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How to write better essays: ‘nobody does introductions properly’

Is Wikipedia really a no-go? Should you bother with the whole reading list? And how do you make a convincing argument? We ask the experts

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Always look out for flaws in arguments – and that includes your own.







Always look out for flaws in arguments – and that includes your own.
Photograph: Alamy

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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APA Paper Formatting

APA Paper Formatting & Style Guidelines
Your teacher may want you to format your paper using APA guidelines. If you were told to create your citations in APA format, your paper should be formatted using the APA guidelines as well.

General guidelines:

  1. Use white 8 ½  x 11” paper.
  2. Make 1 inch margins on the top, bottom, and sides
  3. The first word in every paragraph should be indented one half inch.
  4. APA recommends using Times New Roman font, size 12.
  5. Double space the entire research paper
  6. Include a page header known as the “running head” at the top of every page. (To make this process easier, set your word processor to automatically add these components onto each page)
    1. To create the running head/page header, insert page numbers justified to the right-hand side of the paper (do not put p. or pg. in front of page numbers)
    2. Then type “TITLE OF YOUR PAPER” justified to the left using all capital letters
    3. If your title is long, this running head title should be a shortened version of the title of your entire paper

Sample running head/page header

apaheaderyo

APA Paper Components

Your essay should include these four major sections:

  1. Title Page
  2. Abstract
  3. Main Body
  4. References

Title Page

This page should contain four pieces: the title of the paper, running head, the author’s name, institutional affiliation, and an author’s note. Create the page header/running head as described above.

*Please note that only on the title page, your page header/running head should include the words “Running Head” before your title in all capitals. The rest of the pages should not include this in the page header. It should look like this on the title page:

aparunninghead

  • The title of the paper should capture the main idea of the essay but should not contain abbreviations or words that serve no purpose
  • It should be centered on the page and typed in 12-point Times New Roman font. Do not underline, bold, or italicize the title.

 

  1. Your title may take up one or two lines, but should not be more than 12 words in length.
  2. All text on the title page should be double-spaced in the same way as the rest of your essay
  3. Do not include any titles on the author’s name such as Dr. or Ms.
  4. The institutional affiliation is the location where the author conducted the research

Sample Title page:

apatitlepage3

Abstract

On the following page, begin with the Running title.

  1. On the first line of the page, center the word “Abstract” (but do not include quotation marks).
  2. On the following line, write a summary of the key points of your research. Your abstract summary is a way to introduce readers to your research topic, the questions that will be answered, the process you took, and any findings or conclusions you drew.
  3. This summary should not be indented, but should be double-spaced and less than 250 words.
  4. If applicable, help researchers find your work in databases by listing keywords from your paper after your summary. To do this, indent and type Keywords: in italics.  Then list your keywords that stand out in your research.

Sample Abstract page:

apaabstractyo

The Body

On the following page, begin with the Body of the paper.

  1. Start with the Running title
  2. On the next line write the title (do not bold, underline, or italicize the title)
  3. Begin with the introduction. Indent.
  4. The introduction presents the problem and premise upon which the research was based.  It goes into more detail about this problem than the abstract.
  5. Begin a new section with the Method. Bold and center this subtitle The Method section shows how the study was run and conducted. Be sure to describe the methods through which data was collected.
  6. Begin a new section with the Results. Bold and center this subtitle.  The Results section summarizes the data. Use graphs and graphs to display this data.
  7. Begin a new section with the Discussion. Bold and center this subtitle. This Discussion section is a chance to analyze and interpret your results.
    1. Draw conclusions and support how your data led to these conclusions.
    2. Discuss whether or not your hypothesis was confirmed or not supported by your results.
    3. Determine the limitations of the study and next steps to improve research for future studies.

** Throughout the body, in-text citations are used and include the author’s/authors’ name(s) and the publication year. In APA format page numbers are not used in in-text citations.

    Ex: (Wilkonson, 2009).

 

For more information about how to cite properly please see EasyBib’s guides for APA citations based on the sources you are using.

Sample Body page:

apamethods

 

References

On a new page, write your references.

  1. Begin with a running title
  2. Center and bold the title “References” (do not include quotation marks, underline, or italicize this title)
  3. Alphabetize and Double-space all entries
  4. Every article/source mentioned in the paper and used in your study should be referenced and have an entry.

Sample Reference Page:

apareferences

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