Academic Tips and Tricks

All the help you need for good essay writing


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Documents with multiple numbered sections

I won’t lie – I got help with this one from the nice people at http://answers.microsoft.com/en-us because I just couldn’t make it work! What I was wanting was this:

transcript line numbers1I needed transcripts starting at different line numbers (not using the numbered list method because this makes it harder to number each line) that didn’t create weird breaks in the text. How you do this is as follows:

transcript line numbers2

First, select only your transcript text by left clicking and dragging over it, then go to the page layout tab and click the drop-down box called ‘line numbers’, select ‘line numbering options…’. Then you should see this dialogue box… now bear with me, things get tricky here:

transcript line numbers3

When you click ‘line numbering options…’ the ‘Page Setup’ box should appear (I’ve labelled this box 1) Now you need to make sure the numbered steps are set to the selected options:

  1. Section start set to ‘continuous’
  2. Apply to ‘selected text’
  3. click ‘line numbers…’
  4. In ‘box 2’ aka Line Numbers, tick the ‘add line numbering’ checkbox
  5. Make sure numbering is set to ‘restart each section’ – in this dialogue box you can also set your numbering options, so you can have the numbered section start at ‘1’ or ’25’ or whatever you like.

Once you’ve done all this and clicked OK, you’ll probably notice that a page break has been created after the end of your transcript, meaning the text that was directly below it is now displayed on the next page, like this:

transcript line numbers4By clicking the button shown on the ‘home’ tab, you can see exactly what’s happened here. To get the text which has been pushed away back onto the same page as the rest of the text, we need to change the ‘Section Break (Next Page)’ into a ‘Section Break (Continuous)’ To do this, do the following:

transcript line numbers5

  1. Scroll down and click on the text which has been pushed to the next page
  2. Click the tiny ‘expand’ button in the corner of the ‘Page Setup’ box
  3. Make sure ‘Section Start’ is set to ‘continuous’

Then click ok. What you should now have is this (again seen with the formatting visible):

transcript line numbers6Now you can see the section break has been changed to continuous, and the text is displayed directly below the transcript. Now you can follow the steps above again to number the second transcript, in the example above you could start your next transcript at ‘7’ if it is a continuation of the first transcript, or any other number if it is a later part of the transcript, or a different one entirely.

Hope this helps!

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Making Beautiful Transcripts

Making a well formatted transcript is not only visually neat and pleasing, but it also solves any issues of not being able to tell who’s speaking, and any problems of correctly showing overlapping speech.

This is a very badly formatted transcript. It is hard to see the speakers’ names and it is not clear at a glance what is speech and what isn’t (square brackets here indicate overlap)

very bad transcript

The first step to fixing this problem is adding a tab stop between the speaker name and what they are saying, just press this key:

tab-key

Then you get this, which is a bit better, but still has text going directly under someone’s name, this is not ideal as if overlap occurs in this problem zone (red circle) it will be hard to transcribe clearly:

bad transcript

To fix this, you need to add a hanging indent. It can be done two ways, via the ‘paragraph’ menu on the home tab, or by manually using the ruler. I’m going to show the ruler method as using the ruler allows changes to be made really quickly and easily. First, make the ruler visible:

enable ruler

Go to view, tick ruler, and the ruler appears. Next, select your text and drag the hanging indent across:

hanging indent

Then your transcript should look like this, with a clear gap between speaker name and text:

final result

This is perfect for many uses, but if your transcript would benefit from having line numbers, you can enable them here:

line numbers

And you’re done 🙂


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Writing a Good Conclusion

Writing a conclusion is definitely something I’ve historically struggled with – I remember thinking “what can I write which isn’t just repeating what I’ve already said?”. I think now, hopefully, I’ve got the hang of it, so here are my top tips:

  • State why your essay matters, what have you shown/proved/discussed and why does it matter.
  • Highlight your ‘key’ points – remind the reader of your essay’s best bits so that they are left with an idea of what was the most meaningful part of your essay – especially stress any parts which were original, and/or parts which you feel need further research. However, do not attempt to summarise your entire essay.
  • Don’t criticise yourself or what you’ve done, don’t diminish your claims here, you should end on a positive note.
  • If you started the essay with a question, aim or hypothesis, state how you have met this objective.

As an example of an undergraduate level conclusion, here in the conclusion to my ‘language of humour’ essay on comic songs:

Incongruities seem to be the most important factor in the humour of my selection of Comic Songs. Whether the comedian is making unusual comparisons, flouting the genre of the song, or undermining expectations, he is always creating images and effects which surprise the audience. The listener can also find these songs repeatedly funny, as it is not necessarily the surprise of the incongruities that result in laughter, but the images they evoke and the sheer joy the audience has when appreciating how hard the comedian must have worked to construct the piece.

