Step-By-Step Suck Prevention

Alright, motherfarmers, let’s get this done! You’ll notice that a lot of organizing and preparation happen before you actually get around to writing a farming essay. If you’ve never done this kind of prep before, then it’s pretty safe to say that’s why you suck at writing. Tempting as it is to just get it over with, if you give this a shot, your grade will improve. (Well, probably. There’s not much I can do if you just don’t know what you’re talking about. But assuming you’ve put the necessary effort into the class, then yeah, this will boost your grade.)

1. Getting started: Don’t be stupid or boring.

A) As soon as you get the assignment instructions, read them. 

Start early. In my experience, the single most effective thing a student can do to improve their essay grade is starting early. But that doesn’t mean write the whole essay early–just do a little bit at a time, and you’ll have enough time to do it right. I tend to procrastinate on big assignments (this website is actually one big procrastination project for me), so I really do understand the temptation to put things off. But if your writing skills don’t hold up under the pressure of last-minute work, or you just like yourself and don’t want to make life harder than it needs to be, it’s a good idea to find out why you procrastinate and develop some strategies for getting started.

Find out what kind of assignment it is. You’ll farm yourself up automatically if you don’t follow instructions, so read the assignment prompt thoroughly. Here is a webpage that explains what instructions like “analyze” and “discuss” mean.

If you’re fresh out of high school, you might also want to take a second to find out how expectations in university differ from what you learned in high school. Sorry for the nasty surprise and all, but you’ve got some adjustments to make. This transition is a process, so you can use this guide to get the basics down pat, and then integrate more flexibility and creativity into your essays as your basic writing skills become second nature and your writer’s intuition gets stronger.

Once you know what you have to do, write up a checklist that you can use to double-check your essay when it’s done. Include things from the assignment prompt, such as “use ten peer-reviewed soures,” “include one article by Author X,” “develop a thesis,” or “discuss topic A.”

B) Pick a topic that isn’t boring. 

Your professor has probably given you some idea of what they want you to write about, either as a general theme or as a specific question. If you’ve got a specific question in hand, have a quick read of the subsection below so you know what a research question is for, and then skip to Step Two. If your professor has decided to torture you by handing you a general theme and making you come up with your own topic and research question, then steady on!

The benefits of choosing a specific topic related to your general theme are best explained by the following clip from a well-known documentary about essay-writing.

Luke could have fired his lasers willy-nilly in the Death Star’s general direction and hoped for the best. But the Death Star is huge and Luke only has so much ammunition. There’s no way for one rebel in one X-wing fighter to fire enough lasers at the Death Star that it actually blows up… unless he fires them at exactly the right spot. Luckily, the Rebel Alliance did their homework. They narrowed the target down to one, really specific place, so all Luke had to do was use his targeting scanners magic powers to make sure he hit it.

Likewise, one student can only fit so much information into one essay. You’ve got to narrow your focus and use The Force if you want to explode your professor. Or get a decent grade. Whatever.

The first few things that occur to you about your theme probably won’t be very interesting because they are the same first few things that occur to everybody else. Snoozefest. So let’s find you a topic that won’t make me die of boredom while I’m reading your essay.

So let’s make things interesting. At this stage, we’re brainstorming: generating as many ideas as possible, so we can choose the best of them later.

  • Take it apart. Whatever you’re studying did not just pop into being fully-formed and completely impenetrable. It’s made of many parts, and you might decide to study one of them in particular or the relationship between two or more of them.
  • Crash the nerd party. That is, review what other people have written about the same theme. You’ll find areas of consensus and debate, and even a few fringe positions. Then you just jump into the conversation, supporting, rejecting, or elaborating on the positions laid out in the literature.
  • Take a step to the left, tilt your head, and squint. What I mean is, look at it from another angle, or a few different angles if you’re feeling ambitious. In class, you’ve been studying this topic through the eyes of a learner. But with a couple of theory books and/or a decent melon-baller, you can look through any set of eyes you like.
  • Couchsurf in a new discipline. Interdisciplinary study is about finding people who screw around with the same ideas you do, but go about it in different ways. If you go this route, what you want to show your reader is what they can learn from the two (or more) disciplines together that they can’t learn from either one on its own.

