The Art of BS: How to Succeed on 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 term 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). That being said, it’s important to remember that synonyms can have slightly different meanings, so always make sure the word you select from the thesaurus makes sense within the context of the sentence. The thesaurus is still you’re friend, you just have to keep an eye on it.

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.

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November 04 2007 05:11 pm | College Advice and Grades and GPA

48 Responses to “The Art of BS: How to Succeed on Papers and Essays”

  1. Luke on 05 Nov 2007 at 10:07 pm #

    A good way to boost the length of your paper is to change the font size of all of the periods to 13. This is virtually unnoticeable and really can add length to your paper.

  2. Sprite on 06 Nov 2007 at 1:37 am #

    I don’t know why you call it “the art of BS”. Most of these are legitimate, smart tips and not a way to trick the system :)

    It doesn’t matter who has the most facts. The textbook does- but can it write a paper by itself? In essays, what matters is how you RELATE the facts to each other and bring them to a conclusion. The teacher wants to see you’re educated, not just that you have a good memory (ok, a good memory is part of a good education, but not the most important one).

    Great article, it will help a lot of people if they’re not too lazy ;)

  3. Principled Discovery » Welcome to Homeschool U, the 97th Carnival of Homeschooling on 06 Nov 2007 at 4:05 am #

    [...] Making history more meaningful and building family relationships. My Domestic Church C&I600: The Art of BS: How to Succeed on Papers and Essays Some essay writing tips, even if you do know the material. College and Finance C&I700: [...]

  4. Jeremy on 06 Nov 2007 at 7:25 am #

    I actually had a teacher tell us before an essay test that we needed to be good at bs to write 4 pages about the topic. She basically said what you are saying, you need to be able to make a little bit of knowledge go a long way. This was a community college professor that told us this, and I was very surprised when she said it. I have been aware of this since high school, but obviously many people aren’t judging by the grades they get

  5. Sarah on 08 Nov 2007 at 6:40 pm #

    I’m in college in Europe and as good as the idea Luke said about changing the font size of the periods (and it really does work) my college ask for a word count not page count :( :( really good article :)

  6. Pat on 09 Nov 2007 at 12:46 pm #

    As a teacher, I hate to read boring papers but it is a necessary evil. If the papers have the basic necessities and meets the requirements, they get the basic grade. If the paper is interesting (using a thesaurus is a great idea!)and written in an interesting way, they tend to get more points. You gave a great list of suggestions!

  7. Maddi on 09 Nov 2007 at 9:34 pm #

    Speaking from experience, these tips WILL help you. Use them!

  8. Mandy on 18 Nov 2007 at 11:19 pm #

    Actually, I am a “good” writer – I do everything you listed without realizing it a lot of times, and I always manage to get good grades on papers that I think are poorly argued just because I basically did everything on your list! So yes, people and students, follow the wise one. However, I would have to agree Sprite – these tips aren’t true BS – just good ways to make yourself sound intelligent.

  9. Stuart Cameron on 21 Nov 2007 at 5:59 pm #

    This article depresses me enormously, especially tips number 2, 3 and 7. Unfortunately I think many professional writers use the same techniques, spinning scanty facts into a whole article or even book by speculating wildly on them and adding an overblown, quotable conclusion.

    Yes these might get you through college but it’s sad. Don’t you enjoy learning? Don’t you care about what really happened in history, or what might be worth discovering about the plains zebra? If you don’t think the forms of assessment you’re required to undertake are worth doing in themselves, isn’t there some way you can discuss this with faculty, rather than seeing the whole thing as a pointless game and playing along with it accordingly?

  10. Stuart Cameron on 21 Nov 2007 at 6:05 pm #

    Just to add, shame on the teacher who endorses these suggestions in the comment above! Does using fancy words found in the thesaurus really make a paper ‘interesting’?!

  11. Scott on 22 Nov 2007 at 1:21 am #

    Thanks for commenting Stuart. I’m not sure why 3 and 2 depress you though. as paraphrasing is quite legitimate when doing any sort of research paper, as long as you cite WHERE you got the information. That’s all research is, taking what you read and putting it into your own words…obviously you may have to form some of your own opinions.

    As for #2, it’s pretty good advice, write what you DO know…instead of just writing nothing. And, as I said, it’s a technique to be used when you’re running out of things to say, or may have forgotten a key fact.

