Be ruthless! Get rid of irrelevant and background information that does not contribute directly to your argument. No need to plod through the basics. It wastes words and gives the wrong impression. Instead, get straight on with arguing your case.
Ensure you read the question critically. That means: actively evaluate the question and come to a judgement about it.
There is no single ‘correct’ answer. Have confidence in your own authoritative interpretation.
Read the question out loud. Put emphasis on different word in turn, and consider how the meaning changes.
Think about your comparator classes. Always ask yourself: of what is this a case? And compared to what?
Don’t just list reasons ‘why X’. Consider the validity of the assumption underpinned by the question ‘why X?’ – that X is always an uncomplicatedly true.
Look out for false dichotomies: distinctions between two alternatives which are neither mutually exclusive nor collectively exhaustive.
Whenever you see the word ‘or’ try adding ‘or both’, then ‘but not both’ afterwards. Consider which phrase sounds more plausible.
How to control your argument: Be ruthless. Avoid meandering. Be an authoritative guide. Give away your take-home as soon as possible.
Remove unnecessary background information. This isn’t a primary school project.
Give your readers a clear take-home. To make the point of your essay crystal-clear, practice summarizing your argument as a set of propositions.
Choose your cases carefully. Don’t just sprinkle your essay with examples plucked from the secondary literature.
As a preliminary step, try some rote learning to give you a scaffold on which to hang the deeper knowledge you develop.
Think about easy and hard cases. Which cases are most and least likely to conform to the expected pattern? If you make things too easy for yourself, your reader will think you’ve missed out too much. But if you make things too hard, it’ll look like a straw man argument.
Qualify rather than hedge. Spell out the circumstances in which the statement holds. Convey the magnitude of the effect and the degree of certainty explicitly.
Don’t over-signpost. You don’t need to tell your reader that it is important to define your key terms, or that your essay will cover ‘the main arguments’, or ‘lead to a logical conclusion’.
Leave emotive language out. Focus on making a convincing empirical case, not a rant. If you need to let your feelings out, start a blog!
The best introductions briefly explain the author’s argument, rather than just identifying the question or giving a bare ‘I agree’ or ‘I disagree’.
Engage with the opposition. Once you’ve staked out your position, consider the strongest counter-arguments. Address them explicitly.
Don’t simply define and move on. Think about various different definitions, and consider what the implications of each might be.
Get rid of the training wheels. Rigidly adhering to certain rules will make your essays boring and formulaic. Essay writing isn’t paint-by-numbers.
Take responsibility for your argument. Get rid of weak-kneed hedges and nasty passive constructions.
Own up! I collected the data. I reject the null hypothesis. I conducted the analysis. I argue that X, or simply: X. Don’t be afraid to use the word ‘I’ in essays if the alternative is a long-winded passive construction.
Get rid of the idea that essays consist of five paragraphs, of which the first is the introduction, the second the ‘pros’, the third the ‘cons’, the fourth the ‘debate’, and the fifth the conclusion.
Try eliminating the word ‘however’ from your essays, to avoid the seesaw of: ‘on the one hand this, on the other hand that’. Instead, sustain your argument throughout your essay.
Make each proposition crystal clear by using academic English, defining all technical terms immediately, and avoiding excessive hedging or signposting.
Practice summarizing. Identify the core argument of books and articles you read, and practice summarizing the take-home as a grammatical sentence.
When you have defined your terms, take a step back. Consider the argument as a whole in light of your definitions.
Assess the validity of an argument. Pick out the key premises: are they true or false? Consider the relationship between the premises and the conclusion: does the conclusion follow?
Examination answers are lean meat. Give your answer clearly and early. There should be no fat on your writing at all.
Examinations are like regular essays. Make clear, consistent, convincing arguments, and avoid reciting basic background information.
Get used to the time constraints in examinations. Practice, practice, practice!
Revise smart for examinations. Connect ideas and topics together. Repurpose information and think about the course as a whole.
The short time-frame in examinations means you should prioritize thinking time and avoid word wastage at all costs.
Devote 20% of your time in examinations to planning. Read and re-read the questions, define your key terms, and consider any hidden assumptions underlying your chosen questions.
For examinations, practice moving from start to finish using handwritten practice papers. Do the messy work beforehand. Plan, then execute, a logical argument sequence.