Academic Tips and Tricks

All the help you need for good essay writing


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Define your Acronyms

When essay writing you should always define your acronyms, especially if you’re writing a thesis, dissertation or article that will be readily accessible to people other than your tutor. This is because fundamentally,

academia is about increasing knowledge, and the more accessible your work is, the more people’s knowledge you can increase

Your work will not only be accessed by those in your discipline. Imagine you’re a psychology student writing about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD is a relatively well-known acronym, but suppose a literature student was reading some Word War Two literature and wanted to know more about the science behind PTSD, even if they know this acronym there would be others hiding in the work they don’t know. They could Google them of course, but what happens when an acronym stands for two things, both of which are plausible in the context? E.g. I recently encountered the acronym IASs, which has several possible definitions:

  • Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies
  • International Accounting Standards
  • International Association for Shell and Spatial Structures
  • International Air Safety Summit

It’s very feasible you could encounter this acronym in a situation where it’s not possible to infer with 100% certainty which definition is meant in the context, so it’s crucial you define them.

Always make sure your work would be accessible to those who are non-experts in the field, or those who are international speakers of English and may not have vernacular knowledge of terms such as ‘IQ’ and you can’t go far wrong.

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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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A note on ‘et al.’

Using et al. is a really good way to reference multi-authored books. It is Latin for ‘and others’ so a reference for this book:

Biber, D., Conrad, S. and Reppen, R. (1998) Corpus Linguistics: Investigating Language Structure and Use, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Could be referenced in text as (Biber et al.: 1998).

There are just two important things to remember:

  1. You MUST list all the authors in your bibliography reference
  2. You need to remember that if you’re writing about what the authors of a multi-authored book have said, remember you need to use plural verb forms. E.g. Biber et al. state that…, not Biber et al states. Biber et al. discuss, not Biber et al. discusses. This can be hard to remember, so try to say in your head whenever you use ‘et al.’ “and others” that way you’ll get the verbs right. You wouldn’t write Biber and others hypothesises – you’d write Biber and others hypothesise.


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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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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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Avoid using the same ‘such and such states’ line over and over again…

In essays I often find – even in my own writing – people using the same line over and over:

Smith and Blythe state that…

Henderson states

So, I thought I’d provide you with a few alternatives – some will only be applicable in the correct circumstances, such as ‘hypothesises’ or ‘proves’ and some will be more widely usable. States is good, but it gets really, really boring when it gets used far too often.

Alternatives to ‘states’:

  • says
  • hypothesises
  • elucidates (don’t use this is you don’t usually write like this)
  • argues
  • proves
  • proposes
  • defines
  • counters
  • clarifies
  • suggests
  • describes
  • asserts
  • alleges
  • professes
  • cites
  • attests
  • confirms
  • demonstrates
  • indicates
  • implies
  • verifies

Try to mix these up a bit – use the common ones like ‘says’, ‘states’ and ‘argues’ more, but throw in a few of the more specific academic terms to make your writing more academic and interesting to read.