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 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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Common Problems and How to Solve Them: 2

If you haven’t already, please read my first ‘Common Problems and How to Solve Them’ entry, which covers issues such as formatting, referencing and writing style.

This entry covers a few things I’m seeing repeatedly in essays right from Undergraduate to PhD level.

1. Check your Footnotes

Footnotes seem to be a place that people don’t frequently proofread in their own work. Don’t think that just because your footnotes are short that they are perfectly written, and don’t think that your tutor might ignore them – they won’t, and I am increasingly seeing footnotes of a much lower quality of writing than the main essay they are part of. This is even worse with endnotes (like footnotes, but they appear all together at the end of a document, rather than individually at the bottom of each page) which sometimes don’t seem to have been double-checked at all! Not a problem if you’re using a professional proofreader, but a big problem if you’re proofreading your own work (for tips on how to do this, look here)

2. Be Careful when Pasting

I see pasting problems all the time – text pasted in in the wrong font, size, colour or style to the rest of the text. Now, pasting may well be legitimate – for example pasting a quote from a pdf journal article or a legitimate website source, in which case your work just looks a little untidy if the quote doesn’t match, but this is ten times worse for plagiaristic pasting (do NOT do this, the checking software is very sophisticated and you WILL get found out) where it just makes it blatantly obvious that a certain sentence or paragraph was not written by you.

3. Check your Quotes

Tutors are inclined to be kind when it comes to small writing errors, perhaps English isn’t your first language, or maybe your dyslexic, whatever the case, unimportant errors in your own writing  are excusable. Incorrectly copied quotes aren’t, it just looks lazy. So make sure any quotes are grammatically accurate to the original, contain the original emphasis (unless you specifically state you have added/removed emphasis after you’ve quoted) and have the exact same wording. If you find a mistake in the original e.g. a typo, then leave it in, but place the word ‘sic’ directly after the word in square brackets, like this: “the King owned more casstles [sic] than any other person”.


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Tips and Tricks 12: Check your Proper Nouns

As most of you probably know, proper nouns are names of things, like England, Hannah, Liberal Democrats, King George etc. For my three examples, these words are likely to be in the Microsoft Word dictionary, so should not need double checking, as typos such as ‘Hanah’ would be flagged. The real danger is when you’re using less common proper nouns, such as ‘Ofsted’ or ‘Nagpur’. Both of these are real examples I have found misspelt in people’s work. Ofsted, misspelt as ‘Ofstead’ was in a document of my own, and Nagpur as ‘Napur’ in my partner’s final project.

If your document has a lot of references, and some of the authors have uncommon surnames, this is very likely to be a problem.

My best tip is to simply type a list of your uncommon proper nouns, spelt correctly, and add them to your Word dictionary, by right clicking (or going into spell check) and clicking ‘add to dictionary’. A quick Google search should tell you the correct spelling of terms you’re not sure of. For text in a document made in a programme without an inbuilt spellcheck, paste your text into word first to iron out any problems.


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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 🙂