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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July 12, 2013 was the last day of my former life. The life where I was a managing partner and the director of events for a big, swanky, successful nightclub. The life where I was glued to my Blackberry and kept three pairs of high heels under my desk for easy access before meetings. The life where my brain was rife with details like how many mini cupcakes are needed for this celebrity's birthday and what size red carpet is needed for that glitzy premiere. The life I led for the better part of a decade before my current self started poking its fragile little wings out of the cocoon.
Yes, I was indeed fragile at this time last year. A part-time yoga teacher and full-time nothing, still recovering from a recent heart surgery. Unsure of where to go next but fully present to the fact that it was way past time to go. Go where? Go in the direction of my dreams. Even though I was terrified and doubtful and in my darkest moments, quite sure I was making an incredible, life-altering mistake, I knew unquestionably that it was time. To. Go.
I had a vague inkling that I wanted to move to New Orleans, where I had felt enlivened and yet relaxed on the many trips my husband and I had made to his hometown. I had an unwavering desire to pour all of my energy (instead of just my pre-work hours) into yoga and wellness, even though it might mean scraping pennies together to pay the rent. I had a clear vision of a life that was more easeful, more balanced, and more light-hearted than the one I was currently living. From the depths of my being I believed, and still believe, that my heart damage was caused by ignoring my bliss and silencing the call of my heart (although my cardiologists had a different diagnosis). I was ready. It's almost like I didn't have a choice. I had to leap.
Sitting here one year later I truly do not recognize my former life. In a year's time, quite literally every aspect of my life has changed -- for the better. I am finally on my path. MY path. The path that was calling out to me but being drowned out, ignored, suppressed and shushed for so very long. A path of learning and teaching yoga. A path of joining, building, and leading communities. A path of openhearted acceptance for myself and others and a leaning away from material concerns. A path on which I feel at ease. Sure of my overall direction, if not every individual twist and turn.
Are you considering making a huge shift? Are you ready to find, follow, or commit to YOUR path? Here are a few pieces of advice to get you started, now that I'm an old pro at leaping sans net as the saying goes:
1) Create a vision for your life 10 years from today. This is actually advice I got from a brief stint working at Lululemon. When I wrote out my 10 year vision, I was living in a big old house in NOLA, with a yard, three kids, working part time in the yoga/wellness field, wearing yoga clothes everyday and cooking our all-organic meals from scratch. In other words, I sure as hell wasn't living in an apartment in NYC, working 70 hours a week and wearing fancy party dresses whilst rubbing elbows with celebrities. There was nothing "wrong" with either scenario, but my current life and my ideal future were DRAMATICALLY different. If yours are too, it's time to make a big change. If in 10 years you TRULY just want to be your right-now self, but with a bigger paycheck and a better title (and I mean truly -- not because that's what society says) than you're on the right track. If not... what are you waiting for? Think of how much can happen in one year if you just take the first step -- today. Next...
2) Devise your short-term strategy. All great transitions begin with a baby step. Mine was quitting my super-full-time job and taking a somewhat-less-demanding job at Lululemon while I completed two more intensive yoga teacher trainings and picked up more classes to teach. This job did not end up being a great fit for me. They wanted more from me than I wanted to give to them so we parted ways. However, during the few months I worked there I made decent money, had health insurance long enough for Obamacare to get approved, and secured several private yoga clients. By the time I left Lululemon, I was one step closer to being the me I wanted to be. Their surprisingly aggressive insistence on "Vision and Goals" coaching actually gave me the kick in the ass I needed not to linger there too long. It was the perfect baby step for me. Figure out what yours is so that initial leap from one life to the next isn't a free fall into a poverty-canyon of ramen and bus fare.
3) Find mentors who will inspire AND support you. One of the hardest aspects of making a huge life change is shifting the way others see you AND the way you see yourself. The primary reason it took me so long to become a full time yogi is because I had put the "yoga teacher" archetype up on a pedestal. I was too worldly, too flawed, too anxious, too ME to be one of those goddess-like beings. They inspired me -- for sure -- but I didn't believe I could actually become one of them. My mentors however, didn't buy it. They saw the teacher in me before I could really own it myself. They saw the passion behind my fear and self-doubt. They cheered on my little victories and critiqued me whenever necessary. They coached, encouraged, and sometimes forcefully coaxed the new me out of the former-me shell. With them monitoring my progress, I was able to move forward much more confidence and had zero opportunity to throw in the towel. Somehow I was more OK with disappointing myself than disappointing them. I still remember one of my beloved mentors taking my class and telling me that I had "grace." That was the moment I knew I could and would be a full time yogi. Her words were like a coronation. Find someone like that. No matter how long it takes. They will be the wind that helps sail your ship.
