Academic Tips and Tricks

All the help you need for good essay writing


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Tips and Tricks 17: How to Write a Good Introduction

Writing an introduction can be very tricky, I certainly didn’t get the hang of it until at least the end of my first year at Uni – and I was on a very writing-heavy course. Introductions are at least as difficult to write as conclusions, and people who have difficulty with one will almost certainly struggle with the other too.

It’s probably easiest to write an introduction if you think about if from the reader’s perspective, and what they need to know to make sense of your analysis/assignment/essay. A good introduction should:

  1. Introduce the topic of the assignment
  2. Introduce what you’re going to analyse – are you looking at primary data, are you evaluating someone else’s tool/theory, are you summing up research on a particular topic
  3. State the type of argument, – is it a discussion, a critical analysis, a comparison, an analysis of primary data etc.

(the three points above may amount to only one sentence between them)

4.  Give some clue as to how the analysis will proceed, e.g. what specific features you will analyse (refer to your essay’s sub-headings or paragraph themes), what methodology you will be using, any really key theorem/tool you will be applying.

 

As in this fictional example

This essay will examine the difference in happiness levels between people who own dogs and those who own cats. This paper will use a qualitative method of analysis, and Smith’s (1994) seminal work ‘Cats vs. Dogs’ to investigate data from over 300 surveys undertaken in the Greater Manchester area. This essay will first analyse existing literature surrounding pet ownership, then move on to identify reasons for buying a pet, pet psychology and a pet’s affect on the human psyche.

 

Or this real one:

During the course of this essay I will be attempting a stylistic analysis of an excerpt from To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee to determine what techniques the author has used to achieve the effect of bewilderment and fright that pervades this extract. I will begin by making some general observations about the text, then do a detailed analysis using various techniques:

I will use Short’s ‘fingerprinting’ technique (1996:334) which uses the Ellegård Norm to determine the frequency of different word classes within the text. This technique should show any areas which are very deviant from the norm in style. The essay will also look at M. Halliday’s theory of transitivity (Simpson 2004:75) and apply it to the text by looking at the verbs in the text and categorising them into the six classes of verb identified by Halliday. The essay will then conclude with a look at speech and thought presentation.

 

A similar approach can be taken when writing conclusions, which I will describe in my next blog entry.


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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.


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Tips and Tricks 10: Saving and Organising

One of the most important things to do when you begin producing work for university is to make sure it’s properly saved and organised. It may sound obvious – but during my time both studying and working in a university I have lost count of the number of students crying over lost work due to computer malfunctions.

First, let’s talk about saving your work.

Firstly, make sure you save your work as your working – not just at the end of each session. Depending on which programs you’re using, this might just be a case of setting up an autosave, or you may have to remember to save at regular intervals. In most PC programs (I don’t know about Mac), pressing the CTRL key and S key simultaneously will save your work.

If you are using MS Word, you can change the autosave time here:

Get to this options panel by clicking the Office button (the round one in the top left) and selecting ‘word options’ which appears at the bottom of the pane.

If you’re using a Uni computer, then the autosave option is less useful, here you should get into the habit of pressing the quick save keys as you type (CTRL+S).

You should also always back up your work, whatever computer you’re using. This is essential, lack of backups + computer failure = hysterical crying students.

You have two options for backing up – making hard copies on a physical storage device, or using some form of web-based cloud computing. These both have advantages and disadvantages:

Hard Copies (USB pen drive, DVD, External Hard drive etc.)

Pros: you can work straight from a external hard drive or USB pen drive and it’s very quick to save to them, these can take a lot of data, using something like Windows 7 means backing up is quick, as the computer knows which documents you’ve edited and which you haven’t. Accessable anywhere – if you remember to bring it with you

Cons: You can break or lose any of these storage devices – of course, if you also have a copy of the document on your computer, this shouldn’t be a problem. The only time you might feasibly lose both your hard storage and computer copy is through a disaster like theft, flood or fire if the computer and external storage device are stored together.

Online Storage

Pros: accessable anywhere with internet access, unlosable, The easiest method is emailing documents to yourself; this is relatively fast and simple

Cons: some sites have an upload limit and will then charge for storage, uploading documents can take a long time. It is highly unlikely, but feasible that your data could be hacked.

So now you’ve got your data saved you ought to have it organised. This is important for everyone. Admittedly, if you are on a writing-based subject (Psychology, History, English, etc.) you can fairly easily ferret out a document from anywhere in your computer using the search feature, provided you can remember some of the content of that document. For image-based subjects (Graphics, Architecture, Fashion Design) there is no such quick fix, so having documents clearly labeled and in module-specific folders is a must.

Below you can see my Uni folder system with various subdivisions

A good system is having a folder for each year of university, each containing module-specific folders and having those subdivided again (for example, by lecturer) if that makes sense.

Please don’t neglect these very easy measures! They can make the difference between meeting a deadline and being capped at 40% for not being able to hand work in on time.


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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:

http://www.ehow.com/how_2192068_write-introduction-essay.html

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.