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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Guide to Essay Writing
One of the most important skills you will learn and develop during your university years is writing, in particular essay writing. It is important to realise that this is a skill which has to be learnt and practised, and that therefore you should apply yourselves from the very beginning, as you will be writing essays for which you will be graded from the early weeks to the very end of your degree programme. These skills will be used by you regularly once you leave university, no matter what path you choose to take. Essay writing involves presenting an argument and communicating. It can be easily imagined that this covers a vast variety of scenarios in which you need to be clear and persuasive: arguing that you should be given the job you are applying for, selling the outline of a film script you have written, presenting products at various forums, writing articles for publication, persuading your bank manager to extend your loan, preparing reports, beginning and sustaining your career in journalism, and writing lectures and class plans for your future students. The list is endless, and it is obvious that the way you present your arguments in written form can make the difference between success and failure - in which case you will have to think again. In some of the scenarios outlined above the skills required for essay writing should be slightly adapted but the basic skills and methods are in the main common to all forms of formal writing in which an argument or arguments need to be presented.
The focus here is primarily on writing essays concerning literature. You may have many great ideas and be a very intuitive and fine reader of literature, but no-one will ever know if you cannot express your ideas properly and your communicative skills are not developed. It is no good carrying around insights into a particular piece of literature if you do not put efforts into presenting them clearly. Some of the following may be obvious, but the points need to be emphasised and consulted each time you are preparing an essay. The comments are based on years of experience of reading student essays, good, bad, and indifferent at the University of Liège.
An essay should not be merely a list. Too many in the past have been a list of notes, or a series of sub-headings followed by a list of dashes (-) or stars (*) accompanied by one or two words and/or quotations from the literary text with no explanation of what they are doing there. Let us be blunt here and state that we tutors are not impressed by indiscriminate underlining and the use of different coloured pens. Sub-headings written in magenta, underlined in ochre, followed by a list of quotations in vermilion are pointless. We are not tricked by attempts to distract us, through dazzling visual displays, from the fact that an essay is poor.
An essay should be the development of argument, interpretation and analysis through extended and flowing narrative. To do this you need to work at the level of the sentence, of course, but also, very importantly, you need to work at the level of the paragraph. The paragraph is a coherent passage of logically connected sentences usually concentrating on no more than one or two ideas relevant to your argument. Do not use very short and unconnected staccato sentences. It takes experience and practice to develop a sense of when a new paragraph is needed and when it has been finished. Examine the introduction to this booklet and this guide to get some sense of how paragraphs, or 'idea units' as they have also been called, can be developed and constructed, and how their 'natural' beginnings and ends appear. The first sentence of the paragraph should generally be a 'strong' one, used to signal or indicate the idea to be discussed within the paragraph. Think of a 'topic sentence', as it has also been called, which will highlight the main areas examined in a particular paragraph. Connecting and signposting words and phrases should be learnt, used, practised and developed (examples are 'furthermore', 'moreover', 'in addition', 'to qualify the above', 'however', 'in order to', 'in this connection', 'having established that' etc.). The argument should develop through the language you use and therefore in a short essay sub-headings are unnecessary.
Several stages are involved in essay preparation, choosing which points are to be considered, deciding how you will deal with them, and the actual writing. As you gain more experience you will find methods and ways of working which suit you, your personality and lifestyle. Generally, however, the process will involve the following. You should examine carefully the statements made in the essay question, making sure you understand each word and what is being asked, as misreading and misunderstanding at this stage can be fatal. Essay questions can be very general, very specific and sometimes deliberately provocative, and an understanding of them is essential. Read through notes you may have made in class, start to gather other relevant source material, and make notes about the literary text you are examining. Ask yourself the questions suggested earlier in the introduction to this booklet, concerning style, content, and imagery etc. Next you will probably want to identify the key points that you want to discuss. There may be many points you find generally interesting, but ask yourself if they are relevant to the essay in question. To do this it can be useful to try to think of a title for your essay. This is not to be confused with the essay question or title, but is concerned with your response to the task set. What title would best give the reader an overview of your approach and analysis, and highlight the main points you examine and the conclusions you reach? (Suggestions concerning conclusions will be given later). You should not assume that an essay has to include and cover all the possible points an interpretation may offer up. A short, well organised and structured essay focusing on some of the main points is far better than an over-long and unwieldy attempt to say a little about everything. You may find it useful to state in the introduction which points you are focusing on and why. Keep your reader informed of the development of your argument. Let her or him know which direction is being taken and the reasons why. Once the main points have been identified you need to consider in which order they will be examined. Students often do not make the most of the good ideas they have because they get lost if the argument does not develop coherently. Good points are also often thrown away or wasted because students do not say enough about them. Make sure the relevance of each point to the main argument is clearly stated and demonstrated. You should dwell and linger on the points: often this requires no more than two or three extra sentences, particularly if your writing is concise and focused.