4) Take a realistic look at the risk vs. the reward. I'm going to be real honest here: I had decent savings in the bank and a husband by the time I decided to take my leap. Yes, we moved to a new city where neither of us had jobs and we had to start over basically from scratch, but we also knew we weren't going to be begging on Bourbon Street in a month's time if we weren't able to get clients/jobs/opportunities right away. What I DID have to give up in order to chase my dreams were all those little things I used to buy unconsciously when my paycheck was fat and reliable. No $6 lattes. No $18 cocktails. No nights out on the town where you wake up unsure where all your money went. I cancelled all my magazine subscriptions and took a vow of shop-lessness. Yes ladies, my New Year's resolution this year was to not buy ANY clothes, shoes, jewelry, or non-essential toiletries for one entire year and so far, seven months in, I've stuck to it. I am making absolutely sure that my current path can provide for all my expenses, without having to lay awake at night worrying about the electricity bill. I am confident that as time goes by, my income will gradually increase and my purse strings can be loosened a bit but for now -- I'm living like a college student again and am 100 percent fine with that.
Quitting your job, becoming an entrepreneur, starting a business, moving to a new city, going back to school, traveling the world for six months, running away and joining the circus -- these are all AMAZING leaps to take, but they don't necessarily mean bucks coming into your bank account on the 1st and 15th like working your 9-5 does. Think about your needs, your wants, and what you can live without. I actually know people who would feel acute suffering if they couldn't get weekly blowouts and Pinkberry at least every other day. If you are one of those people, you may want to wait -- and save a bit more -- before making your leap. It's no fun following your heart if you're spending the whole time crying over your frizz and froyo-less-ness.
5) Ignore the opposition! I don't care if the opposition is wearing a mask that looks like your best friend or your mama and says they're doing it because, "they love you." Ignore them. Only a very few people are going to encourage you to change your status quo. Forego security. Fly the coop. Leave the nest. Make a bold move. Usually, they won't encourage you to do it because they've never done it themselves. And that's totally fine! Some of the opposition will be people who do truly care for you and have your best interest in mind. Accept their concern but keep it moving. If they REALLY care, they'll be there to comfort you on dark days as well as to cheer for you when you begin to gain some momentum on your dream-chasing.
And then there's the haters. Oh yes, can't forget the haters. They might not specifically hate you, but they WILL shit on your dream. They'll do it outwardly or passive aggressively. They'll tell you to your face and/or talk behind your back. I know, because I used to be a hater. I used to think people who started their own companies were crazy or living on mommy and daddy's dime or egomaniacs who couldn't get good jobs elsewhere. I know now in hindsight that I felt that way because I was jealous of these upstarts. And terrified of leaving the security of my own "good job." Don't hate them back. It's a waste of your energy, and you need ALL your energy to keep moving on your path. I've discovered haters are really just the owners of deferred dreams. Dryin' up like raisins in the sun. Haters are like the scary things that pop out during a haunted house ride. Yes, they'll be all up in your face but they ain't nothin' real to be scared of.
6). Never ever, ever, ever, ever give up. Don't do it. Once you've started, just don't look back. Don't think, "What if?" Don't wonder what would happen if you had stayed on the old path. Things won't always go smoothly. There will be failures and mistakes and road blocks oh -- and haters, don't forget the haters. It won't be easy. But it will get easier. You'll get the hang of the new you. You'll find your groove. And when you do, then comes the momentum. As if a once-imagined future is pulling you forward to meet it. And when you feel that, you'll begin to know that it's really happening. Everything you always hoped but maybe never fully believed could happen is truly happening. You have the power to do, think, achieve, say, have, and be anything in the world. It's true. It might take you until your last breath to get there but even then... MAN... won't it have been worth it? What else in the world could you possibly do when you know, truly know what it is you would work towards until your last day on earth?
"And I say it again, Never give up. No matter what is happening. No matter what is going on around you. Never give up." -- The Dalai Lama
Follow Amanda Smear Baudier on Twitter: www.twitter.com/thesocialsutras