Academic Tips and Tricks

All the help you need for good essay writing


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Documents with multiple numbered sections

I won’t lie – I got help with this one from the nice people at http://answers.microsoft.com/en-us because I just couldn’t make it work! What I was wanting was this:

transcript line numbers1I needed transcripts starting at different line numbers (not using the numbered list method because this makes it harder to number each line) that didn’t create weird breaks in the text. How you do this is as follows:

transcript line numbers2

First, select only your transcript text by left clicking and dragging over it, then go to the page layout tab and click the drop-down box called ‘line numbers’, select ‘line numbering options…’. Then you should see this dialogue box… now bear with me, things get tricky here:

transcript line numbers3

When you click ‘line numbering options…’ the ‘Page Setup’ box should appear (I’ve labelled this box 1) Now you need to make sure the numbered steps are set to the selected options:

  1. Section start set to ‘continuous’
  2. Apply to ‘selected text’
  3. click ‘line numbers…’
  4. In ‘box 2’ aka Line Numbers, tick the ‘add line numbering’ checkbox
  5. Make sure numbering is set to ‘restart each section’ – in this dialogue box you can also set your numbering options, so you can have the numbered section start at ‘1’ or ’25’ or whatever you like.

Once you’ve done all this and clicked OK, you’ll probably notice that a page break has been created after the end of your transcript, meaning the text that was directly below it is now displayed on the next page, like this:

transcript line numbers4By clicking the button shown on the ‘home’ tab, you can see exactly what’s happened here. To get the text which has been pushed away back onto the same page as the rest of the text, we need to change the ‘Section Break (Next Page)’ into a ‘Section Break (Continuous)’ To do this, do the following:

transcript line numbers5

  1. Scroll down and click on the text which has been pushed to the next page
  2. Click the tiny ‘expand’ button in the corner of the ‘Page Setup’ box
  3. Make sure ‘Section Start’ is set to ‘continuous’

Then click ok. What you should now have is this (again seen with the formatting visible):

transcript line numbers6Now you can see the section break has been changed to continuous, and the text is displayed directly below the transcript. Now you can follow the steps above again to number the second transcript, in the example above you could start your next transcript at ‘7’ if it is a continuation of the first transcript, or any other number if it is a later part of the transcript, or a different one entirely.

Hope this helps!


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Making Beautiful Transcripts

Making a well formatted transcript is not only visually neat and pleasing, but it also solves any issues of not being able to tell who’s speaking, and any problems of correctly showing overlapping speech.

This is a very badly formatted transcript. It is hard to see the speakers’ names and it is not clear at a glance what is speech and what isn’t (square brackets here indicate overlap)

very bad transcript

The first step to fixing this problem is adding a tab stop between the speaker name and what they are saying, just press this key:

tab-key

Then you get this, which is a bit better, but still has text going directly under someone’s name, this is not ideal as if overlap occurs in this problem zone (red circle) it will be hard to transcribe clearly:

bad transcript

To fix this, you need to add a hanging indent. It can be done two ways, via the ‘paragraph’ menu on the home tab, or by manually using the ruler. I’m going to show the ruler method as using the ruler allows changes to be made really quickly and easily. First, make the ruler visible:

enable ruler

Go to view, tick ruler, and the ruler appears. Next, select your text and drag the hanging indent across:

hanging indent

Then your transcript should look like this, with a clear gap between speaker name and text:

final result

This is perfect for many uses, but if your transcript would benefit from having line numbers, you can enable them here:

line numbers

And you’re done 🙂


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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 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.


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Tips and Tricks 7: Common problems and how to solve them

This entry gives tips on twelve mistakes I see again and again in students’ work. They are all easily avoidable, and if these are observed in conjunction with my other tips and tricks you should be well on your way to having a very readable and nicely laid-out essay. The content of course, is up to you.