If after brainstorming, you’re still struggling with originality, try reading some of these links about being original, knowing what you don’t know, and open-minded inquiry. Maybe you haven’t had a chance to learn, or you need to brush up on, the skill of interesting essay-writing. (Or maybe you’re just a really boring person. I’m sure you have a nice personality.)

C) Turn your topic into a research question.

Infographic by Milner Library at Illinois State U describing how to use the 5 Ws to develop a research topic and question.

This is where a lot of students stumble. It takes more than a specific topic to fuel a decent essay. Your research question helps you determine what information does or doesn’t belong in your essay by stating exactly what you’re trying to find out.

So, how do you come up with a question that doesn’t suck? The easiest way is to plug your topic into the Five Ws (and How… you’d think we’d have come up with a better acronym by now) and go with whatever question looks interesting and answerable.

Remember, just because you put a question mark at the end of a bunch of words doesn’t mean you’ve actually got a farming research question. “Why I don’t like this reading/author/idea/fact?” is not an acceptable research question. For one, it’s not a question. But more importantly, it’s not a question that research can answer. Your thoughts and feelings alone cannot change reality. You need evidence and ideas from beyond the limited scope of the inside of your own head.

“How many legs do dogs have?” is also not an acceptable research question because everybody already knows the farming answer. (It’s 4. Dogs have 4 legs.) It’s not a question that research is required to answer. Now, you might find yourself asking something like “BUT WHAT ABOUT THE DOGS THAT DON’T HAVE 4 LEGS?!? NOT ALL DOGS, SARAH. NOT. ALL. DOGS.” But if that’s you, then boy howdy, have I got handouts for you!

These examples get at the heart of the difference between asking a meaningfully complex research question and wasting everybody’s time because you think you’re cleverer than you are. The “Not all…” argument above is a form of the logical Fallacy of Division. That’s what you call it when someone dismisses a truth about what’s typical of a group if it’s not universally true of each member of the group (or when they assume a group tendency must be universally true of individuals). While you’re at it, take a look at “The Fallacy of Gray,” too. This essay reminds us that even in the most complex of worlds, we can still exercise fair discrimination and judgement. Meaningful complexity comes with a commitment to asking questions and drawing conclusions in good faith.

If you’ve mastered the skill of developing and answering simple questions (go you!), you can use the same 5W+H foundation to develop a more complex research question. The video below, which is actually about writing and not just a clip from Star Wars this time, will walk you through it, but the gist is to use who, what, when, and where to focus your research question, then use why (or how) to increase the depth and complexity of your investigation.

 

D) Get feedback. 

If you’re unsure about your topic, or if you just want a head start finding things to read, send your professor or TA a polite email telling them what you want to research and why you think it’s a good idea. Ask them for advice on pursuing the topic. Academics love giving advice (case in point: this website). Feel free to copy and paste this sample email, filling in your own details as necessary:

Dear [teacher],

I’m writing to ask for your advice about my essay topic. I was thinking of writing about [topic]. I think it will be interesting because [reason]. Does that sound like a good idea? Is there anything you think I should keep in mind while researching? Can you recommend any reading for this topic?

Thanks,

[your name]

Whatever advice they give you will probably be very helpful, and they will notice when grading that you have followed their advice.

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2. Research: Work smart, not hard.

As an undergraduate student researcher, you basically have two goals:

  1. Don’t make it more work than it has to be.
  2. Don’t farm it up.

To meet these goals, you have to plan your research process. You need good search terms, good scholarly sources, and notes you can use when you’re ready to write your essay.

A) Come up with search terms.

Start with Wikipedia, but don’t use Wikipedia as a source in your essayYou can use section headings, oft-repeated terms and other keywords from the Wikipedia article as search terms in a library database. (You can also use the section headings on Wikipedia to help you narrow your topic to one specific sub-topic.)

Your search terms will include:

  • The words you saw on Wikipedia
  • Synonyms for those words (e.g., if I were researching dogs, I might also search for “canines,” “puppies,” and “furry lumps of unqualified awesomeness”)
  • Words you see in the titles of journal articles once you start searching

B) Find scholarly sources for your research.

Use your library’s databases to search for peer-reviewed articles relevant to your topic. You can find out what databases to use by accessing your library’s research guide for the discipline you are researching in, or just go to the library and ask a librarian. As mentioned, academics LOVE giving advice, and when it comes to research, librarians know their ship. You can also use Google Scholar (but not regular Google!!) to search for relevant articles, if you’ve got a good handle on telling the difference between trustworthy and untrustworthy sources (assume you don’t and read the link, OK?).

