How to improve Academic english writing skills

50 ways to improve your academic writing and how can academic writing be diverse and complex
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Published Date:03-07-2017
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How to improve your academic writingWhat is the purpose of this booklet? Although the nature of university-level study has changed in recent years, not least because of technology, one element has remained constant, guaranteeing success to students with a mastery of it: writing. In a recent survey, academic staff at the University of Essex identified essay-writing and reasoning as the two most important skills for success in higher education. When asked which skills students most often lacked, essay-writing was again at the top of their list. Needless to say, writing ability is also highly prized by employers. This booklet is a guide to some of the most common mistakes in academic writing. A solid technical command of language will help you to think more clearly and to express your thoughts more effectively. The examples that feature in this booklet are adapted from an analysis of first-year academic work. The analysis found that most students are making the same mistakes. The good news is that these mistakes can be easily corrected by learning some simple rules. This booklet has been structured into two main sections: (i) Punctuation and Grammar, and (ii) Reasoning. These are preceded by sections on Structuring an Essay and Parts of Speech (essential reading if you have forgotten how to tell your nouns from your verbs). In addition there are also sections on Useful Tips, Commonly Confused Words, and Further Reading. It can be read from cover to cover, or can be dipped into with a specific problem in mind. If you want to be true to yourself – to be faithful to what you really think by expressing yourself clearly and precisely – then you should care about language… irrespective of the fact that it will improve your grades. 2Writing Skills Writing is about communicating your ideas to other people. Doing it well is one of the keys to being a good student. As a University teacher, I am always disappointed for my students when their hard work and good ideas are let down by weak writing skills. This study guide is designed to help you to make the most of your hard work by giving you the tools to develop those skills. The clear Contents advice and tips set out in the following pages will ensure that you get your message across. 1. Structuring an Essay 4 2. Parts of Speech 6 Take the time to read this guide and the hours 3. Punctuation and Grammar 7 that you spend researching and thinking will (the most common mistakes) be properly rewarded by the quality of your 4. Reasoning (the most common mistakes) 13 written work. 5. Useful Tips 16 6. Commonly Confused Words 17 Professor Jane Wright 7. Further Reading 18 Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Education) 3idea to link your final sentence to the question 1. Structuring an Essay contained in the title. In size, the conclusion should be no more than 10% of the essay. It takes time to improve your grammar and punctuation. However, improving the way you Reference list and/or bibliography structure essays is quick and easy: you might Appended to your essay should be a list of all be surprised by how much difference this can the sources you have referred to (a reference make to your marks. list) and/or a list of all of the sources you have consulted but not referred to within the essay Introduction (a bibliography). Find out which is required by The introduction is where you provide a route- your department and which referencing system map for the reader and make clear how your is preferred; it may be that they require both, argument will develop (see opposite). One either separately or combined. effective approach is to outline the main issues that you seek to address in your essay. It may also be appropriate to explain how you interpret the question. In size, the introduction should generally be no more than 10% of the essay. Main body It is up to you to decide on the best way to organise your essay, but make sure your approach is logical and transparent to readers. Keep them informed of the steps in your exposition (the presentation of your viewpoint). You are not writing a mystery or thriller, so do not leave the reader in suspense until the end; Tip make your argument explicit and make sure every paragraph in the main body of your essay You should be able to sum-up the basic links to the ones before and after it. If it is opinion or argument of your essay in a couple appropriate, you could divide your essay into of lines. This is sometimes called a 'thesis sections and subsections, giving each section a statement' (‘thesis’ literally means “I believe”). subheading or summary in a few words; you It may help to write this before you start your can always remove subheadings afterwards. essay. Conclusion The conclusion is where you remind the reader Tip of what you have done – the main issues you have addressed and what you have argued. The ‘However they are worded, all assignment conclusion should contain no new material. titles contain a central question which has to Your conclusions should be clear, leaving the be answered. Your main task is to apply what reader in no doubt as to what you think; you you know – however brilliant your piece of should also explain why your conclusions are writing, if it does not ‘answer the question’ you important and significant. As Stella Cottrell may get no marks at all.’ (Cottrell 2003: 154) (2003: 154) suggests, it may also be a good 4Essay Checklist What is an argument? 1. Essay Title You may have come across the term ‘argument’ ¸ Does the essay have the full and correct in an academic context and felt confused, not essay title? fully understanding its meaning. Outside of academia, ‘argument’ usually refers to a 2. Introduction disagreement. It tends to be an event; a ¸ Does the introduction identify the subject, physical occurrence. This may be the sense of purpose and structure of the essay? the word that is most familiar to you, but an ¸ Are key words or concepts identified in the ‘academic argument’ describes something introduction? quite different: it is essentially a point of view. 3. Main Body A good argument (a ‘sound’ argument) is a ¸ Is there plenty of evidence that you have point of view that is presented in a clear and done the required reading? logical way, so that each stage of reasoning is ¸ Have you addressed each main point in a transparent and convincing; it will include separate paragraph? evidence and possible counter-arguments. It ¸ Are the paragraphs logically linked? may even help to make the assumption that ¸ Is each point supported by argumentation the reader is in disagreement with you. and evidence? ¸ Are the ideas of others clearly referenced? You will not only find arguments of this kind in academic contexts. Whenever you read a 4. Conclusion paper, or watch TV, or listen to a friend, you are ¸ Does the conclusion relate directly to the presented with an argument – a point of view question? that has been articulated with the express ¸ Is it based on evidence and facts? purpose of convincing you of its validity or truth. ¸ Does it summarise the main points? Almost anywhere where there is thought and communication, there is argument; although 5. References the same intellectual standards and formal ¸ Have you referenced all of your sources? structure that are imposed in an academic ¸ Are the references accurate? context may be absent. The editorial sections ¸ Are all of the references in the essay shown of quality newspapers are a particularly good in the bibliography and vice versa? place to look for arguments. 6. Layout When constructing your argument, the first ¸ Is the essay neatly presented? thing to do is to read the essay question, then read it again. What does it ask you to do? Assess? Evaluate? Discuss? Compare? Each of these ‘question-words’ is different. Make sure that your argument matches the question- word. Once you are certain of your point of view, start thinking about applied evidence to support your viewpoint. 5Adjective 2. Parts of Speech An adjective is a describing word that gives the noun a quality that makes it more specific. For Each word in a sentence can be defined by example, any number of adjectives could be the role it plays. The different roles are known used to ‘qualify’ (describe) the noun ‘lecture’. It as ‘parts of speech’. In order to fully could be an ‘excellent lecture’, a ‘long lecture’, or understand the examples in this booklet, it will a ‘boring lecture’ – ‘excellent’, ‘long’ and ‘boring’ help to familiarise yourself with the basic parts are all adjectives. of speech. Adverb Verb An adverb is a describing word, but for verbs, A verb is the part of speech that some people not nouns (though it can also describe identify most easily. In schools it is known as a adjectives and other adverbs). 'Quickly', ‘doing word’ – an action word – which ‘stupidly’ and ‘hurriedly’ are all adverbs (they describes what the nouns in the sentence are often end in ‘–ly’). They are used with verbs to doing, i.e. swimming, walking, eating, thinking, make the action more specific, e.g. ‘drink growing, learning, drinking, misbehaving. In the quickly’, ‘behave stupidly’, ‘work hurriedly’. In the sentence, ‘Sam studies in the library’, ‘studies’ is sentence, ‘the lecturer spoke loudly’, the adverb the verb. is 'loudly'. Noun Preposition A noun is an object – a thing – such as ‘team’, Prepositions are words that describe the ‘girl’ or ‘car’. A ‘proper noun’ is the proper name position and movement of the nouns in a of the thing (if it has its own name) such as sentence, such as ‘to’, ‘from’, ‘into’, ‘out’, ‘of’, ‘in’. ‘Colchester United’, ‘Nicole’, or ‘Porsche’. Proper They precede the noun, e.g. ‘to the classroom’, nouns start with a capital letter. This shows that ‘in the lecture’. In the sentence, ‘After being what is being referred to is the proper name pushed into the lake, I was stuck in the water’, (‘Porsche’) rather than the common or collective ‘in’ and ‘into’ are both prepositions; ‘in’ describes name (‘car’). a position, whereas ‘into’ describes movement. Pronoun A pronoun is a word that is used in place of a noun, such as ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’, ‘him’, ‘her’, etc. Its purpose is to avoid endless repetition of the noun while ensuring that none of the meaning of the sentence is lost. For example, the sentence, ‘Abdul is punctual: he is always on time for his tutorials’ is much better than ‘Abdul is punctual: Abdul is always on time for Abdul’s tutorials.’ 6Playing around with syntax can transform your 3. Punctuation and Grammar sentence. Think about the best way to order the key words and phrases. If you are ‘Punctuation shouldn’t cause as much fear as struggling to make your meaning clear in a it does. Only about a dozen marks need to be sentence, try changing the word order. mastered and the guidelines are fairly simple. What’s more, you can see the marks being 3.2. Tense well applied every day in the serious Make sure you use the correct tense – and be newspapers.’ consistent with it. When you are introducing and Martin Cutts, The Plain English Guide, OUP, 1995, p.80 discussing other people’s opinions, use the present tense, e.g. ‘Mills believes’ or ‘Mills claims’ Misuse of punctuation and grammar is at the rather than ‘Mills believed’ or ‘Mills claimed’. By heart of many of the most common mistakes in putting them in the past tense, their opinions writing. Good punctuation makes the seem dated; it also suggests that their views relationship between words in a sentence may have changed, which may undermine your clear. It also acts as a substitute for features of argument. It may be appropriate to use the past speech such as pausing and alteration of pitch tense if the person in question has been dead a and tone. Misusing punctuation can be like long time, or was writing in a different era. talking with a mouth full of food, obscuring and obstructing the intended meaning. Example: ‘A few years ago, Robert P. Crease asked physicians what they think is the most 3.1. Syntax beautiful experiment of all time.’ ‘Syntax’ is the technical word that is used to describe sentence structure. It is extremely In this sentence, the author shifts tense. It starts important, as a well-ordered sentence makes in the past tense (‘A few years ago, Robert P. meaning clear and concise, whereas a badly- Crease asked physicians…’) then moves into ordered sentence makes the reader (and the present tense (‘… what they think is the marker) work very hard to understand the most beautiful experiment of all time). As well as meaning. being confusing, the statement could also be inaccurate, as the physicians may have changed Example: ‘Although the current law for their minds since they were asked. All that can establishing whether something is a fixture or be said for certain is that the experiment they fitting can be argued to be rather messy and identified was what they thought was the most incoherent…’ beautiful at the time. In this sentence, the word order is, to use the It is a common practice to use the future tense author’s own phrase, ‘rather messy and in introductory sections of essays, for example incoherent’. A slight reordering, using the same ‘The purpose of this essay will be to explore….’ vocabulary, makes the sentence much clearer or ‘This essay will explore…’. The future tense and more logical: ‘Although it could be argued can sound uncertain and unconfident, however: that the current law for establishing whether you can be more assertive by writing in the something is a fixture or fitting is rather messy present tense, e.g. ‘The purpose of this essay and incoherent…’ is to explore…’ or ‘This essay explores…’. 73.3. Prepositions 3.4. Colons and semi-colons. What are prepositions? Prepositions are words Colons and semi-colons may look and sound that describe the position and movement of the alike but are actually very different. They can nouns in a sentence (see Parts of Speech to generally be avoided, so only use them if you clarify your understanding). It can be easy to use are confident of your understanding. them 'inaccurately' because they often seem to sound right in a sentence. The secret is to step Example: ‘This problem can also be seen in the back and think about each one and whether it is following example; in a marriage both the man describing the right position or movement. and the woman…’ Example: ‘We have disconnected ourselves with In this sentence, the author has used a semi- our fellow members of society and no longer colon where a colon should have been used. know the neighbours around us. There are so The aim of the punctuation mark is to join the many of us now that we seem to of lost a sense two halves of the sentence together, which are: of community and become strangers on our (i) a claim or statement (‘This problem can also society.’ be seen in the following example’) and (ii) the explanation, example or proof (‘in a marriage In this example, the author has used the wrong both the man and the woman…’). Sometimes preposition in a number of places. In the first part this use of a colon is referred to as a ‘why- of the sentence, he or she has misunderstood the because’ marker (Cutts, 1995: 83). relationship between subject (‘ourselves’) and object (‘fellow members of society’) in the Semi-colons, on the other hand, are very sentence: you cannot ‘disconnect with’, as ‘with’ different from colons. Any two statements means ‘together’, you can only disconnect ‘from’. (or clauses) that are separated by a semi-colon should (i) be able to stand alone as In the second part of the sentence, the author has separate sentences, and (ii) be closely made a mistake that is common in conversation: connected in subject matter. For example, ‘There using ‘of’ instead of ‘have’ (i.e. ‘we seem to of lost’ are a number of different uses for semi-colons; – of sounds a bit like ‘ave). If the author stripped used in the right way, they can be extremely the sentence down and took out the clause versatile’. (‘seem to’) which has probably caused the confusion, the sentence would read ‘There are so Crude as it may seem, the colon in the human many of us now that we of lost a sense of body provides a very helpful analogy with the community’, which is more obviously incorrect. In punctuation colon, particularly in the way it the final part of the sentence, ‘on’ is used instead functions as a ‘why-because marker’ (note that of ‘in’. colons can also be used to introduce the following: a list of items; a contrast; and direct Correct use of prepositions shows clarity of speech). Physiologically, the colon is the point thought and a good understanding of the at which