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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Every law student is looking for the secret to writing a good law essay. “What do I need to include?” “How do I organise my ideas?” But most importantly, “how can I get access to the information I need to include quickly, yet efficiently?”
As a general theme throughout your study of the law, you are essentially being asked to assess the journey that the law has taken in each area, not merely to know what the law is. Using the Precedent Map which JustisOne has to offer is particularly helpful for this in that you are able to consider case relationships on a visual basis and make informed decisions about which cases you will prioritise for your research. How does it work? The bigger the size of the circle, the more common relationships between that case and your central case. The ones around the outside of the circle are the citing cases; those that came after your central case which considered it in their judgments. The ones inside the circle are the cited; past cases which your central case considered in its judgment.
Similarly, Citations in Context is also a great way to explore whether a particular case is on the specific point of law that you are interested in. JustisOne highlights where the case you have selected is mentioned in the judgment. This allows you to read around the section to see how they have linked or distinguished the two cases, enabling you to see how the law has evolved.
Furthermore, it is good practice to give a general analysis of a particular area of law before getting into the specifics. For example, ‘the law in this area has become stricter since its statutory codification’ or ‘this area of law has often strived towards achieving fairness’.
Firstly, you need to distinguish between a problem question and an essay question.
I know that with the overwhelming amount of research that law students must do you may be in a hurry when looking at a case. Often details get lost in the process, such as, looking in at an outdated decision of the court when actually a higher court has heard the case and given a different judgment. JustisOne makes this easier by flagging up very clearly that the case has been heard in a higher court, prompting you to treat the decision with care.
Introduction: Keep it short and to the point. There is no point trying to give a historical background to a particular area of law if the question provides you with a scenario and asks you to ‘Advise X’. Rather, identify the issues, refer back to the question and say what you’re going to do in this essay. Remember you have limited time in the exam and problem questions are often packed with a variety of issues for you to delve into and implement your analytical skills so don’t spend too long “setting the scene”.
Main body: with problem questions, you should evaluate each issue separately unless they have a clear link. Many academics encourage their students to follow the IRAC guideline: Identify the issues and the relevant legal rules, apply the rules to the issue and then draw a conclusion on the basis of that application. Identifying the issue would be something like ‘X would be liable for assault and battery as he pushed B’. Identifying the relevant rules and application would then be ‘In accordance with X Act, to constitute assault there needs to be intention. Furthermore, in light of X v X intention can be established through a number of ways so even though X may try to claim xxx it is unlikely that he will be able to escape liability’ which would be the conclusion. If a statute governs that area of law, always mention that before the case law as that takes precedence. Don’t waste time writing out a section of an Act, the marker has access to a statute book. If there is a particular word or phrase which you want to emphasise refer to that. Also, always state the strongest claim first and then bring in alternative claims subsequently.
Bloomsbury Law Tutors has suggested that the objective is not just to consider other possible arguments but to consider them and disprove them, in other words, why they are not as credible and have lower chances of success.
Students are often under the mistaken belief that a problem question does not need a closing paragraph, however, this is not the case. An overall conclusion is necessary to draw your points together and to add structure to your answer. A conclusion does not need to be long. It should merely sum up what you have discussed in your essay, without introducing anything new. It should also give an indication on your client’s chances of success.
Introduction: it is similar to that of a problem question, except that you must adapt it to the type of essay question it is. As a general theme however, essay questions tend to address some sort of legal controversy around an area of law so it is necessary to do some wider reading, such as, articles and academic opinion so that you have different points of view to discuss.
As suggested by Bloomsbury Law Tutors (http://lawtutors.co.uk/how-to-write-first-class-law-essays/) essay questions can be sub categorised. Focusing on the wording of the question is key. For instance, ‘discuss’ means to critically evaluate both sides of a statement or argument. According to Bloomsbury Law Tutors, this type of question would be classified as a ‘legal theory’ question. Generally, there would be a statement warranting a discussion of its accuracy. In that type of question, you would be splitting your legal authorities to prove both why that statement is accurate and why it is not. A useful aspect of JustisOne that can help you with this is its recognition of search operators. For instance, the statement necessitating a discussion is usually a quote from a judgment. Some may find it beneficial to find the quote and read around it in order to understand more about the context and exactly what the judge meant by saying this. In JustisOne, you can put a statement in quotation marks in the search box and it will bring up the case or cases which mentioned it. Once you click on a case you can then click the pencil icon which will then highlight the search terms you entered, giving you instant access to the specific sections in the judgment.
Often you don’t need to recite the facts of a case, merely stating the decision may prove your point. This is where the Key Paragraphs feature on JustisOne is especially useful. You can incorporate these into your essays, outlining the most important aspects of the judgment as they are the most quoted passages in court. If you then click on ‘Highlight all quoted passages’, you will see a heatmap of all the sections of the judgment which have been quoted. The darker the shade of purple, the larger the number of cases that section has been quoted in. Click on the paragraph to see which cases specifically.
Higher marks will be gained where there is evidence of critical analysis of the impact of a particular issue on others matters within this area of law. Even though you should provide an evaluation, you shouldn’t be completely neutral, rather, you should indicate your stance throughout the essay but also offering another perspective too.
Another type of essay question would be ones to do with legal reform. The question would typically ask if you think that a particular area of law is in need of reform. In order to answer this well you would need to know the current state of the law as well as the pros and cons to then enable you to assess whether it should undergo reform. Also, knowing previous attempts of reform and solutions would allow you to propose new solutions that would be more effective than previous proposals.
What would also boost your grade is branching out to consider the impact of a particular area of law in terms of its social, political and economic consequences as well as policy considerations.
Often, cases are not only on one niche area of law. Different aspects of the judgment can be used to demonstrate various points in a range of legal contexts. Rather than having to read a whole case to find out which exact areas of law are covered within it, you can just select the Categories tab on JustisOne and a clear list with sub categories will be generated. This could potentially save you time from having to remember three different cases for instance, to indicate different points of law down to a mere one case that may encompass a range of areas.
Another type of common essay question is legal history, prompting a consideration of the development in a particular area of law over a certain period. An example would be ‘has the law in X strived towards achieving flexibility between X and X date?’. This also requires critical analysis. In order to explore an area of law on JustisOne you can select a category and you will be directed to an analytics graph which provides you with a visual format on the progression of the law over a period of time. If there have been any seminal cases at a specific point in time you will see a spike on the graph, instantly representing a significant development.
Overall, it is important to pay attention to the wording of any given question and focusing on the bigger picture of what is asked rather than trying to steer something in the direction you wished it had gone. In the words of Mad Men’s finest, Don Draper ‘make it simple, but significant’.