It’s not terrible, it is adequate, but not exceptional. It mainly serves only to highlight the key points, rather than showing a broader awareness of the impact the essay could have, or further studies which could be done of this type of data. However, without it, the essay would have stopped very abruptly, and despite its flaws, this conclusion does remind the reader of the main aims and findings.

As a further example, this is the conclusion to my Masters Dissertation, the essay was 15,000 words, so the conclusion is fairly lengthy, 90-150 words (as in the example above) will be long enough for most undergraduate essay conclusions (conclusion should make up 2.5-4% of the whole text). These longer conclusions to longer essays are MUCH easier to write as it is far more likely that you have made some original contribution to the discipline.

My MA dissertation looked at laughter from a Conversation Analytic perspective in a story-telling word game (STWG) – the game you play where in a group each participant says a word one-after-the-other to build up a story.

In conclusion, the literature on laughter is wide and varied; there is an eclectic mix of laughter types, defined by place within the conversation, manner of articulation and social function, and many studies which have addressed laughter within certain conversational topics or activity types. My study is one of relatively few working on multi-participant conversations, and has added a couple of potential new laughter types and locations to the growing list, such as laughter after silence, and a possible new category of laughter defined as ‘giddy’ laughter, which emerges from a conversational atmosphere of anticipation of humour, and a general prevalence of laughter particles encouraging participants to laugh for the sake of laughing, and for the joy of laughing together.

The growing usage of video as well as audio footage of conversations could have been very usefully applied to this data, especially when assessing what triggered laughter after periods of silence, as physical clues, as well as vocal ones, could have been assessed.

Findings in conflict situations were particularly interesting as many previous studies have stated that laughter often occurs more in these conversational environments than the surrounding talk. However, in my data this was absolutely not the case, with the conflict situations standing in contrast to a general surrounding of laughter. This may suggest that participants are altering their behaviour in conflict situations to whatever is the opposite of the conversational, or activity type’s established norm with regards to laughter, though this would need more investigation.

It is clear that within the STWG the participants are using laughter for a variety of conversational functions, though most often it is a signal of approval of a game-turn or turns. However, it is also used in the data as a response to game-turn based humour, teases, and occasionally to ease tension in situations of conflict; though, as has been noted, laughter in conflict sequences is not a regular occurrence in this data.

Overall, the STWG activity type is a rich resource for analysis, especially in the way preference organisation can be applied to it. There are also a number of interesting features which were beyond the scope of this investigation and would be suitable for further research such as:

  • Negotiation sequences relating to STWG rules, and who was to begin each story
  • Possible game-turn suggestions and how these are negotiated by the suggester and the rest of the group
  • STWG endings involving group evaluations of the activity as a whole

Though the laughter was the most immediately salient feature of the data, the topics above are worthy of research and would illuminate more about the STWG as an activity type, rather than laughter as whole.

This conclusion combines a refresher of what the essay achieved with emphasis on the most original/unusual points, with hypotheses about what these features showed and suggestions for how these points could be investigated further.

I hope these two very different conclusions help you write yours,

Any questions? Leave a comment below!


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Jargon & Terminology

I have a rather mixed relationship with jargon, as you can probably tell in my post about Latin. I absolutely believe that some jargon/specific terminology is essential, and that you should learn the terminology essential for your subject. It enables you to talk precisely about a specific thing without resorting to vague or lengthy descriptions or getting caught up in ambiguity.

For example, ‘egalitarianism’ is “the political belief in the equality of all people” – that’s a long sentence, or a short word. If this is a concept you need to talk about a lot, then it’s good to know the right word. The same goes for chemicals, ailments and processes, if you need to be succinct and specific, learn the terms.

However, you can certainly take this too far. In your academic studies you will certainly come across texts which you have to read with dictionary.com permanently on, and unless you’re reading something well above your current level of understanding, or something from a completely unfamiliar discipline (like me when I’m proofreading Economics PhDs) this should not happen. There is no excuse for making writing deliberately hard to understand, whether it’s by using loads of Latin, loads of jargon, or ridiculously complex sentences. It might make you feel big and clever, but if all but a few readers give up or feel excluded because of your writing style then you’ve failed as a writer.

It might be hard to know which terminology is needed and which is not, but my advice would be to only use terminology which is common to your discipline and easily understandable by others within your field, for example, terms like ‘primogeniture’ (first born child) or ‘proselytization’ (the process of converting someone from one faith to another) probably have no place in a linguistics paper – unless you’re focusing on these as a central issue – in which case, do your readers a favour and define your terms when you first use them.


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Using ‘Recently’

This will be a very short entry, but it’s an important point about an often-used word.

