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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Tips on Writing a Descriptive Essay
Writers use the descriptive essay to create a vivid picture of a person, place, or thing. Unlike a narrative essay, which reveals meaning through a personal story, the purpose of a descriptive essay is to reveal the meaning of a subject through detailed, sensory observation. The descriptive essay employs the power of language and all the human senses to bring a subject to life for the reader.
If readers come away from a descriptive essay with the feeling that they have really met a person, gone to a particular place, or held a certain object, the writer has done a good job. If readers also feel an emotional connection and deep appreciation for the subject’s significance, the writer has done a great job.
The Five-Step Writing Process for Descriptive Essays
Professional writers know one thing: Writing takes work. Understanding and following the proven steps of the writing process helps all writers, including students. Here are descriptive essay writing tips for each phase of the writing process:
1. Prewriting for the Descriptive Essay
In the prewriting phase of descriptive essay writing, students should take time to think about who or what they want to describe and why. Do they want to write about a person of significance in their lives, or an object or place that holds meaning? The topic doesn’t have to be famous or unusual. The person could be a grandparent, the object, a favorite toy, and the place, a tree house.
Once a topic is chosen, students should spend time thinking about the qualities they want to describe. Brainstorm about all the details associated with the topic. Even when not writing about a place, reflect on the surroundings. Where is the object located? Where does the person live? Consider not just physical characteristics, but also what memories, feelings, and ideas the subject evokes. Memory and emotion play an important role in conveying the subject’s significance. Plan the focus of each paragraph and create an outline that puts these details into a logical sequence.
2. Drafting a Descriptive Essay
When creating the initial draft of a descriptive essay, follow the outline, but remember, the goal is to give the reader a rich experience of the subject. Keep in mind, the most important watchword of writing a descriptive essay is show, don’t tell. One of the best ways to show is to involve all of the senses—not just sight, but also hearing, touch, smell, and taste. Write so the reader will see the sunset, hear the song, smell the flowers, taste the pie, or feel the touch of a hand.
Use descriptive and figurative language, as well as concrete images to describe the subject. Similes and metaphors work well. Here are some examples:
The house was old.
The house frowned with a wrinkled brow, and inside it creaked with each step, releasing a scent of neglected laundry.
If you had to pick a study buddy, you would pick this guy.
The clock had been in our family for years.
The clock stood by our family, faithfully marking the minutes and hours of our lives.
Enjoy the process of describing the subject—it can be a rewarding experience. A descriptive essay doesn’t rely on facts and examples, but on the writer’s ability to create a mental picture for the reader.
3. Revising a Descriptive Essay
In the revision phase, students review, modify, and reorganize their work with the goal of making it the best it can be. In revising a descriptive essay, students should reread their work with these considerations in mind:
- Does the essay unfold in a way that helps the reader fully appreciate the subject? Do any paragraphs confuse more than describe?
- Does the word choice and figurative language involve the five senses and convey emotion and meaning?
- Are there enough details to give the reader a complete picture?
- Has a connection been made between the description and its meaning to the writer? Will the reader be able to identify with the conclusion made?
Always keep the reader in mind from opening to concluding paragraph. A descriptive essay must be precise in its detail, yet not get ahead of itself. It’s better to go from the general to the specific. Otherwise, the reader will have trouble building the image in their mind’s eye. For example, don’t describe a glossy coat of fur before telling the reader the essay is about a dog!
4. Editing a Descriptive Essay
At this point in the writing process, writers proofread and correct errors in grammar and mechanics. It’s also the time to improve style and clarity. Watch out for clichés and loading up on adjectives and adverbs. Having a friend read the essay helps writers see trouble spots and edit with a fresh perspective.
5. Publishing a Descriptive Essay
Sharing a descriptive essay with the rest of the class can be both exciting and a bit scary. Remember, there isn’t a writer on earth who isn’t sensitive about his or her own work. The important thing is to learn from the experience and take whatever feedback is given to make the next essay even better.
Time4Writing Teaches Descriptive Essay Writing
Time4Writing essay writing courses offer a highly effective way to learn how to write the types of essays required for school, standardized tests, and college applications. A unique online writing program for elementary, middle school, and high school students, Time4Writing breaks down the writing process into manageable chunks, easily digested by young writers. Students steadily build writing skills and confidence, guided by one-on-one instruction with a dedicated, certified teacher. Our middle school Welcome to the Essay and Advanced Essay courses teach students the fundamentals of writing well-constructed essays, including the descriptive essay. The high school Exciting Essay Writing course focuses in depth on the essay writing process with preparation for college as the goal. The courses also cover how to interpret essay writing prompts in testing situations. Read what parents are saying about their children’s writing progress in Time4Writing courses.