Academic Tips and Tricks

All the help you need for good essay writing


A note on ‘et al.’

Using et al. is a really good way to reference multi-authored books. It is Latin for ‘and others’ so a reference for this book:

Biber, D., Conrad, S. and Reppen, R. (1998) Corpus Linguistics: Investigating Language Structure and Use, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Could be referenced in text as (Biber et al.: 1998).

There are just two important things to remember:

  1. You MUST list all the authors in your bibliography reference
  2. You need to remember that if you’re writing about what the authors of a multi-authored book have said, remember you need to use plural verb forms. E.g. Biber et al. state that…, not Biber et al states. Biber et al. discuss, not Biber et al. discusses. This can be hard to remember, so try to say in your head whenever you use ‘et al.’ “and others” that way you’ll get the verbs right. You wouldn’t write Biber and others hypothesises – you’d write Biber and others hypothesise.

Leave a comment

Tips and Tricks 15: Structure

I recently asked via social media what posts people would like to see relating to writing and academia and a friend of mine made this very good point:

“I often find that despite the purpose of papers being to present research or ideas people… often miss the point that the paper still has to hook people in and the chapters have to connect to one another.”

It just so happens that I was talking to an old tutor of mine the other day and he was telling me that every year he presents a seminar to new PhD candidates on PhD structure, and he told me the following:

“If I could just tell them to meditate for an hour on structure, I would”

Essentially, he did not want students to constrain their thinking into an idea such as “a PhD must have 6 chapters” or “I have read a lot of other PhDs and they were always structured this way”. I think, for a really long document like a Dissertation or thesis structure is paramount, as my friend said, you have to hook the reader. However, the structure should reflect your content, if your article/thesis/dissertation feels like it divides nicely into three parts, that’s fine, as is ten smaller chapters. Working out the divides is fairly simple, for example, my MA dissertations was structured in the following way:

  • Initially, three short sections, my abstract, introduction and aims. All three of these are REALLY important for initially engaging a reader, so I will go over them in more detail in my next blog entry.
  • Methodology – how I collected my data, my analysis methods, any ethical problems etc.
  • Literature review – overview of existing literature, split into categories based on its specific focus
  • Analysis – split into several sections based on different analysis approaches, statistical analyses and detailed observations
  • Conclusions
  • Appendices – this contained things like permission forms, additional non-essential data statistics, data transcripts etc.
  • Bibliography

As you can see from the above, each ‘chapter’ has an overall theme, and is then split into smaller sections each dealing with something specific. It is useful in long documents to make sure the reader has cues as to the direction you are taking, for example, adding lines such as ‘in the next chapter, I will examine the interview data in detail’ or ‘ethical problems are explained in more detail in chapter 5, page 36’ these help the reader orient themselves within the document as a whole, and let them know that information which hasn’t been covered yet is going to be covered later.

For more ideas, please read my other blog entries on how to start an essay and how to structure paragraphs.


Tips and Tricks 13: Dashes vs. Hyphens

Ok, this is something I’m increasingly seeing done wrong in essays, so this will just be a very quick reminder of the difference between a hyphen and a dash.

Hyphens connect words together, phrases such as face-to-face have hyphens, you can also hyphenate non-standard phrases e.g. ‘that funny head-floating-above-your-body feeling’ to show that you mean the phrase to be taken as a whole as a single entity which English does not have a singular word to describe.

Dashes separate, they can be used grammatically like commas – for example in the middle of a sentence – to break the text in the same way commas would. However, dashes by their nature (as Grammar Girl states) draw attention to the part of the sentence set aside by them. The quick and dirty difference between parenthesis, commas and dashes, as stated by Grammar Girl is the following:

Use parentheses when you want to enclose something that is incidental to the sentence, something that is background or almost unnecessary.

Use dashes when you want to enclose or set off something that deserves a lot of attention, is meant to interrupt your sentence, or already has commas or parentheses in it.

Use commas to enclose things that belong firmly in the flow of your sentence.

These are some examples of INCORRECT usage

The cats were different breeds:- Siamese, Persian and Manx.

Do not use a hyphen after a colon.

I went to a party- it was at Linda’s house- and I stayed all night.

Dashes should never connect to the surrounding text, they should have a gap either side

All I wanted was a face- to- face- talk with him.

Hyphens should always connect all the words in a phrase and should never have gaps between them.

Microsoft Word is very helpful in differentiating dashes and hyphens, when a dash is detected (because you have used the hyphen key, but left gaps either side of the hyphen) it will aromatically elongate the dash to make it more obvious, like so:

Word is rather clever – it can detect dashes because it can see the gaps. As you can see, hyphenated phrases such as face-to-face have shorter marks.


