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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The Short Story Essay
by Owen Fourie
“Yes! A short story!”
I have found that most students react favorably to an assignment requiring them to write a short story. They sense that the straitjacket has been removed, and the creative juices begin to flow.
Of course, for some students who have a long tale to tell, the shackles are still there in the form of a restriction to a certain number of words. If you find yourself in such a position, take it as a challenge that will serve to heighten your creativity as you teach yourself to write a complete short story in 1,000 words or 1,500 words. Occasionally, you could also feel restricted if your instructor rules out a certain genre, such as romance.
Bear in mind that writing a short story is a measure not only of your ability to write but also of your appreciation of how literature works. Good storytelling always has a structure, which we call a plot or a plotline, and this is what you need to demonstrate in your essay. Before dealing specifically with the development of the plot, you must choose your topic for a short story.
Hatching the plot
When you receive your assignment, make a list of your ideas taking into account the required length and the permitted genres. Ask yourself these questions:
- What are my interests? Skiing? Ice skating? Coin collecting? Egyptology? Ballet? Skateboarding?
- Which of these interests will serve as a good vehicle for a short story?
- What will be the problem or the conflict to be resolved?
- Who will be the hero, the heroine, the protagonist?
- Who will be the villain, the antagonist?
- Where will the story take place? Choose a setting familiar to you.
- When will it take place? Is it historical, contemporary, futuristic, science fiction? Remember that it is easier and better to keep the time frame of a short story spanning only a matter of a few days, perhaps an hour, but generally not less than that.
By asking these questions, your answers to some of them will already prepare the way for the development of the plot. At this point you need to work on your outline. To do so, you need to take the elements of the plotline into account. Simply stated, the plotline reveals the following stages:
- The exposition giving the time, the place, and the characters involved;
- The rising action revealing the problem, the conflict;
- The climax: the high point of the story where the action will take the characters one way or the other;
- The falling action telling of events leading from the climax to the resolution;
- The resolution telling how all the tensions and complications of the problem or the conflict have been resolved.
As you work on your outline, you need to work according to the plotline. The simplest form for the shortest of stories will devote one paragraph to each of these stages, perhaps two or three paragraphs for the rising action. With your outline complete, you are ready to write your story.
Getting down to writing … and a twist
Your writing should proceed through several drafts. In the first draft, you simply write without hesitation or much care about grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Your objective is to get the story down on paper without being troubled by any thoughts of whether this is correct, although you must keep to your outline.
As you come to your second draft, you take more care, you edit, and you correct obvious errors. With each draft, you improve your story, and the more drafts you make, the better your story should be. Once you have typed what you hope will be the final copy, leave it for a day or two–more, if possible–before returning to it and proofreading it. That proofreading will probably reveal more errors that have to be corrected before you print out the real final copy.
There are two more important points that you need to bear in mind as you write your story:
- Description versus dialog: When you write a short story, you should focus on narration rather than dialog. While some dialog is permissible–dialog that is essential to move the story forward–remember that you are not writing a play. Your narration can be in the first person as one of the characters telling the story or in the third person (or third person omniscient) as an outside observer. If you write in the first person, avoid telling a story that amounts to an autobiographical narrative.
- The best short stories contain a twist that comes at the very end to catch the reader off guard. Throughout the story, the writer gives hints of what will be revealed in the end, but they are subtle hints that will still leave the reader saying, “Of course! I should have seen that,” as the twist in the tale is given.
An excellent example of this is seen in O. Henry’s “After Twenty Years.” It is a little under 1,300 words in length and is easily and quickly read. Interestingly, the writer makes good use of dialog that moves the story forward–not one-word lines of exclamations, or only a few words in a series of single-line exchanges, but paragraphs of several lines spoken by each character. That is proper use of dialog in a short story. You will find the link to “After Twenty Years” at the end of this post.
If you follow all that I have told you here, you should be able to write a good short story and enjoy doing it too.
What is your experience with writing short stories? Do you have any useful insights? What are your particular struggles? What are your thoughts about O. Henry’s “After Twenty Years” as a model for short story writing? Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome.
Link to O. Henry’s short story “After Twenty Years”:http://www.enotes.com/best-o-henry-text/after-twenty-years
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