Formatting:

1)         Tabs and page breaks are easy to use in Microsoft Word, yet so many students resort to using the space bar or enter key to create breaks in the text. This is not a good method as creating a large space using the enter key may mean a heading is at the top of the page initially, but if you change some text higher up, the entire document will move up to fill the gap, leaving your headings in funny places. A much better way to keep headings at the top of pages is to use page breaks. These can be inserted via the insert menu, under the ‘break’ option, just place the cursor where you want the break to occur. These break the text meaning the next line appears at the top of the next page. Inserting these breaks before headings will keep your text well ordered no matter what else you change. (You can remove breaks by clicking the ‘show formatting’ key, clicking the break and clicking the delete key).

Tabs are a way of creating even gaps in text, though the tab key is most often used to create indents at the start of a new paragraph. Tabs are useful for making text on separate rows line up, for example:

A list

can be drawn

so each item lines up with the one above

more accurately than just pressing the space key multiple times!

2)         Make sure all text is either justified, or left aligned throughout your document – not a mixture of both. Using formatting creatively, for example having certain key quotes centred within the rest of the text, can look really nice, but having inconsistent formatting such as random variations in text size, line spacing and alignment just looks unprofessional.

3)         On a similar note, keep formatting for headings consistent. You may wish to adopt a system which shows heading hierarchy such as main headings in bold, sub-headings in italics and sub sub-headings in plain text.

4)         Make sure bulleted/numbered lists are not out of line with the rest of the text (unless they are intentionally so, and if this is the case, follow this convention for all lists in the document).

Writing:

1)         Make sure paragraphs flow logically, there should be no abrupt subject changes. This is obviously easier said than done, and like many problems, is often hard to spot in your own work, as you understand the logic behind the order, even though someone else might not. This is easiest corrected by either (if you have time) setting the work aside for a week and coming back to it – this makes problems easier to spot, or by having a friend look over it and tell you if any parts don’t make sense. To avoid abrupt subject changes stick to one topic per section, so that all paragraphs in that section have a logical link. Use words such as ‘likewise’, ‘alternatively’ or ‘similarly’ to show that sentences have a relationship to the ones before.

2)         Make sure all writing is in the past tense, not present or future. This is an often-made mistake because writing often starts before all the research is complete, so at the time of writing sentences like ‘questionnaires will be distributed’ make sense. However, always try to imagine how this will sound from the perspective of the reader who is reading your essay when everything is complete.

3)         Always tell the reader where to find things – don’t just say ‘in the appendices’ or ‘discussed later’ give them page reference. This is especially important in dissertation length essays or documents with very long appendices, as it is very frustrating as a reader to not be immediately able to find what you’re looking for.

4)         Abbreviations cause a whole host of problems. First, make sure that you define your abbreviations! Check through the document to make sure it is the very first use of the abbreviation that has the definition – don’t leave it to a later sentence when the reader may already be confused. Also make sure your abbreviations are consistent and properly capitalised (many abbreviations such as PhD contain both upper and lower case characters). If you have created an abbreviation yourself make sure you use it to mean only one thing, e.g. one student used ‘VM’ to mean both Visual MerchandisING and Visual MerchandisER, – as one was a job title and the other the description of a process, the abbreviation ‘VM’ should have been used for one or the other, not both.

References:

1)         Harvard references should always have page numbers as well as dates (Smith 1988:12). The exception to this is if you are referring to the entire subject of a book or article, rather than a specific section of the text, in this case, only the date is used, e.g. ‘there have been multiple texts on the evolution of the species (Dawkins 2009, Ridley 2006)’ – as you can see from this example, this is a good way to reference multiple texts which have a common theme.

2)         For both Oxford and Harvard references make sure you have the place of publishing, as well as the name of the publishing house, e.g. Oxford: Blackwell

3)         For Oxford references, if you have a footnote for a reference and the one immediately after it would be an identical reference, it is ok to write the word ‘ibid’ after the reference number. This is Latin for ‘as above’ and means you can avoid unnecessary repetition.

4)         It is a common academic practice to put a web address between these symbols <> like this: <www.something.com> this distinguishes the web address from the rest of the reference and makes it easier to see.

Please keep following this blog for more useful hints – or even better comment on my entries – I am always willing to help and am happy to elaborate on anything you don’t feel is clearly explained. I am also very happy to answer individual questions, or to create entries based on questions asked.


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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).