For farm’s sake, please don’t just download and read the first articles that come up in your search results. Of the articles you find, some will be irrelevant and many will be incomprehensible to you. Judge the articles according to the following criteria:

  • Title: does it appear to be about whatever your topic is? If so, click through…
  • Abstract (a short summary of what the article is about): can you understand the language it’s written in? Are the author’s findings relevant to your research question? If so, download and read the article…
  • Bibliography (the list of sources the article cites): are there any other titles listed that might be useful to you? If so, locate, download and read those articles, too…

Stop searching when one of the following two things happens:

  1. You have enough articles to be able to write your paper, or
  2. You are finding more articles, but they all say the same thing (this is called saturation).

If your research results are saturated, it’s time to dig into those bibliographies and find some additional sources. Alternately, you could search for very recent articles by limiting your results to only the last couple of years. That should turn up some new insights.

Write your bibliography as you go, using Purdue OWL’s guide for APA, MLA or Chicago style citations.

C) Read a book.

Search your library’s catalogue for a book on your topic and read — at the very least — the introduction, conclusion and chapter most relevant to your research. You will get a much more nuanced understanding of your topic from a book than from a journal article, and the difference will show in your essay. That’s because books are longer, so the authors can really go off about their nerd passions.

D) Do not use Google. 

Do not just use Google to search. You will not find peer-reviewed sources, much of the information you do find will be wrong, and you will waste hours searching through thousands of results only to get an F for having unscholarly sources.

I repeat: use your library’s databases or Google Scholar, not regular motherfarming Google, to search. Do not use Google. Google will farm you up. Do not use Google.

E) Don’t be farming lazy.

“Scholarly sources” means books and articles. Not editorials, not book reviews. (And definitely not mainstream news articles.)

F) Draft while you read.

Once you have all your research sources collected, you need to actually farming read them.

While you’re reading, take notes that you will be able to copy and paste into your essay later. That way, by the time you’re done reading, you will have most of your essay drafted–just not in the right order yet. This is a different kind of reading than what you do when you’re surfing the web or reading for fun. You’re not doing it just for your own illumination. You’re doing it do you can write a paper, pass your farming course, and never think about it again. As you read, take notes that will help you write about the reading later.

And remember to read critically! Just because some farmer wrote it down doesn’t mean it’s the truth, the whole truth, and nothing both the truth. Ask yourself why you’re taking note of a particular piece of evidence. You need a better answer than “because it’s there.” Make sure you know what kind of evidence it is and whether it’s an effective way to make your case. Be especially careful with statistics.

Use your own farming words. This will help to protect you from accidental plagiarism, and you will get a better understanding of what you’re reading. If you just copy and paste chunks of the article into a .doc, then by the time you come back to it, you might not remember what you wrote vs. what you copied.

There are three kinds of notes that you want to take here. First, you can quickly paraphrase (repeat in different words) points of fact:

So-and-so (2007) argues that there are 34 different species of leprechaun (p. 51).

Next, you can directly quote from the article, making sure to integrate the quotation into your own prose as you go:

According to so-and-so (2007), “leprechauns will stab you in your sleep” (p. 53).

Notice that the quotation above is a part of a sentence that also contains my own words introducing the quote. Quotes should never just float there on their own. They need you to tell the reader what the farming point is.

Third, you can summarize a broader point of argument in the paper:

In her review of literature on magical creatures, so-and-so (2007) claims that leprechauns are real and offers us a description of their lifestyles and habitats.

Here is one of many great guides (the rest are linked under the “resources” tab) to using quotations, paraphrases and summaries effectively. It’s worth reading if you keep getting comments on your essays about your failure to “integrate evidence/quotes into your prose.” You can use these fill-in-the-blanks templates from They Say/I Say (which, btw, is an excellent writing textbook) to help you write about sources, too.

For students in English, Cultural Studies, Film Studies, Theatre Studies, or a similar discipline that deals with literary or artistic texts, you don’t want to take notes on stories, pictures, plays, or movies the same way you take notes on academic articles. See Mark McCutcheon’s page “Strategies for Close Reading and Critical Reflection” for instructions on how to read literary and cultural texts.

