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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Concept Development Worksheet - Sample Essay
In this early stage, you may have very little of the information needed to build a solid business plan or feasibility study. Nonetheless, use your best judgement to answer all of the questions. During the rest of the term, you will be investigating and developing these issues in more depth. Please remember: nothing you write here is carved in stone! Flexibility in the light of new information is a hallmark of a successful entrepreneur. As much as possible, the entire venture team should work together in completing this worksheet.
If you assign different sections to different people, then be sure the team as a whole gets together to discuss the completed worksheet before you hand it in. Venture Name: Awesome Tree Printing Solutions (ATPS) Advisor: I strongly encourage you to identify someone from the business community who can give you useful feedback as you develop your ideas. It could be someone who has start-up experience in a similar sector, a potential buyer in your target market, or someone with lots of relevant industry experience. Make sure that they are willing to sit down and discuss your venture twice during the next 6 weeks.
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Here, please provide their name, position and organization, and a brief (1-2 sentence) rationale for why they are a good advisor for you. 1. Venture Overview 1. What is the name of our venture? What are important considerations in choosing a name? At this current moment in time we have decided to name our venture Awesome Tree Printing Solutions, although we are still working on changing the name around and we are in the midst of throwing some different names around, making sure that our name in unambiguous to our business operations.
As of right now, the official name is still Awesome Tree Printing Solutions and our venture idea will revolve around opening up a business that provides printing/copying services to Small/Medium Sized businesses around downtown Toronto and later expanding on the Greater Toronto Area. When choosing the name of our business it is important to have a catchy name that grabs the customers’ attention, express legitimacy, and is unambiguous to our operations, and we feel this is achieved by our current business title Awesome Tree Printing Solutions.
We also feel that having the word solutions in the name will label our business as providing consumers with a solution to problems that they face when it comes to printing and copying. 2. What is our value proposition? Our venture is based on providing a printing brokerage service to consumer. Although there are printing/copying shops around Toronto, different shops will have different prices for different products/services and it is often too tough for our clients to go from shop to shop negotiating/find the best deal for every different print job.
With regards to smaller organizations/businesses, it can also be tough to go out and spend the time/resources to print out thousands of flyer’s and/or booklets among others, especially on limited time schedules. In addition, smaller businesses would not have provide a large enough demand, compared to those of a multi-national corporation, to have buying power and negotiate reduced prices. We are going to work for these small, independent organizations and businesses to meet their full printing needs.
This will involve everything from going to different shops to get the best deals for specific jobs, to picking up the print copies and either delivering them or keeping them in our downtown office for convenient pickup. We are also going to work with print shops around Toronto to enter into deals where they provide us with the best deals possible as well as providing us with retainers, allowing us to purchase “bulk” copies by taking the orders from multiple groups. This will not only allow us to receive a greater profit on our services, but to also provide lower prices to our clients. 3.
What is our entry strategy? Because of our business venture, we will not require a lot of capital to start up our business and enter the market. We will begin by entering the Toronto market and targeting University groups, small organizations and small/medium sized businesses. Our main start up costs will involve having our sales staff aggressively target groups in order to build a customer base that we can build upon. We will also have an office in downtown Toronto where our sales force will work from and where we will store orders from pick up. 4. What is our long-term growth strategy?
We will begin by targeting groups around the core downtown area. Our initial growth will come from building a loyal customer base that will then allow us to move into the other areas of Toronto and hopefully the GTA in the near future. This will require more sales personnel as well as more office space/a potential warehouse to store products. In the long term we hope to expand to other major cities in Canada such as Montreal and Ottawa, followed by entry into U. S. markets that market research will lead us to. 5. What additional information do we need to decide how we’ll enter the market?
We will need to go to many of the printer shops in our area and see what their prices are in order to see which shops provide the best deals on what different print jobs. We will also have to talk to management in these shops and work towards getting deals set in place where we are provided more discounts based on how much business we bring the print shops as well as other factors. We will also need to conduct market research on our potential customers and their willingness to pay for our service as well as potential competitors in the area and how we stack up against them.
2. Product/Service Description 1. What is our product or service? What isn’t it? First and foremost, we are not a printing company in the way we physical print consumer orders. We are a print brokerage, acting as a medium between the fragmented individually owned printing shops and the consumers, being able to negotiate low prices with individual vendors with our large buying power. The printing industry is fragmented with many individually owned print shops. All print shops do not have the feasibility/capital to undertake all orders.
As an example, if a consumer needs business cards, calendars, and brochures, these jobs would require different machines which print shops can ill afford to have. Usually, print shops only have one or the other. (Note: we’d also have to build close relationships individual print shops) With the network of all individually owned print shops, collectively, we can provide all the print jobs needed for the customers without the hassle of customers needing to locate multiple print shops.
We will sell for the whole printing industry in our local geographic area. We will provide consumers with our list of vendors and their services. Consumers can see immediately what services are available and can make price comparisons immediately. Consumers can then make place their orders through us. 2. What are its features and benefits? For customers, rather than having to deal with multiple suppliers, they can come and deal with us only. We would act as print managers, and will provide collective information on the available services.
We can provide a fast turn around time, quality, and low prices. We are impartial about pricing or job orders (no preferential treatment) through our print network, and we can guarantee low pricing because of our large buying power and can thus negotiate prices on behalf of the consumer. Sure, printing jobs can be done cheaply by searching through the Internet, but they are usually speciality print orders, with little variety as they batch print where jobs are done through mass order ie. only glossy business cards printed on egg shell white.
We’ll provide account brokers, where we can provide for all variety of printing jobs using the collective resources of individually owned print shops. (FUTURE: Expanding to Trade-Only Print Shop once we get off the ground. ) For our network, print shops, we provide consumers and volume that they usually do not have. (We will need to have someone on the inside, someone with experience in the printing shop and that would be top priority) For the print shop, they do not hire sales people as their sales people are their customers. They rely on word of mouth and convenience for the business.
We would provide a larger network of customers that only a sales force would provide. 3. What does it compete with? How is it different from, or superior to, the competition? The nature of our business allows us to indirectly compete with printing services already provided by procurement services or other printing brokerage’s already established. We do not compete head on nor wish to compete with existing services provided, but instead provide services to those who do not have access to such discounts granted by having large buying power to negotiate low prices.
Because we provide services for small, individually owned businesses who do not have the financial flexibility or the buying power to set up a procurement office, we can provide a service to negotiate great low prices with printing vendors. 4. Do we have any proprietary rights to the product/service? Except the information provided by our consumers, our proprietary rights would be restricted to the information data, programs, software, materials used in our services and that of our suppliers.
Are there technological challenges in its development, and what are they? Our biggest threat would be the changes of the environment, namely technology changes. There are already trends of using less physical printing needs for the propose of reducing paper consumption. An example would be the use of social media Twitter and Facebook, where consumer reach potential would be maximized through the use of these social media websites, making brochures or flyer’s obsolete for advertisement. 6. What are future development plans, such as upgrades or product line extensions?
Our future development plans would be the expand services in different geographic locations, expand our consumer relations to growing business to act on behalf ot their procurement needs, and expand our vendors to include trade-only print shops to provide greater services and higher capacity. 7. What additional information do we need to define and differentiate our product/service? Our top priority would be to recruit an experienced and knowledgeable individual in the printing/publishing industry to help guide us in our business venture, provide our business with expertise and legitimacy, and establish close relationships with vendors.