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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A scientific approach
As a student of the University, it is important to know how to independently orient yourself amid large amounts of information. You need to be able to assess whether or not the information you seek can be used in a scientific context, and you also need to be able to examine it critically.
Scientific texts aim to present research findings. By describing how results are derived, the theoretical foundation on which they’re based, approaches taken and conclusions made, research is spread and creates a basis for yet further research.
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Different kinds of information are published as different types of sources. These can be divided into primary sources, secondary sources and tertiary sources.
Primary sources consist of first-hand information or original data, such as letters, diaries, raw statistics, photos and court findings. Even scientific journal articles that include new research published for the first time are considered primary sources.
Secondary sources are based on primary sources and summarise, analyse and critically evaluate primary sources. Examples of secondary sources include books, reviews and research surveys.
Tertiary Sources are based solely on secondary sources. For example, various types of encyclopaedias are tertiary sources.
Different source types
It is important to have a basic understanding of the different source types and also the contexts in which they can appropriately be used. For example, it is common that new scientific results are published in articles from scientific journals.
Journals are also the main publication source for the natural sciences, technology and medicine. Research in the humanities and social sciences are often published in monographs (books) and in reports.
The source type that you use ought to be partly determined by the type of information that is needed as well as how the information will be used.
Encyclopaedias are a good source of background information and can be used to help describe and clarify specific information in your essay. You can also use them to get a topic overview and tips on literature within the topic.
Journals and Articles
If you are looking for the latest research in a subject, articles in journals are advised. Articles are published in various types of journals, such as popular science magazines and scientific journals.
Scientific journal articles might present new research findings and theories. They often speak to an international research audience and are written in English. Popular scientific articles often cater to a general public who want to be informed about a topic, so the text is usually written in a simplified language that all readers will understand.
A book or monograph is appropriate to use when you need a broad and in-depth report on a particular topic. Books often contain more established knowledge.
Everyday newspaper articles in the daily press are impossible to treat as research sources, but they can be used, for example, to survey and describe how certain phenomenon were treated in the media.
If you are unsure as to whether or not a particular source can be used in your essay, please speak with your supervisor.
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What is a scientific article?
An important type of scientific publication is the scientific article. Other important scientific publications are doctoral theses, books (monographs and chapters in books), research reports and conference reports.
Learn what characterises a scientific article, and how you can assess an article or journal’s scientific merit.
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Check list - Evaluate your sources
It is important to be critical whenever you review and evaluate a source, whether it’s in print or on the Internet. Evaluate your sources with these points and questions in mind:
1. The author
Who is the author and what have others said about the author and/or the author’s article? Is the author a scientist, a journalist, or is information about the author’s qualifications missing?
2. Purpose and target audience
What is the author’s purpose? Try to assess whether the author has written the article to inform, influence or provoke.
3. The publisher
Who published the article? Was it an academic publishing house or is the publisher recognised in some other way for knowledge in the subject?
When was the text written and is that significant for you? It’s often relatively easy to determine when printed sources were published, while it may be more difficult to track the publication dates of web documents.
Is the information and source type relevant to the context in which you are working? What sources has the author used?
Are there any references and/or a bibliography?
7. Scientific quality
Is the information reviewed or controlled within a scientific context? Is it important and relevant to your purpose?
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Referencing or plagiarism
A scientific approach means that the author clearly identifies the purpose and results of the work, as well as the sources for all research. Each time you use data from another source, you must clearly state this.
If you are unclear or careless when referencing other sources, you can be accused of plagiarism and cheating. For example, it is easy to copy text from the Internet without citing the source and to forget where you read something. In the case of a citation, where you repeat verbatim a text from another source, and in more comprehensive references to someone else’s work, it is very important to clearly state the source.
To learn more about the difference between quoting and plagiarism, use Refero – The Anti-plagiarism Tutorial.
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At the end of an essay, a list of all the work that you’ve used should be provided in a bibliography. Since readers must be able to retrieve the sources you’ve used, it’s important that the references are as complete and clear as possible.
There are different systems for writing references in a paper, but some of the most common in Sweden are APA, the Harvard System and the Oxford System. The reference systems of institutions differ greatly, however. If you have any questions about your references and bibliography, please contact your supervisor.
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You can easily create your own library for organising references with the help of reference management software. You can collect references from databases and insert literature references, footnotes and bibliography directly into your documents.
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