Academic Tips and Tricks

All the help you need for good essay writing


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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

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Tips and Tricks 16: How to write a good Abstract

An abstract is a short piece of text that you will find at the beginning of theses, dissertations, journal articles etc. It is a summary of the work which should instantly tell the reader the following:

  • What is the problem/ gap in existing knowledge that you are trying to solve/fill?
  • How did you go about it?
  • What was the result?
  • What are the implications of these results with reference to the problem/gap identified earlier?

If your work was a work of fiction, this would read like an epic spoiler, however, in the context of research it is very useful for the reader to be able to immediately identify what the work is about, whether this is because they are the person who is marking it, or whether they are someone looking to use your work in their own research.
Abstracts are often followed by a list of around 5 keywords stating the discipline and context in which the work is centered e.g. for a study on renewable energy focusing on domestic users the words might be “environmentally friendly technology, renewable power, solar energy, domestic architecture”.

This page has a great set of sample abstracts you can read which cover a few different disciplines.

The following are a list of things to avoid in a good abstract, taken from real-life abstracts I have read and/or edited:

  • Don’t make your abstract too long. The examples in the link above are pretty much perfect. None of the sections listed above need huge amounts of description, think short and sweet, try to get your point across in the minimum words possible.
  • Your abstract should be a unique piece of text, I have read abstracts cobbled together from sentences cut and pasted from the body of the essay, and while this can make for a good abstract, it is very obvious when one reads the full text that you’re seeing text you’ve read before. This creates a jarring déjà vu-like experience.

Below I have pasted my abstract from my MA thesis. I hate to keep using my own work as it really feels a bit like I’m plugging it, but I don’t have permission to use unpublished work from students, and I wanted to use something somewhat flawed.

I have highlighted sections from the abstract to show how it meets the criteria:

What was the problem? What was your method? What was the result? What are the wider implications?

Abstract

Following on from the growing body of literature examining laughter in specific institutional contexts, this essay seeks to examine a conversational activity falling somewhere between the norms of casual and institutional conversation. This paper looks at laughter in a specific verbal play activity, the Story-Telling Word Game, played by two groups of friends and family, a word-game played by participants co-constructing a story one word at a time. The data is a transcript of approximately 11,500 words comprising a total of five entire Story-Telling Word Games. Initially, the Story-Telling Word Game will be examined as an activity type, and responses to game-turns will be analysed in terms of preference, in order to gain a greater understanding of the Story-Telling Word Game, and to centre the laughter analyses within a frame of reference. Then certain laughter categories will be examined, specifically those occurring near or during game-turns, as opposed to turns-at-talk. This essay adds to the growing body of Conversation Analytic literature examining laughter in very specific contexts, and research that demonstrates that laughter is not always related to humour.

 

Keywords

Conversation analysis, laughter, humour, activity types, word games

This abstract has some problems to say the least, though it does fulfill the aims of not being to long and giving the reader some idea of what they’re about to read. This is how it could be improved:

Problem/gap identification: You could infer from the sentence in orange that ‘talk falling in the gap between casual and institutional’ has not been widely examined, but in an abstract this needs to be explicit. This abstract should state that there IS a gap and that this area is under-researched.

Method: This section isn’t too bad, it gives a good idea of what the data is and how it will be analysed, but fails to mention the main discipline the study will be based on, which was ‘conversation analysis’, it only mentions some more peripheral areas!

Results: This section is non-existent! I know, because I wrote it, that this study did have some interesting and atypical results and did identify some very under-researched types of laughter, and added a new category to the discipline.

Implications: This is weak, but not terrible. It shows what specific area of the discipline the dissertation adds to, but not the wider-reaching implications, such as suggestions for further study and the identification of under-researched laughter categories.

My best advice is to read a few example abstracts and try doing what I did to mine – find out which bits fulfill each criteria, and then do that to your own. If I had done this analysis two years ago when I submitted my abstract would have been much stronger.


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Tips and Tricks 5: Essay Formatting

To many of you, this may be obvious, but it is something that is so worth doing. Most of you probably receive a style-guide at the beginning of the academic year listing the standard essay format in which your tutors would like your work submitted. Obviously I can’t claim to know all your submission guidelines, and I suspect the vast majority of universities now have electronic submission, so some of these tips will be less relevant. However, all this aside, this will ensure your tutors do not get frustrated whilst reading your essay by something which is so easily remedied.

