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.”
'I felt guilty when I got my results': your stories of buying essays | Guardian readers and Sarah Marsh
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.”
Applying to university? It's time to narrow your choices down to two
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.
Essays for sale: the booming online industry in writing academic work to order
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.”
Keep up with the latest on Guardian Students: follow us on Twitter at @GdnStudents – and become a member to receive exclusive benefits and our weekly newsletter.
Imagine the world without music – no concerts to attend, no singing or whistling, no tapes or CDs, no music in movies, no marching bands, no dancing, no hymns, and no organ at baseball games! Without music our world would certainly be a bleak place. Music is perhaps the most abstract and sublime of all the arts. It is capable of transmitting an unbelievable amount of information to us. Music is important to the quality of human life.
People have created different types of music for different purposes all over the world. As the world listens to music common skills are shared such as: imagination, abstract thinking, and instinctive reactions. Through music we become more aware of our shared humanity and with the wisdom of others. Music as an art and an activity appears in all cultures around the world. Each nation, each ethnic group, each tribe still today develops its own music and preserves in some form its own musical traditions.
Music reflects the society that creates it and each society creates the music that is wants. As obvious as that sounds, it is very important because it reminds us that in order to understand a culture’s music we must understand the culture itself! Think of your musical experiences this way: Do you need Music? No, not in the way you need to eat or sleep. However, you do need it in terms of experiencing a rich human life.
Humans need music, beauty, gentleness, creativity, sensitivity to others and all the other civilizing elements that create a life of substance. Music, therefore, is part of the best of life itself!
Have you ever put on music to get psyched up for an important exam, relax after a hectic day, exercise, think through a difficult problem, or celebrate a personal victory? Chances are the answer is yes. Chances are, you are a musical user.
There’s nothing wrong with that – no shame or harm to your health. Using music is as natural as breathing or sleeping. And while many people do so instinctively, recent research indicates that the systematic use of music can be an effective way to consciously manage your mind, body and mood.
From the discovery that listening to Mozart can raise your IQ (even if momentarily), to clinical trials showing that music can improve your memory, regulate vital signs like your heart rate and blood pressure, control your pain, change your emotional outlook, and direct your mental and physical energy levels throughout the day. Science is finding that music can be a tool for better performance and health.
Music wallpapers our consciousness in twenty first century America. It permeates the background in offices, stores, restaurants, films, health clubs, waiting rooms and airplanes. Like fast food, we tend to allow prefabricated music programming to determine our musical diet (can’t escape from it).
Just as fast food can be less nourishing than a fresh and natural menu, the music served to you in your daily life might have imbalances and deficiencies that detract from your potential. Any time you listen to music that someone else has chosen, you are allowing other people to color your mood and control your body and mind.
Music’s impact on your mind begins with the physiological process of hearing. The ear is the first sensory organ to develop in the womb, preceding even the nervous system – so sound is your first source of information about the world.
The cochlea (coke le uh) of the inner ear is a fluid coil lined with neurons in the form of tiny hair cells, each of which is tuned to a different frequency. The sound waves find the tiny hair cell neurons matching their own frequency and make them vibrate. The cochlea then converts the mechanical energy of the eardrum’s vibration into electrical energy and transmits it into the brain. This means that every sound you hear sends actual electrical impulses directly into your mind. In other words, your inner ear transforms sound waves in the air into electricity in your body! Stop and think about that!
Once inside your brain, these electrical impulses move through the brain stem. Here musical energy activates the limbic system. Music’s effect on the limbic system is part of why certain pieces can make you happy or sad. Finally, after the music finishes generating motor responses and emotions, then music moves to the conscious part of your brain. Music is not finished with your brain.
Maybe you think of yourself as “left brain” if you’re a word-driven person or “right brain” if you’re creative or visual. Listening to music actually taps both sides of the brain, potentially uniting creative and analyzing functions in your mind! Another way to express this idea: the two sides of your brain are physically separated, like halves of a walnut. The only reason that your right hand knows what your left hand is doing is by a bundle of fifty million nerve fibers joining one hemisphere to the other, somewhat like the coaxial cable that links your computer to the Internet. Evidence suggests that music can actually increase communication between both sides of your brain.
In addition to rearranging your neural networks, sound waves make brain waves travel down the body. Music plays with your state of mind as the electrical energy generated creates brain waves.
