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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The Era of Good Feelings
As James Madison approached the end of his presidency in 1816, a fellow Virginian and Republican—James Monroe—was elected as his successor. Monroe’s presidency was a continuation of the so-called “Virginia Dynasty,” since all of the presidents between 1801 and 1825 were from Virginia. The fading Federalist Party ran a candidate in the 1816 election for the last time, securing only 34 electoral votes compared to Monroe’s 183 votes. Monroe came to the presidency with a solid political background; he had served as a U.S. senator, he was twice the governor of Virginia, he was President Madison’s Secretary of State, and he had also served a short time as President Madison’s Secretary of War. He fought in the Battle of Trenton during the Revolutionary War at the age of 18.
Monroe was not considered a president with outstanding intellect, nor was he considered a strong leader, but he was regarded as extremely dedicated, levelheaded, and sincere. Jefferson once said that if you turned Monroe’s soul inside out, it would be found spotless. Whatever his limitations, he surrounded himself with promising Republican leaders, including John Quincy Adams, Secretary of State and son of former Federalist President John Adams; William Crawford, Secretary of Treasury; and John C. Calhoun, Secretary of War.
Monroe’s presidency spanned the end of the Revolutionary generation and the emergent age of nationalism. The country was at peace and the economy was thriving when Monroe embarked on a goodwill tour of New England shortly after his inauguration in 1817. He was warmly welcomed everywhere he went—even Boston, which had become a center of wartime dissent for the Federalists during the War of 1812. The Columbian Centinel, a Federalist newspaper in Boston, went so far as to announce that an “Era of Good Feelings” had been ushered in.
This phrase has often been used to describe Monroe’s presidency, but it is, unfortunately, somewhat misleading. The first few years of Monroe’s presidency were blessed with peace, liberty, and progress. However, the prosperity following the War of 1812 collapsed, the Panic of 1819 took hold, and a resurgence of sectionalism erupted.
The Panic of 1819 marked the end of the economic expansion that followed the War of 1812. It featured deflation, depression, bank failures, foreclosures, unemployment, a slump in agriculture and manufacturing, and overcrowded debtors’ prisons. It was the first national economic panic since Washington took office.
Many factors contributed to the Panic of 1819, including a downturn in exports and strong price competition from foreign goods. The falling prices impaired agriculture and manufacturing, triggering widespread unemployment. Another major cause was the risky lending practiced by banks in the west. The Second Bank of the United States tightened their credit lending policies and eventually forced these “wildcat” frontier banks to foreclose mortgages on countless farms and similar high-risk debtors, which resulted in bankruptcies and prisons full of debtors. The Panic of 1819 affected the entire country.
Although the country experienced hard times, little of the blame fell on President Monroe. He was easily elected for a second term in 1820, winning all of the electoral votes but one. Monroe was the only U.S. president to be re-elected after presiding over such a major financial crisis.
Sectional concerns over tariff issues, banking policy, sale of public land, and slavery began to divide the United States into three distinct regions: north, south, and west. While the lines of sectionalism were being drawn, Henry Clay came up with a plan called the “American System” that drew upon the nationalism Americans were still feeling after the War of 1812. Clay’s plan for developing profitable American markets had three main parts: a strong banking system to provide abundant credit, a protective tariff to ensure successful eastern manufacturing, and internal improvements, such as a network of roads and canals. Clay’s American System was meant to build the national economy and bind the country together both economically and politically.
Two parts of Clay’s System were implemented—protective tariffs and the Second Bank of the United States. The third provision, internal improvements such as roads, faced fierce opposition from many within the Republican Party, especially Monroe. They objected on the grounds that the Constitution did not explicitly provide for federal government spending on national developments. President Monroe vetoed any bill that provided funds for roadway- or canal-building projects (the National Road or Cumberland Road being the major exception), leaving it up to the states to provide their own infrastructures.