A good essay takes time to prepare and write, so start to think about it and do the groundwork well ahead of the essay deadline (even in timed conditions, such as exams, it is important to take the time to organise and structure the essay before starting to write). You will probably find that you need to work out your ideas on paper before writing the essay, and are encouraged to prepare an outline of the essay: a point by point series of key words, phrases and ideas. This will help you to organise the structure and to recognise what is relevant and irrelevant to the essay as a whole. Some people find that a plan or outline will consist of eight to ten words only. Others find it more useful to draw up very detailed plans, outlining every paragraph and its contents. Again you will discover which method works for you as you go along. Some students find it easier to think and plan the essay point by point before beginning to write, whilst others find that after some initial preparation, reading, organisation and thinking they can only develop their ideas through writing. Both these approaches take time, if the essays are to be done well. It should be stressed here that the first plan does not have to be binding and may change as the work begins and develops. The main point here is that essays involve a certain amount of planning and preparation even before the actual writing begins. Having emphasised that essays are hard work and take time it should also be stressed that it can be very stimulating and rewarding to work through a number of ideas in depth and detail. Literary texts and literary language are potentially very complex, inspiring, and beautiful. The ideas and images often demand careful thought and attention.
Computers are essential in terms of using the time you spend on an essay efficiently and productively. As stated earlier, good essay writing demands time spent on every stage of the process: reading and research, making an outline, ordering and structuring your ideas, writing and changing various drafts, and final editing and presentation. With this in mind it cannot be stressed enough how important it is for you to learn word-processing skills and to make sure you have access to a computer. Use the university resources. Admittedly the space available is limited at times but this is no excuse not to learn the skills, if you do not already possess them, and to find out where there are available computer terminals. Of course if you use university resources it is even more important to start your essay early in order to avoid the last minute rush as most students, not only from this department, search for terminals in a panic on the Friday before a Monday deadline. It is appreciated that students are very busy and do have a lot of work, but it is a mistake to claim, as some students have been heard, that they are too busy to learn word-processing skills. Ultimately word-processing will save you a lot of time. It is far easier to add and delete material, and to restructure and reorganise essays by moving material around, on a computer than if you are writing by hand. Software has become really user-friendly; 'Word', for instance, will tell you what to do in explicit English or French, and typing skills can be learned whilst typing.
Your essay will be the representation of an argument on a given subject or subjects. It will include only points which are relevant to the subject, so be careful to get rid of material that is not directly relevant. Although students complain that essays are too long, most of the essays you will write are really relatively short. Part of the skill of writing is to write concisely and economically, without wasting material or 'padding' the work with irrelevant diversions and repetition. Once the points have been chosen they should be presented logically and coherently, so do not leap about from point to point. Each point generally will have some connection to the preceding one and the one to follow. If you do leave one area of the essay to move into another, but intend later to go back to the point you have left and show, for example, how the points may be connected or related, then it can be useful to say so by 'signposting', e.g. 'this point will be picked up later', 'this point will be returned to later, after taking into consideration ...'. After each draft of the essay check that each point is presented in a logical and coherent order. Read each draft carefully and critically. Is there a significant idea you have not included in the essay? Do you need to expand some of the points you have chosen to write about? Are some of the points, after due consideration, not really relevant? Have you been too long-winded or repetitive? If so, cut out and/or reduce some of the text. Does your argument need to be clearer, and do the links between some of the main points need more emphasis? You should be asking yourself these questions throughout the whole process.
A particularly distressing weakness in the past, but hopefully not the future, has been the absence of serious discussion of imagery and literary language. Some students have merely stated that the author uses imagery, illustrated this with an example, and then moved on to the next point on the list. If you discuss images, metaphors and other literary devices, then say how and why they are being used in the piece of fiction, and maybe if you think the imagery works or not. If you do not say how and why an image is being used then don't mention it. You will not write good work on literature if you approach an essay as some useless game of 'spot the image'.