How to get started on an Essay

One problem a lot of people seem to have with essays is actually getting started, so I’m going to give you some tips on how to do this – what tips are useful for you will be dependent on what problem you have, is it simply inertia? Simply not knowing the first words that should go on the page? Not even being able to think of a topic? – If you have any of these problems, this entry is for you.


1. Know Your Data

If you’re doing the kind of essay which is data based (as most are) make sure you know your data inside out. What’s interesting about your data? What’s unusual about it? How does it connect to other research within your discipline? Writing down the answers to these questions – or talking your data over with a willing friend can really help solidify your ideas about your data and this can help form your essay. If you’re not able to answer the three simple questions above, you’re not ready to write. Make sure you analyse your data with all the tools available, and if you simply can’t make head or tail of what you’ve got, take your data, and any opinions you have about it to your tutor or academic skills helper and get them to talk over it with you.


2. Write the Intro First

Personally, I’ve never found this easy, and prefer to write an essay in bits rather than from start to finish, but for many people having a game plan helps to form the essay. Like knowing your data, writing your intro first can really help consolidate your thoughts. A good intro should briefly outline the following:

  • What the essay is about
  • What your data is
  • The aims of the essay
  • (Possibly) how it contributes to any existing research

Honestly, I always found introductions really challenging, so here is a good article on how to write one:

One thing about writing the intro first, which I can’t stress enough, is don’t try to follow it rigidly. Normally, the intro is written last, for good reason – because by that point you know where your essay is going, but writing it first can be like using an essay plan or guide, just don’t worry if your argument evolves as you write, the introduction can always be re-written.


3. Create ‘PQC’ Paragraphs and Fill in the Blanks

This is my preferred method when I’m really stuck (look at my paragraphing entry for a description of PQC). You might have some really good ideas about a topic, but not be able to form them into a cohesive structure right now. A great way to start to do this is to gather relevant quotes and excerpts from your data and just write little paragraphs. Get all your random thoughts down first, then see if you can categorise them. Once you can see which paragraphs have a common theme, just fill in the gaps until they form a cohesive argument.

One warning – this is not a last minute method (leaving aside the fact you should NEVER be writing a last minute essay anyway) – what I mean is this will require a lot of proofreading and smoothing, an essay formed like this and left without editing is a horrible Frankenstein’s monster of a thing. Make sure it flows. Sometimes I even begin writing using this method and find that my thoughts have got more sorted out as I write, then I’m able to start in a more logical way building up topics from start to finish.


4. Use Non-Academic Sources

In your essay you shouldn’t be quoting from non-academic sources such as popular science books, Wikipedia, etc. but if you’re really struggling to grasp a complicated subject then use these sources to get a basic understanding of what you’re writing. After reading a few easily-understandable sources try writing down what you’ve read in your own words. You’ll need to find academic references for any claims you make later, but for now at least you have words on the page.


5. The Classic Essay-Plan

This one will be brief. Everyone gets taught the essay plan as part of their GCSEs. Though it’s obvious, just brainstorming the topic, jotting down your ideas and writing up a few ideas for quotable sources can be a good first step in getting your thoughts sorted.


6. Think of a Title

Yes, this one’s obvious, but if your problem is that you haven’t actually decided what to write about yet then making that decision is the most important step. Many people are given essay titles, but suppose you have a completely open-ended assignment, such as a dissertation, how do you decide what to write on? Here are a few tips on finding a subject:

  • Go through old projects and essays and see which subjects interested you the most and/or gave you the best grades and do a variation/expansion on one of those – if you expand on your previous research you might even get to quote yourself, which is really fun!
  • Ask friends and family for ideas. I was surprised when family members who knew the least about my subject gave me some of the most interesting ideas – sometimes a bit of ignorance is a great way of getting some outside-the-box thinking as it’s easy to become blinkered when a subject is all you’ve studied for several years.
  • If you have a vague idea of a subject you’d like to research, read around that subject, or experiment with combining it with another related discipline – you might be able to find an interesting and under-researched niche.
  • If you’ve exhausted all your other options – ask your tutor, they may have some bright ideas or be able to let you read some previous student essays for inspiration.
  • If in doubt, choose a subject that may be useful for a future job – something that relates to a research post, a postgrad course or a specific industry you want to go into, being a specialist in that field already may give you the edge.


I hope this helps, if you have a problem which none of my suggestions seem to solve, post a comment and I’ll do my best to help.

1 Comment

#ucasps – Tips for University Personal Statement


When I used to work as a Student Ambassador we sat through an excellent presentation on how to make your University application personal statement really memorable. The presentation, given by The University of Huddersfield’s Jodie Gonzalez of the Schools and Colleges Liaison Team gave the following tips:

  • Statement must be clear and concise –  there is a maximum size of 47 lines, 4,000 characters (including spaces)
  • Precision and relevance is important, especially if you’ve applied for several different courses, one statement must fit all course choices as each institution will see the same personal statement
  • Don’t mention individual institutions by name, saying “I really want to study at Westminster” will make the other Universities who receive your application know they are not your first choice
  • Spelling, punctuation and grammar should be perfect. get it proofread!
  • Be honest and truthful, but cast your experiences in a good light, there is no point saying “I have a tendency to fall asleep in class” – no one will benefit from this kind of honesty!
  • Make sure the statement is your own work and avoid generic statements such as “I like to socialise” – really? who doesn’t?

