If there is one good thing to come out of this year's American election, it is that it has provided some lovely examples of what not to do in university essay writing. And most of it has come from one person. In what follows I provide some guidelines for writing university essays based on these examples of what not to do, as well as providing some solutions for when you find yourself falling into the Trump-trap.
1. Be clear about what you're trying to say.
"They built a hotel. When I build a hotel, I have to pay interest. They don't have to pay interest because they took the oil when we left Iraq, I said we should have taken. So now ISIS has the oil." Trump Presidential Announcement Speech (16/6/16)
Especially as you open your essay, it is essential to communicate clearly to your reader what it is you are trying to accomplish and what it is that you will be arguing. This can mean stating outright "this paper will argue that..." or a more subtle communication of your message, but it must be there in the introduction, and be clear throughout the essay. Use 'signposting' to help lead your reader through your argument, instead of leaving them wandering in the wilderness of words, searching desperately for your point.
2. Don't waste words on minor issues.
When you're facing a word count, you have to be very strict with how you 'spend' your meagre number of words. Think about the aims of your essay, usually to (1) convince your reader of your argument and (2) demonstrate your knowledge. This first goal - your argument, needs to act like a filter for everything you write. Nothing should end up in your essay that doesn't relate to your central argument.
The word limit is there for a reason, to help you be thrifty with your writing. In the end, you should have a concentrated account, which is pithy, concise and persuasive.
3. Don't jump from topic to topic.
"I was going to take some questions, but you know, it's sort of like, it's such a high -- you know Elton John once saw me as a great guy." (from https://www.yahoo.com/news/the-strange-power-of-donald-1397103083307062.html)
There is a lot to cover in an essay, as not a lot of space to do it in. But it is essential that you provide transitions for your reader, to help follow what you are saying. Each paragraph should only address one topic or theme, and should provide a helpful transition into the next. In other words, provide a bridge for your reader, don't make them jump off a cliff.
4. Look up your facts and back up your statements with evidence.
It is extremely important that everything you write in a university essay comes from an authoritative source, and that you provide that source. You cannot make guesses or provide vague estimates.
It is likewise important to provide evidence for the statements and arguments that you make.
In short, you are going to need to do some serious research before you write anything in your essay. You are your own fact-checker!
5. Be thrifty and precise in your use of adjectives.
Check your essay for vague and unspecific adjectives like "good" and "bad" (as well as modifiers like "well" or "badly"). These seldom actually tell your reader anything helpful. See if you can replace these words with more specific ones, that relate to what you are saying. For instance, if you think that a historian wrote a "good" book on the Renaissance, perhaps what you're actually trying to say is that it was "insightful", or "well-researched". And in general, you want to cut back on your use of adjectives. Often these are the first things that should be cut when you're editing an essay, as they're more rhetorical than academically precise.
6. Don't overstate your case (avoid superlatives and hyperbole).
If you're writing an essay, it probably means you're writing about a topic that has at least two sides, each with valid arguments to support it. Even though you're making an argument, it is essential to know the limits of that argument. This means avoiding superlatives ("best", "worst") and hyperbole ("this is the worst book ever written"). It also means you probably won't "prove" your case, even if you argue it convincingly.
7. Don't use words you don't understand.
It can be very tempting to load your essay with tons of impressive sounding words. But it is not only unnecessary, it can actually distract from your main argument, and if you get it wrong, make you seem less, rather than more academically savvy. Although it may seem like the best academic writing is loaded with complex language, it is far better to be clear and and accessible in your writing. Don't say "utilise" when "use" will do. You will have to use technical language, but all the more reason to be uncomplicated in the rest of what you write.
8. Be respectful, even when you disagree.
"'Look at that face!.... Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?!" Trump, Rolling Stone Magazine (9.9.16)
There are going to be people with whom you disagree in your essay, and it can be tricky knowing how to critique their work or ideas. The main thing is to avoid ad hominems (attacks against the person, rather than critique of their work) and to remember that even if you take a different view, their work still makes a contribution to the field. You are a scholar amongst scholars, which gives you a right to engage critically with others' work, but also means you need to be respectful of what has come before. If you can't say it with respect, best not to say it at all.
9. Be consistent in your argument.
Although you want to acknowledge that there is another side to the issue, it is important for you to remain consistent, and not to contradict yourself. If you do bring in counter-arguments to your case, make sure you also state a reason why they don't actually impact your argument. For instance, perhaps they don't apply in the case that you are outlining, they don't take into account recent evidence, or perhaps seem like counter-arguments, but in fact actually can serve to support your argument. You can signpost these counter-arguments for your reader with phrases like "Although it could be maintained that x, actually y" or "Some scholars have maintained x, but this evidence points us to y" - just remember to provide references for those "some scholars" who disagree with you!
10. Follow the guidelines.
It is essential that you make sure that you answer the question you've been given within the word limit, and with whatever other elements you are required to produce. You can write a brilliant and persuasive piece of work, which is well-written and well-researched, but if it doesn't do what your assessor has asked you to do, it won't get a good mark.
11. Read, absorb and use feedback.
“The New York Times is so unfair. I mean they write three, four articles about me a day. No matter how good I do on something, they’ll never write good,” Trump said. “I mean they don’t write good.” Trump, Hannity (1.4.16)
It can be easy to get defensive when someone criticizes something you've worked hard on, but it is important to remember that they are trying to help you get even better, so take advantage of it. It's always a good idea to give yourself at least 24 hours between receiving feedback, and doing anything about it. This will help you to put it into perspective, and take note of the positive as well as more critical comments. Then, spring into action. Take notes on the feedback you've been given, and use it as a checklist the next time you write an essay. Visit your tutor's office hours, to make sure you've understood their comments properly. Essay-writing skills take time and practice to develop; feedback ensures you're moving forward, and not making the same mistakes over and over.
Conclusion: Let your work speak for itself!
The Trump-trap is all about unfounded statements, rhetoric and hyperbole. If your work is solid, you don't need to overstate your case or attack other scholars. All you need to do is be clear, precise and concise in stating your case, and you will persuade your reader.