tricky way to go unless you have come across a very striking fact or are dealing with a controversial subject. In order for this approach to work, the statement must include something that will genuinely surprise the reader, which is difficult to do. In addition to shock value, the statement must also have direct relevance to your topic so that a strong transition can still be made into your central argument.
Present a Simile or Metaphor
Similes and metaphors are among the most powerful linguistic devices available. When used well, they can bring profound interest and insight to a given topic. Using them well is, of course, the hard part. The trick to using them well is be sure that the nature of the symbol you use shares a great deal in common with the subtleties of the topic you are discussing. The broader and more specific those connections are, the stronger its linguistic power.
The very best way to use a simile or metaphor in an essay is to introduce it with the opening paragraph and then continue to weave the connections between the symbol and the subject throughout the entire essay, eventually bringing the idea back together in the conclusion to create a circular structure to the writing. This requires insightful thinking and hard writing work, but makes for an exceptional essay.
Clearly Establishing Your Purpose
With your reader’s attention now in place, you must be certain that you also directly address the question or prompt to which you have been asked to respond. A colorful and engaging opening story is all well and good, but it is worthless if it does not lead into a straight and clear statement of your thesis (also known as “topic sentence” or “position statement”).
Keep in mind that, contrary to what is often taught in elementary school, the opening paragraph does not necessarily require a complete listing of the main points of your essay, though that can be helpful at times. The only non-negotiable requirement for an introduction is a direct and clear statement of purpose somewhere within that first paragraph. With more creative openings, it generally occurs near the close of the first paragraph, anticipating the deeper explanations that take place in the body paragraphs of the essay. Feel free to be creative, but do not forget to directly address the question you have been asked!