Before the War of 1812, duties averaged about 12.5 percent, and during the war, Congress doubled all tariffs. In 1816, when the additional revenue from high tariffs was no longer needed to fund the war, a new act kept duties at the same wartime levels. The tariff was a protective measure because the British began dumping cheap goods in the United States, often at a cost far below that of American manufacturers. This protective tariff was the first in United States history—the first of many to come. The British were strangling American industry with their cut-rate goods, and to protect the fledgling industrial sector, Congress kept the tariff rates high.
The tariff issue created clear sectional divisions. Eastern manufacturers, represented by Henry Clay, favored high tariffs that would protect them from foreign competition. Northern constituents, represented by Daniel Webster from New Hampshire, were against the tariff because they feared it would affect their shipping trade and cripple their newly developing manufacturing businesses.
Southerners resented the high prices they had to pay for imports because of the high tariff, and they felt the tariff limited the foreign market for southern goods by inhibiting international exchange. They began a long campaign against the duties, hoping that freer trade would revive the cotton economy. Southerners were represented by John C. Calhoun, who originally supported the tariff but turned against it, claiming that it was enriching New England manufacturers at the cost of the South.
Westerners were split on the tariff issue. The Northwest favored high duties in order to protect its agricultural production, while the Southwest favored low duties for the same reason the Southerners did—they produced cotton.
The national banking policy was another important political issue, although the regional lines were less sharply drawn on this subject than they were on the tariff issue. Northerners voted against a re-charter of the Bank of the United States, while Southerners favored the institution.
Westerners favored the new Bank before the Panic of 1819, which created open opposition to the institution. The Second Bank of the United States stopped allowing payment of debts in paper and instead demanded payment in specie—metallic gold and silver coins—which were in short supply after the War of 1812 due to a large trade deficit with Britain. The hardest hit sector was Western farmers who could not pay their loans to the Bank because they could not obtain the specie that was demanded. The Second Bank of the United States then forced western branches to foreclose on farms with outstanding loans. Westerners began to call for reform and the end of the Bank of the United States.
Land policy in the early nineteenth century was another reason for sectional differences. In 1818, the government sold nearly 3.5 million acres of public land due to a lenient credit policy, which in turn led to falling land prices. Sectional attitudes were clear—the West wanted cheap land, while the North and South felt the public land should be sold for as much as possible. Northerners were afraid that cheap land in the west would draw laborers, leaving the north with a shortage of workers that would force an increase in wages. Southerners were afraid of the competition that might develop when the western lands were settled and planted.
Slavery was the most problematic sectional issue the young nation faced. The leaders of the Constitutional Convention had made many compromises over what politicians at the time called the “peculiar institution”—slavery—in order to get the United States Constitution passed. In 1808, Congress abolished African slave trade without major incident, and by 1819, there were 11 free states and 11 slave states, maintaining a balance in the Union. Most Northerners opposed the institution. In contrast, Southerners wholeheartedly supported and defended slavery, as did most of the West, since many Westerners came from Virginia, Kentucky, and other southern slave states.
While the lines of sectionalism were beginning to be drawn nationally, there remained a few foreign policy issues for the United States to straighten out with Britain and Spain. From 1817 to 1819, the Monroe administration negotiated various foreign policy issues with these two countries. In the Rush-Bagot Agreement of 1817, the United States and Britain agreed to a limited naval presence on the Great Lakes, eventually resulting in the demilitarization of the entire border. The spirit of this agreement gave rise to the tradition of an unfortified border between the United States and Canada.
At the Convention of 1818, the United States and Britain negotiated three important points. The vague northern limit of the Louisiana Purchase was settled along the 49th parallel, from the Lake of the Woods to the Rocky Mountains. The United States was also granted the right to share the Newfoundland and Labrador fisheries. And the third point of agreement was that the Oregon Country would be open to joint occupation by both the British and Americans for 10 years.
