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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Do you have your students revise their essays? If so, is their process mostly a matter of adding some commas and correcting spelling errors — or are they actually rethinking their writing to make it clearer and stronger?
In this post our guest blogger Lionel Anderson, assistant director of the Office of Academic Resources at Haverford College and a board member of TeenSHARP, offers advice to bridge the gap between the demands of high school and college writing by teaching students the importance of a rigorous revision process.
How do you teach students this skill? Tell us below.
— The Learning Network
Get Ready for College Writing by Learning to Revise
By Lionel Anderson
When I was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, one of my professors demanded four revisions of the same paper — one semester-long revision process for one measly grade.
Sadistic as it was, the five iterations revealed shocking habits in our early drafts. Weight Watchers before-and-after photos had nothing on drafts one and five. She taught us the vast distance between first attempts and a finished product.
At Haverford, as at many colleges and universities, first-year students all take writing-intensive seminars. The courses are as varied as they are rigorous, as you can see by scanning this year’s list.
Prof. Barbara Hall, who teaches a first-year seminar called “Perspectives on Immigration and Education in the United States,” tells her students on day one that she’s going to push them as writers, strip what’s familiar — and then push a whole lot more.
“In most cases, students arrive at colleges as one-draft writers and need to be taught that process-oriented writing often calls for massive revision,” she says.
Should this kind of writing start earlier, I asked her? Can high school teachers in all subject areas oppose the dark forces of texting, tweeting and Facebooking to prepare teenagers for revision-rich writing ahead of their freshman year?
“Of course! And it can be fun,” she answered.
Below, some specific suggestions for how to do it.
Assign fewer papers, but more drafts.
Many college professors would not only agree with this advice, but also apply it to their own writing.
In a recent Times Room for Debate forum about essay writing, for example, J. Elizabeth Clark, a professor of English at LaGuardia Community College, writes:
Good writing is a developmental process, one that immerses students in the practice of working as a writer. They wrestle with feedback from peers and their instructors; they learn to self-evaluate; they use these critiques to revise and rewrite. They compose in a digital world, demonstrating mastery of effective communication in 21st century academic, social and professional environments. My colleagues and I assess every part of the writing process, not just an end product. For this 300-word essay, I consulted 11 colleagues and wrote several drafts, because that’s how real writing works.
But what is a revision? Though herding unruly commas and semicolons is essential, Haverford’s Professor Hall points out that “a first draft plus proofreading does not equal a final draft.” Students need to know the difference between editing and proofreading. She describes editing as a careful review for logical consistency, strength of argument, and structural coherence — and doesn’t advocate close proofreading until later drafts.
Are questions resolved? Your position(s) well defended? Did you follow the prompt? Is there clarity? Have your students answer these questions early and often.
- Host a writing clinic to delineate the differences between proofreading and editing.
- Create a grading rubric that prioritizes editing and revision.
- Award extra credit to students who revise and resubmit old papers from a previous semester or quarter.
- Consider assigning shorter forms of writing that lead up to a final paper — or even replace it. The Times article “Blogs vs. Term Papers” describes how “blog writing has become a basic requirement in everything from M.B.A. to literature courses” in universities across the country.
Teach students to plan time for revision.
The writer Nora Ephron, who died in 2012, wrote an essay for The Times in 1986 called “Revision and Life: Take It From the Top — Again.” In it, she admits she was once a one-draft writer:
When I was in college, I revised nothing. I wrote out my papers in longhand, typed them up and turned them in. It would never have crossed my mind that what I had produced was only a first draft and that I had more work to do; the idea was to get to the end, and once you had got to the end you were finished.
Paul Farber, who teaches Haverford’s first-year seminar “Borders, Walls and Bridges: Cultural Approaches to Divided Cities,” has some advice for freshmen who might feel the same way:
“Anticipate that you will have a revision process. If you write with the awareness that you could eventually build on your original draft, you can more productively incorporate feedback from a professor, trusted writing partner, or follow up with your own ideas as they evolve. When you complete a draft, and then immediately print it out to submit without any plan for revision, this most often works to your disadvantage.”
- Have students observe their own writing, proofreading and editing process and record the average time spent completing assignments. Then, have them consciously build in more revision time. Dr. Farber suggests that “even taking a few minutes or hours between draft completion and editing will allow you to see your writing from a new perspective. Sometimes a change in location or reading your paper aloud accomplishes that same critical distance.”
Help students understand that there isn’t one unbreakable list of writing rules.
For many high school students, writing papers has mostly been about following a teacher’s rules to get a good grade. But not all the writing guidelines one learns in high school necessarily translate to the discipline-specific nature of college writing.
“Writing to rules limits the tools students can bring to developing their arguments,” Professor Hall says. “They’re too concerned with ‘breaking rules’ and not concerned enough with doing everything possible to develop stronger arguments for their points.”
- Share with students some of the ideas from professional essayists, novelists, journalists, linguists and more in this Learning Network post, “Writing Rules! Advice From The Times on Writing Well.”
- Have students list seven or eight rules they associate with formal writing. (For example, never beginning a sentence with “and,” “but” or “or”; structuring a five-paragraph essay with an introduction, three body paragraphs and a conclusion; never using the first person; etc.)
- Then, invite them to carefully review some formal “real world” writing, like the four Times articles below, noting where the author employs or abandons those rules. How well did the rule-breaking work?
Give writers readers.
Many high school teachers already have students peer-edit essays. This helps them develop an editor’s eye, teaches them that writing is not just a solitary activity and exposes them to good practices they might emulate.
But not all high school teachers realize many college professors employ this practice, too.
“Encourage your students to assemble a team of readers and to be a reader for others,” Professor Hall recommends. The peer-editing process, she says, “develops the critical lens and repositions them as ‘knowers.’ ”
- On the question of what kinds of feedback to give writers, students and teachers alike might read the 2013 Times article “You’ve Been Doing a Fantastic Job. Just One Thing …,” which explains that giving feedback isn’t as simple as we might think.
- Research shows that “when people are experts on a subject, or consider themselves experts, they’re more eager to hear negative feedback, while those novices are more likely to seek positive responses.” After reading the article, teachers might ask students to note what kind of feedback helps them most.
Above all, however, learning how to revise is a personal process.
“Figure out what works best for you,” Dr. Farber tells students. “The more self-aware you are about what helps you improve upon previous drafts, or what scares you about returning to work in progress, the more you can adjust to a routine that is proper for you.”
(This post, by the way? It went through at least 20 revisions.)
As a teenager himself, Mr. Anderson was a New York Times Scholar; later he wrote for The Times’s Choice blog. You can follow him on Twitter.