Academic Tips and Tricks

All the help you need for good essay writing


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 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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Learn Your Latin

You might notice in your reading that a lot of old-school (or in some cases just plain pretentious…) academics like to scatter their work with Latin (and French) phrases and acronyms. In some cases the Latin phrase really is the most pithy and exact way to get your point across, and sometimes they’re just unnecessary. However, you will encounter them, and if the text is recommended or compulsory reading you’ll have to get to grips with Latin just as you would any other discipline-specific terminology. You can also use them in your own writing, but never do this just to try to sound more intelligent, trust me, your tutors will see right through that.

So here’s a quick Latin guide for some frequently encountered terms:

  • i.e. and e.g.

These two Latin abbreviations (standing for id est and exempli gratia) are often confused. i.e. means ‘in essence’ or ‘in other words’ and e.g. means ‘for example’. Here are the examples Grammar Girl uses for clarification:

Squiggly loves watching old cartoons (e.g., DuckTales and Tugboat Mickey). The words following e.g. are examples, so you know that these are just some of the old cartoons that Squiggly enjoys.

Squiggly loves watching Donald Duck’s nephews (i.e., Huey, Dewey, and Louie). The words following i.e. provide clarification: they tell you the names of Donald Duck’s three nephews.

  • par exemple – this is not Latin, it’s French, but I include it here because it’s yet another way to say ‘for example’
  • a priori – this one is actually useful as it’s a very succinct was of expressing a tricky concept. it means ‘from what comes first’ – it means something not supported by factual study or personal experience in the physical world. It means that something is a deduction – something that exists in the mind. Here is a quote from Wikipedia describing a priori reasoning:

Galen Strawson has stated that an a priori argument is one in which “you can see that it is true just lying on your couch. You don’t have to get up off your couch and go outside and examine the way things are in the physical world. You don’t have to do any science.”sic – this is a really important one you will need to know and use

  • sic – this is a really important one you will need to know and use. It means ‘so’ or ‘thus’ and is used predominantly in quotes to show where something incorrect or odd-looking appeared in the original quote – this shows you haven’t transcribed or copied something wrongly. It is inserted into quotes in square brackets like so: ‘he signed his name e. e. cummings [sic]’
  • per se – for lovers of South Park, this conjures up an undeniable image of vampire kids. However, it does actually have a meaning and a correct usage. per se means ‘fundamentally’, ‘of itself’, ‘in itself’, ‘inherently’. It’s often used to make mild negatives ‘it’s not illegal per se’ (it’s not fundamentally illegal, but it’s probably not advised) ‘I wouldn’t say that per se’ (I wouldn’t say exactly that, but I might say something similar).
  • vis-a-vis – (pronounced veez-ah-vee) – this is also French. It literally means face to face, but is often used in context to mean something like ‘in relation to’ or ‘compared with’. In this quote from it means ‘when compared to’:
Traveling by sea ferry offers certain benefits regarding personal comfort and transporting luggage vis-a-vis  air travel.
and in this one it literally means ‘opposite’:
They were now vis-à-vis the most famous painting in the Louvre.
  • fait accompli – this means ‘an accomplished fact’ or ‘a thing already done’:

The enemy’s defeat was a fait accompli long before the formal surrender.

  • vice versa – this is a very common phrase meaning ‘and the other way around’ e.g. she dislikes me, and vice versa – meaning ‘she dislikes me and I also dislike her’
  • bona fide – something presented in good faith, something truly authentic: ‘a bona fide example of William Shakespeare’s handwriting’
  • quasi – meaning ‘resembling’ or ‘having some of the features of’ – often used disparagingly almost the opposite of bona fide. For example ‘ she has written a bona fide scientific paper’ vs. ‘she has written a quasi-scientific paper’ (the first paper has all the rigor of proper scientific writing, the second is pretend or pseudo-scientific – perhaps it’s about lay-lines or homeopathy)
  • verbatim – ‘word for word’ a verbatim quote has no alterations or improvisations.
  • et alii – the full form of et al. meaning ‘and others’ used in Academic writing when a list of authors is longer than two, e.g. ‘Smith et al. (2009)’. When using this remember you’re talking about plural authors (not just Mr Smith) and always put the full list of authors in your bibliography. et al. should only be used for in-text references.
  • ad nauseam – literally means ‘until nausea’ and usually used figuratively to mean something that has been going on forever until everyone is sick of it.
  • ergo – is a direct substitute for ‘therefore’ ‘I think ergo I am’.
  • ad hoc – a thing put together quickly to fill a particular need