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3. Thesis statement: Have one.

The most important thing about the thesis statement is that you have to have one. Think of it as the point of your essay. It never hurts your grade to have a point, even on the rare occasions when it’s not strictly necessary, and it really hurts your grade to not have one when it’s expected of you. Imagine your professor squinting at your paper in confusing, pulling her hair out, and muttering to herself: “What’s your farming point?!?” Don’t be that student.

Also, note that we’re writing the thesis statement after doing the research. That’s because you should form ideas that reflect the evidence available, rather than cherry-picking evidence to support pre-existing ideas. Only donkey-holes do that!

A) Know what a thesis statement is and isn’t.

A thesis statement is what your essay argues: a concise statement of what you, as a writer, want me to take away from your essay. It’s not a statement of why you wrote the paper or how you found stuff out in your research–it’s a statement that tells me what your farming point is.

Take, for example, this draft thesis statement, written several years ago by a student in my class on “Sex Work and Sex Workers,” and used here with his permission:

“The thesis of this paper is to compare the health and safety implications between stripping and prostitution while highlighting the myths and realities of safety and health in the sex industry.”

The draft thesis above is more like a combination of a purpose or research question (what he wants to find out) and a method (how he is going to find it out). Let me explain:

  • The purpose or research question is: “What similarities or differences are there between health and safety issues in stripping and those in prostitution?”
  • The method is: “I’m going to compare health and safety issues in stripping with those in prostitution, and I’m going to compare the real occupational health and safety issues that exist to myths about health and safety in sex work.”

This is actually a good place to start, since you need to know what you’re trying to find out and how you’re going to find it out before you start making arguments about it. But we need to turn it into a real thesis.

B) Answer the farming question.

Remember all that work we put into developing a research question? Here’s where it pays off. Continuing with the example from above, the student’s  thesis is going to be a sentence that answers the research question. It could be something like:

“Occupational health and safety issues in prostitution and in stripping are very similar (or very different).”

“Among the similarities (or differences) between occupational health and safety issues in stripping and those in prostitution, X is particularly interesting because Y.”

“Comparing occupational health and safety issues between stripping and prostitution is illuminating because we learn X.”

“’Occupational health and safety’ is not an adequate framework for analyzing sex workers’ wellbeing because X.”

Now it’s your turn. Fill in the blanks to write the first draft of your thesis statement:

  • Question/purpose (what you wanted to find out):
  • Method (how you found out):
  • Thesis (answer the farming question):

We’ll re-use these sentences in the intro paragraph of our essay when we’re ready to put it all together.

D) Un-suck your thesis. 

The most important thing about the thesis is having one, but it still doesn’t hurt to have a good one. Here’s what makes for a good thesis statement:

  • Plausible: it’s not outlandish, impossible, or unlikely to be believed by a reasonable reader.
  • Arguable: it doesn’t state the obvious, but offers an argument that may or may not be true.
  • Provable: it’s an argument, not an opinion or a feeling. It can be supported with evidence.
  • Clear: it’s expressed in concise, easy-to-understand language.
  • Specific: its focus is narrow, stating exactly what your essay argues.

Use phrases that make your thesis statement stand out:

  • “In this essay, I argue…”
  • “My argument is…”
  • “I contend…”
  • “I reached the conclusion that…”

If you can’t use the first person voice (“‘I’ statements”) in your essay, then you’re stuck with somewhat more awkward phrasings:

  • “This essay demonstrates…”
  • “The argument this essay pursues is that…”
  • “The conclusion reached in this paper is…”
  • “It is shown that…”


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4. Outline: Do it. Or else.

A) Never ever ever ever ever skip this step: write an essay outline.

Oh, but it takes so long! Oh, but I just want to get started! Oh, but I’m a magical unicorn, and my essays, unlike every other student’s ever, make perfect sense if I just start typing them beginning to end.

NO.

If you want to get a decent grade on your essay, write a motherfarming outline. I promise I am not just inflicting it on you because I hate you. I make an outline for every essay I write. I made an outline for this guide. Sometimes I even make outlines for emails. Why? Because the outline is what keeps your essay from turning into a dumpster fire where you babble incoherently about Dog-knows-what for ten pages. Write. A. Motherfarming. Outline. Or. Else.