    Even #7 has validity, although I can see why that would make you sad.

  12. Jrod on 22 Nov 2007 at 2:12 am #

    I think these are great suggestions, I use many of them on a daily basis. But, I don’t think they are BS so much as using education wisely. I find that as I get closer to graduating from my undergrad career that I use the ones that are closer to BS a lot less. But, honestly as a Philosophy major all topics interest me, so it is not too often I find topics that I just don’t care or need. Early in my collage career though, I was in a premed program and hell if I thought ‘humanities in the western tradition’ had any value… general education credits are not meant to do anything more then verse you in the subject. They are not meant to be something you come away with a complete knowledge of, just an eye opener… So yeah, knowing how to BS on papers is very valuable and 1 needs far more credit. Reading what a prof wants is the first thing you should do, and do it every single day of class. Learn your prof, backwards and forwards knowing what they want whether they express it explicitly or not is huge!!!!

    Oh… and I’m a terrible writer, but I write with passion and use my support group!!! Which does include my mom, and a bunch of friends who are far more gifted in the ways of grammar than I.

  13. Stuart Cameron on 22 Nov 2007 at 7:28 am #

    Okay, I was only half-serious when I said they depressed me… sorry if that didn’t come across. But to be a bit more specific …

    “That’s all research is, taking what you read and putting it into your own words…obviously you may have to form some of your own opinions”

    Well, research can be a lot more than that – for instance comparing different sources, considering whether some sources are more valid than others, analysing the claims they make and the basis on which they make them, and thinking about theory into which your findings might fit.

    There’s nothing wrong with writing what you know, the problem is when people only know a few things but make spurious links between them in order to sound more knowledgeable than they are.

    And there’s nothing wrong with paraphrasing, but if in practice paraphrasing means taking a verbatim quote, rearranging it and padding it out to fill your word count without being accused of plagiarism… then that’s unfortunate.

    I realise people have all kinds of ways of getting through exams. Exams are a terrible way of assessing university level students in most subjects.

    These practices are used not just by students but by time-pressed writers and journalists, and my problem with them is that they lead people to accept conclusions that aren’t supported by evidence. If you care about the subjects you’re studying it would be good to think carefully before falling into the habit of using these devices to try and boost your marks.

  14. Scott on 23 Nov 2007 at 1:09 am #

    I agree, I over-simplified research. We can agree that paraphrasing is a legitimate part of writing. Notice, I never wrote “don’t do research, just paraphrase” Rather, if you are doing a simple fact paper, paraphrasing can be key. For example, if you were researching Queen Victoria, when you list facts of her life, paraphrasing is the best way to go, and it can help you if you’re in a jam about where to go next.

    The idea behind this post isn’t that people just go in with no knowledge of anything, unable to form their own opinions, and write the first trash that comes to their head. The idea IS that people study, research, and go about things “the hard way,” but if they are in a jam, they can use some of these tips to help make a good paper better, or pump out a few extra paragraphs when they feel as though they’ve said all they can say.

    A few people have commented, “This isn’t BS” about this post, and they’re exactly right. Which is why I made such a big deal about “Executive BS.” Pure BS is writing about the weather in a paper about The Fall of Rome.

    “There’s nothing wrong with writing what you know, the problem is when people only know a few things but make spurious links between them in order to sound more knowledgeable than they are.” < —I totally agree

    People should boost their marks through study, research, AND following a few of these tips.

    Thanks again for commenting! :o )

  15. Nicole on 26 Nov 2007 at 1:31 am #

    This is a good post – I particularly agree with the parts about tailoring essays to professors’ instructions, proofreading the paper, and using an outline. I think a LOT of students end up losing quite a few marks by neglecting these relatively simple procedures.

    Luke – the “font size change” trick on periods will not work if you have a professor who is a stickler for line spacing – this includes any prof who is a style guide fanatic – i.e. puts the MLA, APA, Chicago (etc.) style handbooks in their course syllabus, or as recommended reading.

    Changing the period font size visibly alters your line spacing, and if you don’t have periods on every line, it will alter it haphazardly, making the line spacing noticeably uneven. Most professors require double-spacing in essays. If you have spacing that exceeds double in a pile of essays that are properly spaced, your prof (or TA) will definitely be able to tell you’ve been messing around to inflate your page length.