In many essays I encounter sentences such as:

Recent research shows…

or

According to a recent study…

While there is nothing wrong with them grammatically, there is a problem of reference – when exactly was ‘recently’? This is a particularly pertinent question for articles, papers and books to be published, disregarding the time it takes to get to print, what is someone in the future supposed to make of ‘recently’?

There is a very simple way to fix this, you just need to remind the reader that they may or may not be reading a contemporary source. For example, the sentences above can be altered like this:

Recent research (2012-2013) shows…

or

According to a recent study (at the time of writing)…

Either of these will remind the reader that you’re writing the piece from your perspective (in the past) not their perspective in the present. These two times may be a very short or a very long distance apart, so they need to know how to accurately interpret phrases like ‘recently’ and ‘in current research’.


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Define your Acronyms

When essay writing you should always define your acronyms, especially if you’re writing a thesis, dissertation or article that will be readily accessible to people other than your tutor. This is because fundamentally,

academia is about increasing knowledge, and the more accessible your work is, the more people’s knowledge you can increase

Your work will not only be accessed by those in your discipline. Imagine you’re a psychology student writing about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD is a relatively well-known acronym, but suppose a literature student was reading some Word War Two literature and wanted to know more about the science behind PTSD, even if they know this acronym there would be others hiding in the work they don’t know. They could Google them of course, but what happens when an acronym stands for two things, both of which are plausible in the context? E.g. I recently encountered the acronym IASs, which has several possible definitions:

  • Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies
  • International Accounting Standards
  • International Association for Shell and Spatial Structures
  • International Air Safety Summit

It’s very feasible you could encounter this acronym in a situation where it’s not possible to infer with 100% certainty which definition is meant in the context, so it’s crucial you define them.

Always make sure your work would be accessible to those who are non-experts in the field, or those who are international speakers of English and may not have vernacular knowledge of terms such as ‘IQ’ and you can’t go far wrong.


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How To Write a Cohesive Essay

One of the biggest problems with many of the essays I’ve read is a lack of general cohesion and structure – an essay can be both interesting and well-researched and still completely fail to answer the essay question or have any kind of cohesion.

So how do you keep your essay on topic?

My first tip would be, for every paragraph, or at least every section, refer back to your essay question, research aims or hypothesis and really think “is what I’m writing relevant to the question?”. This may sound obvious, but it’s very easy to find something tangential to your topic, which is still very interesting, and really want to put it in – it’s understandable, you want your tutor to understand that you’ve really engaged with the topic and to see all your observations and insights about it. If you really can’t restrain yourself, leave tangentially interesting things to the following areas:

  • Footnotes/endnotes
  • Appendices
  • Suggestions for further research

Do NOT put them in the main body of the essay.

It is also very tempting to try to fit in quotes from books which aren’t strictly relevant – this is tempting for the following reasons: to bulk up your reference list, to prove to your tutors how well-read you are, or because it’s just such a great quote you can’t not include it. Well in this case you can not include it, and should not include it. Lecturers know a not-strictly-relevant source when they see one and quotes that don’t quite fit are not going to enhance the flow of your essay.

The above should be gospel for specific sections and can be summarised as the following:

keep it relevant and leave out what isn’t relevant

But to keep the entire essay flowing well, read on.

Each section should have a logical link to the next section, and each paragraph should link to the next and express a point in its entirety. If you’re going to make a jump in topics, this requires a new section, e.g. to go from introducing your topic to talking about your research methodology you should use underlined headings to introduce and differentiate each section.

Essays should always start with an introduction and for longer essays, an abstract too. Each section within the essay should have a mini-introduction to help the reader know what to expect. Something as simple as “this section will review the current literature on X and describe how it relates to this study” is fine. The general layout, which works for most essay types, proceeds through the various sections in this order:

  1. Abstract and/or Introduction
  2. Research Aims/ Hypothesis
  3. Methodology – usually having several subsections, such as talking about ethics (if relevant) discussing data collection (or selection), and briefly looking at what method you’re using for data analysis.
  4. Literature Review
  5. Data Analysis – usually having several sections categorised by, for example, method of data collection, participant differences, different methods of analysis, looking at different aspects of the data, etc.
  6. Suggestions for improving the study, and the study’s limitations
  7. Conclusions
  8. Suggestions for further research
  9. Appendices
  10. Bibliography

Not all essays will need every section – and if you can think of any sections I have missed out, i.e. those applicable to more art-based, or science-based disciplines, please let me know below and I will modify these suggestions accordingly.

If you follow the above, you can’t go far wrong. Please also click the hyperlinks – these link to further blog entries exploring the highlighted subjects in more detail, e.g. writing a good introduction.

As always, for any other topics you want covered, please let me know.

Liz