First in a series of blogs related to study skills.
Looking back at my own time at school and the apparent assumption that we would somehow learn academic writing by osmosis, it often strikes me as ironic that I now spend part of each week during term time supporting university students develop these skills.
Where to start?
I’ve written before about how we learn to write and techniques that can support developing writers, so you may want to read that first if this blog is too much for now.
Although this is explained here relating primarily to academic writing at school or university, the principles are of course transferable to report-writing for work. In all cases, do consult departmental guidelines – your school, college or company may provide you with an easy to follow step-by-step ‘recipe’ that you can adapt for most writing requirements.
Sketch out your plan: use a mind-map, hand-written or typed notes or Outline View – imagine the skeleton of your essay in Word (other programs are available), whatever works for you. It will help you to remember all of the important points you want to include. It will also help you to sort through your ideas and decide what order to write them in.
Of course, these notes can be made free-hand, and it’s a good idea to develop skills here so that they can be put into practice in exam conditions, but you may find the flexibility of an app to be game-changing. There are lots of software options, from free through cheap to eye-wateringly expensive. As you might expect, I’d recommend starting with free versions and free trials to find out what works best for you before forking out…
For PC (Windows) users, there’s a brilliant FREE offering from CALL Scotland in the form of MyStudyBar, that includes (to start with) a mind-mapping tool as well as text readers, typing apps, speech to text, an onscreen reading ruler, coloured on-screen overlays, font customisers, the list goes on. It can be downloaded at /www.callscotland.org.uk/mystudybar/
This must introduce the key point of your essay, as well as indicating the route you are going to take through your essay, and what you plan to prove. It can be helpful to begin to write this as part of the planning exercise. For an assignment that needs to be handed in, it can be helpful to revise the introduction when you have finished your essay, making sure that it both reflects and sign-posts the content you have covered. (In an exam, you may not have time or space on the paper to go back and revise this)
Try to start with a sentence that both grabs your reader’s attention and introduces the topic. You might then offer a very brief and basic outline of issues you will consider. So you could give a very brief ‘roadmap’ of the path you will take to deal with the subject. It is acceptable to say things like:
Starting with ……, I will consider …… and its impact on …….
Another way to write this paragraph could be to give more information of a more general nature, as you will be going into detail in the main body of your piece.
You may want to write this first, as a sort of essay plan, but you will need to come back to it at the end and ensure that you have covered everything in the intro, and that the main (bare bones of) points you have covered are sign-posted in the intro. OR you may feel you have enough of a plan already and decide to write this at the very end. The introduction does not need its own subheading.
Your introduction should include your thesis statement, where you say what your point or argument is. Try find a balance between showing that you are going to answer the assignment question and sparking your reader’s interest.
Your next section will need to both define the topic and explain your rationale. You could write it under the subheading “rationale”. This will essentially be the definition itself and a reworking/updating of what you have already put into the proposal, if you had to submit one.
Sentences and Paragraphs
Try not to write very long sentences. Re-read your work. If a sentence can be shortened, or split into two or three simpler, clearer sentences without losing the point of your argument, then it’s usually a good idea to do just that. Where possible, each paragraph should cover one point, and be about 5 sentences long.
- Your point and evidence/reference to support your point
- An opposing view (reference)
- Reference/evidence to refute the counterpoint
- QED – proving, or at least supporting your point
- A linking idea to the next paragraph, so that your work flows.
This is not set in stone – a paragraph change should also mark a change in your writing, so if you haven’t finished covering your point, don’t simply start a new paragraph. At the same time, try not to pepper too many ideas into one paragraph.
Use of headings is not always necessary, but it can be helpful for assignments of 1000+ words. Sub-headings can help you follow your plan and keep you to the point. They can be a good way to signpost your reader (marker). One or two words should usually be enough. It is not necessary to give every paragraph a heading.
Another way to signpost your reader is to use certain words to link ideas, e.g.
It can be especially useful when you want to show balance between opposing points, e.g.
- Although it has been known for centuries, it was only when…
- Use of mobile phones while driving is illegal; however, many people…
It can be tempting to use an online thesaurus to find synonyms to swap your simple language for longer words. Be careful – if you choose the wrong word you may alter entirely the meaning of what you write. It is far safer to stick to words you know. Bear in mind that a different word may require you to rewrite your sentence in a different order or change punctuation, e.g.
Peter preferred pickles but Jane liked plainer food.
Whereas Peter preferred pickles, Jane liked plainer food.
Peter preferred pickles; however, Jane liked plainer food.
This should sum up the evidence and the point(s) you have already made. Be careful not to copy your previous wording exactly. You should not introduce any new information at this stage, though you may state your own opinion, showing how you have proved your point. Essentially it’s a summary, tying together everything you have already discussed and proving your thesis statement. Try to keep it short but not trite…
Proofreading and editing
Use all of the tools at your disposal:
- run spellcheck and grammar check
- ask a study buddy to read it through
- use the text-to-speech facility so that you can listen to your essay and check for sense (if you do not have this built into your computer, remember the online options in Office 365 and Google Docs or MyStudyBar)
- leave it for a few hours or a day and re-read
- you may sometimes want to rewrite a section or re-order certain paragraphs to make your argument flow
Most assignments will have certain requirements or guidelines. Make sure your essay conforms to these. They may include instructions about
- font style and size
- line spacing
- justification of text
Don’t forget to include your name/number, module name/number, tutor’s name etc. in the header/footer of the document and/or on a cover sheet.