During that same year, the Monroe administration recognized increasing problems with Spanish Florida. Seminole Indians frequently came from Florida into American territory to raid border towns, and American criminals and slaves who escaped across the border into Florida could not be recovered. Secretary of War Calhoun authorized General Andrew Jackson to clear the raiding Seminoles from American soil. His order allowed him to pursue the Indians into Spanish territory but did not authorize him to attack any Spanish posts. Jackson, clearly exceeding his instructions, proceeded to push his way through Florida, destroying Seminole settlements, hanging two Indian chiefs, and capturing two Spanish forts.
Spain demanded the return of its territory, reparations, and punishment of Jackson, but did not have the military might to back up their demands. Much of Monroe’s administration believed that Jackson had gone too far, but Secretary of State John Quincy Adams instead took the offensive in the Adams-Onís Treaty. In 1819, during negotiations with the Spanish Minister to Washington, Luis de Onís, Adams bargained for Spain to cede all of Florida for $5 million—which the United States actually paid to Americans who held claims against Spain—in exchange for America’s abandonment of claims to Texas, thus setting the western boundary of the Louisiana Purchase.
The Missouri Compromise
During the early nineteenth century, the sectional lines between the free north and the slave south were being gradually drawn. Slavery began to gain prominence as a national issue, and the South became solidly united behind the institution of slavery as it became more critical to their economic success. By 1819, the United States was comprised of an equal number of free and slave states—11 of each.
In 1812, Louisiana had entered the Union, and the balance of the Louisiana Purchase was organized into the Missouri Territory. As the population trickled westward, many Southerners and their slaves settled the region north and west of St. Louis. In 1819, the settlers petitioned the House of Representatives for admission of the state of Missouri as a slave state, since the population exceeded the required 60,000. Missouri was the first area west of the Mississippi to apply for statehood that was entirely part of the Louisiana Purchase.
Missouri’s petition became another sectional issue and led to the end of the “Era of Good Feelings.” Northerners opposed adding Missouri as a slave state because it would upset the current balance of free and slave states. During the debate over Missouri’s admission, Congressman James Tallmadge of New York introduced an amendment stating that no more slaves could be brought into Missouri and that all slaves born in Missouri after the territory became a state would be freed at the age of 25.
Southerners were extremely concerned about the Missouri emancipation amendment and felt the future of the slave system might depend on it being vetoed. They were aware that the amendment could set a damaging precedent for all of the Louisiana Purchase and any land west of the Mississippi. They also held concerns that if Congress abolished slavery in Missouri, they could attempt to do likewise in all of the southern states.
Population growth in the north had led to a majority for the northern states in the House of Representatives. However, because the Senate had equal representation from each state and there was an equal number of free and slave states, the Senate was split on the issue. The House of Representatives passed the Tallmadge Amendment on a strictly sectional vote, but the Senate rejected it, with some Northern Federalists joining the South to spite the Republicans.
Congress was deadlocked for some time over admission of Missouri as a slave state. The primary issues were political and economic balance. Northerners were concerned that Missouri—and any other new slave states—would be over-represented in Congress based on the Three-Fifths Compromise, which said 60 percent of slaves were counted in determining a state’s delegation to the House of Representatives. A secondary issue that was voiced by Northerner abolitionists was the moral question of slavery. However, the morality of slavery did not influence the solution to the problem at hand.
Henry Clay of Kentucky played a leading role in developing what would be called the “Missouri Compromise.” Missouri was admitted as a slave state, and Maine was separated from Massachusetts and admitted as a free state. This compromise preserved the balance between northern and southern states, as well as free and slave states. In addition, Congress prohibited slavery in all other parts of the Louisianan Purchase north of the line of 36° 30’—the southern boundary of Missouri. This second part of the Compromise was rather ironic, considering Missouri was north of the designated no slavery line.
The Missouri Compromise lasted for 34 years. Both sides had yielded something in the compromise, but both felt they had gained something as well. Northerners were satisfied with the compromise because it kept the balance in the Senate between free and slave states. Southerners felt they won a victory with the Missouri Compromise because at that time most Americans felt it was unlikely that the area north and west of Missouri would ever be settled.
