Academic Tips and Tricks

All the help you need for good essay writing


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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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Tips and Tricks 13: Dashes vs. Hyphens

Ok, this is something I’m increasingly seeing done wrong in essays, so this will just be a very quick reminder of the difference between a hyphen and a dash.

Hyphens connect words together, phrases such as face-to-face have hyphens, you can also hyphenate non-standard phrases e.g. ‘that funny head-floating-above-your-body feeling’ to show that you mean the phrase to be taken as a whole as a single entity which English does not have a singular word to describe.

Dashes separate, they can be used grammatically like commas – for example in the middle of a sentence – to break the text in the same way commas would. However, dashes by their nature (as Grammar Girl states) draw attention to the part of the sentence set aside by them. The quick and dirty difference between parenthesis, commas and dashes, as stated by Grammar Girl is the following:

Use parentheses when you want to enclose something that is incidental to the sentence, something that is background or almost unnecessary.

Use dashes when you want to enclose or set off something that deserves a lot of attention, is meant to interrupt your sentence, or already has commas or parentheses in it.

Use commas to enclose things that belong firmly in the flow of your sentence.

These are some examples of INCORRECT usage

The cats were different breeds:- Siamese, Persian and Manx.

Do not use a hyphen after a colon.

I went to a party- it was at Linda’s house- and I stayed all night.

Dashes should never connect to the surrounding text, they should have a gap either side

All I wanted was a face- to- face- talk with him.

Hyphens should always connect all the words in a phrase and should never have gaps between them.

Microsoft Word is very helpful in differentiating dashes and hyphens, when a dash is detected (because you have used the hyphen key, but left gaps either side of the hyphen) it will aromatically elongate the dash to make it more obvious, like so:

Word is rather clever – it can detect dashes because it can see the gaps. As you can see, hyphenated phrases such as face-to-face have shorter marks.


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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.


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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.


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How to get started on an Essay

One problem a lot of people seem to have with essays is actually getting started, so I’m going to give you some tips on how to do this – what tips are useful for you will be dependent on what problem you have, is it simply inertia? Simply not knowing the first words that should go on the page? Not even being able to think of a topic? – If you have any of these problems, this entry is for you.

 

1. Know Your Data

If you’re doing the kind of essay which is data based (as most are) make sure you know your data inside out. What’s interesting about your data? What’s unusual about it? How does it connect to other research within your discipline? Writing down the answers to these questions – or talking your data over with a willing friend can really help solidify your ideas about your data and this can help form your essay. If you’re not able to answer the three simple questions above, you’re not ready to write. Make sure you analyse your data with all the tools available, and if you simply can’t make head or tail of what you’ve got, take your data, and any opinions you have about it to your tutor or academic skills helper and get them to talk over it with you.

 

2. Write the Intro First

Personally, I’ve never found this easy, and prefer to write an essay in bits rather than from start to finish, but for many people having a game plan helps to form the essay. Like knowing your data, writing your intro first can really help consolidate your thoughts. A good intro should briefly outline the following:

  • What the essay is about
  • What your data is
  • The aims of the essay
  • (Possibly) how it contributes to any existing research

Honestly, I always found introductions really challenging, so here is a good article on how to write one:

http://www.ehow.com/how_2192068_write-introduction-essay.html

One thing about writing the intro first, which I can’t stress enough, is don’t try to follow it rigidly. Normally, the intro is written last, for good reason – because by that point you know where your essay is going, but writing it first can be like using an essay plan or guide, just don’t worry if your argument evolves as you write, the introduction can always be re-written.

 

3. Create ‘PQC’ Paragraphs and Fill in the Blanks

This is my preferred method when I’m really stuck (look at my paragraphing entry for a description of PQC). You might have some really good ideas about a topic, but not be able to form them into a cohesive structure right now. A great way to start to do this is to gather relevant quotes and excerpts from your data and just write little paragraphs. Get all your random thoughts down first, then see if you can categorise them. Once you can see which paragraphs have a common theme, just fill in the gaps until they form a cohesive argument.

One warning – this is not a last minute method (leaving aside the fact you should NEVER be writing a last minute essay anyway) – what I mean is this will require a lot of proofreading and smoothing, an essay formed like this and left without editing is a horrible Frankenstein’s monster of a thing. Make sure it flows. Sometimes I even begin writing using this method and find that my thoughts have got more sorted out as I write, then I’m able to start in a more logical way building up topics from start to finish.

