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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Essays are what drew me to science writing, although I didn’t realize it until after I’d left science for journalism. In high school I pored over features in National Geographic by David Quammen, who many consider one of the great nature essayists of our day. In college, as I majored in environmental science, my personal philosophies were most influenced by Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, both books crafted around a series of personal essays. Still, I’ve always been a little foggy about what makes these works so compelling to me.
Michelle Nijhuis deconstructs exactly these threads that tie together the many pieces of writing that can be categorized as essays. She breaks down what makes essays the perfect vessel for many writers to record their process of inquiry. Nijhuis has a personal style (See her wonderful essay about leaving her off-the-grid home of 15 years) and can bring clarity to subjects such as climate change and conservation whose stories seem, well, storied (See her award-winning essay “Which Species Will Live?”). And she also knows how to take the reader on a fun scientific exploration (I love her piece “Hacking the Breast Pump”).
Best of all, reading her new book, The Science Writers’ Essay Handbook, made me feel like writing. As she celebrates the beauty of the essay craft, Nijhuis stirs that place inside me that longs to write and has several story ideas squirreled away. By offering a kit of problem-solving tools and starting points for organizing one’s thoughts, Nijhuis empowers her reader, the writer.
Essays are best defined by what they are not, Nijhuis asserts in the first chapter. After detailing all the forms that don’t count as an essay (for example, the “five-paragraph essay” you might have written in a high school or college class, or a traditional news story), she describes the form as “stories that examine other stories.” To identify what makes an essay work, Nijhuis says, “Good essays have more in common with good science, in that they begin not with a thesis but more tentatively, with a question.” Indeed, she points out, the essay and the scientific method both arose around the same time in the 1600s and exemplify Enlightenment thinking. Before the 1900s, Nijhuis emphasizes, most scientists, including Charles Darwin and Ada Lovelace, wrote essays when describing their research results. As with science, a good essay satisfies through the journey of exploration, not the conclusion’s scope or certainty.
There are two chapters I find myself revisiting the most. One, titled “Structuring Essays,” provides a loose outline for any essay, which Nijhuis describes as an internal and external journey, and then offers examples. In the prologue of Rebecca Skloot’s book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, for instance, Skloot’s external journey involves spending 10 years researching Lacks’s involuntary donation of tissue and the effects it has on her descendents, while internally the author confronts her assumptions about race and science. Nijhuis’s outline leaves the reader with a readymade launchpad for a story, and it is helpful even for pieces that do not fit squarely in a traditional essay format. Indeed, I used Nijhuis’s outline to structure my interview questions before I spoke with engineer Marc Edwards about his work on the Flint water crisis, because I knew I wanted to relate his complicated emotional reaction to the unethical behavior he encountered with the changes in his research and teaching, much like an essay would.
The other chapter I find myself revisiting is called “Revising Essays,” which provides invaluable advice for editing one’s own writing—something I find challenging even as a professional editor. Nijhuis recommends giving your work three reads (yes, three) before sending one’s precious draft off to an editor. A favorite of her tips: If you need space from your own writing but don’t have time for it, watch a movie trailer before diving into editing (“Seriously—it helps!” she claims). Such tips, peppered throughout the book, are ones that only a seasoned writer can give after travailing the journalistic seas in less-than-ideal writing conditions.
Meant to be an add-on to The Science Writers’ Handbook, which Nijhuis cowrote with several colleagues (including American Scientist’s Robert Frederick), Nijhuis’s book does, in fact, stand on its own just fine: One doesn’t need to read the former before reading this one. While the rest of The Science Writers’ Handbook provides advice on the nuts-and-bolts practicalities of the writing career—from negotiating freelance contracts to pitching stories to working with editors—it generally avoids such explicit writing advice (although there’s plenty of both on the Handbook’s blog).
Nijhuis’s book, then, is a fine antidote for a tough case of writer’s block, as well as a solid resource for a science writing class or for any science writer seeking to improve their craft. For professional science communicators, it provides a pathway to step outside “the news voice” of modern journalism. For scientists, it can serve as a guide for exploring the enlightenment gained through personal narrative.
An excerpt from this review appears in the November–December 2016 issue of American Scientist.