Surprisingly, seven years later I still have a copy of my own personal statement. I have pasted it below as it is a fairly good example of something personal which reflected my personality and interests at the time (though I can’t promise it’s free from spelling or grammatical errors!)

Written September 2005 (wow, now I feel old!)

I have chosen Language and Linguistics because of a life long love of the English language and a desire to learn about a subject that has interested me for many years, and will hopefully lead to a job in teaching at sixth form or university level. I became interested specifically in linguistics before starting my AS level course after reading ‘Mother Tongue’ by Bill Bryson. Since then I have read several other books on linguistics including ‘The Adventure of English’ by Melvyn Bragg, ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’ by Lynne Truss and ‘The English Language’ by David Crystal. The AS level course has given me a keen interest in etymology, grammar and child language acquisition, and I have always been a dedicated reader and writer.   

However, my love of language is not limited solely to English, I also love German and have kept in regular contact with two German pen-friends for over two years, to whom I write in German. This, and my two German exchange trips, have not only given me an insight into German culture, but also enabled me to discover interesting linguistic parallels between German and English.

My positive attitude to work and independent nature make me a good candidate for university. I have worked in a German and an English primary school, improving my teamwork, communication skills and organisation greatly. Two German exchange trips have given me the confidence to communicate with strangers. It also required me to keep up to date with schoolwork whilst taking on the challenge of living with a foreign family. I currently work part-time for four hours weekly promoting shop floor sales and serving customers at Woolworths. As a trustworthy and friendly person, I am also a valuable babysitter, which I do for an average five hours per week. This has improved my ability to remain calm in a crisis, to handle responsibility and, above all, to be polite and punctual.   

Despite a demanding workload, I took an extra course in Spanish for the duration of my GCSEs, working after school once a week. I managed to achieve a grade C. I have also participated twice in TES Newsday, which involved writing a newspaper in one day. I had to both write and edit articles. Due to my good word-processing skills I also had to format most of the pages and teach others on the team how to use Microsoft Word and Publisher effectively. I thoroughly enjoyed the buzz of working under pressure.   

I enjoy a variety of activities such as guitar playing and art, but in my spare time reading is my biggest passion; I am a fan of Fantasy/Sci-Fi such as Phillip Pullman, David Eddings and Terry Pratchett, because books of this kind are often thought provoking, both scientifically and sometimes politically. I particularly enjoyed Phillip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy, which I found challenged my ideas about people, love and religion. On the other hand, I also enjoy reading classics such as Bronte and Dickens, not only because they are so well written, but because I also enjoy discovering differences in the lexis and syntax between these and more modern novels. The historical content also fascinates me. I am dedicated to reading and memorising poems, and have built up quite a repertoire! I find poems help me to relax in times of stress or boredom.   

After leaving school I feel I will be ready for the bigger challenge of studying a subject in depth, I have much to offer the university and I know that I will gain much from the opportunities the university has to offer me. As I am willing to give this experience one hundred percent, I feel I will gain not only subject knowledge but also a real sense of achievement and many valuable life skills.

You may notice from this that I really didn’t have many hobbies, but what I hope I have managed to show is that even if what you have essentially done for the last 12/13 years is go to school, you can still manage to sound like an interesting person! In the interest of being honest, my ‘guitar playing’ lasted all of two months, and my ‘repertoire’ of memorised poems never numbered more than six – nevertheless, the inclusion of these activities (hopefully) made me a more interesting and diverse candidate.



Tips and Tricks 8: Paragraph Structure

For those of you who were educated in the UK, and paid attention in your GCSE English classes, this may sound obvious, however, I’m sure many of you had more important things on your minds at the age of fifteen and could use a refresher. This technique has never failed me, obviously you can elaborate on the basic structure to make more detailed and elegant arguments, but the standard three steps will work fine if you’re not very confident with essay writing.

The structure I’m referring to is known as PQC or PEE (Point, Quote, Comment / Point, Evidence, Explanation) – these are two acronyms for the same thing. First, the Point:
A statement about something such as:
(this is taken from an A-Level essay of mine on Phillip Larkin’s poetry)

Larkin’s Persona in many of his poems plays the part of a silent observer who is somewhat elitist in his views.

