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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My brother was courageous for coming out
1st Place $50
Author’s name withheld
Illustration by Andrea Perez, 17, Bravo Medical Magnet HS
Growing up I never had a hero. I always thought it was a bogus idea to look up to someone when they haven’t done anything to actually gain your respect. I always thought that there was no one who I would admire in my life. The reasons being because everywhere you look people are shallow, they never think of others. But in recent years I’ve actually found a hero, someone who I can admire with my heart and be proud to say he’s who I admire. That person is my brother.
I have three brothers. I could lie and say they were always caring but I won’t. Growing up, most times they were harsh. I never had anyone to play with me or have a conversation with. They always looked down on me since I was the youngest. Since the biggest age gap was between me and them, sometimes they would take time to talk to me but most times they were off in their own world. But all of them had their good traits and the one I most admire is my second-oldest brother. Like me he is gay, and he’s gone through so much more than I have.
Coming out for him was the hardest. My mom and dad did not know how to deal with it. So they hit him. They thought the solution was beating the gay out of him and treating him harshly. Yet he didn’t back down and he kept true to who he was. I remember going to church and keeping him as the secret of the family. I could only imagine how he could feel being the black sheep of the family— staining our family. He also came out when most people didn’t accept homosexuals, saying they were a mistake of God and that they needed to die. I remember one day I was young and he came up to me in my room and said, “If you ever come out just know that it’s going to be easier for you. I cleared the way for you so it’ll be easier.” I guess he meant with my parents and my family, that they would accept me more easily. To this day, those words stay with me since he knew who I was when I was young. Even when I was denying it because society said we were sinners, he came up to me and said what needed to be said. Those simple words touched my heart and I have never forgotten them.
I love him so dearly. Because of those words I knew exactly what he went through, those words had the pain he went through laced all around them. I am proud to say he is my brother and my hero. He is the one who inspires me to be myself and not care what others say about me. That my life is my own and not anyone else’s, and I know I will always admire him for what he has done in my life. Because after all these years no matter what happens I know he will be there for me, because despite of all the prejudice in the world he will never back down from who he is, and neither will I.
My mom does it all
2nd place $30
By Nancy Vo, El Monte HS
When I saw the headline in L.A. Youth that said, “Who do you admire?” there was no doubt in my mind who I wanted to write about. My mom.
Well, to start off, my mom was not born anywhere near the U.S. She was born on the other side of the world: Hanoi, Vietnam. She grew up during a time when making money to help the family was much more important than receiving an education. She grew up during a time of war, which made it that much harder for her to receive food and simple, everyday necessities that we here in the U.S. take for granted. Despite all these hardships, my mom still managed to get an education, start a family and accomplish something that would change the course of my life forever. She worked and worked and worked, and eventually she saved up enough money to get my entire family of five over to the States. I admire that woman because she went above and beyond to make sure that her kids were going to receive a better education, a better life and a secure future where we don’t have to worry about where our next meal is coming from.
Secondly, I admire her because of her strength. She’s been through hell and back, and amazingly she’s still here, standing tall. About five years ago, my dad was diagnosed with a brain tumor. When I heard the news, I broke down and cried. He’s my world, my everything, and to know that I could lose him at any given moment scared the life out of me. I thought that the news of my dad’s brain tumor would send my mom over the edge, but surprisingly it didn’t. She held herself together very well. Whenever anyone needed a shoulder to cry on, they would look for her. Just the other day, I asked my mom why she never cried. She responded, “Are you kidding me?! I would cry all the time. I would cry when you kids were off at school. I would even cry myself to sleep sometimes. I just wouldn’t cry in front of you kids or your father because I knew that I had to keep a straight face. I had to be the rock that kept the family grounded.” She was the rock then, and she’s still the rock now.
Lastly, I admire her because she’s as quick as a whip and she’s more independent than anyone I know. She’s a clever one I tell you. It seems like whenever anyone in my family comes down with an illness, she has the cure. If you are living under my mom’s roof there’s absolutely no need for Advil or Tylenol. Just give her 15 minutes to whip up a homemade remedy and you’re cured. On top of that, my mom is her very own mechanic and accountant. If the check engine light lights up, my mom can take care of it. When the time to file taxes comes around, she’s got it.
A lot of people look up to celebrities like Kim Kardashian or Jeremy Lin. Now don’t get me wrong, those celebrities are great and all, but I don’t admire them the same way I admire my mom. She’s an incredible human being who’s hardworking, strong, clever and independent. I hope one day I grow up to be half the woman she is. (And if you’re reading this Mom, I love you!)
My family stuck by me
3rd place $20
By Jorge Sanchez, Wooden HS (Reseda)
Running away from something when you want to stay. Quitting something that you love doing. Giving up a life that you are used to. I admire my family for helping me do these things, even when I wasn’t so sure I wanted them done.
My wife helped me stop doing drugs. I didn’t think that I would actually meet someone like her. She started to tell me that I should quit, but I didn’t want to. But she never gave up on me and kept encouraging me to stop. The main reason why I admire her is because she never gave up on me and kept pushing me forward. After she helped me stop doing drugs, her goal was for me to stop my gang-related life. She would always tell me that she didn’t want that life for me and knew that I could do better. She never stopped believing in me, and she never gave up. When she found out that I left the gang-related ways behind me, she was really happy.
