The amount and type of writing which you have to do at university is very much dependent upon the course which you are following. The following podcasts contain information about different types of writing, features of good pieces of writing and advice on how to approach writing at university.
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I think the main thing for a good essay is keeping it simple, keeping it well structured and understanding it. I think what's more important is to understand what you're talking about, because I think a lecturer can tell if you've put loads of things in that you don't understand. If you can understand the essay, or understand the topic you're writing about, I think that's the most important thing and then with that it will be written well because you will be able to link coherently different points and it will just come across much better. Then obviously following that a good introduction to introduce what you're going to be doing and what you'll be discussing in the essay, and then segmenting separate issues into different paragraphs and then concluding at the end. That structure's obviously really important and keeping it kind of concise and to the point throughout.
I think for a report generally the structure's usually given to you, so that's quite useful. I think people almost find them easier to get into at first because it's broken down. I think with that again, I think the main thing is to be concise and to the point and I think that's what they look for, they don't necessarily want waffle because it's quite a scientific piece of coursework, they look for quite a scientific way of writing. I'd say the conclusion obviously is a lot longer than in an essay, and that's more evaluating what you've talked about in the research that you've been given or been talking about in the report. Yeah, I would say that the most important thing was to be concise and scientific writing.
So, it's making a point - an argument is you could say, it's not just an argument between a couple or something, it's more like you're making a point and you need to back up your point, so whatever claim you make "why should I believe you?" that is what you're trying to do - why should you be believed, and then who can argue against your point? So, you need to look at the evidence the side your point and then if it weighs more than the other side, then you are making a valid point. And that's how I see an argument and you can develop it by just systematically step-by-step breaking it down, seeing where the argument came from where it's going.
I see it as giving a background of why you're doing what you're doing now and what the point is of you doing this. You're also signposting how you're going to do it, so it's exactly the same as what you're saying signposting. So, I'm going do this first, then that second. So it's just to help the reader understand what's coming.
It's tying everything up, so you pick up all your points and you put it in bullet points maybe, that helps me actually. If I go through my essay write on a separate piece of paper or bullet points, or main points of the argument, and then briefly talk about what does this mean. Then, the implications you always find them in any sort of academic writing, so that it's good to add that in there. It's just to say if this is what I've found and this is what it means in the world or in the field that they are focussing on at the moment.
At undergraduate level you rely a lot on secondary sources, so that's journals and books and stuff, and with that, because so many people may write about the same topic, you will have to be selective about what you use as your evidence. What I usually tend to do is find the most respected source within that field, say if we're talking about say global issues I could use the UN instead of the BBC, because people will associate that to be a more credible source. And you shouldn't be taking the view if I use more sources I will look more smarter or the essay will look good, as that will just clutter it by using three sources for every point you make. Just use the best source so that people can understand and trust to be a reliable source.
In terms of your first essay at university, I would advise that as soon as you get the essay brief, you start planning for it. Planning is an organic process and it will change as you go through it but you need start researching your subject and planning straight away. So make your plan, go and do some research and then you'll need to revise your plan with what you have found and that's normal that's the reason you have a plan and the reason you review your plan so that you can keep on track and find out where you're at.
Then you write a few drafts, and you will have to change these, and that's all normal as well. And it will take up a lot of time because, as you will be getting used to systems at the university and getting used to where to find the books and you will have to fit all this in with the other demands in your life.
But don't worry about the changes that you will make, and don't worry about the time it will take, because this is how the essays are written. So, I would advise though that you spend plenty of time, sorry, allow plenty of time for them.
I think not having a clear line of argument I would say is probably one of the most important things because I think sometimes it's easy to lose focus on answering the question and go off on a tangent and bring things in that might not actually be relevant. And I think it's like a downward spiral; as soon as you go slightly off track you start on this kind of you know a massive kind of side track on a different topic and then obviously generally if you're not answering the question then you aren't going to do that well. That's something that really is important to kind of make sure you haven't done. I generally always have the question up in view like on a post-it note on my screen so you know every paragraph I write or every kind of few points I make; I keep linking it back and making sure it is relating back to the question.
I think I use the broad to specific again for my introduction using like the funnel technique so you start broad. So, I kind of sometimes link it to how it relates to the general applications, practical implications. So I'm going to use kind of weight control as an example and then obviously you'll say so this is important in society given the current obesity rates for example. So its relating the practical and how it applies to the general world and then talking about the topic in specific, and then again even more specific than that what you'll be discussing in your essay so that is like the funnel technique. That's what I generally stick to in my introduction and overall in my essays as well.
