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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Just about any song you play should have a short introduction. In most cases four or eight bars are perfect. But, if you play your songs from things you've composed yourself or from “Fake Books” you will have to create your own “little songs” to accomplish this task. In this essay we'll cover a few simple ideas that will give your performances that extra bit of professionalism.
An introduction should accomplish the following:
- Let your audience know the tempo of the piece. Pretty important if you're playing for a dance!
- Establish the key of the song ... your vocalists will love you (maybe a good thing).
- Establish a frame for the song. Think of an introduction coupled with an ending like a nice frame on a picture.
There are three parts to the introduction: The chords used, the “melody,” and the rhythm. Depending on the style of music you might use one, two or all three parts. Let's start out with the simple stuff, rhythm.
Rhythmic Introductions are quite suitable in many songs. If you have a drummer in your band, have him play four bars of the same pattern he'll be using in the song. If you are using a drum machine, you'll sometimes have “intro” settings—use them.
Chording Introductions Figuring out what set of chords to use to introduce a song can be daunting at first. But, it'll get easier. To get started, look at the key of piece. I'm not going to present a long music theory lesson here, but a few tricks might help:
- Look at the first and last chords in the piece. If the song starts and ends with a “G Major” chord, it's probably in the key of G. If the two chords are different, odds are that the last chord is the key.
- Look at the key signature. Here's a little table listing the number of flats and sharps and possible keys:
# of sharps/flats Major key Minor Key 7# C# A#m 6# F# D#m 5# B G#m 4# E C#m 3# A F#m 2# D Bm 1# G Em None C Am 1b F Dm 2b Bb Gm 3b Eb Cm 4b Ab Fm 5b Db Bbm 6b Gb Ebm 7b Cb Abm
You can figure out if the key is minor in a few simple ways. If the piece sounds “sad” it's probably in a minor key. If the first or final chord is minor, that's a good clue. If the chords just don't seem to match those you'd use in a major key (for example, there is one sharp in the key signature, but chords like G and D7 don't seem to fit), it's likely in a minor key.
Once you have figured out the key of the song, here are a few ideas to creating the chords for the introduction. Note that in these examples we're using a four bar introduction with a different chord on each bar. Feel feel to expand this to eight bars (just duplicate each bar) or to add chords. After all, it's your introduction.
Emphasize the key by simply repeating the first chord in the piece in the correct rhythm. So, if the piece is in the key of G, play four bars of a G major chord. Hey, not for every piece, but it is a start.
Root and Five is a well established pattern. Play the root chord (in the key of F major this would be an F major chord) followed by the seventh chord on the fifth note of the key (in this case it is a C7). You'll see this referred to as the “I” and “V7” chords. Repeat or vamp 'til you're ready.
Decending Bass Lines targeting the tonic of the key often works nicely. You just have to match the chords with the bass notes. So, if they key is F major, you might play the bass notes Bb, Ab, G and F (one note per bar). The chords to match this would be Bb, Ab, C/G and F (with maybe a C7 on the second half of the fourth bar). The third chord in the series is a “slash” chord indicating that a G bass note is to be played with the C chord (it can also indicate a chord inversion, but that is a different essay).
The I vi ii V7 progression is probably the most common set of chords used in introductions. And for good reason—it just about always works. Hey Bob, “what's this I vi ii V7” stuff? Well, sorry to get into theory, but this is a notation known as “roman numeral analysis” and indicates the tonality within a key. The neat thing about this is that it doesn't matter what the key of the piece is, the numerals remain the same. For now it's enough to know that:
- “I” represents a Major chord on the tonic of the scale. For a song in G major this is a G major chord.
- “vi” means a minor chord (lowercase means minor) on the sixth (also called the submediant or superdominant) tone. Again, for G major this would be an Em chord.
- “ii” is another minor chord, but on the second (supertonic) tone. In this example, it works out to be a Am chord.
- “V7” The final chord is a dominant seventh chord on the fifth (dominant) tone. Here is it a D7 chord.
Here's a table showing the various combinations for each key signature (mostly this works better in major keys, but don't be afraid to try it in minor keys):
|# of sharps/flats||Major Key||Minor Key||I vi ii V7 Chords|
|7#||C#||A#m||C#, A#m, D#m, G#7|
|6#||F#||D#m||F#, D#m, G#m, C#7|
|5#||B||G#m||B, G#m, C#m, F#7|
|4#||E||C#m||E, C#m, F#m, B7|
|3#||A||F#m||A, F#m, Bm, E7|
|2#||D||Bm||D, Bm, Em, A7|
|1#||G||Em||G, Em, Am, D7|
|None||C||Am||C, Am, Dm, G7|
|1b||F||Dm||F, Dm, Gm, C7|
|2b||Bb||Gm||Bb, Gm, Cm, F7|
|3b||Eb||Cm||Eb, Cm, Fm, Bb7|
|4b||Ab||Fm||Ab, Fm, Bbm, Eb7|
|5b||Db||Bbm||Db, Bbm, Ebm, Ab7|
|6b||Gb||Ebm||Gb, Ebm, Abm, Db7|
|7b||Cb||Abm||Cb, Abm, Dbm, Gb7|
One simple variation which may work is to change the minor chords to minor sevenths or major sevenths.
The iii VI7 ii V7 is another series to consider. In this case you would play (in the key of C) an Em, A7, Dm and G7 chord.
Yet another series is vi II7 ii V7. In the key of C this would be the chords Am, D7, Dm and G7.
Finally, we need to talk a bit about the melody used in the introduction. The notes you select should be related to the song, but not necessarily repeat the melody. To make life a bit harder, they have to fit the rhythm of the piece and fit the chords you have picked. Here's a few ideas:
- Repeat the first bar in the piece, but change the notes to match the chords in the intro.
- Simply repeat the tonic (first note) of each chord in a pattern similar to the main song. So, if the song uses a pattern of quarter, eighth, eighth, half for the lyrics use that for your pattern.
- Use the last two or four bars in the song and try to play them backwards. Some adjustment will be needed in timing and to get things to match with the chords.
- Arpeggiate the chords. Simply play each note in the chord and try to make it sound melodic.
To get any good at this you'll have to do two things: practice and listen to other people's songs. Nothing like learning from a master! So, if you need to write an introduction for a Mambo you'd better get those old Perez Prado albums out.
I use combinations of the above methods all the time when doing different tune arrangements. After a bit of practice it gets easier. Honest. So, give it try. And have fun!
And let me know if this article helps.