Throughout your years at the University of Liège you will be writing essays on literature which will inevitably include numerous quotations, either from the literature you are working on or from secondary sources, be they books or articles on historical context, literary criticism or other relevant areas. These quotations can obviously add much to the texture and quality of your work, but they are often handled very badly by students. Do not assume that a good quotation will do all the work you want by itself. Poor essays are often merely a patchwork of quotations stitched together by the briefest of comments, and it is a mistake to leave quotations hanging in mid-air, as it were, without comment or explanation. Quotations need to be framed. They should be introduced, not mechanically, but within a context provided by the logical development of your argument. (See Example 1 at the end of this guide). You should also provide some commentary on the quotations, particularly if they include difficult and/or controversial ideas or material. This is often likely to be the case as there is really little point in including 'bland' quotations in your essay. You may want to gloss, explain, qualify or modify the quoted words, or you may have included quotations whose assumptions or arguments you strongly disagree with. The latter case can be useful, if handled well. Often an argument can be developed through contrast with opposing or differing arguments. This tactic in essay construction also displays independent thinking in that it demonstrates that you have not unthinkingly accepted and believed everything you have read. One final point on quotations: do not plagiarise. Using other people's work without saying so is a serious crime. Tutors have read widely on the subjects you will be writing on and are very likely to recognise when you are plagiarising. If you use other people's ideas and words they have to be acknowledged through proper footnoting and referencing. (See Example 2 at the end of this guide).
Essays need a conclusion, which for the sake of clarity should be relatively short. It is generally best not to include new ideas or new material in your concluding comments, particularly since many people think that a conclusion should be a summary of the prior arguments. You may, however, point to alternative conclusions or arguments, or briefly suggest areas of interest that have not been dealt with directly by the essay. People often get the wrong idea about conclusions and believe that this is the place to state firm convictions, and that a conclusion has to make a stand and come down on the side of one argument or another. This can be the case but it is not necessarily so. If an essay title comes in the form of a question, for example 'Is James Joyce seeking to distance himself from traditional forms of Irish culture?', and you cannot decide, do not think that this is a problem. It is as much a sign of intelligence to state that you cannot decide as it is to sift through the evidence and decide one way or the other. Think about why you cannot decide. Perhaps the evidence is conflicting. Perhaps the literary text and its use of imagery is ambiguous, or even contradictory; as is often the case. If you cannot decide, then say so, outlining why you cannot decide. Alternatively, you may partly agree or partly disagree with the statements or questions raised by the title, or by questions raised directly in responding to the title. If so, say so. A forced conclusion to an essay can be as bad as the essay having no concluding remarks at all.
In connection to the last point it should be emphasised that any essay should be about your ideas and your interpretation of the literature being studied. Of course your ideas may, and indeed should, develop through discussions with friends, fellow students, tutors and through the consultation of books and articles, but it is your ideas which should form the basis of the essay. Whilst you will use material that is not your own, it is the way that you use, add to, adapt and modify this material that makes the argument your own and original. Your own voice should be heard. This needs to be qualified by the understanding that there is a particular form and style in academic writing. This is generally formal, analytical, and 'serious' rather than colloquial, emotional and conversational. Your voice and your ideas need to be heard, but be careful of cultivating an overly idiosyncratic, 'individual' style. Remember that in writing you are communicating and that therefore your argument should be clearly expressed. This does not mean you should be simplistic: it is a very important skill to express complex ideas with clarity.
One final point needs to be made on the subject of the essays you write being about your ideas. Some of you may find this an extraordinary statement but it is a bad idea to tailor and construct your essay around what you believe your tutor or the head of the course thinks about the text, and what you think she or he wants to hear. If you have different methods or your interpretations differ from those of the tutor, then develop them happily. Remember that essay writing is all about presenting an argument and using evidence from the text and elsewhere to back up your statements, and if you do this well you will be given credit for it whether or not the tutor agrees with the overall argument. It is not particularly interesting for tutors to read in essays only what they have said in class, particularly if this is reproduced in a flat, unconvincing, and unconvinced manner. Of course you may agree and be persuaded by arguments and interpretations outlined in class but if you do not believe the arguments you reproduce in the essay it will be obvious and the tutor will wonder why you bothered to include them. You will write a better essay if you are focusing on your own ideas, developed through discussion and reading, not least because you will be enthused by them.
Eventually your ideas will be thought through, outlines planned and re-planned, main points developed, written down on paper, then rewritten, and finally given to your tutor. Nevertheless your work on the essay has not yet finished. Once the essay has been graded and returned it is very important that you do not merely look at the grade you have received before putting it at the bottom of your files. Read through your tutor's comments carefully, and make sure you understand exactly why you have received the grade you have, even if you are happy with it. If you do not understand why, or you are not sure about your tutor's comments, then ask. If it is not possible to ask during class or you would prefer to talk privately go to your tutor during office hours, or make an appointment if these clash with other classes. Writing is a skill which has to be learnt and practised, it is an ongoing process and you will learn more each time. Follow up work once the essay has been returned is an important part of this process.