    Of course, as Sarah pointed out, most professors have grown tired of this sort of ploy and designate word lengths rather than page lengths anyhow.

  16. David on 26 Nov 2007 at 7:50 am #

    Thesaurus! its amazing. especially for those teachers who love it when you use words that they never see in papers

  17. Bob T. on 30 Nov 2007 at 1:00 pm #

    Nothing about using a more attractive font? Times was originally designed for narrow newspaper colums. Using a more relaxed font such as Palatino or Garamond will improve the readability of your essays and the mood of the marker who has to read and grade dozens of them. Using a real typesetter such as LaTeX instead of Word will also improve the appearance substantially unless you’re a Word style expert.

  18. Aaron on 30 Nov 2007 at 1:23 pm #

    A thesaurus should be used carefully. English is a huge language: this means there are plenty of synonyms for most words, but also that synonyms can have widely different valences. When I write papers, I constantly consult an online thesaurus, but I keep a dictionary (happily, I have institutional access to the OED) open in the next tab. By consulting it, I know the exact meaning of each word I find in the thesaurus, and am no longer substituting words in at random.

    For example, the following come up as synonyms for “insight” on

    acumen, aha, awareness, click*, comprehension, discernment, divination, drift*, hep to, intuition, judgment, observation, penetration, perception, perceptivity, perspicacity, sagaciousness, sagacity, sageness, sapience, savvy, shrewdness, theosophy, understanding, vision, wavelength*, wisdom, wise to.

    They’re all – I guess – legitimate, but most of them are too informal (like “aha”), too specific (”theosophy”) or clumsy and obscure (”sagaciousness”) to be used in the average paper. Using them would probably make the writer seem more ignorant of the language, not less. Even the everyday words here – “understanding,” “awareness,” “intuition” – have slightly different meanings, and while they’d all work in a paper, one is often the best in a particular context. The only way to figure that out is with a dictionary.

  19. rusticitas on 30 Nov 2007 at 1:39 pm #

    You could also us the “Jabber” function in QuarkXPress to generate the necessary number of pages in prose, “lorem ipsum”, Klingon, etc. Much quicker… And those profs never read the papers anyway…

  20. Kevin on 30 Nov 2007 at 1:59 pm #

    Great article. I’ve also found it helpful to flip the common argument around. In other words, if everyone in the course is going to be arguing for a topic then it may be worth the extra effort to argue the opposite so that your paper stands out.

    For example, if you’re in an ethics class with a paper about the Death Penality and you know everyone is going to argue against it then try arguing for it instead.

    Essay’s are not a popularity contest and changing an argument like that can really stand out from the hum-drum essays that everyone else is turning in.

  21. Guinevere on 30 Nov 2007 at 2:11 pm #

    Don’t extend point #1 too far. I’ve had numerous profs say their opinion but say if you have another and can back it up, write on it. DO NOT fall into this trap. Profs do not want undergrads countering their theories. Write in support of theirs, even if you don’t, if you want a good grade. Sad, but true.

  22. a TA on 30 Nov 2007 at 2:14 pm #

    Good points and most of them are not BS. However, you need to be careful using a thesaurus, make sure you understand the word you look up in the thesaurus. I will mark students down if their essays look like they just looked up adjectives in the thesaurus, especially if they use them incorrectly.

  23. blerg on 30 Nov 2007 at 2:37 pm #

    passive voice is horrible. it makes papers uninteresting and leads the reader to lethargy and generalized hatred for the writer.

    and only idiots get fooled by changing margins and the like.

    but otherwise good enough.

  24. John Carter on 30 Nov 2007 at 2:52 pm #

    My wife and myself are both Phd students, and either lecture or TA every semester (I’m CS, she’s History). We’ve seen quite a few BS tricks and most of the above are actually valid. Our thoughts:

    - The thesaurus is not always your friend. All too often we’ve seen a pretty half-assed paper that has undergone some over-thesaurus’ing. Over using words is one thing, but it looks worse to have a paper stilted by a thesaurus.
    - Don’t mess with the margins. We know. We may not take any marks off specifically, but it definitely makes sure you don’t get the benefit of the doubt on anything in question.
    - Do your research as soon as soon as you get the assignment. Even if you don’t write the paper until the last minute. Chances are people will require the same or similar books. You’ll get more marks for a poorly written, well researched paper than a well written, poorly researched paper.

