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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I chatted with a former professional essay writer and I shared most of her views. These are her confessions and I hope you enjoy the read.
I considered myself to be great in writing essays, so maybe I could finally benefit from that talent. I applied for a position as an essay writer for Best Essays and a few days after I got it, I decided to quit my office job for a marketing firm.
With time, the enthusiasm dropped and I realized that professional writing services had an undermining effect on today’s educational system. I read a publication in The Atlantic once and the article made a huge impact: now I’m out of that industry and I’m already an ESL teacher, I thought to share a few of my findings.
Initial Impressions: It Was Great To Be An Essay Writer.
At first, I believed I was helping students become better writers. They were going to use my content as foundation for their own research, and they would develop the ideas further. Truthfully, some went ahead to become better writers themselves, improving on their content and research abilities, but some just made seeking professional writing a habit.
I have to say the company I worked for did not convince students to buy papers there. It was strictly their own decision, and we were providing the products they asked for.
Why Students Need Essay Services
Maria, one of the first customers I worked for, needed a review of The Count of Monte Cristo. She told me she liked reading, but the volume of work the professor imposed was too much. I remember what she said: “If I read and analyze all these books, when will I find time for the other papers? When will I study for the exams?” That was a genuine concern.
Robert, another student I remember, liked the work I delivered, so he specifically requested my assistance for several other projects. As he explained, he didn’t want to go to college in the first place, but he had to deal with the great expectations of his successful parents.
Students have many reasons for using an essay writing service. Some of them are lazy; others are too busy or have poor time-management skills; some are parents; others have a part-time job; and most of them have no idea how to write academic papers. Most of the students who buy papers online are non-native English speakers from Eastern Europe and Asian countries, but Americans and Australians also place many orders. The percentages of males and females in the base of customers are almost the same (52% are male and 48% are female). Interestingly, 65% of the first-time users returned to buy more papers.
College students are not the only ones who need essays as 40% of the customers are between 25 and 34 years old. MA and PhD candidates also need assistance with writing a dissertation or a thesis paper and that in itself, isn’t a bad thing.
The Problems With The Academic Writing Industry
I noticed a few glitches in the system. Now the work for a writing agency is very flexible. A writer can take as much work as they can handle. The pay is never a problem; as long as you work well, you get good money.
One day, as I logged into my profile, I noticed there were no orders delegated to me. I contacted the superior to ask if there were any available projects, and I got an answer I didn’t expect. The website’s positions in Google search results dropped. The competition built links to our website under misleading anchor text, such as “porn essay” or “payday loan.” Since Google can ban sites from niches like payday loans, gambling, and porn, black hat marketers are often building such links with the goal to get competitive websites banned.
The company managed to take those bad backlinks down, and the website was back in business. After some time, there was another incident that showed how corrupt online marketers could get. I got a request for revisions. I had been working with the student before and he was happy with the work I delivered. This time, he was furious about the bad quality he received. We exchanged a few messages before I realized; that paper was not written by me. The competitors had created an identical website with a very similar domain name, and tricked our loyal customers to order papers there. They got plagiarized content and no refunds. That was a shame.
During the high seasons (fall and spring), there are almost 7,000 people looking to buy papers online, monthly. The keyword planner marks the competition for this keyword as “low” because these services don’t have access to advertising campaigns. Google banned such adverts back in 2007. Regardless of that action, the essay writing niche is still very competitive and growing stronger than ever. Its little wonder competitors are using whatever means necessary to gain mileage.
The situation with the scamming service presenting a plagiarized paper as something I wrote was the drop that spilled the cup. I realized I could help students do better with their tasks through other means, hence the career change. Now, I’m working as an ESL teacher.
Many would say that the essay writing niche is unethical and I would agree. But I believe these essay providers can devise a means to help students actually become better at writing and carrying out their academic goals or assignments. It may seem as a bad business strategy, but it is value added.
It was an interesting experience, to say the least. I enjoyed researching and writing, and I focused on the fact that I was learning something new every single day. However, I can help students become better professionals in a different way.