That video shows you one way to decide what to put in your essay, but there are a few other methods of organizing an argument you might want to check out, if that feels a bit flat to you.

B) Fill in this template.

Once you know what’s going in your outline, here’s a template you can fill in. You don’t have to follow it rigidly. It’s just a guide. Write the topic and transition sentences first, so they can help you stay on track as you add evidence, detail and discussion.

Each point of argument in your essay is like a mini-essay itself. You will state your point, explain the analytical or logical steps you take to support your point, and restate your point’s relevance to your thesis. Then you will walk the reader through the analytical or logical process behind your point of argument step by step, offering evidence and examples along the way.

When you copy and paste your notes into your outline, you’re going to add more of your own words, making a yummy little note sammich each time. It looks like this:

Scientists are still debating whether leprechauns from Ireland are the same species as Leprechauns from Ghana. So-and-so (2007) argues that there are 34 different species of leprechaun (p. 51). This is important because leprechauns want to band together to fight for universal rights, but many governments don’t recognize them as a single species.

My paraphrase, copied and pasted from above, is the meat of the sammich. But the reader needs to know the context (top bun) and relevance (bottom bun) of that fact, to be able to digest it. The context is the environment surrounding the fact you want to cite. The relevance is why it matters for your essay. Every single citation in your essay should be a part of one of these sammiches.

Remember that you are writing an outline of an argument, not a series of summaries of things that you read. Mix and match evidence from your readings based on the themes you choose for points of argument. 

Now that you’ve pasted your purpose, method, thesis, topic sentences, transition sentences and note sammiches into your outline, most of your writing is done. Score.


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5. Making sense: You have to do this, too.

A) Use the simplest language available to you to say exactly what you mean.

Sometimes students get it in their heads that what makes a writer scholarly is sounding scholarly. They listen to their professors or read academic literature and see folks using a lot of dense academic prose. So they figure that if they want a decent grade on their essay, they’d better do the same.

Don’t.

You don’t need to “sound smart.” We know you’re smart. That’s why you’re still here. You just need to be clear.

When it comes to writing a paper, write more or less the way you speak. Don’t use slang or swear words, of course (or some pearl-clutching academics might insist you edit them out of your farming essay guide), but use the same vocabulary you use on a daily basis.

Here’s a video about not sounding like a donkey when you write:

Being clear is more important than being stylish, even if you have to write

My thesis is [blah]. My first point is [blah]. Next I am going to discuss [blah]. In conclusion, [blah].

Does it sound like your essay was written by a stoned robot? Yes. Am I going to be left guessing what your thesis is? No. And that’s what matters.

B) Feel feelings and argue arguments.

Nothing irks me more than reading “I just feel that…” in a student paper. You are not feeling, sweetheart. You are arguing. Call it an argument and support it with evidence or find something else to talk about.

Here’s how to get this right:

  • If “I feel” is followed by “that,” then you are probably making an argument. Delete “feel” and use an arguing word. (<– possibly the most useful link you will ever click as a student.)
  • If “I feel” is followed by a feeling, then you are probably ok. But be sure to analyze the feeling. Why are you talking about your feelings in an academic paper? Are you sure it’s appropriate? What does it mean that you’re having that feeling and not another? Why might other people feel differently? How might they feel instead? How does your discussion of your feeling help to support your thesis? Here are some feeling words you can use, if appropriate.

Here are some more tips on how to use the “first person voice” without farming it all up.

E) Write actual sentences.

A complete sentence is composed of at least two elements: a subject (who or what is performing a particular action) and a verb (the action performed by the subject). But sentences are usually more complex than that. Some sentences will contain several dependent clauses, or parts of sentences that depend for their meaning on being attached to a complete sentence. Start with an active sentence structure (subject verbs object), then add complexity once you’ve communicated the basics.

Vagueness occurs when students choose words that don’t clearly tell the reader who or what is involved with their idea. Here are some key fixes:

  • If you’ve written “it,” “this,” “these” or “they,” try naming what you’re talking about instead, unless it doing so would sound weird and repetitive.
  • If you have used the passive voice by writing “the thing is verbed,” rewrite the phrase to include the name of whoever or whatever is doing the verbing. You can write either “the thing is verbed by so-and-so” or “so-and-so verbs the thing.” The latter is better.
  • You may find dangling modifiers in your writing. These are dependent clauses intended to describe one thing, but placed improperly so they end up decribing another. For example, you might write: “Hot and fresh, Sandeep enjoyed the coffee.” This implies that Sandeep is hot and fresh. Either we are in TMI territory with Sandeep, or you need to rewrite the sentence. You could try, instead, either “Hot and fresh, the coffee was enjoyed by Sandeep” or “Sandeep enjoyed the coffee, which was hot and fresh.”