  25. Timo on 30 Nov 2007 at 3:21 pm #

    You’re preaching to the choir, man. I did a lot better on some papers in high school and college than my smarter friends only because I know how to BS.

    One of the best tips I learned came from my high school English teacher. She taught us the Conclusion Rule, so obviously it only works for the intro-three points-conclusion papers. Write the entire paper the night before (like we usually do) but skip the conclusion. Then go to sleep immediately. Have a good night’s sleep then wake up and write the conclusion. For some reason, if you spend so much time thinking about some silly topic, then dream about it, the conclusion just comes so much more naturally. I’ve read so many papers where the conclusion just seems forced and ruins it.

    Like if you wrote your while article and concluded with “Summarizing, you can see why BS is an important art form. And it is valid because we can see how great it is. It will also help you further your writing career. Thusly, I propose we all study the art of BS.” No matter how great your article was (which it is) I’d think it was shit.

    For rule 4, use the Thesaurus wisely. Don’t use words you obviously don’t know because it shows. When you read a few sentences from a paper, a graph forms that should remain level over time. Some research papers sound intelligent from start to finish. Some people will use a third grade vocabulary, but remain constant the entire time. When someone with a poor language choice suddenly jumps to eight syllable words, it’s obvious they don’t understand the word.

    And my final tip would be to BS the prof herself. Completely invalidating the first tip, write your paper in the first 40% of your timeframe. Then bring it to the prof or one of her underlings and ask for advice. You get bonus points for showing you want help and you’re not lazy. As long as you don’t do it with a few days until deadline, it’s good. This way you get a “pre-grade” and good standing.

    In summary, this is smart words on how to do good in writing words on paper. See what I did there? Intro-three points-conclusion with a shitty conclusion.

    Or you can learn from my dumb friend. He wrote his own intro and conclusion then stole the entirety of his content from the web. Because obviously all professors are too stuffy to look at the internet. Well, when he copied paragraphs from this page and that page, he also copied their font and color.

    Then he printed the entire thing with all of the respective web site’s formatting. Guess who got kicked out of college.

    P.S. Pulling in the margins 1/2″ on both sides and increasing font size to 13 or 14 saved my high school grades. And because I’m a nerd, I even pulled off the “bad floppy” excuse once. I printed out eight pages of gibberish in Wingbats font and said my file was corrupted, but I could print it out when I got home and bring it in tomorrow if that was okay with the teacher. I’m a nerd so people believe me.

  26. Karl Steel on 30 Nov 2007 at 3:41 pm #

    Hi, I’m an English Professor, and this list of advice isn’t bad. It’s far from BS. Paraphrasing’s important, because you can’t paraphrase well without understanding the material. And understanding the material requires thinking.

    My only real quibble is the thesaurus rec. I’ve read a lot of student papers that suffer terribly from a thesaurus. Why? Because the students have no idea of the meaning, or at least the connotation, of the ten-dollar words they’ve sprinkled in to impress me. Basically, the thesaurus is great, if you’re using it with a dictionary.

    BTW, I do require a word count, so no one gets that by me. And Introductions do suck, at least for any paper under 15 pages long. I tell students to get right into it. That’s what journalists do, hell, it’s what any good focused essay does. So I strictly forbid any “inverted triangle” opening, especially the dreaded “Throughout history” opening. Barf.

  27. Kale on 30 Nov 2007 at 4:53 pm #

    These are some pretty great tips. I’m only in high school and I noticed that I already use a few of these myself. Getting to know your professors/teachers and what they want in an essay is a great way to do well. I’m sure what I do in high school now can barely even be compared to college level essays but I would agree that having a good handle on the material and “BS’ing” a little bit is a great way to get a good grade.

  28. KFL on 30 Nov 2007 at 5:24 pm #

    Also, here’s a tip that I believe increases your grade a fair amount — construct a snazzy title…one that displays your familiarity with the material combined with sharp wit or insight.

