Getting Top Marks In Social Science Essays
Time and time again, students studying one or more of the social sciences will come to me saying that they simply do not understand why so many of their essays have received below average marks. Time and time again, I will tell students in the social sciences the same mantra: “it is not about how much you know, it is about how you communicate what you know.” Too often, students take the term ‘social science’ literally, thinking that they need to accumulate knowledge in a scientific manner. In many ways, however, the social sciences still require the attention to writing style expected in the humanities. While it is true that social scientists must have good command of empirical evidence in order to make their claims, they cannot do so effectively if they cannot use that evidence to make a persuasive argument, which relies on an attention to writing style and essay structure.
Without excellent writing skills, you can have encyclopedic knowledge of a subject and still come away from university with a 2:2. This fact is often hard for British undergraduates in the social sciences to grasp. Indeed, even Oxford and Cambridge do not teach students how to write. A student can even be at the end of their PHD and never have taken a class on writing skills. We care so much about methods of social research, so why not about methods of writing and writing structure? So here are seven tips to improving your writing style in the social sciences:
1- Structure, structure, structure.
Become obsessed with the term ‘structure’. When it comes to your paragraphs, follow the PEEEL method of writing. Start your paragraphs with a Point, followed by your Evidence for that point, followed by your Explanation of that evidence, followed by Evaluation of that evidence in light of the question, followed by a Link to the next paragraph. When it comes to the essay as a whole, think of your essay not as a story but as an argument in a debating chamber which rolls out from a single thesis.
2- Have an opinion and make an argument.
All social scientific writing is in some sense political. By this I mean that one has to have an opinion on the question backed up by a set of evidence. Your entire essay should be constructed around making an argument for that opinion using that evidence. That does not mean that you have to use the first person, but rather that you should see your essay as an intervention rather than an exposition.
3- Address a reader.
Imagine that your reader holds an opposite opinion on the question to your own. Your job is to provide them with enough evidence, in a persuasive enough manner, that they will have no choice but to change their mind.
4- Never use evidence unless it directly helps your argument.
Your evidence should be directed. No examiner is impressed simply by a broad range of knowledge. Good academic writing is not about showing off how much you know. An examiner will be impressed if you can filter the right evidence for helping you to answer the question and to make your argument.
5- Be aware of tone.
Just as you have a ‘tone of voice’ when you speak, so too you have a ‘tone of writing’, even if you are writing the most boring and detached essay! There is no single tone necessary to writing social science essays. Just try to be aware of which tone you are writing in. Are you angry, detached, sentimental, frustrated, apathetic, cynical, whimsical?
6- Use the active voice.
Many students unconsciously write in the passive voice in which the subject of a sentence is often unstated. Make sure that the subject is clearly and actively stated. For example:
“Results will be published in the British Journal of Sociology next month” (Passive voice)
“The researchers will publish the results in the British Journal of Sociology next month” (Active voice)
This subtle difference can help the reader to identify the subjects of your sentences, can make your sentences clearer, and can often reduce your word count too!
This is probably the most important tip when it comes to essay writing. Ask yourself two questions every time you write a paragraph. Firstly, have I written this in the most simple way possible? Secondly, do I understand everything that I have written? If you do not completely understand what you have written, an examiner never will either! Moreover, we often think that jargon, superlatives and complex sentence structures are signs of good writing. For most examiners, the opposite is the case. If you can distill complex ideas into straightforward sentences then you are on your way to top marks.