Example 1: Using Quotations
The extract below, from a paper on Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, shows how quotations can be used. Because the paper quotes from the novel extensively, page numbers are found within the main body of the text, in parentheses, after complete bibliographical details have been provided in a footnote to the first quotation. Quotations from secondary sources are referenced by footnotes. Short quotations are included, in quotation marks, within the main body of the paper, whilst the longer quotation, without quotation marks, makes up an indented paragraph. Note that even when the writing by the author of the paper is combined with quotations from the novel and secondary sources the sentences are still grammatically correct and coherent.
Jean Brodie is convinced of the rightness of her own power, and uses it in a frightening manner: 'Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life'.1 This is Miss Brodie's adoption of the Jesuit formula, but, whereas they claim the child for God, she moulds the child for her own ends. 'You are mine,' she says, '... of my stamp and cut ...' (129). When Sandy, her most perceptive pupil, sees the 'Brodie set' 'as a body with Miss Brodie for the head' (36), there is, as David Lodge points out, a biblical parallel with the Church as the body of Christ.2 God is Miss Jean Brodie's rival, and this is demonstrated in a literal way when one of her girls, Eunice, grows religious and is preparing herself for confirmation. She becomes increasingly independent of Miss Brodie's influence and decides to go on the Modern side in the Senior school although Jean Brodie makes clear her own preference for the Classical. Eunice refuses to continue her role as the group's jester, or to go with them to the ballet. Cunningly, her tutor tries to regain control by playing on her religious convictions:
All that term she tried to inspire Eunice to become at least a pioneer missionary in some deadly and dangerous zone of the earth, for it was intolerable to Miss Brodie that any of her girls should grow up not largely dedicated to some vocation. 'You will end up as a Girl Guide leader in a suburb like Corstorphine', she said warningly to Eunice, who was in fact secretly attracted to this idea and who lived in Corstorphine. (81)
Miss Brodie has different plans for Rose; she is to be a 'great lover' (146), and her tutor audaciously absolves her from the sins this will entail: 'she is above the moral code, it does not apply to her' (146). This dismissal of possible retribution distorts the girls' judgement of Miss Brodie's actions.
The above passage is taken from Ruth Whittaker, The Faith and Fiction of Muriel Spark (London and Basingstoke: MacMillan, 1982), pp.106-7.
Example 2: Laying out a bibliography
The bibliography will usually include the relevant sources consulted in producing your essay, even if you have not referred to or quoted from them directly. The order is alphabetical and determined by the authors' names. Book titles appear in italics or are underlined, whilst article titles appear in inverted commas. When referring to books you should include the author's name, place of publication, the publisher, and the date when the book was published. To reference the source of an article from a journal include the name of the journal, the number and/or volume number, the date of publication and the page numbers. There are several styles for laying out a bibliography, but the same elements appear in each, and you must be consistent. Consult the handbooks to be found in the libraries for further details.
This is a model used by many British universities and publishers.
Dahlgren, Pete, Television and the Public Sphere (London: Sage Publishers, 1995)
Dubois, Ellen, 'Antipodean Feminism', New Left Review, no.206, July/August 1994, 127-33
Fussel, Paul, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975)
Gledhill, Christine, 'Melodrama', in The Cinema Book, ed. Pam Cook (London: BFI, 1985), pp.73-84
Lodge, David, 'The Uses and Abuses of Omniscience: Method and Meaning in Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' in David Lodge, The Novelist at the Crossroads and Other Essays on Fiction and Criticism (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971), pp.119-44
Pettifer, James, The Greeks (London: Penguin, 1993)
This is the model recommended by the Modern Languages Association (MLA) and is used by most American universities and publishers.
Dahlgren, Pete. Television and the Public Sphere. London: Sage Publishers, 1995.
Dubois, Ellen. "Antipodean Feminism." New Left Review 206 (July/August 1994): 127-33
Fussel, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975.
Gledhill, Christine. "Melodrama" in The Cinema Book. Ed. Pam Cook. London: BFI, 1985. 73-84
Lodge, David. "The Uses and Abuses of Omniscience: Method and Meaning in Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" in David Lodge The Novelist at the Crossroads and Other Essays on Fiction and Criticism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971. 119-44
Pettifer, James. The Greeks. London: Penguin, 1993.
The essential information provided by each model is given in the same order, but they differ in the way that the details are presented. Whichever model you choose or are instructed to use ensure that you stay consistent to it.
Consult reference works for further advice. These books are on the open shelves:
· John Clanchy and Brigid Ballard, How to Write Essays (Melbourne: Longman Cheshire, 1992)
· Joseph Gibaldi, MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (New York: MLA, 1995)
Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (London: Macmillan, 1961), p.7. All further references are to this edition and given in the text.
David Lodge, 'The Uses and Abuses of Omniscience: Method and Meaning in Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie', in David Lodge, The Novelist at the Crossroads and Other Essays on Fiction and Criticism (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971), pp.119-44.