While the controversy had subsided for the time, many Americans were beginning to see the South’s “peculiar institution” as an issue that would eventually have to be confronted. The Missouri Compromise avoided the slavery question, but it did not resolve it.
Despite the growing division over the issue of slavery in America, Chief Justice John Marshall and the Supreme Court worked to reinforce the feelings of nationalism that developed after the War of 1812. Marshall was a Revolutionary War survivor, and his experience led to strong feelings of national loyalty. Although he had six colleagues on the Supreme Court, Marshall’s position as Chief Justice—along with his personality, logic, and forcefulness—resulted in many rulings that reflected his personal view of the Constitution and his belief in a powerful central government.
During Marshall’s 34 years on the bench, many important cases were considered by the Court. Several of the most famous cases involved three major principles: contract rights protection, the supremacy of federal legislation over the laws of the states, and regulation of interstate commerce.
In 1810, the contract rights case of Fletcher v. Peck came before the Supreme Court. Members of the Georgia legislature were bribed in 1795 to sell 35 million acres in Mississippi for a small amount to private speculators. The following year, a new Georgia legislature rescinded the sale. The case was taken to the Supreme Court, and Marshall, speaking for the Court, ruled that the original sale was a legal contract—regardless of whether or not it was fraudulent—and therefore protected by the Constitution. The ruling was historically significant because it protected property rights against popular pressures, and it also clearly asserted the Supreme Court’s right to invalidate state laws that conflicted with the Constitution.
In the case of Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819), the state of New Hampshire tried to alter the college’s charter, which had been granted in 1769 by King George III. A New Hampshire court ruled that Dartmouth was to be changed from a private to a public institution. Dartmouth appealed the case to the Supreme Court, where Marshall ruled that the original charter must stand because it was a contract and could not be altered or canceled without consent of both parties.
The Marshall Court ruled that the Constitution protected contracts against state encroachments. The significance of Marshall’s ruling was far reaching because it effectively safeguarded private corporations from domination by the states’ governments. Unfortunately, the case also set the precedent for giving corporations the ability to skirt governmental controls. Once the states became aware of this dilemma, they generally wrote into charters the ability to make changes so that it was part of the contract.
A case in which the Marshall court upheld the power of the federal court over that of the states was the 1816 case of Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee. The state of Virginia confiscated land owned by a British Loyalist named Denny Martin Fairfax. Virginia granted David Hunter 800 acres of the confiscated lands, and Fairfax brought suit against Hunter for return of the land. The Treaty of Paris (1794) and Jay’s Treaty (1795) seemed to make it clear that Fairfax was the rightful owner of the property, but the Virginia court upheld the grant to Hunter.
The Supreme Court and Justice Marshall overruled the Virginia court, declaring that the land belonged to Fairfax and voided the grant to Hunter. The Court’s ruling rejected “compact theory,” the idea that the states were equally sovereign to the federal government. This ruling was significant because it enforced the rights of the Supreme Court, which held appellate jurisdiction over state courts. Thus, Marshall’s ruling upheld the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution.
McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) is often considered John Marshall’s single most important interpretation of the Constitution, because it dealt with the division of power between the federal government and the states. The state of Maryland, in order to protect its local banks, placed an annual tax on the Bank of the United States and other “foreign” banks. The Maryland branch of the Bank of the United States refused to pay, and Maryland brought suit against the chief bank employee, called the “head cashier,” John W. McCulloch.
Marshall upheld the constitutionality of the Bank of the United States, using Hamilton’s bank message of 1791 to support his position. He argued that the Bank’s legality was implied in many of the powers specifically granted to Congress. Since the bank was legal, the Maryland tax was unconstitutional, for “the power to tax involves the power to destroy,” which was exactly what many states had in mind with respect to the Bank. The Marshall Court’s ruling in favor of McCulloch used a “loose” interpretation of the Constitution and, with the ruling, strengthened federal authority and the implied powers of Congress.
