More and more students are turning to essay mills – often paying hundreds of pounds for written-to-order papers. This has led to the university standards watchdog issuing new government backed guidance to help address “contract cheating”.
Given the extent of the problem, it is clear essay writing is an area of university life that students struggle with. But maybe this isn’t totally surprising, because it requires a unique skill set and is unlike any other type of writing students may encounter.
New students in particular can show the same stresses and strains of the amateur bakers on The Great British Bake Off when faced with the dreaded technical challenge. The good news though, is that the ingredients needed to write a good essay are fairly simple – it’s just about cutting things down into easily digestible chunks.
So here are some top tips for writing at university, Bake Off style.
1. Don’t just focus on the icing
Whether signature bake or showstopper challenge, some of the creations on the Bake Off look simply flawless. And while the decorative elements are carefully planned and certainly look impressive on television, when it comes to judging they never count as much as getting the flavour right or having your creation baked properly.
With your written pieces, the exact same is true – it is far more important to get the ingredients right and to mix them properly than to be perfect with all the formalities and the “academic” language, but have no proper content.
Make sure when you start out, that you dedicate a large chunk of your time to the research and don’t worry about the formalities until later. The most important thing is to make sure that your research is solid. The formalities are simply the icing on the cake. So while they might turn your essay from good to excellent, without the research and critical thinking to back it up, your essay won’t even pass.
2. Don’t worry too much about the shape
As any good baker knows, you first combine the ingredients and then worry about the shape and look. And the same goes for writing – sometimes it’s okay to just write, and not pay too much attention to the format, or the language, or the conventions.
Once you have it all down on paper (or on the screen) comes the time to attack it with the proverbial red pen. Now you can be ruthless – start by cutting the passages you don’t really need. Only now should you start paying attention to how it actually reads. Figure out if your words make sense, and highlight the bits you want to add to or change. The key here is just whacking everything down and then sprucing it up later on.
3. Think of quotes like the cream and jam
Quotations – and other ways of showing off evidence, like tables or images – are important because they add different voices to your essay. But you need to make sure you are not overusing them.
They are like the cream and jam in your Victoria Sandwich. The cake is the important thing, not the cream. So it is important to only include the part of a quotation that is crucial to what you want to say.
Your quotes should be sandwiched between an introduction and an explanation. Before the quotation tell your reader where it comes from, possibly explaining why they should pay attention to that source. After the quotation explain what it means in your context.
This is really important because very few quotations are actually self-evident, and if they are, you probably don’t need them. You should use quotes to emphasise your argument – but not overshadow it. Remember, the focus should be on the cake, not the cream.
4. Give your creation time to rise
Whatever you are baking, be it cakes or bread, there comes a time when you will need to leave your masterpiece alone for a while and let it do it’s thing. And this is similar to the process of writing.
You need to give yourself time to come back to your work with fresh eyes. This will allow you to get a new perspective on your writing, as it is easy to become attached to your existing content.
Often a little break from your essay can be all the more fruitful. And just like bread needs time to rise, and pastry dough needs time to chill, so too does your essay need time to mature before it can reach its full potential.
5. Practice makes perfect
Successful bakers in the Bake Off don’t just think through their bakes in advance, they also practice them. This is a great tip for budding writers, because it means you can ultimately make your initial draft better and better – until it becomes a showstopper.
And who knows, once you get the hang of it, writing an academic essay might even become a piece of cake.