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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Writing a Good Conclusion Paragraph
Parents, does your student need assistance with writing a concluding paragraph? Our teachers can help. Sign up for either our Middle School Essay Writing or High School Essay Writing course for 1-on-1 guidance.
In a conclusion paragraph, you summarize what you’ve written about in your paper. When you’re writing a good conclusion paragraph, you need to think about the main point that you want to get across and be sure it’s included. If you’ve already written a fabulous introductory paragraph, you can write something similar with different wording. Here are some points to remember.
Use your introductory paragraph as a guide. You may have started by saying, “There are three classes at school that I absolutely can’t wait to go to every day.” You can start your conclusion by saying, “Gym, Math, and Art are the three classes I try to never miss.”
If it’s a longer paper, a good place to start is by looking at what each paragraph was about. For example, if you write a paper about zoo animals, each paragraph would probably be about one particular animal. In your conclusion, you should briefly mention each animal again. “Zoo animals like polar bears, lions, and giraffes are amazing creatures.”
Leave your readers with something to think about. Suggest that they learn more with a sentence like, “We have a lot to learn about global warming.” You can also give them something to do after reading your paper. For example, “It’s easy to make your own popsicles. Grab some orange juice and give it a try!”
To sum up, remember that it’s important to wrap up your writing by summarizing the main idea for your readers. This brings your writing to a smooth close and creates a well-written piece of work.
What is a conclusion?
- A conclusion is what you will leave with your reader
- It “wraps up” your essay
- It demonstrates to the reader that you accomplished what you set out to do
- It shows how you have proved your thesis
- It provides the reader with a sense of closure on the topic
- A conclusion is the opposite of the introduction
- Remember that the introduction begins general and ends specific
- The conclusion begins specific and moves to the general
- So, if we use shapes to demonstrate the essay’s content, it would look like this:
Body of Essay
Rephrased thesis statement
What to include
- Your conclusion wraps up your essay in a tidy package and brings it home for your reader
- Your topic sentence should summarize what you said in your thesis statement
- This suggests to your reader that you have accomplished what you set out to accomplish
- Do not simply restate your thesis statement, as that would be redundant
- Rephrase the thesis statement with fresh and deeper understanding
- Your conclusion is no place to bring up new ideas
- Your supporting sentences should summarize what you have already said in the body of your essay
- If a brilliant idea tries to sneak into the final paragraph, you must pluck it out and let it have its own paragraph in the body, or leave it out completely
- Your topic for each body paragraph should be summarized in the conclusion
- Your closing sentence should help the reader feel a sense of closure
- Your closing sentence is your last word on the subject; it is your “clincher”
- Demonstrate the importance of your ideas
- Propel your reader to a new view of the subject
- End on a positive note
- Your closing sentence should make your readers glad they read your paper
Strategies for an effective conclusion
- Play the “So What” Game.
- When you read a statement from the conclusion, ask yourself, “So what?” or “Why should anybody care?”
- Ponder that question and answer it
- Basically, I’m just saying that education was important to Douglass
- So what?
- Well, it was important because it was a key to him feeling like a free and equal citizen
- Why should anybody care?
- That’s important because plantation owners tried to keep slaves from being educated so that they could maintain control. When Douglass obtained an education, he undermined that control personally.
- Return to the theme or themes in the introduction
- This brings the reader full circle
- If you begin by describing a scenario, you can end with the same scenario as proof that your essay is helpful in creating a new understanding
- Refer to the introductory paragraph by using key words, or parallel concepts and images that you also used in the introduction
- Include a brief summary of the paper’s main points, but don’t simply repeat things that were in the paper
- Pull it all together
- Show your reader how the points you made and the support and examples you used fit together
- Include a provocative insight or quotation from the research or reading you did for the paper
- Propose a course of action, a solution to an issue, or questions for further study
- Point to broader implications
- A paper about the style of writer, Virginia Woolf, could point to her influence on other writers or later feminists
Concluding strategies that do not work
- Beginning with an unnecessary, overused phrase
- These may work in speeches, but they come across as wooden and trite in writing
- “in conclusion”
- “in summary”
- “in closing”
- “as shown in the essay”
- Stating the thesis for the very first time
- Introducing a new idea or subtopic in your conclusion
- Making sentimental, emotional appeals that are out of character with the rest of the paper
- Including evidence (quotations, statistics, etc.) that should be in the body of the paper
- “That’s My Story and I’m Sticking to It”
- Restates the thesis and is usually painfully short
- Does not push ideas forward
- Written when the writer can’t think of anything else to say
- In conclusion, Frederick Douglass was, as we have seen, a pioneer in American education, proving that education was a major force for social change with regard to slavery.
- “Sherlock Holmes”
- State the thesis for the first time in the conclusion
- Writer thinks it would be more dramatic to keep the reader in suspense and then “wow” them with the main idea, as in a Sherlock Holmes mystery
- Readers want an analytical discussion of the topic in academic style, with the thesis statement up front
- “America the Beautiful”
- Draws on emotion to make its appeal
- Out of character with the rest of the paper
- “Grab Bag”
- Includes extra information thought of or found but couldn’t integrate into the main body
- Creates confusion for the reader
- Topic sentence
- Fresh rephrasing of thesis statement
- Supporting sentences
- Summarize or wrap up the main points in the body of the essay
- Explain how ideas fit together
- Closing sentence
- Final words
- Connects back to the introduction
- Provides a sense of closure
More Concluding Paragraph Resources