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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How we overcame jealousy, poor money management, and compulsive spending. (Part 4 of 8 of the relationship series.)
“Want to have a finance meeting?”
“Me either. But we probably should.”
Sunday mornings have recently become our “reset” time—a half-day of cleaning the house, shopping for groceries, planning out appointments and work projects for the following week, and, ostensibly at least, going over our finances.
We get that far only once per month or so, though we are doing better.
Our aversion to talking about money is something we’ve struggled with for years and has roots in Round 1 of our relationship, when Chelle was a broke college kid and I earned the only income.
At that time, I was deep into the illusion that I was a “baller”—a symptom of growing up lower-middle-class and suddenly having a six-figure income and “successful” friends.
And so I paid for everything.
I spent money on the usual stuff like rent, groceries, and gas, but also superfluous stuff like vacations, dinners, clothes, and expensive bottles of booze.
Chelle couldn’t help out financially, so she felt guilty. And not being able to afford anything “unnecessary” for herself she began to feel resentful of my spending.
For my part, I shrugged it off and acted like it was no big deal—it was my money after all, I thought—but eventually I started to feel like she didn’t appreciate me or “all the things I did for her.”
So, aware of how stupid we acted back then, we decided to change things when we moved back in together.
Thankfully, we also had a new reality: I realized I needed to get control over my spending habits. And she suddenly had a salary.
Both of which brought up a new problem: how to manage our finances and navigate our own deep-seated psychology in a way that didn’t want to make us kill each other.
(Side note: I don’t think many relationships are strong enough to survive one person “having it all” while the other asks for an allowance. It screws up the power dynamic and leads to some weird shit. Personally, we’re interested in having a level playing field whether one of us makes more or less money than the other.)
The first couple months of Round 2—hell, the first couple years—were a constant battle and source of frustration. It didn’t seem like we had learned much at all, honestly.
She was incredulous over my spending habits and I was equally incredulous over her propensity to squirrel away her money and refuse to buy even the essential things or replace the old, broken, and cheap stuff she’d accumulated over the years. (She recently bragged that the shirt she was wearing was 10 years old and had only cost $4.)
Here’s how a typical finance meeting used to go, as we pulled up Mint.com and looked at the budgets we’d haphazardly set for ourselves:
Her: “Ok…let’s see. Why did you spend $150 on a jacket? Don’t you already have a jacket?”
Me: “Yes. But this is a rain jacket. I need that for the rain.”
Her:“But you already have a rain jacket.”
Me: “Yeah, but I don’t like it. I’m going to donate it. Also, you have like 50 jackets downstairs. You should get rid of some of those.”
Her: “Why is this suddenly about me? Anyway…we can’t go out to eat any more this month.”
Me: “What? Why?”
Her: “It says right here we went over our budget for eating out.”
Me: “That budget is arbitrary. Look at how much money we still have for “food and groceries”. There’s like $500 in there still, and the month is almost over. Let’s use that.”
Her: “But that’s for groceries. Not eating out.”
Me: “It’s all for food, right? Does it really matter?”
Her: “Of course it matters. Otherwise, why do we have a budget? This is stupid.”
Me: “YOU’RE stupid.”*
(*I never actually said anything like this. Though I know we both thought it.)
The degradation from finance talk into fighting was so seamless, we never even realized we had stepped into an emotional boxing ring.
The arguing would continue unabated, both of us with our gloves on, throwing punches and protecting our egos while trying not to get hit ourselves.
But things changed in a major way a couple years ago, after three separate instances.
The first was reading Ramit Sethi’s book, I Will Teach You to Be Rich and deciding to adopt a few of his recommendations.
Sethi suggests setting a conscious spending plan, instead of a budget. He recommends splitting monthly bills based on percentage of income (so if one person makes 60% of the total income, they pay 60% of the total bills), instead of arbitrarily splitting everything 50/50. It made our monthly spending and saving habits more strategic. And if there’s something Chelle and I both love, it’s strategy.
Now instead of arguing over where money should go each month, we’ve decided on a few goals based how much money, historically, we’ve spent on things like eating out, clothes, groceries, travel, and other expenses. This allows us to be realistic about how much money we should allocate to each.
Also: all of our money goes into one “pot” and gets distributed to pay for bills, investments, and anything else from there. So despite our differences in income, we both get an equal amount of money for our personal spending on “unnecessary” things.
There is no more “your money” and “my money.” It’s our money.
Another thing that’s helped us get our finances under control: lots of joints.
Not weed, mind you. Though that occasionally helps too.
I mean getting a joint credit card and setting up a joint checking account with multiple joint savings accounts—all while maintaining our personal spending and saving accounts, too.
We track our joint purchases together on Mint.com but leave our personal accounts personal.
Chelle asked for this specifically, after recognizing that she was still judging my spending decisions. Her new motto: “If it doesn’t affect me, it’s none of my business.”
The third thing that improved our finance talks: a daily meditation practice.
Nearly every morning for the past year, we’ve both sat down (her downstairs and me upstairs) and opened up the Headspace app for our daily 20-minute practice.
Mediation is a hot trend right now, which means there a lot of meditators annoying non-meditators about how wonderful and completely life-changing it is. While I try not to be one of those annoying people, I have to say that it has changed my life.
At the very least, meditation has allowed me to notice my impulsive behavior—behavior that has both served me well (like when I immediately take action on an idea or opportunity). And not so well (like when I walk by a store and end up buying a new rain jacket I don’t actually need).
I can feel the emotion coming on, accept it, and let it pass.
This self-awareness—coupled with Sethi’s money suggestions—means Chelle and I no longer lace up our gloves in preparation for our monthly money talk; they’re not as emotionally-charged as they used to be.
Our money is our money.
And if I want to buy a $200 steak dinner or a $400 bottle of scotch? As long as our bills, savings, and investments are taken care of, we can each use our personal money to buy whatever we want and not feel an ounce of guilt or judgement.
Field notes: How we created a better relationship.
This is the fourth of eight short essays about relationships. I recommend reading them in order, as they’ll make more sense that way.