Formatting
These were my department’s guidelines, and should work well for most academic assignments:

  • Font: Times New Roman or Ariel, 12pt, black
  • Spacing: 1.5 – double
  • Margins: 1.5 – 2cm

Graphical assignments/art subjects will probably be more fluid in their presentation rules, but check first if in doubt.

Header
Always have one. This is especially paramount if you’re handing in a paper copy of your essay. And don’t forget, even if you use electronic submission many tutors will print out your work for archiving or just because they don’t like to mark assignments looking at a screen. The header should include:

  • Page numbers
  • Your name
  • Your tutor’s name
  • (optional) assignment title
  • (optional) your module name/code
  • (optional) your student ID number

All of these things make the assignment more clear and easy to read. They also make it easier to look back to the assignment and remember when and who it was written for.

Title Page
This should contain all the info in the header, plus all the optional points. It should be one full A4 sheet and in a larger font to make it clearer:

This is the title page of my MA dissertation, for standard assignments, the line about “dissertation submitted for the degree of…” does not need to be included.

Contents
For essays of 4000 words plus, a contents page can be very helpful, especially if you have a lot of headings and sub-headings, as you can see from the picture below, even very complicated essays can be easily understood if the contents page is clearly formatted:

As always, I hope this helps.

(Both example pages are taken from my MA dissertation, and are the intellectual property of myself, Elizabeth Marsden – though you may, of course, use the formatting and layout as inspiration in your own assignments if you wish).


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Tips and Tricks 4: Altering Quotes

Sometimes a quote just won’t be quite the perfect fit, maybe the tense is wrong, it’s too long, lacks appropriate emphasis, or it misses words which are needed to make it make sense out of context.

This is your guide on how to alter quotes correctly without plagiarising.

Adding words / Paraphrasing

This is a passage from one of my essays:
From a Pragmatic perspective, it is important that my recordings were taken under similar circumstances as ‘[Pragmatics] requires a consideration of how speakers organise what they want to say in accordance with who they’re talking to, where, when, and under what circumstances’ (Yule 1996:3).

Yule’s original wording was:
‘what do people mean in a particular context and how the context influences what is said requires a consideration of how speakers organize what they want to say in accordance with who they are talking to, where, when, and under what circumstances’

Here I have paraphrased ‘what do people mean in a particular context and how the context influences what is said’ to ‘pragmatics’. You have to know what you’re talking about before you attempt this kind of paraphrasing! Don’t alter so much you change the meaning.

Changing Tense

My example:
‘laugh invitations [can be] refused by recipients who overlap with talk that pursues topical talk’ (Holt 2010b:1)

The Original:
‘I then analyse excerpts where laugh invitations are refused by recipients who overlap with talk that pursues topical talk.’

Here I have changed the verb from ‘are’ to ‘can be’ in order to use the quote as back-up evidence in my essay.

Adding emphasis

If there are ever italics, bold text, all caps, or underlining in a quote, you must keep this original formatting, and should state after the quote in parentheses (italics original), (bold text original) etc.

However, you can alter the formatting to make a point, as I have done here with the extract I was analysing from To Kill a Mockingbird:

My example:
‘My toes touched trousers, a belt buckle, buttons, something I could not identify, a collar, and a face. A prickly stubble on the face told me it was not Jem’s. I smelled stale whisky’ (50) (my italics)

Here, I wanted to look at nouns, so used italics to highlight them, then stated (my italics) after the quote so that it was clear this emphasis was not original.

Cutting Words Out

My example:
as Glenn states: ‘People are more likely to laugh if others around them are laughing. In many… social environments, laughs beget laughs and laughter invites laughter (Glenn 2003:53)

The original:
‘people are more likely to laugh if others around them are laughing. In many, though not all, social environments, laughs beget laughs, and laughter invites laughter.’

Here I have removed the phrase ‘though not all’ to streamline the quote.

I hope this has been helpful, for any questions at all on quoting, please comment below.


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Tips and Tricks 3: Note Taking

I cannot stress how important it is to take copious and accurate notes. If a lecturer sets you reading, do it! It will save you so much time when it comes to writing essays, not just this year, but in the following years of study as well. Having a good body of well-ordered notes is extremely helpful.

But many people struggle to note-take effectively, and it took me most of my undergraduate degree to develop my technique, which I’m going to share with you now.