one thing (food) becomes another relationships between everything that is (waste). In the same way, a grammatical colon described in the sentence. Think carefully about separates (A) the introduction of something, the position and movement of nouns in your e.g. an idea or a claim, from (B) the explanation sentences. Is so-and-so in or on this-or-that? Is of that idea or claim. this-or-that being taken to or from so-and-so? 83.5. Apostrophes 3.6. Speech marks Apostrophes are perhaps the most misused Speech marks ‘do exactly what they say on the punctuation mark of all. Once described as tin’: they mark speech. Nonetheless, they are ‘errant tadpoles’ (Cutts, 1995: 89), they can, if still one of the most misused punctuation used incorrectly, completely obscure the marks. intended meaning of a sentence. Example: ‘In ‘The End of Education’, Nils (2004) Example: ‘The law does not specify other states that “the only thing that can save the UK eventualities, such as a situation where a lost education system is a complete overhaul…”.’ item falls onto a landowners land…’ In this sentence, the author has used speech In this sentence, ‘landowners’ should be marks (“_”) instead of inverted commas (‘_’). In ‘landowner’s’, because the land belongs to the most disciplines speech marks should only be landowner. Apostrophes indicate ownership: ‘the used when something is being said, not when landowner’s land’ is another way of saying ‘the something has been expressed in writing. The land of the landowner’. majority of quotations in academic work will therefore require inverted commas, not speech Correct use of the apostrophe shows clarity of marks, though you should check the thought and a good understanding of the conventions of your discipline to confirm this. relationship between the nouns in a sentence. Learn about apostrophes: they will help you to The difference between speech marks think more clearly and help your reader to (sometimes called ‘double inverted commas’) understand and follow your argument better and inverted commas (‘single inverted (see Further Reading). Remember the rule that commas’) is very simple. One way to the apostrophe generally goes before the ‘s’ if distinguish them is to remember that speech the noun is singular (e.g. the dog’s dinner requires the physical presence of two people, meaning the dinner of the dog) and after the ‘s’ a speaker and a listener, hence it needs if the noun is plural (dogs’ dinner meaning the double inverted commas: “speech marks”. dinner of the dogs). When something is being referenced from a book, however, only one person is present (the As well as indicating ownership, the other reader) hence ‘single inverted commas’. common use of apostrophes is to show that a letter is missing – that words have been ‘contracted’ – i.e. ‘It’s nothing to do with me’ instead of ‘It is nothing to do with me’; ‘She’s been a long time’ instead of ‘She has been a long time.’ As a general rule, contractions should be avoided in academic work. ‘Most experienced writers rewrite their work over and over, refining their thoughts, finding a better way of saying something, making a long-winded section a bit briefer, or adding more detail to develop an idea.’ (Cottrell 2003: 146) 93.7. Singular and plural 3.9. Informal phrases Nouns always specify number, i.e. whether they In recent years there has been an increase in the are singular (‘dog’) or plural (‘dogs’). As well as number of informal modes of written being consistent with the number, you must communication, such as emailing, texting, and make sure that your verbs match your nouns instant messaging. These have contributed to a (e.g. ‘the dog swims’ or ‘the dogs swim’). rise in the number of informal phrases that appear in more formal writing, such as the essay. Example: ‘The law of averages are too unreliable…’ Example: ‘In ‘The Repressed Imagination’ by C. Cartwright, one of the topics he talks about is…’ In this sentence, the word ‘law’ is singular (i.e. one in number); if it is intended to be plural In this sentence, the verb ‘talks’ is inappropriate (more than one), it should be ‘laws’. However, and incorrect, because ‘talking’ is a very different the author has used ‘are’, the plural form of the action to ‘writing’. verb, instead of ‘is’, the singular (remember ‘the laws are’ and ‘the law is’). Nouns and verbs must Example: ‘Basically, the policy aims to improve correspond. The confusion has probably arisen the quality of the service…’ from ‘averages’ being plural, but it is ‘law’ to which the verb refers. It should be, ‘The law of The word ‘basically’ is becoming increasingly averages is too unrealiable...’. common in essays, but is inappropriate in the context of academic writing, the purpose of 3.8. Unnecessary words which is not to reduce things to their most basic One of the most significant differences you will form but to explore issues and ideas in their full notice as your writing improves is a reduction in complexity and detail. Making something ‘basic’ superfluous (i.e. unnecessary) words. The best is different from summarising. Terms like ‘in and most precise writing is often the simplest, essence’, ‘to summarise’, or ‘in short’ are more as the author is in full control of every word. academic in tone. Always ask yourself whether each word is necessary and whether it is the best word you Think about your everyday speech. However could use. well you may speak, much of what you say, and the phrases you use, will be inappropriate in Example: ‘Being poor in society today it does formal written work. Using the word ‘talk’ as an not cause as many problems for the individual umbrella term