 

4. Use Non-Academic Sources

In your essay you shouldn’t be quoting from non-academic sources such as popular science books, Wikipedia, etc. but if you’re really struggling to grasp a complicated subject then use these sources to get a basic understanding of what you’re writing. After reading a few easily-understandable sources try writing down what you’ve read in your own words. You’ll need to find academic references for any claims you make later, but for now at least you have words on the page.

 

5. The Classic Essay-Plan

This one will be brief. Everyone gets taught the essay plan as part of their GCSEs. Though it’s obvious, just brainstorming the topic, jotting down your ideas and writing up a few ideas for quotable sources can be a good first step in getting your thoughts sorted.

 

6. Think of a Title

Yes, this one’s obvious, but if your problem is that you haven’t actually decided what to write about yet then making that decision is the most important step. Many people are given essay titles, but suppose you have a completely open-ended assignment, such as a dissertation, how do you decide what to write on? Here are a few tips on finding a subject:

  • Go through old projects and essays and see which subjects interested you the most and/or gave you the best grades and do a variation/expansion on one of those – if you expand on your previous research you might even get to quote yourself, which is really fun!
  • Ask friends and family for ideas. I was surprised when family members who knew the least about my subject gave me some of the most interesting ideas – sometimes a bit of ignorance is a great way of getting some outside-the-box thinking as it’s easy to become blinkered when a subject is all you’ve studied for several years.
  • If you have a vague idea of a subject you’d like to research, read around that subject, or experiment with combining it with another related discipline – you might be able to find an interesting and under-researched niche.
  • If you’ve exhausted all your other options – ask your tutor, they may have some bright ideas or be able to let you read some previous student essays for inspiration.
  • If in doubt, choose a subject that may be useful for a future job – something that relates to a research post, a postgrad course or a specific industry you want to go into, being a specialist in that field already may give you the edge.

 

I hope this helps, if you have a problem which none of my suggestions seem to solve, post a comment and I’ll do my best to help.


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How to use Custom Keyboard Commands for Symbols in Word

This is a blog entry specifically designed to help Linguistics/English language students who need to write in IPA (the International Phonetic Alphabet), students of foreign languages who need to use special characters and any other students, such as those studying maths or science who regularly have to use symbols not from the Roman alphabet.

The standard method of doing this is Word is to use the insert symbols function, found here:

This can be a very lengthy process, especially if the symbols you need appear far apart in the symbol selection box and you keep forgetting where to find them. A much quicker method is to select your own keyboard shortcuts for symbols you use often. Many versions of Word have several memorable keyboard shortcuts automatically programmed in, such as hold ctrl+shift+colon button then click a, e, o, or u to produce that letter with umlauts.

This might be enough help for students of German, but everyone else, read on.

To put in your own keyboard shortcuts (which will only work in Word on your own computer, and can be lost by using programmes such as CCleaner unless they are configured properly) go back to the symbol selection pane shown earlier. For example, if we went to insert this ‘upside-down ‘e’’ (known as schwa) the shortcuts which are automatically assigned are shown below:

However, for me, the number sequence and keyboard shortcut are not very memorable, and I want to use a shortcut containing the letter ‘e’ so that I can remember the symbol it produces. If you click the button that says ‘shortcut key…’ you can enter a new keyboard command. The programme will always show you if the command you have chosen is assigned to another symbol or function. If this symbol or function is one you use often, you should select a new keyboard shortcut. For example, the command I chose to represent the ‘upside-down ‘e’’ character was ctrl+alt+e, which was already assigned to the Euro symbol. As I don’t often use the Euro symbol, and also have a button on my keyboard which produces the Euro symbol anyway, changing this command wasn’t a problem.

You can do this to as many symbols as you like so that eventually, as long as you’ve picked commands you can remember, you should be able to type fluently in another language, in IPA or using algebraic or scientific symbols without ever entering the symbols menu, and therefore saving yourself a lot of time and frustration.

There are however, a few problems with this method. Occasionally, if you try to open a document which uses custom commands on a computer not programmed with those commands it will display error boxes or change symbols. Therefore it is best to print documents from the computer on which they were created. Also, as I mentioned before, programmes like CCleaner (a fantastic programme which keeps your computer running smoothly by clearing away unused files and small bits of programming) can clear away your custom settings. To avoid this, it’s best to not let CCleaner clear up your Office programmes at all by disabling office programmes under the ‘applications’ tab:

I hope this helps! I know it made doing transcriptions in IPA way less problematic for me.