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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Most scholars agree that Treaty of Versailles with its extremely harsh terms for Germany and Austria-Hungary greatly contributed to the future World War II; but in the end responsibility for the greatest conflict in human history lies on one man: Adolf Hitler.
By the end of the 1930s he didn’t even make any pretense of following the terms of the treaty: Germany’s economy was firmly put on war footing, the country was ablaze with revanchist sentiment, and Hitler enjoyed absolute dictatorial power. Soviet Union was on friendly terms with new Germany, and Western powers, though troubled by the situation, did nothing to enforce the Treaty of Versailles – partly because popular opinion was on the side of Germans, who restored their country to its natural position of European power, partly because the memory of war was too fresh, and nobody was eager to repeat it.
Britain and France followed the policy of appeasement. When Hitler declared the need for Lebensraum, or living space for German nation, annexed Austria naming it a natural reunification of Germans under one rule, and accused Czechoslovakia of oppressing its large German population in Sudetenland, European leaders led by the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain did everything to meet all his demands. The idea was that after restoring Germany to what he considered its rightful position, Hitler wouldn’t start a new European conflict.
It was a mistake. After the Anschluss of Austria and occupation of Sudetenland and other territories in Eastern Europe, Germany signed a Nonaggression Pact with the Soviet Union on August 23, 1939, delineating spheres of influence of both dictatorships in Europe. After that, Hitler was free to do anything he wanted, and a mere week later the World War II began.
On September 1 German army, 1.5 million strong, invaded Poland and, despite fierce resistance, soon got upper hand. When the Soviet forces entered Poland from the east it became clear that Polish plan of defense was no longer feasible, and early in October the country was fully occupied and divided between Germany and the USSR. Although France and Great Britain declared war on Germany early on, their aid to beleaguered Poland was extremely limited.
What followed is often called the Phoney War – Hitler offered Great Britain and France peace on the basis of recognizing German dominance in continental Europe – but it finally dawned on European leaders just how much Hitler’s promises and treaties are actually worth. Up until May of 1940 the hostilities between Germany and other European powers almost ceased.
Meanwhile, the USSR got involved in a debacle known as the Winter War. After Finland refused to cede territory, Soviets invaded the country. Joseph Stalin didn’t expect this small and insignificant state to mount any kind of resistance, but was gravely mistaken – despite having overwhelming quantitative and technological superiority, the USSR only barely managed to win the war, losing more than 300,000 men and foregoing the intention of installing a puppet Communist government in Finland.
World War II was about to enter its major phase.
About Steven Arndt
Steven Arndt is a passionate writer, educator and a former History teacher. He tends to reconsider the role of modern education in our society and watches with awe the freedom the youth now has.