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Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Art of BS: How to Succeed on Term Papers and Essays

Last year I was in an interesting English class. The subject of the class was Harry Potter (specifically, we compared it to other works of children’s literature, like the Oz books, examined the global phenomenon, its popularity, etc.). Halfway through the quarter (yes, I wish my school was on semesters like everyone else, alas, not so), we had our midterm. When everyone got their grades back, many were disappointed. My one friend could not understand how I did so much better on the essays. We both had read the Harry Potter series more than once, so we both had extensive knowledge on the topic at hand. Was I a better writer than she? I don’t think so, but I can guarantee you I was much better at the ancient sacred art of BS’ing. My form of BS, is more along the lines of “Executive and Slightly-knowledgeable BS,” meaning it won’t work if you know nothing about the subject. Professors won’t say it, but sometimes the difference between who receives a good grade and an okay grade is who can simply follow directions and convey their thoughts more effectively.

That being said, I’ve decided to provide a few tips (ten) I’ve learned when writing essays or papers. My tips may not ensure you get that A, but they should help you improve your grade. At the very least, these tips should help you to not fail. Remember, there’s no substitute for actually knowing the material. However if you forget a few things, then you can use some of these tips to make the best of what you know. I’ll start off with why my friend didn’t do as well on the midterm.

1. Give the professor what he/she asks for! - Many professors actually TELL their students what they want to see on papers and exams. Yet, for some unknown reason, students still think that their way is best. Remember, the professor is handing out the grades, not your 8th grade teacher who told you to write differently. My friend didn’t do as well as I did because she didn’t write the way the professor asked. For some reason, my professor hated introductions and conclusions. Did this fly in the face of everything I’ve ever been taught about writing a sound essay? Yes. However, the professor TOLD us how she felt about them, and how she thought it was pointless to re-hash what you’ve already stated. So, I listened to the professor and left out an introduction and a conclusion. It wasn’t BS; it was simply common sense. So, in conclusion, pay attention to what the professor wants, and follow it!

2. Write what you DO know - I’ve taken two history classes in college, and I really couldn’t tell you too much about history. One reason is that I sometimes cram too much before exams, so I don’t put the information into long-term memory. The other reason is that, even while in the class, I didn’t know that much about history. How was I able to secure a B+ without being a history buff? I was able to because I always told the professor what I knew, and I did study (sometimes quite a bit) before exams. When writing on an essay test, the first rule of effective BS is to put the facts down. Even if you know some facts that aren’t particularly related to the question at hand, you should figure out a way to write them in. The more facts you give, the better it will look (of course you need to keep it coherent and relevant, but if you’re good at BS, it shouldn’t be a problem). For example, if I was given an essay on Benjamin Franklin, here’s some facts I know:

Benjamin Franklin gave a lot of money to the University of Pennsylvania.

Benjamin Franklin pursued American interests in France for many years.

If the question I was presented with were something along the lines of, “Discuss Benjamin Franklin’s involvement in the revolutionary war and its subsequent effect on America” I’d be sure to work those facts in. I’d write something like

“Benjamin Franklin lobbied France to help the Colonists fight the British.”

I would then probably discuss this effect on the Revolutionary War. Then, even though it’s a bit of a reach, if I had nothing else, I’d bring in that University of Pennsylvania fact. I’d mention his commitment to education, and how that affected America for years to come, and so on. Remember, this is a technique if you don’t have enough meat in your answer. If you have no clue what the answer is, then it may get you a few extra points, rather than writing nothing and getting a zero on the question. Once again, it is always important to know the material. However, if you are struggling with having enough length, or can’t remember some things, adding some facts you DO know and tying it all together can help significantly.

3. Learn to paraphrase like a champion - Whenever you’re writing a paper, it’s always a challenge to squeeze out some of those extra lines. Since you’d be crazy to ever plagiarize in college (although some people actually still try it), you need paraphrase like crazy, then cite your source. I feel it’s a definite skill to be able to read a sentence, and change it around so that it is very different (and not plagiarized) but it presents the same fact or opinion.

For example, consider this sentence from the Zebra article on Wikipedia:

“The Plains Zebra (Equus quagga, formerly Equus burchelli) is the most common, and has or had about twelve subspecies distributed across much of southern and eastern Africa.”

If I were writing a report on Zebras, I might write something like:

“The most common Zebra in Africa, the Plains Zebra, has around twelve subspecies scattered around both southern and eastern Africa. Currently, the Plains Zebra is known as Equus quagga, but was known as Equus burchelli previously.”

I took the basic facts presented in the original article, rearranged words and used synonyms, and then added a new sentence based on what was in parenthesis. Paraphrasing is essential, especially for long reports based on information in textbooks, biographies, and the like. Remember to always cite your sources (even if you aren’t taking direct quotes, because ideas are property of the person who came up with them). I feel that you can stretch most sentences if you need more length on your paper.

