Rewriting Essays About Life

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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Poke holes

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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I don’t know how to write. Which is unfortunate, as I do it for a living. Mind you, I don’t know how to live either. Writers are asked, particularly when we’ve got a book coming out, to write about writing. To give interviews and explain how we did this thing that we appear to have done. We even teach, as I have recently, students who want to know how to approach the peculiar occupation of fiction writing. I tell them at the beginning—I’ve got nothing for you. I don’t know. Don’t look at me.

I’ve written six books now, but instead of making it easier, it has complicated matters to the point of absurdity. I have no idea what I’m doing. All the decisions I appear to have made—about plots and characters and where to start and when to stop—are not decisions at all. They are compromises. A book is whittled down from hope, and when I start to cut my fingers I push it away from me to see what others make of it. And I wait in terror for the judgements of those others—judgements that seem, whether positive or negative, unjust, because they are about something that I didn’t really do. They are about something that happened to me. It’s a little like crawling from a car crash to be greeted by a panel of strangers holding up score cards.

Something, obviously, is going on. I manage, every few years, to generate a book. And of course, there are things that I know. I know how to wait until the last minute before putting anything on paper. I mean the last minute before the thought leaves me forever. I know how to leave out anything that looks to me—after a while—forced, deliberate, or fake. I know that I need to put myself in the story. I don’t mean literally. I mean emotionally. I need to care about what I’m writing—whether about the characters, or about what they’re getting up to, or about the way they feel or experience their world. I know that my job is to create a perspective. And to impose it on the reader. And I know that in order to do that with any success at all I must in some mysterious way risk everything. If I don’t break my own heart in the writing of a book then I know I’ve done it wrong. I’m not entirely sure what that means. But I know what it feels like.

I do no research. Given that I’ve just written a book that revolves around two London Met police detectives, this might seem a little foolhardy. I have no real idea what detectives do with their days. So I made some guesses. I suppose that they must investigate things. I tried to imagine what that might be like. I’ve seen the same films and TV shows that you have. I’ve read the same sorts of cheap thrillers. And I know that everything is fiction. Absolutely everything. Research is its own slow fiction, a process of reassurance for the author. I don’t want reassurance. I like writing out of confusion, panic, a sense of everything being perilously close to collapse. So I try to embrace the fiction of all things.

And I mean that—everything is fiction. When you tell yourself the story of your life, the story of your day, you edit and rewrite and weave a narrative out of a collection of random experiences and events. Your conversations are fiction. Your friends and loved ones—they are characters you have created. And your arguments with them are like meetings with an editor—please, they beseech you, you beseech them, rewrite me. You have a perception of the way things are, and you impose it on your memory, and in this way you think, in the same way that I think, that you are living something that is describable. When of course, what we actually live, what we actually experience—with our senses and our nerves—is a vast, absurd, beautiful, ridiculous chaos.

So I love hearing from people who have no time for fiction. Who read only biographies and popular science. I love hearing about the death of the novel. I love getting lectures about the triviality of fiction, the triviality of making things up. As if that wasn’t what all of us do, all day long, all life long. Fiction gives us everything. It gives us our memories, our understanding, our insight, our lives. We use it to invent ourselves and others. We use it to feel change and sadness and hope and love and to tell each other about ourselves. And we all, it turns out, know how to do it.

Related: Read Keith Ridgway’s interview with Cressida Leyshon about his short story “Goo Book,” which appeared in the April 11, 2011, issue of the magazine.

Illustration by Richard McGuire.

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