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.


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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My Proofreading Mission Statement

I am very aware that anyone who has written a thesis, a dissertation, or a journal article has worked long and hard on their work (doubly so if they are a non-native speaker of English) and therefore is very attached to it. I also know that deep down everyone wants me to say “your work is perfect and has no errors”. Unfortunately, this is never the case and I inevitably have to correct something. Therefore I do not want this process of correction to feel like a ‘hack-and-slash’; I don’t want to butcher people’s work; I want to nurture it. I don’t want people to get their work back and think “this doesn’t sound like me, I didn’t write this”, I want them to think “this is my work, but even better”. Therefore I work very hard to keep the work in the original style of the writer. I try not to replace words just on my personal judgement of ‘how I would have written it’ but only where the word will correct/improve the piece (unless I have been specifically told by a client “I feel I use the same word too often; can you make my writing less repetitive?”). If I can make a sentence better simply by rearranging the components rather than adding/deleting words, then I will. Likewise, if my client likes to use long, complex sentences I won’t split them up into smaller sentences unless they are so long and complex they impair the reader’s comprehension, and ditto those who use many short sentences; I won’t join them together unless the stop-start nature is impairing the reader’s understanding of the wider point.

Ultimately, there are two people I want to please with any given piece: The original writer and the ultimate reader(s). Therefore I aim to keep the work as true as possible to the original whilst improving its accessibility so it can get as wide an audience as possible.

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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”.


How to Accept, Reject and Review Tracked Changes.

As many of you know, I use the ‘Track Changes’ feature when proofreading a document to show insertions, deletions and comments I have made in a way where it is easy for the student whose work I am editing to see what edits I have made.

However, I realise that for those of you unfamiliar with the tracked changes function it can be confusing when you receive a document covered in markup to know what to do with it. I was going to create my own tutorial using pictures and screenshots, but I thought a video would be more helpful, so here is one I found on YouTube.

The one helpful trick she does not show however, is if you want to accept all the changes in a paragraph or section, you can highlight the text by clicking and dragging over it, then click accept to accept all changes within that section.

I hope this helps!


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.