Once it’s done with your mind, music sets to work on the state of your body. These electrical type brain waves on musical messages travel down your spinal cord impacting your nervous system that regulates your heart rate, blood pressure, muscular activity, and other vital functions. Your nervous system is literally the link between your mental and physical self, and music is able to directly affect its working!
In general, fast, rhythmic, loud music leads to being energized, and slow, soft music encourages relaxation. Experiments have been able to drive people’s pulse rates by manipulating the music’s volume and speed. It’s also been found that your breathing tends to synch up, or entrain, to the music’s beat at a ratio that works for your body and will then change with the music’s tempo.
Music also affects the electrical activity in your muscles. Hand grip squeeze tests have found that your grip weakens to lullabies and strengthens to marches. Different types of music seem to send action potentials into different muscles in the body.
Although the general rule is that loud, fast music speeds you up and soft, slow music puts on the brakes, your personal response to music also depends upon things like your age, gender, and physical fitness, as well as your emotional reactivity and personal attitude toward music. So the degree of autonomic response to any given piece of music can vary from one person to the next.
So – rhythm- you have it when you breathe, speak, walk, or run. You have it when your heart beats and your blood pulses in your arteries. Rhythm is the regulating meter of human life. (1, 2 In, Out, etc., etc.)
The solar system has rhythm, too- the regular rising and setting of the sun times our days on earth. You’re probably well aware that your mind and body follow natural energy cycles that get you out of bed and off to school feeling fresh and alert in the morning, then draw you, drained and tired, back to rest at night. What you might not know is that these cycles corresponding to light and dark, wakefulness and sleep, are governed by a complex system of hormones released in your body throughout the day. Called circadian rhythm, your daily energy cycles are natural, but they don’t always synchronize with your schedule.
If your schedule demands steady, day-long performance, you have probably already tried to control your circadian cycles with caffeine, alcohol, exercise, and mental effort. Music offers a natural way to keep your body in synch with your daily routines.
There’s more to feeling your best than simply controlling your energy cycles. There are elusive emotional components, too: your moods. It has been found that people tend to have the same emotional reactions to different kinds of music regardless of age or gender.
Music has a long history, through the ages and across cultures, as a treatment for mind, body and mood. In our tradition, the history of music as a multifaceted “medicine” begins in ancient Egypt and continues into the present day. Nature cultures have accessed music’s power since before written history began, and great civilizations developed sophisticated philosophies describing the music-body connection. In the Middle East, each scale is thought to represent distinct states of the soul. Indian scale systems are considered to convey emotion and mood. In Irish folklore, music is thought of as the birth by a water goddess of three sons. Sorrow, Mirth and Sleep- the states that music can induce. The Chinese consider minor keys to be “yang” – strong, masculine, and hard – and major keys to be “yin” – soft, feminine, and weak. But finally, in Wisconsin, dairy farmers play soft music to cows to make them give more milk.
The consensus is clear: music can make a difference in how you feel, think, and act!
Tests around the world indicates that the most comfortable tempo is around eighty beats per minute- about the rate of the average human heart!
Studies also show that you are most deeply affected from your blood pressure to your emotions and mood, by music you like!
Music preference is fairly complicated. You don’t have to be able to break music down into its components to like or dislike its individual elements. Studies show that you can react as specifically as trained musicians to the properties that please or displease you.
Even if you find the facts about music’s impact on your life compelling, you might wonder, why bother? I’ve made it this far without consciously controlling my mood or my relationship with music. I might not be perfect, but I’m coping.
You know what happens when you don’t tune up your car, the bill is inevitably high. As is the price of stress, fatigue, cloudy thinking, depression, unexpressed anger, boredom, inhibition, and all other limitations on your personal potential that you might write off to bad moods.
The long-term benefits of using music in your life include:
- More energy
- Enhanced thinking
- Increased handling of stress and pressure
- Better health
- Ability to adapt to circumstances and rise to challenges
- Greater self-awareness, self-confidence, and feeling of personal control
- Alternatives to detrimental mind-altering habits
- Enhanced creativity
People make and listen to music for a wide variety of reasons that include its social, cultural, political, and historical meanings. I believe all people need to explore music’s documented power to help thinking, working, moving, creating, and relaxing – through listening to and experiencing music!