to refer to any kind of as it did many years ago.’ communication is just one example of this common mistake. Think carefully about the In the first line of this sentence, the pronoun ‘it’ is words you use: what might they be implying by used in the place of ‘being poor’ (a pronoun accident? substitutes a noun; see Parts of Speech). However, its inclusion is superfluous because 3.10. New sentences the reader does not need to be reminded of the If you are unsure whether or not to start a new subject of the sentence. ‘It’ would be necessary sentence, you probably should. This is to start a new sentence in which ‘being poor’ is especially the case if you lack confidence with still the subject, but in a single sentence it is colons and semi-colons, which can be used to unnecessary and confusing. make more complex sentences. If in doubt, 10keep your sentences as simple as possible. There should be a pair of commas in this There is a famous saying, attributed to sentence, not a single comma. It should read Epictetus, the Greek philosopher: ‘Private problems, Mills believes, can often be resolved…’. ‘Mills believes’ is a separate ‘clause’ Do not write so that you can be understood, and needs to be separated so that the sentence write so that you cannot be misunderstood. makes sense with or without it. Cutts (1995: 82) explains this nicely: ‘A pair of commas Example: ‘The graph shows the results, after cordons off information that is an aside, fatigue the score is generally lower. There are explanation or addition. Readers can, if they some anomalies, there could be many different wish, leapfrog the cordoned-off area and still reasons for this.’ make sense of what is said.’ Both sentences would be less confusing if they 3.12. Pronouns were separated into two statements, either by A ‘pronoun’ may sound like something technical full stops or semi-colons i.e. ‘The graph shows and complex, but it is actually very simple (see the results. After fatigue the score is generally Parts of Speech to clarify your understanding). lower. There are some anomalies. There could Always make sure that your pronoun matches be many different reasons for this.’ Alternatively, your noun. Is it the right number? Is it the right the sentences could be rephrased so that each gender? Is it first, second, or third person? statement flows into the next, i.e. ‘The graph shows that after fatigue the score is generally Example: ‘Because society is changing so lower. There are some anomalies, however, for rapidly it is easy to understand why one may which there could be many different reasons.’ feel he cannot cope…’ Remember that a sentence should usually In this sentence, the author mixes the pronouns, contain a single idea or argument; likewise, a moving from ‘one’ to ‘he’, which is very confusing paragraph should contain a single theme or for the reader. A better sentence would be, focus. Pay close attention to where and how ‘Because society is changing so rapidly it is easy professional writers start new sentences. to understand why people feel that they cannot Learn how to use semi-colons, colons, and cope…’ commas so that you can form more complex sentences. 3.13. The definite article One of the most confusing things about the 3.11. Commas English language for some international students In a nutshell, ‘commas act as separators is the ‘definite article’ – otherwise known as ‘the’ between parts of a sentence’ (Cutts, 1995: 81). – because some languages do not have articles. To this effect, they often need to be used in pairs. The following is just one example of how Example: ‘To find a sense of reason instead of commas are misused (see Swan, 1996: 468- drowning in the depths of confusion the society 470 for a comprehensive list). bestows upon us…’ Example: ‘Private problems, Mills believes can In this sentence, the second occurrence of the often be resolved outside of court…’ definite article (‘the’ in ‘the society’) is superfluous. 11Although correct use of the definite article is a 3.15. Using ‘and’ instead of ‘to’ common problem among international It is an increasingly common mistake to use students, it is also increasingly common ‘and’ instead of ‘to’, e.g. ‘I want to try and learn a among home students. Learn the difference new skill’ instead of ‘I want to try to learn a new between the definite article (‘the’, e.g. ‘the skill’. Objections to this particular mistake may house’) and the indefinite article (‘a’, ‘some’, seem irrelevant and old-fashioned, but it e.g. ‘a house’ or ‘some houses’) – you can see actually alters the meaning of the sentence. why they are classed as indefinite or definite. Think carefully about whether you need to use Example: ‘One response of commissioners was one, the other, or neither. to try and manage demand…’ 3.14. Capital letters What the author actually means is ‘to try to Apart from in people’s names, in titles, and at manage demand’. ‘To try’ is an infinitive verb (i.e. the beginning of sentences, capitals (BIG a ‘to’ verb) which needs an additional verb – in letters) should only be used if the word is a this case ‘manage’ – to qualify it. By using ‘and’ ‘proper noun’ rather than a common noun, i.e. if instead of ‘to’, the sentence is actually saying it is the official name or title for something (see that there are two actions (two verbs) at work: Parts of Speech to clarify your understanding). the first action is ‘trying’; the second action is ‘managing’. Therefore, the sentence is effectively Example: ‘One day a teacher notices that the saying, ‘One response of commissioners was to children start missing School and often arrive try and then to manage