I think there is always quite a lot of pressure on a conclusion because it's the finishing notes - the point you're going to leave with the reader so, it's really important. That is the time when you can sum up really what you're trying to say and what you're trying to leave that reader with going away thinking about. And basically, I think the role of the conclusion is to sum up what you've talked about to give an overview just, you know a reminder almost of what's been discussed. What the implications are of that you know so this has been found that this was found in addition this was found - this put together means xyz. And generally I think that's kind of the way I would do the conclusion. But I mean the topic/subject I do is kind of has quite a lot of practical implications, so that's why I do that. Maybe other topics would be different but generally for me that's what it would do.
I think it's important to remember going from your point is not to bring in any new evidence - no new points or topics, so no new research- it should be summing up what you've already talked about. Lots of people find them difficult I think. It just goes to show how important it is because if they find it difficult to sum up their writing then how is the reader supposed to? So that just demonstrates that.
Well the top feature is that you tell a story. All pieces of writing are like stories. So I always advise students to think of a story that they really enjoyed, something that they read in a novel, or they read a magazine, or they read something that really engaged them and they wanted to read the next page, and that they didn't have to work too hard to read that piece of writing. So the first thing I say is imagine you're telling a story and that you're making it clear to your reader what you're talking about and that they don't have to work too hard. If you're a lecturer and you're getting this piece of work which is a patchwork of all the things that need to be in the piece of writing and you, yourself the lecturer or as the reader have to put the patchwork together, it's hard work and you don't feel so good about the writing. But if you're being told, you're being pushed to the next stage and the first stage moves to the next stage, and the next stage moves to the next stage. And the argument is really unfolding in front of you. The most boring topic can become really compelling. And so it's about signposting, it's about saying at the beginning what you're going to do. And then after each stage saying what you're going to do next, and then what you're going to do next, and then what you're going to do next and then summarizing at the end. And that may sound quite repetitive but good signposting sentences and a good frame for your writing tells a good story. I always give more marks to students that I haven't had to work so hard on reading their work.
I suppose my main writing tip comes from the work that I've been doing with students on referencing and plagiarism. When students aren't confident about their writing they often fall back on other people's writing. So students often say "but the book says it better than I could ever say". Have confidence in your writing, if you can explain things in a really simple way, don't worry about vocabulary that sounds academic. Don't worry about writing that sounds difficult. Use the simple vocabulary that you have. If you can explain that you understand even if it's not as sophisticated or as good as you would like, it's always better. It helps you to be able to explain what you're doing. It helps you show the lecturer that you understand and also really simple short sentences plain vocabulary are best of all writing. We've all seen academic journal articles that we do not understand a word of and actually that's bad writing. So work within your own capacity. We wouldn't have taken you into Aston University unless you weren't an intelligent, good, academic writer. You just need practice. So start within your capacity and then build up. And secondly do a lot of reading, doesn't matter what you read but the more reading you do, the more you pick up styles and ways of writing, it doesn't matter what you read but please do not read popular newspapers like the Sun or the Express because that is not real writing.
When it comes to writing there are a number of forms that you will be asked to write in at university and the key thing is to make sure that you understand the rules of the form that you are working within. So on my course I have organisational behaviour, there are three different pieces of work and there are particular rules for each three of those. One of those are a formal essay, the other one is a learning journal and there are a series of short tasks. I'm very clear about the rules for this and I think that when you look at the other courses you do each will have a slightly new set of rules, so make sure you understand what those rules are. Within that the general piece of advice is to follow those instructions but there is something that I really must say several times to emphasise it. When you're writing for a piece of work that's assessed at university, read the question and make sure you answer the question. If you're not answering the question you're not gaining marks, you may feel better that you're providing some writing but it will not be gaining you marks if you're not answering the question. I've written a book about essay writing skills and in that my fellow authors talk about how you can pick apart a question and learn to work out what the demands of a particular question might be. There are lots of books about writing essays that you can read on this. But the key thing to make sure is: when you look at the question make sure that every single thing that you write is helping you to answer that and make sure that you've answered all the different parts of a question and really if you're able to do that then you're going to do fine.
