Regular readers of these pages will be familiar with the concept of a guest blogger. From time to time I invite others to contribute, and today it’s the turn of Richard Paterson, Head of English and Leader of the Humanities Faculty. Richard recently led a workshop for all of our Secondary teachers on the subject of essay writing, and I thought it would be helpful if he shared some of his advice with a wider audience.
Giving essay writing a try
When Michel de Montaigne sat down to write his ‘essais’ (derived from the French essayer, to try), he knew that success was not guaranteed. This perhaps explains why his ‘attempts’ to capture his thoughts on paper fizz with such a sense of adventure and excitement.
Too often for students, though, an essay can seem less like an exciting intellectual journey and more like a confusing and trying form of academic torture. Not only are essays long, but they don’t always have a clear answer. And what’s a line of argument anyway?
A common misconception is that writing an essay means sitting down at a desk and writing an essay. This misses an important truth: essay writing is really all about planning.
Most teachers are well used to the phrase ‘Do we need to plan?’ It’s also not uncommon amongst students to think that planning involves producing a roughly sketched mind-map which ultimately bears very little relation to the finished essay. It’s basically the five minutes you waste before writing the essay.
Not to put too fine a point on it, students can be oblivious to what planning really means. They know the word, they know that yes is the correct answer when asked whether they’ve done it, but the process that it gestures towards generally remains a mystery to them.
So, what is this ‘planning’ of which I speak?
Well, first of all, let me make clear that planning an essay is not hard – and, believe it or not, it is fun, particularly when you do it in a calm environment, with a comfy chair and a nice cup of tea. You’ll have read what you need to read, and, of course, enjoyed mulling it over in your mind afterwards. Then, very simply, you’ll think about the question, jot all your ideas down, develop them, group them and then order them. That’s it. No full sentences, no struggling to use clever words to say what you mean, no worries about how to start an introduction – it’s simply a case of putting your ideas down as clearly as possible and then tidying them up.
If you look at each of these steps individually, they’re very straight forward and certainly not onerous. In fact, they are enjoyable because you’re simply polishing and tidying up thoughts you’ve already thought up. And, if done properly, what you end up with is a clear and detailed answer to the question, and a line of argument justifying your answer. Writing the essay then, by which I mean turning your bullet points into full sentences, is almost just a formality. The essay is written even before it’s written.
Too often though, particularly if time is short or chatting on Facebook seems more important, it’s tempting just to sit down and write the essay straight off. The trouble with this approach is that it means that you are trying to think, structure and write, all at the same time. A little like when, as a learner driver, you try to steer, indicate, change gear, brake and check your mirrors all at once, it will no doubt end in tears – particularly for the poor teacher or examiner who has to read the ‘essay’ produced.
The planning process enables you to think and structure your thoughts first, and then to express them clearly in complete sentences and paragraphs afterwards. Because it splits thinking and writing, the quality at both stages improves.
This is what planning is about. It is the 90% of the essay ‘iceberg’ that stays beneath the water and is not seen. But once this 90% is laid bare for all to see, it becomes clear how important it is – and how intellectually fulfilling it can be.
Imagine it, writing an essay and actually knowing the answer you are trying to give. How refreshing! It becomes your essay rather than just the essay you’ve been forced to write by your unsympathetic teacher – you are genuinely giving your answer.
So, there we have it: essay writing is really all about planning. Let’s take after Michel de Montaigne, I say, and give it a try.
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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