Next, the Quote or Evidence:
A statement from the text itself, or another legitimate source’s opinion of the text or theory in question:

Often the common people are portrayed as a uniform ‘crowd’ who have petty ‘desires’ such as ‘cheap suits, red kitchen ware’ they are a ‘cut-price crowd’, every wife is ‘grim’ and ‘head-scarfed’, and every mother ‘loud and fat’ in ‘nylon gloves and jewellery substitutes’.

Finally, the Comment or Explanation:

an expansion on the point and the quote saying how the two relate to one another and, crucially, the reason the point is relevant to the essay as a whole.

This gives the people other than Larkin’s persona a total uniformity, they are ‘crowds, colourless and careworn’ they have no distinguishing features. A few simple adjectives sums up entire cities of people, this gives Larkin’s persona an elevated stance and makes him seem arrogant and disapproving of his fellow man, which makes him seem elitist.

In a University level academic essay, it is likely that examples from the text will not be enough on their own (as they are in my A Level example), so you will have to seek out secondary sources, or conduct primary research such as interviews to find opinions and analyses which support your own. The example above is also very simple in that it presents and solves a statement in just one paragraph, in a University-level essay lecturers look for more developed arguments, presenting further points which support the first one and building up the evidence, finally summing up at the end.

This can lead to extremely extensive sequences where the point, evidence and explanation are not even easily distinguishable, such as in this section from one of my third year essays about ideologies present in adverts for toiletries:

The slogan in each advert is where the most obvious ideologies can be found. The L’Oreal™ adverts both use the well-known slogan ‘because you’re worth it’. This slogan is very well constructed as it implies a variety of qualities about the product and the people who buy it. The double meaning of ‘worth’ implying both personal and financial value, states that the consumer as a person is valuable and that they deserve to use L’Oreal products. ‘Because you’re worth it’ contains a subordinating conjunction, making this an incomplete sentence. This slogan flouts the Gricean maxim of quantity by not giving enough information, generating the implicature ‘because you’re worth what?’, the listener is invited to fill in the second part of the clause, perhaps leading to a sentence such as “because you’re worth it, you should buy our products”. The ambiguous ‘it’ is also not assigned a proper referent, meaning that it can be applied to a variety of L’Oreal’s products. A valid inference one could make from the L’Oreal slogan, is that you, the consumer is only ‘worth’ as much as their product, which is the image L’Oreal wants to create as they market their products as being exclusive and expensive, exemplified by Pierce Brosnan and Jane Fonda who star in their advertisements. As Williamson states, ‘the product, which initially has no ‘meaning’, must be given value by a person or object which already has value to us’ (Williamson 1978:31), in other words, by having Brosnan and Fonda talking about L’Oreal products, the qualities of these people are associated with the products themselves, for example qualities such as success and attractiveness.

This kind of expanded evidence section is what will make your argument really persuasive, it uses multiple examples from the text, which are backed up by a reliable source (Williamson), which is correctly referenced using the Harvard system. This is by no means a perfect paragraph, it makes a few statements which do not seem to add to the discussion such as ‘‘Because you’re worth it’ contains a subordinating conjunction, making this an incomplete sentence’ – to which my response as a marker would be ‘so what?’ – (it’s easy to see flaws in your own writing in retrospect but it can be hard to see them at the time) try to make sure all your points actively contribute to the discussion, it isn’t enough to just reel off a set of facts about the data!

I hope this helps, any questions, just tweet me on @Lizmarsden_AS or use the comment space below. Let me know of any tips you’d find especially useful and I’ll do my best to provide.

Leave a comment

Tips and Tricks 6: Planning Ahead

Well, now that you’ve just started the second term of the academic year, you may have realised it pays to plan ahead… and if you haven’t worked that out yet, then you will come March – May time, which, I can promise you, will be hell if you haven’t planned for it!

So, here is my top tip:

At the very beginning of the year (or now, better late than never!), get out all the module handbooks and write down all your deadlines for the year, plus the module they’re for, their word count and their weighting. This way you can plan for which essays to do first. Sadly I didn’t save any of my tables set out like this on my computer, but I do have an excel diary from my third year which will show you how tight the deadlines can be (yellow squares are deadlines, numbers in brackets denote word count):

If you find, as I found in my first year, that once you have written out all the deadlines there appears to be a cluster which just isn’t humanly possible to accomplish (I found I had over 10,000 words to hand in in a week – which as a first year is completely crazy!) – you may find that your tutors haven’t actually communicated between themselves on deadlines. With my crazy cluster I approached my favourite tutor in a panic, and she agreed the amount was crazy, and within a week had talked to the other tutors and had a few of the deadlines moved. But if I hadn’t noticed, the cluster would probably have remained.

So check your deadlines, prioritise the most heavily weighted and/or most difficult essays, and start work well in advance. As I have said before, it really REALLY helps if, when writing time comes, you have done all the required reading and have it all written out in note form ready to go. Seriously. It’s worth taking the time over.