Writing My First Essay Writing

Introduction

I remember writing my first essay in university. It was a critical analysis of promises made to underdeveloped countries by nongovernmental organizations. My professor was an internationally respected humanitarian who had done the bulk of her research in Tanzania.

The woman even had her own Wikipedia page.

I knew she'd be tough with her marking pen and that her eager-to-prove-themselves teaching assistants would be even tougher. I was terrified.

I can almost smell the musty days of research in my Hogwarts-esque school library. I spent those days hunched over an obnoxiously tall stack of books next to the cathedral windows, shooting glares every time somebody's Blackberry buzzed and trying to ignore the couple kissing in the reading nook behind me.

 I stayed up all night with my first pack of energy drinks (I bought the ones that come in pink cans because they looked less likely to lead to a heart attack than the radioactive-green variety), reading and re-reading my paragraphs until my eyes were more red than blue.

My head swam with warnings from my high school teachers, who had prophesied doom from behind their cluttered desks: "You can't write like you're in high school once you reach university. All of you will fail your first paper. You just have to deal with it and move on."

I followed writing that essay with a nap that bordered on a full two-day sleep and a celebratory Chinese takeout feast washed down with Pepto-Bismol.

In the end? I got an A+.

Why?

Because writing essays in undergrad is based more on common sense and structure than you'd think. Too many of my peers (and, I suspect, high school teachers) made the mistake of thinking they could get away with sloppy construction or borrowed work if their ideas were flashy enough.

Not so.

Especially in your first year of college or university, your professors aren't looking for groundbreaking discoveries—that's what a PhD is for. Freshman papers serve to show your professors that you can write, that you can follow instructions correctly, conduct intelligent research, draw your own conclusions (but not make the mistake of thinking your ideas are NEW), and use logic when constructing your essay.

Getting over that first essay hurdle is less of an obstacle than you might think. Here's how to do it.

Be specific.

Nothing will frustrate your grader faster than a vague thesis and rambling points. Make your arguments clear and your supportive evidence precise.

. . . But don't pretend to be an expert.

This is your first post-secondary paper. Everyone knows you didn't write the books on forensic geology in the 1800s or social dichotomies in British colonial India. Assert your points with confidence but back them up with authoritative sources.

Cite your sources.

And on that note, make sure you're citing your sources properly. Academic writing is all about factual support; even if you thought of an idea independently, if one of your reference materials says the same thing, source it. A boost to your ego isn't worth getting slapped with a plagiarism charge.

Familiarize yourself, too, with the different forms of plagiarism—they may surprise you. Did you know, for example, that referencing work you've done for another class is called self-plagiarism?

Transition.

You've put the time into your research and have an impressive arsenal of support for your main thesis, but you need to make these connections explicit. Use transition sentences at the beginning and end of each paragraph to show how your thoughts progress, while constantly reminding the reader how these points relate to your thesis.

Format properly.

Take the extra time to make sure you've followed all the technical style guidelines requested by your professor or institution. You may have single-handedly solved the Israel–Palestine dispute, but if your references section isn't in the proper format, your final grade will suffer for it.

Use proper spelling and grammar.

Finally, for the love of all that is good and true, don't hand in something with typos. Proofread your work, run your word processor's spell-checker, and, most importantly, have someone else read your paper. The mistakes that have become invisible to you (as well as those you don't even realize are mistakes) will pop out to a new set of eyes.

Conclusion

While you're in the process of making your paper mechanically sound, resist the temptation to default to the all-too-common sneaky tactics that many students think their professors won't pick up on.

News to the not-so-wise: everyone and their brother's neighbor's babysitter's uncle have tried adding fluff to boost word count; adjusted margins, font size, and spacing after periods to make text expand over more pages; and concocted excuses to get a deadline extension. Your professors won't fall for it.

Successfully writing an essay isn't just for brainiacs; even a genius can get stuck with a lower grade because of mechanical errors.

Follow your style guidelines to a T, keep your writing free of fluff, include logical transitions between paragraphs that connect to your thesis, cite your information properly, and have your paper proofread.

It really is that simple.

Image sources: DavidPinoPhotography/Shutterstock.com, Dragon Images/BigStockPhoto.com

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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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