D) Focused paragraphs are a beautiful thing.

A paragraph is a block of text that discusses a single thought, argument or idea. Like the larger essay that it belongs to, a paragraph has a particular structure, which depends somewhat on what the paragraph is intended to do. Some paragraphs introduce the essay or its sections and tell what is to come. Others make specific arguments, attempting to persuade readers that your ideas are correct. Others are transitional in nature, helping the reader make linkages between ideas as your essay moves from one topic or argument to the next. What all paragraphs have in common is that they focus on one topic or thought only, and they fit in to your essay by helping you to develop a cohesive argument, step by step.

The paragraph above is an example of a well-structured argumentative paragraph. You’ll notice it’s a bit longer than the paragraphs you’d use in an informal conversation. A typical argumentative paragraph will include the following elements:

  • Topic sentence: One sentence clearly stating what the paragraph is about.
  • Explanatory sentences: A few sentences giving the argument in detail. These sentences should walk the reader through the logical process behind the argument.
  • Evidence and examples: These sentences refer to scholarly sources or real world examples that back up the argument explained in the paragraph. They should show the logic of the argument at work. This is where you’ve pasted your note sammiches into your outline.
  • Transition: This final sentence wraps up the argument of the paragraph and links the thought or argument that you have just explained to the next paragraph in the essay.

With a bit of practice, good paragraphing will start to come naturally to you. But in the meantime, it’s OK to outline your paragraphs the way you do your essay, to make sure you get the structure right. Your essay might end up sounding a bit rigid, but it will make sense. And for the love of Dog, please make sense.


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6. Wrapping up: Find those farmups and fix them.

OK. All your words are on paper, they’re all in basically the right order, and they more or less support your thesis. Let’s wrap this up.

A) Grab your checklist.

Make sure you’ve followed all of the assignment instructions, used the right number of sources and answered the assignment prompt thoroughly.

B) Read your essay back to yourself, out loud.

This is where you’re going to catch most of the mistakes you made, like skipped words, phrases that don’t make sense, or sentences that go on forever. Pay attention to the structure of your paragraphs and sentences, and be on the lookout for the errors discussed in the section on making sense, above.

C) If your essay doesn’t make sense, do a reverse outline to fix it.

This part actually isn’t that hard. You don’t have to trash the whole essay–just copy and paste it into a coherent order.

D) Use the “Paramedic Method” to edit.

This is a very effective editing method that looks far more complicated than it is. Here’s a handout to walk you through it step by step.

The gist of it is to go through your essay sentence by sentence and revise each one for clarity. You’re going to do three basic things:

  • Eliminate unnecessary words (by deleting hedging phrases and using prepositions sparingly)
  • Convert “zombie nouns” back into verbs (see the video below)
  • Use active sentence structures (I already said this, but it’s worth double checking)

Click the link to the handout above and give this process a try. Your grade will thank you.

Right. Now. What’s a zombie noun? It’s a verb that’s been turned into a noun, and it’s eating your professor’s brain alive.

E) Put your name and a page number on each page.

F) Give your essay an interesting title.

And you’re done!

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5 comments

  1. Farming love this site. I am a not so good essay writer and have been working on putting my ideas together for my essay in WGST2P98 for days now and coming up flat. I debated on emailing you to ask for guidance but was hesitant in doing so until I read this site. Thanks for that! Being out of school for 5 years and not being a great essay writer when i was in school 5 years ago has made me very nervous about my writing to the point that i am getting road blocked every time I think it seems. Looking forward to your input.

  2. I am Candace and I must second what Candice said 🙂 I farming love this site! It’s a great guide for anyone struggling with academic writing. Thanks so much for sharing this with the world.

    1. Farming popular with Canda/ices of all kinds, cool!

      I’m really glad you found the site helpful. I hope you’ll keep coming back for more. I’ve got some neat improvements planned.

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