Academic Tips and Tricks

All the help you need for good essay writing


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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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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 Dictionary.com 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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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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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 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.


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Tips and Tricks 11: How to Proofread Your Own Work (Or, How to Proofread Someone Else’s)

As a professional proofreader and writer people expect every bit of work I do to be absolutely word-perfect, but honestly, it isn’t. This isn’t because I’m bad at my job, on the contrary, I am able to pick up the most minute of mistakes in other people’s work, but I struggle with my own because I know what’s there – or rather, what my brain thinks is there. But don’t just take my word on how hard it is, read this lovely humorous blog illustrating the problems you can run into. This is why professional multi-million pound authors get proofread, not just to clean up story-lines, but to spot the mistakes they didn’t even know were there. So, how can you proofread your own work? As I have just illustrated, the best approach is to hand it over to your friend/parent/ anyone else with a good eye, and have them do it, but if you absolutely can’t avoid it, here are some tips to help you out.

My best advice is leave yourself time to do it, because to get something even close to perfect you need to read through it at least three times. If you construct your writing the way I do, then the first draft will be extremely rough. Proofread one is to put paragraphs in the right order, sort out sections of an essay (or book chapters, whatever it is you’re writing) and make sure it all makes sense and nothing has been missed out. Proofread two is to look through the reordered work and make sure everything flows well and there are no awkward sentences or dodgy/non-existent links between paragraphs. Of course, you can use your first and second proofreads to smooth out any spelling and grammatical issues you find along the way.

But proofread three is the crucial one, and the one I won’t get time to do on this blog entry because I don’t want to wait to get it online (so I apologise for any mistakes you find!). The third proofread should take place an absolute minimum of three days after the first two, and you must not revisit the work at all in the meantime. If you can, wait a week. Then go back to it. Hopefully by then you might have forgotten the exact details of what you wrote and your mind will be much more open to seeing mistakes; you won’t be reading what you think you know is there, but what actually is there.

If your proofreading someone else’s work, it should come to you having had the first, and probably the second, proofreading stages done already. No-one should be asking you to take a rough draft and turn it into something perfect, unless they simply want your opinion on a work in progress, but aren’t expecting you to actually correct anything. So if you’ve got a piece of work in a relatively good state and are ironing out the little mistakes, how do you start?

I always go through the process using the Microsoft Word ‘review’ tool, found here on newer versions of word:

In old versions you need to right click any toolbar and enable the ‘reviewing’ toolbar, than you will have all the buttons you need. On both versions, you then need to click ‘track changes’, this means that any revisions you make to the text will show up in a different colour and be reversible, like so:

To accept or reject your changes, the person you’re editing for will have to click the accept changes button, either individually for each alteration, by accepting all the changes in a document in one go, or by highlighting part of the text and clicking accept to accept all changes in that section.

One of the best features of this tool is the ability to add comments to the text, to do this, click the new comment button, a comment will appear wherever the cursor is currently situated within the text, or you can highlight a section and then click comment, this will indicate that your comment relates to that entire word, sentence, or section:

This is especially useful for the following:

Indicating you don’t understand what is meant

Justifying/ explaining the changes you’ve made

Showing where references need to be added

Etc.

Of course, you can use the review tool on your own work too, especially if you’re not sure of changes you’re making and want to try them out before you make them permanent.

I hope this is helpful, if you have any other tips on how to effectively proofread your own work, please comment below 🙂


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Tips and Tricks 9: Colons and Semicolons

I’m going to be honest, colon and semicolon usage is something I really struggle with, while I’m hot on apostrophes, these little bits of punctuation tend to baffle me, and I ofetn end up relying on commas and dashes.

 

This has to change, as a professional proofreader and copywriter this is an unacceptable gap in my knowledge, so I’m going to search out the best online sources of information and take you along with me as I learn more. Hyperlinks will take you to the specific srticles I’m quoting from, not just the site homepage.

 

Colons

Wikipedia succinctly states that “A colon informs the reader that what follows the mark proves, explains, or lists elements of what preceded the mark.” and gives the following examples:

There was only one possible explanation: the train had never arrived.

I have three sisters: Daphne, Rose, and Suzanne.

Luruns could not speak: He was drunk

It also states that colons should be used to introduce a subtitle to a work, so my BA Dissertation would correctly be named as:

What the Fuck?: An Analysis of Swearing in Casual Conversation

 

Sussex University‘s website also has a great list of correct colon uses, and states that ” the colon is never preceded by a white space; it is always followed by a single white space in normal use, and it is never, never, never followed by a hyphen or a dash — in spite of what you might have been taught in school.”

 

Semicolons

These are a lot more complicated, and certainly tend to baffle me more!

Certainly the most memorable guide on its usage that I found, was this comic by The Oatmeal

But Sussex University also strikes again with a whole page of helpful guidelines, beginning like this:

“The semicolon (;) has only one major use. It is used to join two complete sentences into a single written sentence when all of the following conditions are met:

(1) The two sentences are felt to be too closely related to be separated by a full stop;
(2) There is no connecting word which would require a comma, such as and or but;
(3) The special conditions requiring a colon are absent.

Here is a famous example:

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.

A semicolon can always, in principle, be replaced either by a full stop (yielding two separate sentences) or by the word and (possibly preceded by a joining comma). Thus Dickens might have written:

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. or
It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times.”

They also list this sentence as an incorrect semicolon usage:

“In 1991 the music world was shaken by a tragic event; the death of Freddy Mercury”

The sentence above does not contain two halves which could stand independantly as sentences ‘the death of Freddy Mercury’ is not a sentence in itself, so the sentence above should have a colon not a semicolon.

 

Bristol University has a handy quiz to help you grasp semicolon usage, it gives you good feedback explaining why you gave the right or wrong answer. However, it only tests your knowledge regarding semicolon usage within sentences, and there are a few other uses of the semicolon I wil go on to explain.

 

Semicolons can be used in lists where each example in the list contains a couple of pieces of information, such as:

“I have recently visited Topeka, Kansas; Cheboygan, Michigan; and Honolulu, Hawaii.”

or “In the meeting today we have Professor Wilson, University of Barnsley; Dr Watson, University of Barrow in Furness; Colonel Custard, Metropolitan Police and Dr Mable Syrup, Genius General, University of Otago, New Zealand.”

Both of the above examples would become very confusing if all the semicolons were replaced with commas!

 

Grammar Girl does a great job of explaining how semicolons can be used to emaphasise relatedness between sentences, and to avoid having too many short sentences.

 

I hope the above links helped you as much as they’ve helped me.