The move from school or college to university can be a big jump for many students, especially when it comes to writing essays and working on assignments. There is much confusion around what is expected of students when it comes to academic writing.
Getting to grips with academic writing at university can be challenging. I know this only too well through my work as an SU academic student advisor. Every day I meet students who are not completely sure about what is expected from different forms of assessed writing (for example, case studies, reports, essays, even reflective assignments) and who need help with how to use sources and reference correctly.
People often have misconceptions around academic writing, thinking that it has to include complex vocabulary with long sentences. However, academic writing should be clear and concise to help the reader follow an argument as they go through your work. It’s important to note that each subject has its own style of writing and vocabulary. You will find out more about this as you progress through your course.
Such challenges can knock your confidence and make academic writing feel like a chore rather than a pleasure. The good news is that the SU and CeDAS (the Centre for the Development of Academic Skills) have got together to create a Writing Café that aims to build confidence and highlight the rewards of academic writing. The Writing Café runs twice a week on Wednesday and Thursday and is staffed by volunteer peer mentors. These guys really know their stuff as they are students themselves and most of them are doing PhDs, so they have lots of friendly advice to give you and they can really empathise with what you might be struggling with. After all, they’ve been in your position themselves and come out the other side successfully, so they really know how to help!
There may be numerous questions you have about academic writing; what’s important, how do I start or what should I avoid. I thought it would be useful to ask our mentors for their responses to frequently asked questions on the more general features of writing at university. Read on as they tell us what they have learnt from their journeys as academic writers.
Beenish: Why is it a good idea to have an essay-plan before you start writing?
Lana (Mentor and MSc Candidate in Biological Sciences): When tackling a piece of work as long as an essay, it can be easy to forget why you’re writing it in the first place. That’s why it is incredibly important to first come up with a plan of everything you wish to include and outline a basic structure before launching into it.
Firstly decide what angle you want to take. What side of the discussion are you going to support most strongly? What would be a good way to structure your points so your essay flows smoothly? Then the important bit – bulking out your points with in depth analysis, keeping everything you discuss relevant to the essay title. You by no means need to stick to the plan you made before starting if you think your essay would benefit from being taken in a different direction.
Beenish: For academic writing, what are the key things students should do?
Margaret (Mentor and PhD Candidate in Economics): Academic writing centres around researching well on a given topic and presenting ones’ findings/ideas/arguments in a clear logical structure. Two key prerequisites for academic writing may be summed up as the two Rs – Reading and Reflection. It is important to read widely on the subject area, so as to gather as much information and facts on the subject matter being studied. Reading enables you to develop persuasive and critical writing, which are fundamental elements in academic writing. You need to compose your thoughts and develop logical and critical thinking through adequate reflection along with planning and structuring your writing. Not only does reading and reflection help in generating ideas, it also identifies problems/issues/topics within the research.
A third ‘R’ – Referencing, is an important part of academic writing that also ought to be given due consideration. Citations and referencing are what distinguishes academic writing from non-academic writing. It is important to cite the source of your arguments/ideas and avoid plagiarism through proper referencing. Referencing also helps strengthen your arguments and reflects the extent to which you have researched the topic. There are different styles of referencing, which depend on the course you are on.
Finally, practice makes perfect and the important thing here is keep working on your academic writing skills.
Beenish: What advice would you give to a student who has writer’s block?
Freida (Mentor and PhD Candidate in Music and French): The first thing that I would say to anyone with a writer’s block is: Don’t worry, this happens to everyone and is completely normal. There are, however, some tricks that may help. Try taking a break: to stop thinking about the assignment, in order to inspire some new ideas. So, work on something else for a while, go for a walk, or read a book, and then get back to it.
Another thing that can be helpful is to just write it down without thinking about it too much, so that the page fills up (a blank page can be very demotivating). When you do know what to write, but don’t know how to say it, my advice would be similar: get it down on paper. This is the first step in the process, and refinement of language and style are something to worry about later.
