Settling in to the world of education, coursework and deadlines after some time away can be daunting. Whether it's been a long winter break or 10+ years away from the classroom, here are some tips to help get you started on your next written project.
Before you begin...
Do your reading! Not only will you need to read up on suitable references for your work, but being more generally well-read will also help make you a better writer by exposing you to different ideas and perspectives. This will also allow you to become familiar with wider terminology which can be great for your writing. You should be aiming for breadth and depth in your reading. Read widely and from a variety of professional and scholarly sources but also allow yourself enough time to read key pieces in detail.
Be organised - give yourself enough time. Not only for your sanity’s sake but because you’re more likely to produce high-quality work in short sessions over time rather than through trying to rush through it all in one or two sittings.
Think about your audience - you may well know which of your tutors is going to be reading and marking your work, but you should not be thinking of them as your audience - as this can lead to a less appropriate voice coming through in the way you write. Instead try to imagine that your reader is an intelligent individual with a superficial understanding of your discipline (that is considered to be common knowledge).
Structuring your work
We are all familiar with the standard format - introduction, main body and conclusion. In your introduction, you're looking to state the argument you're going to make, before developing that argument point by point through the main body of your work. Your conclusion will summarise and remind the reader what you have covered and how you have answered the question.
Something important to remember is that your introduction and conclusion should not make up more than 10% of the overall essay. You should be able to summarise your basic argument in no more than a couple of lines - it can be a useful exercise to try and do this before writing your piece of work. If you are unable to do so, perhaps your argument is not quite focused enough.
As for the main body, try to make sure you are grouping similar ideas together rather than jumping around. Each paragraph should be making just one main point. A useful exercise to test this after writing your first draft is to sum up the main point of each of your paragraphs in a short sentence, then look through this outline of your essay. If the flow of your writing doesn't seem logical or natural, then you know you need to look again at its structure.
Something to note at a postgraduate level is how you move away from the undergraduate essays you might be familiar with. Particularly if your course is a vocational or business course, you’re more likely to be asked to write reports. Take some time to think through the difference between writing genres and make sure your work is structured appropriately.
Avoid generalising at all costs. A rule of thumb to follow is if you’re not speaking about an indisputable fact that the reader would not question, make sure you back it up with a credible reference. This can be a published book, academic journal, or online articles (but of course be selective about which online sources you trust). Referencing your work is also how you signal to your marker that you’ve read around your topic and have sufficient knowledge and understanding to gain a high mark.
Referencing is also hugely important for avoiding plagiarism. Electronically submitted assignments are automatically scanned for signs of plagiarism, which if flagged can have severe consequences on your achievement for the piece of work or potentially the whole module or programme. That being said, be assured there is no need to panic as long as are vigilant with your referencing.
Check with your tutor if you're unsure of which referencing style to use and find more help with your referencing here.
While most grammatical rules are generally agreed upon, there are a few that can deviate and cause a bit of a stir. Whatever your opinion on the Oxford comma, American-English spelling, the split infinitive (or any other potentially ambiguous rules), your position is not hugely important in your academic writing. The key thing to remember (and that your tutors will spot if you do not take care) is consistency. Make sure you follow the same rules and structures throughout your piece of written work and if your institution has particular style guidelines, follow those.
The best way the proof-read an essay is with a fresh pair of eyes, but this doesn’t mean you need to find someone else who would be willing to critically read through your work. If you have the time, it can be really effective to walk away from your work for a couple of days or so before coming back to it to proof-read. This way you can distance yourself and read more like a stranger would read your writing, picking up on errors or potential misunderstandings.
It is also worth reading aloud, which may feel odd to do but this technique can often flag grammatical and structural errors that are much more difficult to spot on the page. If you read to the punctuation, it should be quite clear if your writing or argument does not ‘flow’.
Last quick tips
- Avoid using clichéd phrases
- Do not use contractions (don’t, won’t, there’s)
- If you are using an acronym (e.g. NATO), make sure you write it out in full the first time you use it (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation)
- Avoid passive voice - i.e. say "Einstein's theory" rather than "the theory that was formulated by Einstein"
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