demand…’ late…’ 3.16. Proof-reading The author has used capital letters Always proof-read your work and always get inappropriately. In the case of school, the only someone else, such as a trusted friend, to time it should be given a capital letter is if its proof-read it for you. Make sure you allow proper name is being referred to, i.e. Woodlands yourself enough time to do this effectively, i.e. School, or if the reference is to a specific school. leave a few days between readings so that you In the example, the author was not referring to a can read it with fresh eyes. Yes, this means specific school. It is the same with the word doing your essays well before the deadlines… ‘department’. If, for example, you are referring specifically to your department, it should be Example: ‘Many problems relate directly to the ‘Department of Psychology’. If you are referring lack of or lack of functioning institutions within to departments in general, it should be society’. ‘departments’. Although this sentence makes sense, it could be Correct use of capital letters is quite easy to misread as a mistake or typo (a ‘typographical understand if you make the time to learn. error’). The choice of phrasing (‘lack of or lack Students often have trouble with capital letters of’), and the absence of commas to punctuate in titles; of essays, publications, etc. However, the phrase, make the sentence very confusing there are set rules that are easy to learn and for the reader. A pair of commas clarifies apply. Take the time. See Further Reading. meaning: ‘Many problems relate directly to the lack of, or lack of functioning, institutions within society’. 12Try to develop your ability to read your work 4. Reasoning with fresh and critical eyes. Empathise with your reader. It may help to read aloud to Many of the most common mistakes made by yourself; that way you can be hyper-sensitive students relate to reasoning, structure, to your punctuation, and test whether it helps argumentation, and presentation. These have or hinders the flow of your sentences. been grouped together here under the umbrella of Reasoning, but you may also wish to read the dedicated section on Structuring an Essay on page 4. 4.1. Structure The most common mistakes that students make in their academic writing relate to structure. If asked, many lecturers would say that the structure is the most important element of an essay. Without a strong, well-considered and well-planned framework it can be extremely difficult to stay focused and develop your argument. In most cases, you should have a plan or an essay outline before you begin writing. However, it often helps to just get your head down and write. This is fine – and a healthy practice – but always have an organising principle, whether this comes a bit later or before you even put pen to paper (or fingers to keys). Read Structuring an Essay on (p. 4). 4.2. Referencing techniques It is crucial that you develop your ability to introduce and discuss the opinions of experts in your field. Helpful resources Example: ‘In Wright Mills, ‘The Promise of Sociology’, he identifies several different Essex101, the University of Essex academic personal troubles…’ skills website features advice, guidance, and interactive resources on all aspects of study. In this sentence, the use of ‘in’ is incorrect and Everything that is housed within the site has the use of ‘he’ is superfluous. It should be been authored by expert academic and ‘Wright Mills, in ‘The Promise of Sociology’, support staff from across the University. identifies…’ or ‘In ‘The Promise of Sociology’, Wright Mills identifies…’ The subject (the author) Visit Essex101 and the object (the book) have been confused: they are conceptualised as one and the same. 13NB. Check what the conventions are for your Always check each sentence in relation to the discipline. It may or may not be necessary to sentence that precedes it to be certain that include date and title, for example. there is a direct relationship, and that the central idea continues to be developed. Put aside a few moments to learn and master some easy techniques for introducing a 4.4. Generalisations reference or citation that you can rely on and Beware the generalisation It is often tempting develop as you gain in confidence. Pay to get carried away and apply our idea or attention to how professional writers and opinion to everything, but always be mindful of academics introduce references in the exceptions and counter-arguments. published work that you read. Example: ‘Nowadays we are more able to Many techniques are simple to understand and examine ourselves from both a public and apply. For example, one common way to personal viewpoint. We were once dictated to, introduce a reference is: ‘AUTHOR, in TITLE, in our way of thinking, but now we are free.’ argues or claims or asserts or states, etc. that ‘QUOTE’...’ e.g. The author makes assumptions about time and place, both past and present, implying Yates, in ‘How to Improve Your intellectual superiority over the past, and making Academic Writing’, argues that ‘misuse a universalisation or generalisation about of punctuation is at the heart of many of freedom of thought. the most common mistakes in writing’ (2009: 7). 4.5. Speculations and assertions If you are making a claim that could be 4.3. Unclear reasoning disputed by the reader, make sure you use One of the most important elements in a good evidence to back it up. essay is sound reasoning. Each sentence and paragraph should flow logically into the next, Example: ‘Without the police force there would building towards a well-reasoned and well- be anarchy on the streets and a huge increase structured argument. in crime, which would result in more individuals being victims of crime.’ Example: ‘Different groups have different identities, ways of separating themselves from While this claim may be true, without evidence it others. This leads to stereotypes. People is only speculative; in some parts of the world misunderstand one another based on their the ethics, power and legitimacy of police forces appearance. This division between people is are questioned, for example. It needs to be getting bigger and more problematic every day.’ backed up with an example or research, e.g. when or where this was the case. The author of this sentence makes a number of assumptions and the connection between each sentence is often unclear. The sentences do not progress logically from one to the next. 14When possible, always get a trusted friend to ‘Be emotionally neutral: most academic read your work. There was recently an advert writing requires you to stand back and for a car in which the seller claimed that, rather analyse dispassionately, as an objective than being ‘reliable’, the car he was selling was onlooker.’ (Cottrell 2003: 157) in ‘good condition and very liable’. If you are not sure of the difference between 4.8. Making indirect assumptions ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’, look them up. Avoid making indirect assumptions. This can be Objectivity is one of the cornerstones of difficult because it is not always obvious to us academic practice. when we are being presumptuous, especially when we are trying to be open-minded… 4.6. Vocabulary Always check that your vocabulary is precise Example: ‘Just because most tribes are and appropriate. Use a dictionary. If you are uncivilised, it does not mean that there are no using a word which has a number of different civilised tribes.’ meanings and spellings, always look it up to check that you have used the correct form (see Although the author intends to establish himself Commonly Confused Words, p. 18). or herself as liberal and not presumptuous, the statement is premised on another assumption Example: ‘With some institutions becoming about ‘most tribes’ which is not backed up with secular, such as religion and family…’ data or literature. In addition, ‘civilised’ is also a problematic term to use because it is value- 'Secular' is a bad choice of word in this laden and subjective. sentence because 'religion' and 'secular' are opposites. Although religions can be disbanded 4.9. Use of metaphor or become defunct, they cannot become In writing, we sometimes use metaphors 'secular' as it means 'non-religious'. The without realising it. A ‘metaphor’ is a literary sentence could be rephrased in a number of technique in which something is described as ways, e.g. 'With some institutions becoming being something else, for example, ‘The moon defunct, such as religion and family...'. was a ghostly galleon’. Metaphors are mostly deliberate and obvious; in this case the 4.7. Misquoting a well-known phrase metaphor reveals something more about the Only use phrases that you fully understand and moon – it describes it, making it more vivid. know are appropriate in a piece of formal However, sometimes poor choice of vocabulary academic work. can lead to an accidental metaphor… Example: ‘The breakdown of the atomic Example: ‘We live in a time in which we are family…’ encouraged to question the world and its contents…’ The correct phrase is ‘nuclear family’, but it is easy to see how the mistake was made. In describing the world as having 'contents', the author is inadvertently using a metaphor. A vessel or repository has contents, but the world is not a vessel. 15¸ Avoid abbreviations. Again, write in full. Use 5. Useful Tips ‘for example’ instead of ‘e.g.’, unless you are using e.g. or i.e. in parenthesis. ¸ In a nutshell, a good academic essay is well- researched, well-structured, and well-argued. ¸ If you are using acronyms (i.e. NASA) make However, you will only get a good mark if sure you write it out in full the first time you you answer the essay question (read the tip use it (National Aeronautics and Space on p. 2). Similarly, if you have been allowed Administration). to chose the title yourself, make sure it is appropriate. ¸ Imagine your target audience is an intelligent reader who has limited familiarity with the subject but understands the main theories that are considered to be common knowledge in your discipline. ¸ If you are expected to submit your work Some tips from George Orwell anonymously, make sure you do In addition from ‘Politics and the English Language’ make sure that you have identified yourself in the way that is preferred by your Be clear about what you are saying department, such as by student number, ‘A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he course code, etc. Make sure you are clear writes, will ask himself at least four questions, about this. Ask someone if necessary. thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it ¸ The best academics usually have 'thick skins' clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an and have learnt not to take bad reviews to effect?’ heart (Times Higher Educational Supplement, 3-9 July 2008, p. 22). As a novice academic, Avoid using clichéd phrases it is the same for you. Feedback is intended to ‘Modern writing at its worst does not consist help you improve, so make the most of it; try in picking out words for the sake of their not to rest on your laurels or get meaning and inventing images in order to downhearted. Remember that the best writers make the meaning clearer. It consists in work very closely with criticism and the gumming together long strips of words which editorial process (read the tip on p. 10). have already been set in order by someone else.’ ¸ Make sure your work is presented in the house style specified by your department. Avoid mixing metaphors: think ‘The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a ¸ Don’t use contractions. Do not use visual image. When these images clash… it contractions. Write in full. can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is ¸ Avoid using ‘you’ and ‘your’. It sounds too naming; in other words, he is not really informal. thinking.’ 16There and their – ‘there’ refers to place (e.g. 6. Commonly ‘over there’); ‘their’ indicates possession (e.g. Confused Words ‘their pyjamas’ – i.e. the pyjamas that belonged to them). A and an – whereas ‘a’ is used before a consonant sound (e.g. ‘a boy’, ‘a party’, ‘a situation’), ‘an’ is used before a vowel sound, i.e. before a word that begins with the letter a, e, i, o, or u (e.g. ‘an army’, ‘an old man’). Some people also use ‘an’ before h, as it is considered to be a ‘weak consonant’. It is easy to see the practical reason for putting an ‘an’ before a vowel: try saying ‘a army’ aloud – it’s difficult Accept and except – ‘to accept’ means ‘to receive’ (e.g. ‘he accepted the award’); ‘except’ Beware the Spellchecker means ‘all but’ (e.g. ‘everyone except Peter went Although spellchecker facilities in to the Summer Ball’). programmes such as Microsoft Word can undoubtedly be very useful, they can also Affect and effect – ‘affect’ either refers to create problems, especially with words that influence (e.g. ‘his presence affected the whole are commonly confused, such as homophones class’) or emotional response (e.g. ‘he showed (words that sound the same but are spelt little affect’); ‘effect’ refers to result (e.g. ‘he differently). A sentence with the wrong ‘there’ experienced some serious side effects’). or ‘their’, or with ‘its’ instead of ‘it’s’, will go unnoticed because the word – although Cite, sight and site – in the context of essays, wrong – does exist within the language. ‘cite’ is the commonest of these three homophones (words which are pronounced the Make sure that your spellchecker is set to UK same but are spelt differently and have spelling, not American spelling, as there are a different meanings): ‘to cite’ means to quote or number of important differences. Whereas mention (e.g. ‘citing references’); ‘sight’ refers to American English spells ‘color’, English spells the ability to see (e.g. ‘she had bad eye sight’); ‘colour’; American English tends to use ‘z’ in ‘site’ refers to a location (e.g. ‘the building site’). verbs (e.g. ‘analyze’), while English uses ‘s’ (e.g. ‘analyse’). Complement and compliment – ‘complement’ is used when something completes or finishes Don’t ignore the grammar check.When a word something else, or provides a balance (e.g. ‘the is underlined to indicate that there is wine complemented the meal’); a ‘compliment’ something wrong with the grammar, click on it is an expression of praise (e.g. ‘the lecturer and take a moment to read the explanation. complimented his work’). This is a good way to learn about grammar. Sometimes you can ignore the rule: you will Than and then – ‘than’ is used in a comparison know whether or not to take the advice once (e.g. ‘Tim is faster than Tom’); ‘then’ refers to a you’ve read the description. point in time (e.g. ‘it happened then’). 17Orwell, G., ‘Politics in the English Language’ in 7. Further Reading Why I Write, Penguin Books, 2004. You may find the following books helpful. Those Partridge, E., Usage and Abusage: A guide to with an asterisk () were used in compiling this good English, Hamish Hamilton, London, 6th booklet. Those with a hash () are strongly edition, 1965. recommended. Partridge, E., You Have a Point There: A guide to Burchfield, R. W., The New Fowler Modern punctuation and its allies, Routledge & Kegan English Usage, Oxford University Press, Oxford, Paul, London, 1983. 1996. Ritter, R. M., New Hart's Rules: The handbook of Butcher, J., Copy-editing: The Cambridge style for writers and editors, Oxford University handbook, Cambridge University Press, Press, Oxford, 2005. Cambridge, 1981. Strunk, W., The Elements of Style, Filiquarian Cook, C. K., Line by Line: How to edit your own Publishing, LLC, 2006. writing, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1985. Swan, M., Practical English Usage, Oxford University Press, 2nd edition, 1995. Cottrell, S., The Study Skills Handbook, Palgrave, 2nd edition, 2003. Truss, L., Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Profile Books, 2007. Cutts, M., The Plain English Guide, Oxford University Press, 1995. The Economist, Pocket Style Book, Economist Publications, London, 1986. Evans, H. (ed. Crawford, G.), Essential English: For journalists, editors and writers, Pimlico, 2nd The University of Chicago Press, A Manual of revised edition, 2000. Style, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 12th edition, 1969. Fowler, H. W. & Fowler, F. G., The King's English, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1973. Hilton, C. & Hyder, M., Getting to Grips with Punctuation and Grammar, BPP (Letts Educational) Ltd, London, 1992. Hilton, C. & Hyder, M., Getting to Grips with Spelling, BPP (Letts Educational) Ltd, London, 1992. Northedge, A., The Good Study Guide (New Edition), The Open University, 2005. 18Notes 19Contains Produced by Learning recycled materials and Development: e-mail ‘’ for more information © University of Essex 2014 Designed and printed by Print Essex at the University of Essex