Good academic writing needs to be clear, it needs to be well structured and well organised. It needs to stay focussed on answering the question. Make sure that everything you are actually writing is directed back to answering that question. If you think that something you are writing isn't answering that question, perhaps it's a good thing to maybe take it out of that essay because you're not going to gain anything by keeping it in the essay. So you need to keep it well structured, you need to stay focussed on the question, the other way of actually achieving that is to provide a good sense of direction in what you're actually writing, use signalling words to tell the reader where you're actually going because you can use those words yourself to make sure that you're following a clear well structured piece of writing. Ultimately what you've got to do is to step back from what you've actually written after you've completed an assignment and say to yourself "is another person who is reading this going to understand what I am writing and why I am writing that". Hopefully if you can step back and do that and look and evaluate just their own writing then you should have a good clear piece of academic writing in front of you.
So making sure that the person reading your assignment understands why you were writing something is important, it's equally important to make sure that the person reading your assignment understands what you were writing. To help you achieve this is it's important to try and use straightforward sentences and simple, uncomplicated language. A lot of people think that academic writing has to be difficult or it has to be complex, perhaps sometimes the ideas written about in academic writing is complex. But that doesn't necessarily mean that the language which you used also has to be complex. In fact as some of the podcasts have pointed out, if you are using very complex language that is confusing another person then that's not actually a good style of writing, whether it is academic or not academic. So try to make sure that you are using a straightforward sentences and simple uncomplicated language.
It's equally important to try to put things across in your own words because that helps you to demonstrate your understanding about a topic far better than actually trying to just rely on the words of those other people. So try not to have too many big wordy quotes in your academic writing because that will stop you from getting across your demonstration that you actually understand a particular theory or a particular idea or a particular experiment and you can write about it or discuss it in a way that is clear, concise and critical.
As well as making sure that the person reading your assignment understands why you are writing something it's also important to make sure that they understand what you're actually writing so the other key point coming out of those podcasts from the academic staff is, that good academic writing needs to be concise, needs to be straightforward and simple, it doesn't need to have complex language, it doesn't need to have complex sentences. One of the things that you should really be aiming to achieve is a nice clear concise style of writing that is neither over wordy, which can often look like waffle and you're just filling out your answer with words that you don't actually need or the alternative is that it could be too vague in which case you'll probably not fully explaining what it is that you're actually trying to get across to the reader.
Another key point that is raised in the podcasts is the importance of being critical in your academic writing. Some students might say "but this topic or this subject is new to me so how can I actually be critical" or they might say "how can I criticise someone who is an expert in a particular area or a particular field?" At university when we use the word 'critical' we mean to critique a particular piece of writing or a particular theory or idea, we don't mean to pick on it and have arguments with it, we mean that you should stand back from what you've read or what you've heard and think about what's been said or written and think about what you think are the good point and the weak points, the strengths of that particular argument, compare it with other arguments or similar arguments that you have heard in a particular area. That shows that you can analyse arguments and that shows that you can evaluate those arguments and that's what we mean by being critical. So try not to just describe what other people have written about a topic, explain why you think something is important and why you think it is worth writing about rather than just say what it is that they actually wrote.
It is probably worth making two final points in relation to academic writing. We do see students in the Learning Development Centre who say "but I want to be an Optician" or "I want to be a Computer Programmer", "I want to be an Engineer so isn't knowing about my subject more important than knowing about how to write well?". Well that's a bit of a yes/no answer. Yes subject knowledge is important but you need to demonstrate that you have that knowledge and sometimes that needs to be demonstrated in writing; in reports, in essays, in poster presentations. So you need to have a good style of academic writing as well to demonstrate that you understand the subject that you're actually studying. Equally important, you need to know how to communicate that knowledge to others not just at University but beyond University. A good, clear, concise form of writing is an important transferrable skill so it doesn't just help you whilst you're at University, it helps you beyond University. Approaching academic writing in that way should help whilst you're both at University and once you've left university. A final point is that good academic writing isn't something that people are born with it is something that we develop and it takes time to actually develop that. Even whilst at university you will notice that there will be a difference in how you approach each particular piece of academic writing and you will notice that you make changes and hopefully improvements in different pieces of academic writing as you go through university life. The Learning Development Centre, we're here to help you with that. Our Advisers can discuss writing with you and help you to think about how you structure your assignments and how you approach writing style.
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