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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Understanding Assignments Part II
Last week on our blog we talked about different types of assignments, including literary analysis, summary, and response or reflection essays. This week we’ll talk about two different types of research papers: analytical research papers and argumentative research papers.
A research paper is a type of essay that requires the writer to investigate and integrate sources related to his or her subject. It is not a summary, nor an exposition, nor an opinion piece, but might take on elements of all of those genres. Research papers offer an informed study of a topic that engage outside source material, including primary and secondary sources, to offer other perspectives on an issue.
Argumentative Research Paper
The goal of an argument paper is to persuade the audience of the merits of a debatable topic. If the topic is not debatable, meaning there are two sides to the topic, it is not considered argumentative. The writer of an argument paper must make a claim (the thesis statement) and back it up with source material. Outside research is included to support and prove your point, or claim (thesis). The writer of a successful argument paper will spend a good amount of time pouring over research that best supports his or her argument. The argument paper will also include opposition. If there is no opposition, there is no argument.
The topic for an argument paper must be debatable and is often controversial. Read the following examples of arguments, and decide if they are debatable:
- Body piercing is popular among the youth of today.
- There are a lot of benefits to using computers in grade school.
- There are some negative and positive aspects to lowering the drinking age.
If you guessed they are not debatable, you are right. How can you reword each one to make it an argumentative thesis statement?
Analytical Research Paper
An analytical research paper differs from the argument paper in that it often begins with a research question which the writer will explore and evaluate. An analysis leads us to determine what something “means”; what is the “how” or “why” behind a topic? A thesis statement in an analytical paper will most often answer a “how” or “why” question.
Some examples of analytical thesis statement might be
- Childhood obesity may result from environmental factors, socio-economic factors, and genetics.
- An analysis of the sandhill crane reveals conflicting research on their once-believed monogamous mating habits.
As you can see, the thesis statements above do not present the topic in the form of an argument, but in the form of a statement that clearly communicates or forecasts the essays’ contents. The analysis will often analyze different points of view on an issue or topic, but may not necessarily support either side of the issue. The topic may very well be debatable, but the writer’s purpose is not necessarily to persuade the reader of a position, as in the argument paper.
Other Types of Analysis Papers
Literature instructors will often require students to write a literary analysis paper on an assigned reading (see last week’s blog post). A literary analysis paper attempts to present an idea about a text through careful examination of the text’s components, incorporating the writer’s insights. A literary analysis research paper will incorporate outside research or sources other than the primary text. The literary analysis will significantly expand a reader’s understanding of a text, often by making an assertion about the text. The writer might introduce a theory or interpretation (the thesis statement) about the text, then fully “analyze” this interpretation through close reading, textual support, and secondary source material.
Academic jargon can often be difficult for the new students to understand. Always refer to your assignment objectives and ask your instructor to clarify any ambiguous or confusing lingo.
For more information on research papers, visit the following links:
Research Thesis Statement Examples
Literary Analysis Thesis Statement Examples
Published by E. Mack
Writing Center Underground is supported by Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, Nebraska and maintained by Elizabeth Mack, Writing Center consultant. The Writing Center, staffed by experienced English teachers and writing consultants, provides professional assistance and outreach programs to help students and faculty with written communication across the disciplines and beyond. Simply stated, the Writing Center is a place into which writers invite other writers to dialogue about writing. View all posts by E. Mack