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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Since 1972, The United Nations Environment Programme has marked 5th June as World Environment Day – an annual event for positive environmental action. This year’s Environment Day is hosted by Canada, which chose the theme of “Connecting People to Nature” – inviting citizens around the world to think about how we are part of nature and how intimately we depend on it. Jonathan Shopley takes the opportunity to review how well we are doing in respecting our critical relationship with nature.
The arrival of the Age of the Anthropocene
The origin of the modern environmental movement traces its roots to the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”, a scientific analysis of the detrimental effects on the environment of the indiscriminate use of pesticides, published in 1962. The intervening years have seen the publication of equally powerful treatise including Meadows et al’s “Limits to Growth” (1972), Gro Brundtland’s “Our Common Future” (1987), and Paul Hawken’s “Ecology of Commerce” (1993). They successively frame the human impact on our natural environment as an opportunity to better understand, appreciate, value, manage and enhance the natural ecosystems that sustain life on earth.
These and other studies placed our relationship with nature under the microscope, and humanity’s impact on the Earth is now considered so profound that a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene – was proposed by scientists in 2016. This new geological age recognises that the collective influence of humans was small before the dawn of the Industrial Revolution during the middle of the 18th century. However advancements in technology occurring since then have made it possible for humans to undertake widespread, systematic changes that affect several facets of the Earth system.
Our evolution as a species over the past 4 billion years has progressed under the influence of slow changes in geological conditions on earth. The Age of the Anthropocene recognises that human impacts on the natural environment have established powerful feedback loops that now drive the Earth’s evolution at an extraordinarily faster pace.
Navigating the turbulence of the Anthropocene
Evidence of human impact on the resilience of nature grows from day-to-day, and our rising awareness of the risk of losing control has driven a wide variety of political and business responses over the past 50 years. In the 1970s, environmental impact assessments became the norm for evaluating and mitigating the negative impacts of large-scale developments. After Union Carbide’s Bhopal disaster in India in 1984, environmental, health and safety management and auditing was developed as a business tool to prevent damage.
Towards the end of the 20th century, industry turned to nature for inspiration about how to mimic the extraordinary power of ecosystems to self-regulate. Janine Benyus’s concept of Biomimicry sought sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature's time-tested patterns and strategies. The concepts of Circular Economy and Industrial Economy filled in the gaps as the impact of discharges from industrial processes and the impact of post-consumer waste became better understood.
From understanding to inspiration
We are developing a deeper understanding of these impacts from the fire-hose of environmental data collected by a myriad of satellites and a growing internet of environmental sensors which provide an ever clearer picture of our whole earth impacts. What we’re lacking now is the ability to read that data in a way which strengthens our ability to protect and enhance the systems that sustain and support our economic and social well-being. Big data analytics and artificial intelligence will have a critical role to play as we seek to make sense of all the measurements that are supposed to make us better managers of the natural capital assets upon which our evolutionary trajectory depends.
When Canada, this year’s host of World Environment Day, calls on us to connect with nature, they don’t mean through big data analytics, biomimicry or circular economics. I think they are suggesting that as important as it is to measure and understand our impact as a means to repair and protect the environment, it is more important to reflect on the fact that the natural environment sustains the world in ways that we simply cannot yet analyse and understand.
Earlier this year I spent a week in Rimba Raya, a rainforest protection project in Borneo. While I was there, I witnessed the release of five orangutans, orphaned by the ingress of palm-oil into their natural habitat, into an area of forest rehabilitated by the project with funding from our clients. I was watching the release with Dr Birutė Galdikas , the world leading academic on orangutans, who pointed out that orangutans share 98% of their DNA with humans. As we stared into the brown eyes of the soon to be free animals, we could only wonder that a 2% difference makes to our relationship with orangutans so complex. We spoke too about the fact that the largest species on earth is mushroom mycelium that can stretch for kilometres, and move tonnes of nutrients and energy through the earth without our even being aware of it.
As we celebrate World Environment Day in 2017, our increasing ability to monitor, measure and analyse our impacts on nature is a positive step. However, we should not forget that the complexity of nature puts it way beyond our ability to fully understand how it works. We need to be wise and alert to the fact that the Anthropocene could still be our making or our undoing.
Hero Photo: Daz Smith of Dr. Love Graffiti at Bristol UK Upfest, 2015.
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Jonathan leads Natural Capital Partners’ contribution to international policy developments on climate change, and standards for carbon trading and carbon offsetting. He is on the board of the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA), and the executive team of the International Carbon Reduction and Offset Alliance (ICROA). Jonathan, who joined our team in 2001, has 25 years’ experience in identifying and mitigating environmental impacts from industry. He is regularly invited to represent the view of business at UN COP meetings, and industry events throughout the world.