• Abbie Tibbott

Getting that First-Class Quality : How to Critique your Work

After sitting down and writing an essay for university, the last thing you might feel like doing is ripping your work apart. To be honest, there have been plenty of times where I feel completely “done” with a piece of work, but leaving some time to critique my writing has gone a long way in contributing towards some good results throughout my degree. If you’ve added in your references and proof-read for grammar mistakes, you may feel ready to submit, but here are a few extra things to get done if you’re aiming for the top marks.

[[Before I start, I do want to say that obsessing over getting a high mark can lead to a lot of pressure on yourself and that isn’t always healthy. Submitting work that you are happy with is the most important thing, and as long as you’re progressing and taking on feedback, there’s nothing wrong with not getting a first-class mark.]]


Firstly, I’d recommend printing your essay off the computer that you’ve been staring at for the last few weeks. Take a highlighter and all those coloured markers that you brought to university and probably haven’t used, (I see you) and start reading through. If your essay or dissertation is more than three-thousand words, I’d suggest tackling your piece in one-thousand-word segments instead.

As you go through, really think about your question and argument. It may be useful to write these down on a separate bit of paper and refer to them as you check through. Grammar and flow is important, but not answering the question, straying off topic or rambling through something you’ve not fully researched are key problems that I’ve identified in my work. At the end of each section or factor that is being discussed, check that you have somehow linked your answer back to the question, discussing how it supports the argument, and how significant it is compared to other things you are writing about.

Don’t be afraid to trash historians or theory if you have the evidence to back it up. It’s fine to completely disagree with something as long as you thoroughly dissect it and explain the significance of it on current historiography. Keeping your eye on new historiography is key, but don’t forget to take into account where the trail of thought has come from. If you’re writing about a topic which has seen significant change in how it is seen, such as Colonialism, feel free to dig out an empire-loving, borderline (or openly) racist historian and destroy them using current historiography.

Another thing to check is that you’ve actually made a decision on where the argument is going, and where you sit. Make a decision and don’t sit on the fence! I wrote a lot of “for and against” essays in my first year, and it wasn’t until I let that mentality go that I had the word count to strengthen my argument. Your angle on the question should be clearly stated in the introduction, carried throughout and reaffirmed during the conclusion. Get rid of words such as “might”, “should” and “could”, and replace them with “demonstrates” “supports” and “strengthens”. It’s also a good idea to evaluate your factors in relevance to eachother, and the conclusion is a fantastic place to do this. The conclusion is often a place where students essentially repeat their argument and close the essay. While you shouldn’t be introducing new arguments into the conclusion, there’s nothing wrong with arguing that one of your factors was the most significant and explaining why that is. Suggesting any further research that could expand the discussion on your topic is a great way to finish strongly.

You may find that some of your paragraphs sound a bit vague or descriptive, so that could be an area you improve on before submission. It may simply sound that way because your sentences are too long, or it could be due to a lack of research on that area. My general rule is: if it’s not well-researched, it’s got to go. Especially when you’re running close to a deadline, cutting out waffle is a great way to make your essay more cohesive and will strengthen your overall argument. However, if you know what you want to say, grab the research that you need and rework your paragraph.

Using the marking criteria provided by your department can be useful when critiquing your work, although I find them to be pretty generalised. School got us familiar with peer-reviewing too, so pass your essay on to a friend and ask for feedback. It doesn’t have to be someone that understands your topic, and I actually think it’s better, as they won’t get wrapped up in the meaning of historiography that you’ve discussed. They may notice a section that doesn’t make sense, the fact that you overuse a certain phrase, or that you’ve mentioned a historian in the introduction that never appears in the body of your essay. Getting a bit of feedback can help you to read your essay like your marker will, by removing the personal element of your hard work.

Applying feedback from previous work is an essential part of the self-critique process. No matter how many hours you spend on an essay, if you make the same errors that you did on a previous submission, it’s unlikely that you’ll achieve better marks. I always suggest going to see a lecturer after feedback has been released in order to have them talk through it with you and offer you simple ways to improve using examples from your own work. Writing out the main points from written feedback and reviewing them when working on a current essay will force you to confront the things that you didn’t do well last time.

For example:

· “Essay reads like a first draft” – check grammar, structure and polish references.

· “Structure problems” – make sure your arguments are cohesive, and reference other parts of your essay between paragraphs.

· “Lack of evaluation” – add sentences about why your argument matters, and why it’s significant to current historiography on a topic.

· “Essay is descriptive” – stop telling a story, and instead interrogate why a historian thinks a certain way, if they’re right, and why.

· “Parts are incorrect” – this is basic, make sure everything you’re saying is cited and checked; this is the easiest way to upset a lecturer.

· “Essay contains irrelevant information” – the marker knows that you are waffling, so make sure you have read and referenced key texts.

Finally, thinking about your bibliography may not be ideal at the last-minute, but do check through what you have read. Reading lists that are provided are especially helpful as a starting point, but using your initiative to find new texts and primary sources to use in your essay will show a marker that you are an able researcher and want to reach an advanced understanding of the topic. Showing commitment to expanding your skills as a researcher never goes unrewarded, so make sure that you are finding a few texts that you didn’t discuss in seminars. An easy way to bulk up your reading list is checking the bibliography of books that you’re reading, as well as using Google Scholar to hunt up some newer articles using key words. In terms of primary sources, ask your lecturer if they have anything to share, and where their resources have come from.

A lengthy post this time around, but I wanted to be thorough to give you the best chances of success. A key element is always leaving yourself enough time in the writing process to sit down and critique your work, so try to factor this in when you’re planning everything. When I spent time doing the things I’ve mentioned, I found that my results begun to creep upwards. It’s all about developing as a researcher and a writer, so it’s a process that happened gradually for me, rather than a big jump to success. If you take anything away from this blog, it’s that there’s no magic formula to writing a good piece of history coursework, and there’s a lot of work involved that you have to be prepared to put in if you want the best results.

Happy studying!