4. The Thesaurus is your friend - I can’t even begin to express how many points I lost on papers in high school because I’d use the same word over and over again, in a multitude of sentences. Microsoft Word, and I assume all other word processors, is equipped with a fantastic thesaurus tool. Use it! Instead of saying “said” a million times, try using “exclaimed,” “shouted,” “remarked,” “quipped,” or something of that sort. It also generally makes a paper/essay look better if instead of writing, “he was fat” (thusly utilizing a very generic adjective), writing, “he was portly” (thereby taking advantage of the wide array of vocabulary words available to English speakers).

5. Use more than just spell-check - When writing a paper, it is astonishing when I think of the amount of people who will just click that nice “spell-check” button and be done with it. In case you didn’t know, spell-check doesn’t catch everything. I’m not sure if other versions are different, but in my version of Microsoft Word, spell-check won’t catch it if you accidentally have a number in a wo5rd, which could make you sound like a real idiot (Note: I ran this article through spell-check before posting). Proofreading the paper yourself is helpful, but having a friend read it over is even better. Also, don’t rely on grammar checkers to catch every grammatical mistake. It’s been my experience that while they’ll catch very blatant mistakes, having a sentence that is simply awkward phrasing may not be found. Finally, and maybe I need to change some setting, but Microsoft Word seems to hate the passive voice. I see no real reason why it should always want change phrasing to make verbs active. Only avoid passive voice if your professor tells you explicitly. Don’t listen to Microsoft in that respect.

6. Make an outline, seriously - This works for essay tests and for papers. Always make a little outline before you start writing. At least then you have a definable goal, and the only thing you need to worry about is execution. If you’re taking an essay test, using an outline is a great way to refresh your memory of the facts, while answering the question completely.

7. When all else fails, write an awesome conclusion - So, if you’re having trouble with the essay, and you can’t seem to remember some important facts, don’t get too discouraged. In my experience, some people have fewer facts, but write a better essay than others, and therefore receive the higher grade. This isn’t a guarantee, but if you at least have a well-structured paper with a solid conclusion, the professor should award you some style points. Depending on the class, whimsical conclusions can be supremely effective. One year I was in a class, and I pretty much blanked on a whole important section of history. However, I made sure to include some overblown conclusion on how the Salem Witchcraft trials had ramifications leading all the way to today’s justice system. I probably also compared some Salem political officials to today’s current administration. The professor liked it (maybe it was the Clinton ‘08 sticker on her bag that gave me the divine inspiration), and I scraped a B. The point is, don’t ever give up, if you have a solid presentation, and an impressive conclusion, your grade may not suffer as much.

8. Actually prepare for the essays - Some professors like to give out the subject of their essay questions before the exam. Other professors may even give you a list of possible essay questions. If given this, you would be crazy to not prepare. Simply reviewing some facts is always good, but I found it more helpful to actually think about how I’d answer each potential essay. Instead of saying to myself, “oh, he’s going to ask me about George Washington, I better re-read that chapter of the textbook,” I’d actually read the question and think about how George Washington related to it, how I would develop a logical response, and so on.

9. Proofread, re-read, proofread again, then ask your mom what she thinks - Okay, so you don’t have to ask your mom to read your paper, but a friend or other family member will do. I mentioned this briefly when I was discussing spell-check, but read over your paper! It is also sometimes very helpful to print off an actual physical copy to read and take notes on. I have found that sometimes I miss mistakes when looking at my computer screen, as opposed to actually reading the physical text. The longer the paper is, the more people you should have read it. If it is on an obscure subject, then still let other people read it. While they may not be able to help you with the content, they can at least see some grammatical mistakes you may have missed. Not to mention, if you are writing on something that your professor has no familiarity with, you should definitely have someone else read it. If your friend gets wildly confused about the subject, there’s a good chance your professor would have been as well, and you would do well to re-write some things to make it clearer.

10. Mess with margins, font sizes, and font styles sparingly (meaning, don’t do it) - Most professors have caught on to the whole “Courier New” trick. So, if you’re counting on making that ten page length by simply changing fonts, you may want to go back to the drawing board. Some people still try to get away with messing with margins. I personally don’t do it (especially because many of my professors have specifically demanded 1 inch margins around the entire paper), but you are always welcome to try. If you chronically have length issues, I suggest actually starting with single spacing and a smaller font. If you have single spacing, you will, in a weird way, be encouraging yourself to write more (at least that’s how it works for me, and some other people I know). Not to mention, that once you think you’ve written all you can write, and it comes time to change it to double spacing, or Times New Roman 12 point font, you may find that you’ve surpassed the requirements. You also may get an added confidence boost to see your work balloon to 2-3 times as many pages as before.

So, they may only be 10 tips, but I feel that they should help many students to have more success on essays and papers. There’s no substitute for actually knowing the material backwards and forwards, but if you forget a few things, you can always stylize stuff a little more. College can be tough, but if you learn how to use just a little bit of “Executive and Slightly-knowledgeable” BS every now and then, you may just find that your English professor actually remembers your name. Of course, if you have any tips of your own, or think I’m crazy, feel free to post them in the comment section.

1 comment:

michael said...

Do you take any notes from your cell phone? I wonder if there are any software tools for college students available for the motorola krave? I've been a fan of the krave ever since I started working with Motorola. I especially like the touch screen display. You can check out a demo online at It's intense!