  29. Sven on 30 Nov 2007 at 7:11 pm #

    Not sure what the “BS” part of this is. As a college prof who grades tons of papers I can say that this is simply good, practical advice about how to write. A large percentage of students are not able to “know the material”, “give what the prof wants”, “make an outline”, “proofread”, etc. I like the don’t mess with margins/font sizes bit. For some reason certain students will always try that. Most profs I know have strict requirements about that stuff and will ding you for violating it (I will convert the paper to my required format before grading, anyway)

  30. Clark Kent on 30 Nov 2007 at 7:50 pm #

    So here is my two cents, for what they’re worth.

    What you said wasn’t really BS. It is actually how you write a good essay when you do know what you are doing. I really did like the part about giving the prof what they want. I TA a couple of undergrad classes, and I tell the students three things. I want a two sentence intro. In one of those I want a claim, any claim, it could be that aliens are involved in the topic. Last, support you claim with something. Honestly, make it up if you have to. I, nor my prof know everything about the subjects we teach. I am amazed at what a lot of my students bring into class and they teach me a lot. So when in doubt make it up.

    Speaking of making things up. This is my tested method for writing research papers. It only really works as an undergrad, and generally only in large classes. If you have to write a research paper do one of two things. If you know enough about the subject write on it and make references generally to articles that you have no idea exist. Then after you have a great paper, find articles that fit your references and edit accordingly. Trust me its a lot easier to find some obscure thing on something rather specific, than to shuffle through article after article to find something useful.

    When in doubt make up the reference. Yes, lie. Some may even go as far as calling it cheating. I don’t mean make up some bogus author and article. Find an article with a title that seems plausible for the direction you are heading. Read the first paragraph, and the synopsis. If it seems like what you would like to say someone said fits with the synopsis and opening paragraph, use that article. Oh, and make sure it is long enough. It has to be for the next part to work. Find the longest section of the article located in the second half of the article. Then pick a page in that section that does not contain any headers. I really mean something that would require a good bit of reading to actually comprehend what is being said. Then use that page as the site.

    I always check references in papers, and I am a rarity. Most of the other TA’s skim the paper, catch glaring mistakes read the sections where you make claims and try to find the support, and finish with the conclusion. In reality, all I am doing is checking to see if they are real, and the article appears to relate to the subject. I won’t read the article. I may not even go to the page. It is the problem with large classes and overworked TA or professors.

    Okay, I gave you my secret weapon. Use it wisely. I works in general elective classes, and large lower level lectures. You can use it in some upper level large lectures, but chances are the prof is grading it and they could be a little more thorough. Don’t BS the first one and see how they grad. If they actually say something useful, besides correcting grammar. Then chances are this wont work. Oh and it doesn’t work in upper level classes, and there is no chance it will work in grad classes.

  31. Antonia Short on 30 Nov 2007 at 9:25 pm #

    Great tips.
    This really helps me to get my essay done.
    Thank you very much for sharing this tips with me !

  32. aaron on 30 Nov 2007 at 10:37 pm #

    Its interesting… I’m in an English writing course now and our prof. hates those big, pompous thesauras-type words. He wants us to write concisely without any broad over-generalizations or meaningless conclusions. I do agree though with making it interesting, setting up an outline and proofreading/revising as this list points out. maybe it will help me bring my grade up from a C lol.

  33. Tintu on 01 Dec 2007 at 10:34 am #

    I have an additional tip to offer, which one of my teachers gave long-long time ago. If you are a last minute writer (no time to have your essay read by a friend) or don’t like to give your papers for proof-reading to a third party, you can do this: Read your paper from the end to the beginning (one paragraph at a time, printed out version). This will help you not to be “blind” toward your own text, which you think you’re so familiar with. For example, sometimes my sentences miss words but I don’t notice it because I “know” they’re there! This little trick has saved my essays gazillion times.

  34. Bobo on 01 Dec 2007 at 11:40 pm #

    Heh, if only I knew about this page in 2005. =P

  35. Quick on 02 Dec 2007 at 3:47 pm #

    I stopped reading the comments so this may have been said, but you can get away with adjusting the bottom margin of your paper. Slight changes to line and character spacing can give a little help too, but make sure they’re invisible.

    Also, if you need additional sources, be sure to check the works cited page of the papers you already referenced.