Two years later in the case of Cohens v. Virginia (1821), Marshall once again defended the power of the federal government. The Cohen brothers were illegally selling lottery tickets in the state of Virginia, and the state authorities tried and convicted them. The brothers appealed to the Supreme Court, and Marshall upheld Virginia’s right to forbid the sale of lottery tickets. The case reaffirmed the Supreme Court’s right to review all state court judgements in cases involving the Constitution or powers of the federal government.
In 1824, Marshall handed down his last great decision in Gibbons v. Ogden, the “steamboat case,” which involved the regulation of interstate commerce. In 1808, Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston pioneered commercial use of the steamboat and held a monopoly of steamboat navigation on the Hudson in New York. In 1815, Aaron Ogden purchased exclusive rights to operate a ferry between New York and New Jersey. When Thomas Gibbons, who held a federal trade license, set up a competing line, Ogden sued him.
The case was presented to the Supreme Court, where Marshall decided in favor of Gibbons, destroying Fulton’s and Livingston’s monopoly and reminding New York that Congress alone controlled interstate commerce. Marshall’s decision once again checked the power of the states and upheld the sovereign power of the federal government.
Many of Marshall’s decisions while on the bench aided the economic development of the United States and created a nationally uniform environment for business. Marshall’s landmark decisions also confirmed the Supreme Court’s power of judicial review and firmly established the Judiciary as the most powerful branch of the federal government. In a broader sense, his decisions acknowledged the idea of judicial limitation on legislative powers and made the Supreme Court a vital part of America’s system of government.
The Monroe Doctrine
At the great European conference, the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815), the monarchs of Europe gathered to return the continent to its status before the French Revolution. The European powers banded together to eradicate democratic movements that threatened their thrones. In 1821, the Holy Alliance—Russia, Austria, Prussia, and France—quashed liberal movements in Italy. Then in 1822, at the Congress of Verona, the alliance decided to put down Spanish rebels, and in 1823, France crossed the Spanish border and restored the Spanish king to absolute authority. Rumors spread quickly that the autocratic alliance would next send armies to the revolted colonies of Spanish South America and restore the king to power there as well.
Britain had profited from the breakup of the Spanish monarchy in South America by developing a thriving commerce with the Spanish republics. In 1823, the British foreign minister, George Canning, sought to join with the United States and renounce any interest in acquiring any South American territory and declare opposition to any French interference with the South American colonies. Secretary of State Adams recognized that while the proposal was flattering, it was not in the best interest of the Untied States. He pointed out that the alliance with Britain would mean abandoning the possibility of someday adding part of South America to the United States. He felt the U.S. should proclaim a unilateral policy against the restoration of Spain’s colonies. Adams told Monroe, “It would be more candid, as well as more dignified, to avow our principles explicitly to Russia and France, than to come in as a cockboat in the wake of the British man-of-war.”
Monroe agreed with the arguments Adams made and decided to include a statement of American policy that reflected those arguments in his seventh annual message to Congress in December of 1823. The “Monroe Doctrine,” as it was later called, had two main points. First, Monroe proclaimed that the era of colonization in the Americas had ended: "The American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers." Europe’s political system was different than that of the New World, and he felt the two should not be mixed. He stated that any attempts by European powers to extend their political system to the Western Hemisphere would be seen as a threat to the nation’s “peace and safety.” The second point Monroe made in his policy statement was that the United States would not interfere with existing European colonies in North or South American and would avoid involvement in European affairs.At the time, since the Monroe Doctrine was not a treaty or a law, it drew little attention either in the United States or abroad. In reality, the U.S. didn’t have the power to enforce this unilateral announcement. However, Monroe and his staff knew that the British Navy, the most powerful in the world, would protect South America so that their markets remained open to British trade. Monroe’s Doctrine gave voice to a spirit of patriotism in the United States and did eventually become one of the cherished principles of American foreign policy.
Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "James Monroe" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 17 Nov. 2012. Web. 10 Mar. 2018. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/us-history/topics/james-monroe/>.