I hope this is useful and hasn’t gone on ad nauseam. The quotes used from Grammar Girl et al were all verbatim and hopefully have been supported by evidence as opposed to being a priori. I admit this was a fairly ad hoc entry vis-a-vis Latin terms and ergo I may have omitted some. If so let me know. And don’t do what I’ve just done; never use Latin when English will do!

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Noun-Verb agreement when using paired dashes, commas and parentheses

This might sound like a very complicated title, but it’s for a very simple problem.

“noun-verb agreement” is what you get when you conjugate verbs correctly depending on whether you have a plural or singular noun. Let me give an example:

‘The man’ is a singular noun, there is one man. So if you wanted to say ‘the man jumps’ you use the singular verb form ‘jumps’ not the plural form ‘jump’:

the man jumps

Similarly, if you have plural (more than one) men, you would use ‘jump’

the men jump

This initial problem is very like the one I explained when talking about referencing multiple authors by using ‘et al’ and what verb forms to use in this circumstance.

However, problems can occur when you start to use more complex sentences and it’s very easy to muddle up your verbs. For example, often what you’re trying to do with paired commas, paired dashes, or parenthesis is combine two simple sentences to make a point that contains additional information for supporting or clarifying the argument, but which is not essential to understanding the sentence itself, e.g. you might want to combine:

Most surveys generate a large amount of data


The National Student Survey generates a large amount of data

The problem here is you have a singular noun ‘the National Student Survey’ and a plural one ‘surveys’, and the two corresponding verb forms of ‘to generate’. So if you combined them like this:

Most surveys, such as the National Student Survey, **generate/generates** a large amount of data

Which form of ‘generate’ would you use?

The trick here is to imagine that the bit in between paired commas (or in parenthesis – or between paired dashes – )doesn’t exist, the verb should agree with the essential part of the sentence, not the additional part. So the verb here should be ‘generate’.

The same trick of ignoring the additional sentence part is also really useful for making sure your sentences are grammatically complete. Just don’t read additional parts and make sure what’s left still makes sense.

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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…


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…


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’.


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.


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My Proofreading Mission Statement

I am very aware that anyone who has written a thesis, a dissertation, or a journal article has worked long and hard on their work (doubly so if they are a non-native speaker of English) and therefore is very attached to it. I also know that deep down everyone wants me to say “your work is perfect and has no errors”. Unfortunately, this is never the case and I inevitably have to correct something. Therefore I do not want this process of correction to feel like a ‘hack-and-slash’; I don’t want to butcher people’s work; I want to nurture it. I don’t want people to get their work back and think “this doesn’t sound like me, I didn’t write this”, I want them to think “this is my work, but even better”. Therefore I work very hard to keep the work in the original style of the writer. I try not to replace words just on my personal judgement of ‘how I would have written it’ but only where the word will correct/improve the piece (unless I have been specifically told by a client “I feel I use the same word too often; can you make my writing less repetitive?”). If I can make a sentence better simply by rearranging the components rather than adding/deleting words, then I will. Likewise, if my client likes to use long, complex sentences I won’t split them up into smaller sentences unless they are so long and complex they impair the reader’s comprehension, and ditto those who use many short sentences; I won’t join them together unless the stop-start nature is impairing the reader’s understanding of the wider point.

Ultimately, there are two people I want to please with any given piece: The original writer and the ultimate reader(s). Therefore I aim to keep the work as true as possible to the original whilst improving its accessibility so it can get as wide an audience as possible.