  36. HaNoL on 02 Dec 2007 at 6:00 pm #

    This is pretty sweet article..I’ll be sure to do these things..once I start attending college :]

  37. daniel on 02 Dec 2007 at 8:51 pm #

    I’m only in 8th grade writing a term paper and this is a lot of help, thank you

  38. Gus on 02 Dec 2007 at 10:44 pm #

    A good teacher can tell at a glance whether the student knows what they are writing about, or just putting words down on a paper.
    When I give an assignment, I know the topic well. I have a particular outcome in mind, and if the information that I expect to see is absent, the student’s grade suffers, regardless of how well written the essay is.
    Remember that your teachers really do know more about the topics they teach than you do, and they can generally spot fraud a mile away.
    Oh, and we are all aware of the font and margin scams that people want to pull.

  39. j-lon on 03 Dec 2007 at 2:10 am #

    I’ve taught both college and law students. I don’t agree with the comments by English professor above about introductions. An introduction needn’t be long on an essay exam or short paper, but it can help to frame your essay at least a little bit (especially from the standpoint of its organization). So I think it’s worthwhile.

    Essay exams are not journalism. They are not a narrative form. The goal isn’t to objectively tell someone a story about what happened. An essay exam is a rhetorical exercise (i.e., it’s about making an argument). As much as your grasp of the material, that’s what it’s testing: Can you evaluate the material critically enough to take a position and make an argument about that material?

    So usually, the thing that separates a “B” from and “A” isn’t the facts you know. It’s the argument you make with those facts. If I had 120 students in 5 sections of an intro American History class, less than 20 were able to do this with any facility. Those are the 20 who got the best grades. Everyone else mostly wasted a lot of time in narrative mode, recounting stories they’d heard throughout the term in hopes of at least demonstrating that they had read the material. They weren’t using the stories to make a point.

    Most essay exams I’ve given or taken have a call of a question. They ask the writer to take a stand. Often you are given two choices (e.g., American history is characterized mostly by conflict; American history is characterized mostly by consensus). Then you are asked to take a stand.

    When you’re given two choices like that, you pretty much have three options; Conflict; Consensus; or a mix of both. Generally, it doesn’t matter which one of those you choose. You can get a good grade with any of them. It’s more about what you do with it. Do you state a clear position at the beginning? Do you maybe try to spell out 2-4 general reasons why you think your position is correct? Do you take each of those reasons one at a time and support each reason with examples from the reading?

    If you do, you’re getting one of the high scores, because you’ve got an essay with a clear and logical large scale organization that allows you to build a clear argument.

    If you just start spouting all the facts you can remember, the best you can possibly do is maybe a “B.” If you don’t even have the facts, and you can’t write clearly at all, you’ll be lucky to get a “C.” You’re not even telling half decent stories at that point.

    The structure I’m suggesting may not be be the prettiest structure. But especially if you use sub-heads in the body of your essay that correspond to the points you set out at the beginning in your intro, it obviates the need for transitions between sections. You can make up for that slightly jumpy structure by sewing things up at the end with a short conclusion (gives the reader a quick review of the general contours of your argument).

    Just like a computer operating system or a car, different kinds of writing have a user interface. People who are able to deploy the correct interface, usually get better results.

    Especially at a large state university with big classes, the teachers have lots of papers to grade. The sort of structure I’m proposing really helps you out, because it is easy for the reader to follow (it’s a predictable user interface).

    It also helps you out, because it encourages you to set some goals at the start of the essay and then carry them out (stay within the the established boundaries of the user interface).

    It’s hard to think about too many things at once. This approach helps you to focus on one point at a time, develop it, sum it up, then move on to the next point. It makes you more methodical. It will also help you to remember more of the material from the course that you actually do have in your head.

    With all due respect to Gus above, my experience on both sides of aisle has been as follows: Even if you don’t remember as many facts as some of the other people in the class, you will still seem smarter and you will probably get a better grade, if you adopt a structure like the one I describe above. Why? Because the internal logic of the paper will be familiar to the T.A. or professor grading it.

    Most people who teach college wound up teaching, because they were good at thinking critically and organizing their thoughts. They like to see those qualities in their students’ work, because that’s a big part of what they are trying to teach you how to do. So it feels good when students actually seem to be doing it. (”Wow, this person is making an organized and logical argument like an educated person would. Amazing. My life as a professor has some meaning after all.”)

