Real Life Academic Essay Cover

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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Poke holes

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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Comments on the full edition:

Academic Writing, Real World Topics promises to be an ideal resource for college-level writing instruction. For students, the organization of the book will be helpful as it guides them through the process of writing and then provides real examples of writing in different disciplines. For instructors, the pairing of those examples with the writing process will simplify classroom instruction and allow for focus on particular issues relevant to the students. I am looking forward to using the book in my own writing seminars.” — Jacob Sauer, Vanderbilt University

“Rectenwald and Carl’s emphasis on discourses surrounding digital culture, transhumanism, and globalization will convince first-year writing students not only that they have something to say about these big issues, but also that their ideas matter and that there are many ways to participate in the conversation. Academic Writing, Real World Topics will model for students—as emerging scholars—the multiple approaches writers take to addressing and engaging with social, cultural, scientific, and technological change.” — Keaghan Turner, Coastal Carolina University

“With Academic Writing, Real World Topics, Rectenwald and Carl have prepared the definitive writing-across-the-curriculum textbook. This book engages students and teachers in lively and robust topics, but it also introduces them to the world of academic disciplines and their various concerns. The topics are compelling, and the concise introduction to academic writing is thorough and easily digested. This book will function not only for introductory writing sequences and WAC courses, but also for first-year seminars and other introductory surveys. There is simply no better book that I have seen for introducing students to both college-level writing and academic discourses more generally. I recommend it for instructors who wish to engage their students in productive scholarly writing and discussion, and also for those who strive for broader and deeper intellectual activity.” — Tamuira Reid, New York University

“What excites me about Academic Writing, Real World Topics is that this book is unapologetically smart, contemporary, and multi-disciplinary. It does a great job at presenting the anatomy of an argument as well as providing examples from a range of disciplines. Throughout, the book emphasizes the connection between logic, grammar, and rhetoric. The result is a systematic approach that makes students aware of how authors use language to create ideas. The emphasis on language in this text will ensure that students develop the reading and writing skills necessary to strive in college—something every text promises but rarely delivers. Finally, it is worth reiterating that the readings consist of contemporary essays in political science, sociology, education, information technology, and literary theory. This will engage students in the issues as well as prepare them as academic writers.” — Jacob Singer, Professor of Academic Writing

Comments from students using the full edition of Real World Topics

Academic Writing: Real World Topics is a book that boldly discusses the real-world problems that the new generation is now facing … The book helped me, as a student, to organize my thoughts on the emerging global culture through the lenses of renowned scholars. This collection helps students apply their growing writing skills to real topics that are applicable and important to school as well as to the rest of their lives.” — Georgia Grace Larsen, Sophomore in Media, Culture, and Communications, New York University

Academic Writing, Real World Topics is an excellent resource for students in the twenty-first century. This book is engaging and easy-to-follow, as it is organized by thought-provoking and pertinent topics … As a student who used this book in a first-year writing seminar, I found it to be an excellent introduction to scholarly writing. Rectenwald and Carl break down various types of college-level writing into approachable steps, guide readers through each of those steps, and include a carefully-curated selection of essays that spark spirited discussions that extends well beyond the traditional boundaries of the classroom.” — Hon-Lum Cheung-Cheng, Sophomore in Politics at New York University

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