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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How to Write a Descriptive Essay about a Person
There is something about the personal essays - sometimes they are referred to as “character sketches.” But it is difficult to learn how to write a descriptive essay about a person, because we really do not read them often. We get “pictures” in our heads about characters in a piece of fiction over many pages of writing; and most non-fiction does not entail character sketches. So, when you are assigned this type of essay, you may be at a loss as to how to construct it or even what to say. We have explored a lot of information about this kind of paper and have made a whole article about it in order to help you out. Here are some pretty basic tips and strategies to use as you develop your piece.
Select a Person You Know Well
You cannot write a character sketch about anyone you do not know intimately. This person can be a member of your family, a close friend, or even a main character in a novel or movie if you loved it so much you read or saw it many times.
You can select a totally fictitious person, of course, but it is probably wise to make the person at least a combination of people you know, so that your description “sounds” authentic to a reader. Most fiction writers admit that their major characters are a bit autobiographical or combinations of people they know, because they are just more believable. Also it will help you to get more ideas about what to write and you won’t get lost. If you want you may even have some sort of an interview with the person you are writing about in order to know more about them. Thus you will present them in a way more realistic and truthful way.
Show, Don’t Tell
A descriptive essay about a person is a failure, if all you do is describe that individual physically and then tell the reader that s/he has three or four personality traits. Physical descriptions should be revealed indirectly, and those three or four personality traits must be shown be specific words, actions, and behaviors.
Go back and read your favorite short story or novel. How does the author reveal everything about that main character? Chances are s/he does not spend paragraphs of prose describing what that character looks like. Bits and pieces are revealed along the way, and often the details are left up to the reader to fil in. How do you know what the character’s personality is like? You get that over time, as that character speaks and takes action throughout the work.
Consider these two methods of providing a physical description:
Carol has long curly brown hair, brown eyes, and stands about 5’ 4” tall. She is slender, and her long legs give a graceful appearance as she walks. (Very boring.)
Carol has a completely contagious laugh. When she laughs her entire body is involved. Those long brown curls fly about her face and shoulders, and all 5’ 4” of her is somehow involved. And when she is angry, watch out. Those piercing brown eyes are throwing daggers of light, and those long legs are poised in a true fighting stance, like she is ready to go 16 rounds.
Same person – two different writers. See the difference? When you don’t have an entire novel to gradually provide a physical description, you have to get creative with the way in which you do it. There are a lot of tips and pieces of advice from professional writers on the web that can help you to improve your skills in writing character’s description. Also a lot of writers like Chuck Palahniuk, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King and others have written whole books about the art of writing so consider reading them too.
Describing Personality Traits
Part of learning how to write a descriptive essay about a person mastering this art of showing not telling as you reveal his/her personality traits. Words and behaviors must be used. Let’s take a look at Carol again. Suppose you have decided that she really has extremes in emotions when she is happy or sad – there doesn’t seem to be much “in between” with her. So, that is one of the traits that you want to address in your description. You can take what was written above and expand it a bit, still keeping the physical descriptors but now giving specific examples of these extremes. You should reveal them in real-life situations. Incorporate them in a realistic way. Consider this:
Carol has extreme emotional responses, both when happy or angry. When she found out she was accepted to her first choice for college, she threw her head back, long brown curls flying, raised those slender arms toward the sky and immediately broke into dance moves that I had never seen before, as she sang “Don’t Stop Believin’” and threw those long legs all over the room. And one day, when someone stole a parking space she had been waiting for, I watched her follow that man all the way into the store, shaking her finger and calling him a rude guy and several other terms I won’t mention here.
You have now “proved” to the reader that Carol has extreme emotional responses and done so in an engaging way. It’s important to give such descriptions if you want to keep your writing interesting and not to be boring. It also helps you to carve your own style and to improve writing skills at all.
When You Write Your Essay
As you search for descriptive essay ideas that will make your character “live” on your paper, you can look online for examples of character sketch or personal description essays – you will find plenty to review that will help you see how to formulate your own “picture” of your character. It’s very useful to read other essays if you want to learn how to write good papers. It may also give you plenty of new ideas or to inspire you to write a descriptive essay.
Generally, in a character sketch essay, you should identify three personality traits that you will present, each in a different paragraph. It’s not advised to describe whole personality as it will become a novel. Instead consider using this scheme. Your introduction will obviously introduce your person, and the traits that you will be covering. Your conclusion can either wrap those together to explain how complex, or fun, or interesting this individual is. A conclusion for Carol might be something like this:
Living with my sister Carol has been an adventure, to be sure. And I hope that adventure continues for years to come, even after we are grown and have our own separate lives.
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