Academic Tips and Tricks

All the help you need for good essay writing


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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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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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How to Make Transcribing SO Much Easier

Don’t thank me for this post, thank my boyfriend, who is a genius.

This innovation actually changed my life. As a linguistics student I’ve done A LOT of really complicated transcriptions over the years, and I’ve done many many hours of simple transcription as a paid transcriber. My set-up used to look like this:

transcription set up 1

I imagine that looks familiar – you can quickly access the media player to stop and start it and if you’re doing a simple two-person transcript you’ve done what you can to make everything quicker. But you still have to waste time taking your fingers off the keyboard to click between the two programmes and manually start and stop the audio. You might even be clumsily clicking the bar on the audio player to skip back to listen again.

Now my set-up looks like this:

transcription set up 2No media player. And you don’t need a laptop with built in media controls to make this work. If you use VLC (which is free to download and has a lot of great features) you can configure the global hotkeys so that you never have to click back and forth again!

Here’s How

transcription set up 3Go to tools and click on ‘preferences’, then:

transcription set up 4Go to hotkeys. You will see two columns ‘hotkey’ and ‘global’. Hotkey will only work when VLC is the active (selected) programme. Global will work from anywhere, e.g. from Word, if you’re browsing the web etc. The settings you want to create are global ones. Your global column should currently be blank like mine. This is what you need to do next:

Double click in the ‘global’ column on the setting you want to change, I clicked on ‘play/pause’

transcription set up 5You should get a pop-up box asking you to select a new key combination. You now need to choose keys which:

1. You can easily remember mean ‘play/pause’

2. Are not another shortcut

E.g. don’t pick ‘p’ as every time you type the letter p during transcription, your audio will stop or start. I choose shift+right arrow, as this combination is easy to press and isn’t already used as a shortcut/hotkey in Word:

transcription set up 6Once you’ve done this, your new combination should appear immediately in the global column, like this:

transcription set up 7These are the four hotkeys I have programmed specifically for transcription (image below). I find they are enough and make the whole process easier, the slow down command is especially useful when people are talking really fast! You can even slow down the audio so much that you can type as fast as the speakers are talking, but this can make the sound pretty distorted.

transcription set up 8When you’ve chosen all your commends, you will need to press ‘save’ then exit VLC completely and restart the programme before the changes will take effect. There is no need to restart your whole computer. When VLC is restarted, you should find you can use almost any programme while listening to VLC and control the audio remotely without having to click onto VLC to make the change.

Happy Transcribing!


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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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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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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.