  40. Nut on 03 Dec 2007 at 2:18 am #

    This is pretty much the same as what I do at school all the time. We even gave it the same name! My friends don’t really master it, though. I usually manage to scrape by with good grades without studying anything, but they studied the whole night and their grades were worse = =”.

  41. Fiction Scribe » Blog Archive » Scribes Blog Carnival on 03 Dec 2007 at 2:56 am #

    [...] H presents The Art of BS: How to Succeed on Papers and Essays posted at College and Finance, saying, “How to improve writing for essays and papers in [...]

  42. Michael on 03 Dec 2007 at 5:34 am #

    One additional thought… I’ve always found that the key to nailing a high grade on a paper is a conclusion that reflects on the bigger picture. Use your conclusion to demonstrate that *you really are a scholar.* Explain: Why was your thesis worth considering? How does it affect other theories? How does it differ from the prevailing school of thought? What larger implications does it have?

    Stepping back from the topic of your paper to show it in the grand context of its subject shows a higher level of critical thinking skills.

    1) Introduction — capture the reader’s attention and state your thesis
    2) Body — prove your thesis and disprove alternative theses
    3) Conclusion — restate your thesis and *interpret it*

  43. Kriana on 03 Dec 2007 at 2:11 pm #

    That single spacing trick actually works. I never thought I’d get to page 50 on my thesis, and now I’m graduated with honors!

  44. alex on 04 Dec 2007 at 8:32 am #

    lol my 7th grade teacher is making us read this and everytones like “what does BS stand for?” ignorant children.

  45. kmc on 04 Dec 2007 at 8:53 am #

    I’m a TA for tiny composition classes. My students write multiple drafts, and I read all of them. Perhaps I’m an exception to the general rule. The 10 tips are mostly good, but I’d like to emphasize that teachers remember being students themselves, especially if your teacher is relatively young. In fact, being able to BS is what got me here in the first place. We can smell our own.

    An addendum to the “know what your teacher wants” tip: Ask for a grading rubric. As students, you should be able to find out what the standards are for each grade. Good teachers have at least a tacit sense of what constitutes an A, a B, etc. for their classes.

    Finally, in the classes I teach, the brass ring is the intriguing thesis statement, a thesis that is clear but it is not immediately obvious how the student will support the claim. Of course, then you have to support that claim with evidence, perhaps a little more time consuming.

  46. kassie on 05 Dec 2007 at 10:54 am #

    if you need a word count, not a page count. try this trick- not guaranteeing you won’t get caught but it worked for me.

    take the space left over at the end of each paragraph on the last line, and fill it with a copy/paste of something else you wrote. then- change the color of it to white. you can’t see it, but it counts toward the word count. enjoy!

  47. j on 06 Dec 2007 at 1:50 am #

    I almost always do well on essays, and my method is basically like yours…

    1. rough outline
    2. write the draft single-spaced (also so I can more easily read what I’ve already written… I hate having to scroll up to refresh myself on an earlier point)
    3. talk about what I know, stay away from what I don’t

    where I differ from you is

    1. I’m fiercely anti-thesaurus, as I think using the thesaurus encourages most people to use words they don’t fully understand in ways that are sometimes hilarious but mostly just embarrassing. also, I rarely see a reason to use a word other than “said.” for reasons, flip open nearest novel, replace all instances of said with a more exciting word, and reread…
    2. I believe in the short, simple sentence. making sentences long is stupid because…
    3. I write to entertain. and long, convoluted sentences may give you page-length, but I find they put me to sleep, and will probably put my prof to sleep too. the entertained reader is the one I want grading my paper. being a few inches short on page-length is much better than writing a dull paper, imo.

  48. gnomic on 08 Dec 2007 at 8:00 pm #

    I teach for state university and am generally appalled at the level of writing and BS I receive. Not that some of this isn’t good – much of its common sense – but some more tips I’d include:

    Don’t every write in 1st person. I know its you writing. “in my opinion” is just poor filler. Especially in every paragraph

    Lead to a point and get to it. Tell me what you are going to prove and do so in short order.

    Write your paper in bullet points. If you can stop, do so, other wise go back and turn it into sentences.

    Remember, the teacher has to read all of these. Make your point quick and make it easy to read.

    Don’t presume everyone understands the acronyms and jargon. Speak plainly.

    I write audit reports on highly complex issues for a living for senior executives and these tips work for them as well.

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