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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Why Do Students Feel As If They Need Them?
I recently had the opportunity to speak with a former writer for a prestigious essay writing service and his experience in the industry.
"I have witnessed the steady growth of this industry for years. When I became part of the team for Rush Essay, I thought we would be writing academic content for students with below-average capacity. I was in for a surprise. We got orders from all types of students - lazy ones who only want to find an easier way out of a messy situation, as well as really smart young people who simply couldn't find the time to do their own work.
I was convinced that students who got into Harvard, Berkeley, Oxford, Cambridge, and other prestigious US and UK universities would work much harder than the ones admitted to "secondary" schools. In fact, they do work hard; and that is the exact reason why they cannot afford to fail. In some cases, the assignment's requirements are so complex that it's difficult for the students to understand what the real question is. The struggles of ESL students are even greater; it is nearly impossible for them to produce degree-level academic content. Since the charges for plagiarism are serious, they have to rely on essay writing services as a solution that provides unique content by the given deadline."
Some statistics - Who buys papers online?
The essay writing industry is a source of interesting statistical data. California, New York and Texas are the most popular regions where orders were coming from. Stanford, UCLA, Berkeley, NYU, Columbia, University of Houston, and other institutions from these states are known for their competitive systems. A student who hopes to graduate from one of these universities usually needs to rely on "unorthodox" methods to deal with all challenges imposed by the professors. Since academic writing is becoming one of the most prominent aspects of the educational system, the constant development of the custom-writing industry is clearly justified.
The most popular types of content requested from custom-writing services are essays, research papers, and MA thesis. Students have an abundance of essays and research papers to write, so there is nothing unusual in the fact that professional writers mostly deal with these types of assignments. When it comes to subjects, students most commonly struggle with projects for Business, English language, and Management courses.
According to those within the industry, buying papers is a necessary reaction to serious underlying issues in the educational system. All college and university professors will tell you the same thing: to them, the act of purchasing papers online is no different than plagiarism. However, some argue that the issue is more complex than that claiming, that the content completed by professional writers is not plagiarized. It is completely unique, well-researched and properly-referenced. When a customer buys this type of product, he has the right to use it as a source for another paper, or simply submit it as his own. The teacher may suspect that the student didn't write a particular paper, but there is no way to prove such claims. Higher education is an industry on its own. Universities accept more applicants, including international students who don't have the needed grasp of the English language to write extraordinary academic content. On the other hand, they don't provide effective support that would enable these students to fit into the system.
The benefits of using custom-writing services are immense for foreign students. In addition, students with part-time jobs, older students who have families and those who are going through tough personal struggles simply need help to go through all challenges they face. The rapid growth of the custom-writing industry is a symptom of the great weaknesses within the educational system, which put students through a great deal of stress and emotional struggle.
What About The Moral Argument?
We all know the definition of cheating is, and simply saying that the work is more challenging for most or that they may not receive enough support from educators, or have enough time to dedicate to the work does not change the definition of cheating, or make it right in any way. Speaking from both ends of the argument, there are those that feel as if these services are creating lazy students and helping to grow an unprepared workforce.
Writing is a vital skill that is applied in many areas of life, especially for those who are entering the workforce, whether they are doing so as an employee or a business owner.
With communications being a vital skill for anyone entering the workforce, our education system recognizes this and strives to prepare our students by requiring them to improve this skill through writing assignments. By outsourcing the work, students, are depriving themselves of the opportunity to strengthen their communications and writing skills.
Are professors and teachers that difficult to reach that so many prefer to risk the stiff penalties of being caught cheating, rather than asking for help? There are many other options available for international, and any other student that may be struggling to keep up, from study groups, to programs within schools and Universities, such as writing centers. What they do require, however, is that the student actually make an effort, by simply making the decision to apply themselves.
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