The first question to ask yourself is: typed notes, or handwritten? I started in my first and second year as a handwritten note-taker and gradually converted to typed, the main reason being that with typed notes you can search quickly and easily through many pages using the computer without having to do the job manually, like so:

Above you can see that a search for the word “Jefferson” (a linguist specialising in the analysis of conversation) has brought up a number of hits in my “Uni Stuff” folder, I could filter these further by adding more search terms, e.g. if I had a memory of Jefferson talking about transcription techniques, I could add in the appropriate keywords to find it. The benefits of this approach, as well as the speed, is the fact that you can search through multiple folders, so rather than searching through my handwritten note folders from six subjects individually, I am capable of searching every piece of note-taking from every discipline simultaneously.

However, handwriting notes has the following benefits:

  • It encourages you to really write your notes, not just copy and paste (if copying from a searchable digital document). This can also help you remember the content of the notes better.
  • Some people remember which note page they want to find by the colour pen they were using that day, or the paper etc. and find it harder to remember from uniform documents, which you would get from typing.
  • Some people just don’t like reading from computer screens

So if your typing or handwriting, here are some important tips:

  1. Put the full Harvard or Oxford reference as it would appear in a bibliography as the document title – this way quoting into an essay is easy and no details are missing which could potentially waste time or be difficult to find.
  2. Always note the page number the quote came from. This is imperative for both accurate referencing, and in case you need to re-visit that part of the text at a later date.
  3. Make every effort to ensure the text keeps its original format, e.g. make sure italics, bold font, capitalisation etc is preserved. On a sheet of typed notes it is relatively easy to format correctly, but in handwritten notes you will have to develop a code, as you may find it hard to write in bold or italic, mine was: single underline = italic font, double underline = bold font.

A handwritten note page should look something like this:

As you can see above, I have used my underline code to indicate bold text, I have noted page numbers in the margin, I have used a blue biro for the title so it would stand out more when I was scanning through pages of notes and I have used quote marks to differentiate between direct quotes and my own paraphrasing of the text. I have also spaced things out to make the document easier to scan – you can also make scan reading easier by using a highlighter to highlight key words or phrases. I have also formatted quotes as I would want them to appear in an essay, using square brackets [ ] to change the form of a word or add words where appropriate, and ellipses … to shorten the quote where needed.

My typed notes look much the same:

Again, page numbers are listed, the title is a correctly formatted Harvard reference, and direct quotes are distinguished from paraphrasing. There is one more useful technique shown here, I have used ^^ to show the beginning and end of a personal comment (here something I remembered from a lecture which illustrated the point made in the book), it is useful to differentiate personal comments from the main text as you would not wish to accidentally quote yourself and attribute it to someone else!

I hope this has been helpful, and not too involved.

Look out for new tips and tricks next week!


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Tips and Tricks 1: Quotations

This is the first entry in a Blog designed to give you tips and tricks for academic writing. Each Tip will be published in brief on Twitter: @LizMarsden_AS, and expanded on here. They will be a mixture of grammatical tips, ideas on construction/structure and help on note taking and referencing. I will aim to publish every fortnight.

Tip No. 1:

When quoting from another author never quote more than 100 words. Quotes of a sentence or less should be integrated in the text:

Gail Jefferson, Harvey Sacks and Emanuel Schegloff (1977, 1987) established laughter as a viable research option within CA, before this, laughter was regarded as ‘out-of-control activity and not… a phenomenon which is strongly structured in [its] occurrence, organisation and tasks’ (Warwick 1989:30)

As shown above, quotes can be shortened with the use of ellipses (…) and the structure can be changed using square brackets [ ] (keep reading the tips and tricks for more on brackets and ellipses).

Longer quotes should be separate from the main text, indented on either side and single-spaced (though the formatting options on this Blog do not allow me to show all the formatting):

Holt states in her paper about laughter in complaints:

In each [sequence] there appears to be nothing about prior turns that explicitly invites laughter. Rather, complainants are engaged in a multi-turn complaint that is escalated just prior to the laugh-response. By producing a laugh response, complaint recipients transform the trajectory by disengaging from the telling and move towards topic termination.
Holt 2011:3

If quoting as above, quote marks are not needed, it is enough that the text is set apart from the main body of the writing and is indented. The text should look something like this:

All passages are taken from my Masters Dissertation. They are in the Harvard referencing style. Keep watching the tips and tricks for future discussions on referencing