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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Improve Your Paper by Writing Structured Paragraphs
In academic writing, effective paragraphs serve as building blocks to construct a complex analysis or argument. Paragraphing helps readers to understand and process your ideas into meaningful units of thought.
What do paragraphs do?
Imagine reading this page without paragraph breaks. Paragraphs create order and logic by helping your reader recognize the boundaries where one point ends and another begins.
How long should a paragraph be?
In a first draft, it may make sense to set a goal for length. For example, you can set a goal of writing four to six sentences per paragraph: in that number of sentences you can announce an idea, prove that idea with evidence, and explain why this evidence matters by linking it to the overall goal of your paper.
In the final version of your paper you may have a shorter paragraph or two. Short paragraphs call a lot of attention to themselves, so they can effectively emphasize a point. Too many short paragraphs, however, may indicate that your ideas are not developed with evidence and analysis.
You'll generally read and write longer paragraphs in academic papers. However, too many long paragraphs can provide readers with too much information to manage at one time. Readers need planned pauses or breaks when reading long complex papers in order to understand your presented ideas. Remember this writing mantra: "Give your readers a break!" or "Good paragraphs give one pause!"
Kinds of sentences in a paragraph
Thinking about paragraphs rigidly in terms of length may lead to formulaic writing. Instead, as you revise your draft think about how each sentence is functioning in your paragraph, and whether your paragraph has sufficient functional sentences to make its point.
Transition sentences guide your reader smoothly from the topic of the preceding paragraph into the topic of your new paragraph. Writers sometimes begin with a transition sentence before introducing the topic of the new paragraph.
A topic sentence states the main idea of a paragraph. Beginning a paragraph with a topic sentence ensures your reader recognizes early in the paragraph what larger idea the paragraph is going to demonstrate. Expert writers may not introduce the topic until the middle or end of the paragraph, and often imply their topics without ever writing a topic sentence.
Body sentences develop the topic of the paragraph. These sentences work to analyze data or quotations, describe a text or event, set up a comparison, showcase evidence, and sometimes they enumerate the logical points for readers to give them a sense of a paper's bigger picture. In body sentences, you need to consider how much quoted data or evidence will demonstrate or prove your point.
Linking sentences relate back to the paper's main argument by showing how the idea of that paragraph matches the overall goal of the paper.
Concluding sentences may bring a section to its end before you move on to a new section of the paper.
Some sample paragraphs
Undergraduate art analysis
Notice how the writer develops the idea in the body sentences, as promised in the first sentence, and concludes her paragraph by offering a keen, close observation of specific details.
In order to understand how Manet's work echoes or communicates with Titian's, one must first consider the similarities between their paintings. To begin with, both take a nude woman as the subject. More than that, however, Manet directly copies the composition of Titian's Venus; the overwhelming similarity in color and the figures' arrangement in each painting prove this. Both women are lying in the same position with their heads on the left-hand side of the canvas. Both women have their left leg crossed over the right. Both women have flowers and accessories. Other key elements unite these paintings, as well: the arrangement of the sheets on the bed; the green curtains; the servants; and the small animal at the foot of the bed. All these features clearly indicate that Manet echoes Titian. If one stopped at the similarity in the composition, it would appear that both paintings communicate the same thing; both would be a celebration of the beauty of the human figure, and Manet's voice would have added nothing new to the conversation; it would have no additional meaning besides venerating the masterful work of Titian. (Used with permission.)
Undergraduate literary analysis
In this paragraph from a 2012 Lewis Prize-winning English essay, UW–Madison undergraduate Abby Becker organizes her sentences savvily. She first transitions her reader into her topic, then introduces the source of evidence for that paragraph before analyzing that source and returning to the topic with the new critical perspective that her analysis suggests.
In order for a political or social revolution to occur, connections must be formed. More means of communication lead to more opportunities to make connections. In Dos Passos' The 42nd Parallel, J. Ward Moorehouse focuses on making business connections but never forms any relationships. He explains at a party that "he had come down in a purely unofficial way you understand to make contacts" (249). In business and politics, making contacts denotes an impersonal, removed way of dealing with people. This type of communication does not result in connections. Moorehouse's connections are for his own political personal gain. There may be a connection but no insight or true relationship. Moorehouse views people as a tool to advance his own business and political agendas demonstrating that connections with people are often made out of selfish, egotistical motives.
From a September 2006 The Atlanticarticle, by Marshall Poe, describing Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia, and collaborative knowledge. Notice how the first sentence introduces a philosophical issue that the body sentences define and link to both Wikipedia and Wales's own personality.