The main reason why I really admire my wife is because she is the mother of my two beautiful kids. My kids have motivated me to do many things that I thought I would never do. At first I didn’t think I could be a good father because we were both so young, and I thought I would end up doing the same thing as my dad . . . just leave. My wife and my kids showed me that I was better and trusted that I would always be there for them and would never leave them no matter what. When I dropped out of school, my wife was mad. She started to notice that I didn’t want to go to school anymore and wanted to focus more at work. She decided to push me to go back to school. She helped me get back on my feet and pushed me to finish school. I will finally graduate this spring.
My babies and my wife are the best things that have happened to me in my life. Without them I don’t know where I would be right now. I don’t want to run. I don’t want to quit. I want to stay exactly where I am with the woman I admire.
My older sister inspires me with her sacrifice
Author’s Name Withheld
The person I admire most in the world is my older sister. She is the one who taught me how to say “please” and “thank you,” the one who taught me division when I was in the fourth grade, and the one who gave me advice throughout high school. I grew up in a single parent household, so it was my sister who raised me.
As we were growing up, I always looked up to her and admired all the things she could do that I couldn’t. She learned how to ride the bike before me, how to swim before me, and how to do her make up before me. She was always before me, but she taught me everything she knew because she didn’t want me to feel left out. That’s what I loved the most about her. She always made sure I was included in everything.
My dad came to America 30 years ago and was never able to learn how to speak English. He could only utter a few words, and every time he tried to speak it, the words always got jumbled up on his tongue. For this reason, my sister had to take on the role as his translator. She was my dad’s voice from a young age. She spoke for him when he couldn’t, and took care of him when we didn’t know how.
My sister was the first one in our family to go to college. I remember how hard she worked throughout high school, all those endless nights of staying up studying, all the weekends she spent in her room reading instead of going out with her friends, and I was too young to understand why. Now that I am older, I realize that she did all those things because she wanted a better future for herself, for us. We were always struggling to make ends meet, and she took on the role as the provider for the family in addition to her many, many other responsibilities.
The day before she left for college, we went out to celebrate all of her achievements thus far. We were all so happy for her, especially me, but a big part of me was also terrified. She would be miles and miles away, and that meant I would have to take on her responsibilities.
I never quite understood the magnitude of what she gave up for and what she gave to our family until I had to take her place. She gave up so much for the people she loved and she gave me the childhood she never had. I admire my sister because she was completely selfless, focused, and strong, and in many ways, I was happy to take her place and to take on her responsibilities because it was her turn to take a break and have some fun, and it was my turn to make her proud of me.
My mom is an unexpected superhero
Author’s name withheld
As I was growing up I would see Spider-man, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain America, along with other superheroes on television doing what they do best, which is fighting crime. I remember as a little kid I would brag about all these superheroes and I used to tell people I wanted to be just like all of them when I grew up. Everyone I told this to responded back with the same answer, “Superheroes don’t exist.” But little did they know, superheroes do exist. Not only do they exist but there was one living in my house all along, a superhero I call mother. She may not be able to fly like Superman or be able to shoot webs like Spider-Man, but she does have a power, and that is super strength.
When most people hear that my mom has super strength, they might think she’s super muscular, but the truth is she isn’t. She can’t lift a car with one hand maybe not even a gallon of milk, but she is strong enough to support her family.
As I was growing up I would wonder why I didn’t see my mom that often. I would wonder why I didn’t have any dad. I wondered why I spent most of my time with my grandma. And I wondered why I was born in one country but was living in another. All these questions taunted me for years; it wasn’t until I got a little older and had a better understanding about life that all my questions were answered.
The reason why I didn’t see my mom that often was because she had to work most of the time to take care of me, my two siblings and my grandmother. The reason why there wasn’t a father in my life was because he walked out on us and left my mom all alone with three kids when I was barely 2 years old. The reason why I was born in one country but lived in a different one was because my mom thought about our future. She thought that leaving her country and coming to the United States would help her give us a better life. She thought we would have better opportunities and a way better education than we would have gotten in her country, and indeed she was right.
I’m sure that life as a single mother isn’t easy, especially when you’re trying to raise your kids in a country that’s not yours, a country as strange as a stranger on the street. Since day one life for her was very hard, but she never gave up. She sacrificed seeing her kids’ first bike ride, or her kids’ first lost tooth, all these precious moments any mother would love to be part of just so she could continue working her three jobs to support her family. Her main priorities were that we always had a roof over our head, food on the table and clothes we can wear. She didn’t have that much time to spend with us, but the kiss she gave us every night before we went to bed was more than enough for us to know how much she loved us. I really don’t blame her or hold anything against her because she wasn’t with me throughout my childhood because I understand what was going on.
Knowing that my mother has sacrificed so much and left her country to come to a strange one just for us, is the reason why she is my hero. Knowing that even though my dad walked out on us but she didn’t give up and stayed strong no matter what life throws at her is why I say she has super strength. But more than a hero and a mother I like to see her as my idol, my best friend, and a role model I admire because nobody is bigger than her. Now who said superheroes don’t exist?