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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There are many key writing techniques required to achieve the best grades.
The video and text below look at some of the best technigues to help you achieve top marks
What are these techniques?
- Remain focused on the question
- Clear conclusion
- Organisation/ paragraphing
Good essay practice should include:-
- Make sure you write a brief plan for your answer. In your plan you should identify very clearly around six distinct points you intend to make and the specific parts of the text that you intend to examine in some detail.
- Spend about 5 or 10 minutes planning as this will help you make sure you have chosen the right question (because then you know you have lots of material to cover).
- This should be brief; you could include what your main view is and what other ideas you have.
- Don't list the poems or ideas you are going to include in the rest of your essay as you will be repeating yourself.
- Don't begin with ‘In this essay I am going to ...' and then list ideas.
- Try to begin by addressing the question straight away.
- Make sure you use them as it makes your writing clearer for you and the examiner.
- When writing your essay you should devote one or two paragraphs to each idea from your plan. Try to make smooth links between paragraphs.
- When you make a point - you must give evidence to prove it. When you make a point, refer to the text and give an example to back up what you say. The best way to do this is to use a quotation from the text.
- Remember to include quotations, but not too many and don't make them too long. A good quotation can be a line or two long or just a few words from a line.
- Do not copy out whole long sections from texts as this is wasting time.
- Don't retell the plot of the story. The important thing is to be selective in the way you use the text. Only refer to those parts of the book/poem that help you to answer the question.
Answer the question
- It sounds obvious, but it's so easy to forget the question and write the essay you did in the mock. When you have finished a paragraph read it through and ask yourself. "Am I still answering the question?" If you think you are not then you need to change it, so that you are still focussed.
- At the end, try to draw all the strands of your various points together. This should be the part of your essay that answers the question most directly and forcefully. Keep checking the question.
- Keep it formal. Try to avoid making it chatty, so avoid using abbreviations e.g. ‘don't', ‘won't' and do not call writers by their surnames so for William Golding you should call him Golding rather than William, which is too informal.
- Remember you do not have to agree with other people's points of view about literature. If your ideas are original or different, so long as you develop them clearly, use evidence intelligently and argue persuasively, your point of view will be respected. We want literature to touch you personally and it will often affect different people in different ways. Be creative.
- There is no one correct answer to questions on English Literature, just well explored and explained ones.
CHECKLIST AFTER WRITING YOUR ESSAY
- Written a plan and stuck to it?
- Written in clear paragraphs?
- Produced evidence to prove all your points?
- Used quotations from your chosen text(s)?
- Answered the question?
Generally speaking to get good marks you have to do the following:
To get an A* you need to be insightful, sensitive, convincing and evaluative.
For an A you need to be analytical and exploratory.
For a B you need to sustain your answer linking details to what the writer is trying to say and thoughtfully consider the meanings of the texts.
For a C you need to structure your answer to the question, use details effectively to back up your ideas and make some appropriate comment on the meaning of the texts.
For a D you need to answer the question and explain your ideas with some supporting quotations from the text.