Wales was an advocate of what is generically termed "openness" online. An "open" online community is one with few restrictions on membership or posting-everyone is welcome, and anyone can say anything as long as it's generally on point and doesn't include gratuitous ad hominem attacks. Openness fit not only Wales's idea of objectivism, with its emphasis on reason and rejection of force, but also his mild personality. He doesn't like to fight. He would rather suffer fools in silence, waiting for them to talk themselves out, than confront them. This patience would serve Wales well in the years to come.
From Spontaneous Gestures Influence Strategy Choices in Problem Solving (2011). UW-Madison Psychology Professor Martha Alibali et al. present empirical research on how children use physical gestures to acquire mathematical problem-solving knowledge. Notice the clarity of expression in the first paragraph's topic sentence: the writer provides sufficient set-up to prepare readers for the data which comes at the end of each paragraph.
We predicted that participants in the gesture-allowed condition would be less likely than participants in the gesture-prohibited condition to generate the parity strategy, because the availability of gesture would promote use of perceptual-motor strategies instead. This was indeed the case; the proportion of participants who used the parity strategy on at least one trial was .74 in the gesture-allowed condition and .91 in the gesture-prohibited condition, _2(1, N = 85) = 4.17, p = .04 (Fig. 1). Once they generated the parity strategy, most participants (89%) used it on all subsequent trials.
From Mounting methodologies to measure EUV reticle nonflatness (SPIE Proceedings 7470, 2009), by the lab of UW–Madison Professor Roxanne L. Engelstad. Notice how Battula et al. signal the practical consequence of their findings and also suggest that another result would be possible depending on further research.
Unfortunately, to map the entire reticle with a single measurement, a 12 in. beam expander is needed. With such a large optical system, the expander must be held rigidly, not allowing it to tip or tilt. Since the UW-CMC mount must remain vertical to be effective, it cannot be used in this scenario. Consequently, the application of this mount is limited. Thus, a number of new designs have been proposed by industry to address the alignment issues and provide for other options, such as automated handling. Three of these designs are described and evaluated in the following sections.
From Dorothy West's Paradise: A Biography of Class and Color (2012), by UW–Madison Professor Sherrard-Johnson. Notice how the first two sentences give crucial background information in order to set up the topic sentence.
In Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, Jeff Wiltse examines how U.S. swimming pools were transformed from interracial single-sex spaces in which class and gender were more important than race to "leisure resorts, where practically everyone in the community except black Americans swam together." His study then follows what he calls the second social transformation—"when black Americans gained access through legal and social protest" and "white swimmers generally abandoned them for private pools." The various iterations of West's story, which discuss the span from 1950 to 1980, fall between these two moments in social and legal history. I am particularly intrigued by how the national history of segregated bathing areas informs the local, particular event described by West. Does the exclusion of blacks from the high beach parallel the segregation of public pools? In the early twentieth century, public bathing spaces were notoriously violent. The Chicago Riot in 1919 was touched off when white bathers threw rocks at black teenagers who had drifted into a white beach on Lake Michigan. Northerners' use of pools during the Progressive era reinforced class and gender but not racial distinction. Working-class folk did not swim with the upper classes, but they were not as concerned about color. Following the Great Migration, the concerns about intimacy and sexuality that have always been latent in conversations about public space (in particular the public space of the pool) were directed at blacks. The peculiar democracy of the beach—in bathing suits it is more difficulty to determine class‐worked against black Americans. Wiltse marks this shift between the years of 1920 and 1940. The social changes that took place during this period shape West's complex politics. (26)
Former UW–Madison School of Law Professor Arthur F. McEvoy wrote this model paragraph as part of a memorandum on effective writing. Notice that each of the body sentences illustrates and develops the main idea or topic sentence.
The ideal paragraph contains five sentences. The topic sentence almost always comes first and states as clearly as possible the point that the paragraph makes, just as the first sentence of this paragraph did. The three middle sentences of the paragraph follow the topic sentence in some rational order and substantiate it with examples, analysis, or other kind of development; if written clearly, middle sentences may employ conjunctions or subordinate clauses to put across complex ideas without breaking the basic form. Every well-written paragraph ends with a "clincher" sentence that in some way signals completion of the paragraph's point and places it in context, either by restating the topic sentence, relating the topic back to the thesis of the writing as a whole, or by providing a transition to the paragraph that follows. While good style may require a writer to vary this basic form occasionally, the five-sentence model captures the Platonic essence of the paragraph and most effectively accomplishes its purpose, which is to state a single idea, in sequence, discretely and comprehensively.