Other things that can be helpful are to change your habits: if you always write in the morning, try writing in the evening, or take your computer (or better yet: a piece of paper and a pen) to a location in which you normally do not work, such as a cafe, the park, or anywhere else. This might spark some new creative ideas.
Beenish: What is an academic argument?
Oliver (Mentor and PhD Candidate in Music): Well, an academic argument is, in the last analysis, an argument that takes account of secondary literature: the work of scholars as well as other, less formal sources. I suppose one might say that an academic argument follows a water-tight line of reasoning, but sometimes this is not the case (the fierce debates and disagreements that go on within academic journals are proof of that). As undergraduates, therefore, if you want to make your arguments more ‘academic’, you should consult a wide variety of sources, and try and find the weak areas or points of disagreement in a network of arguments. Such things often provide fertile ground for essay writing.
Beenish: What needs to be in the introduction and conclusion of an assignment?
Laura (Mentor and PhD Candidate in Music): An introduction should present how the argument of the essay fits within a bigger argument, or a definition of the terminology it is going to use. The introduction also needs to inform the reader what the essay is going to be about, for example by using a sentence like ‘the aim of this essay is…’
The conclusion should summarise the main ideas discussed of the essay, trying to establish a link with the introduction by reminding the readers how these ideas fit within the discipline. Sometimes, ending with a quotation can be a very powerful way to finish. However, if this quotation does not reflect exactly what you want to say, you can lose some of the strength of your argument.
To make your argument more coherent, I would advise writing both introduction and conclusion once the whole body of your assignment is finished.
Beenish: Is it important to relate any points made in the assignment back to the question?
Leen (Mentor and PhD Candidate in Classics): Yes. Ultimately the grade you get reflects to a large extent how satisfactorily you have answered the question, not how much you know, nor how much effort you have put into writing it. My two main recommendations to ensure that you relate your points back to the question are:
1) Asking yourself ‘so what? how is this relevant?’ at the end of each paragraph. If you can explain it to yourself, but your explanation is not yet part of the paragraph containing your factual information, citations, quotes, etc. then make sure you add that bit in. In terms of using evidence, quotes, etc. to answer the question, don’t simply say ‘As the Book of Kells says: ….. ’. Say ‘The fact that the Book of Kells says ‘…… ’ demonstrates that ‘……’, making sure that the second bit links it back to the question.
2) Analyse your question before you start writing your paragraphs. Quite often questions contain clues to the ingredients that need to go into the essay. For example, ‘to what extent do you think X is relevant to Y?’ has four elements: i) an explanation of what X is/means/represents/involves, ii) the same for Y, iii) the question of extent and iv) what you think, requiring your considered opinion in view of all the evidence you’ve discussed earlier on in the essay
Beenish: In your view what are the most common mistakes students make in their writing?
Michelle (Mentor and PhD Candidate in Italian): The most common mistake, is the failure to edit the assignment before submitting. It is worth spending time to simply read over the assignment (preferably aloud) as this can actually yield a surprising number of spelling, grammatical and syntactical mistakes. In many cases it can be the difference between a first and second. This method helps with consistency in referencing and spelling of terminology, and ensures that you are not repeating yourself. You can also check that your terminology and language is not colloquial and personalised.
Other common mistakes include the use of non-academic references. While we do live in a world with an alarming reliance on Wikipedia, it is not an academic source and should not be used as a reference. References and research should be limited to published books, academic journals and/or other forms of formerly published materials. If ever you are uncertain if something is considered an academic source, consult the Library’s resources – they have the links you need to academic e-journals and web-sources – in other words, avoid general google searches.
Beenish: Why is it important for students to proof-read their work?
Rebecca (Mentor and PhD Candidate in Music): A few years ago, I was given the following advice by my supervisor: ‘Writing is 40% getting words on the page, and 60% proofreading and editing.’ I remember thinking at the time that this must be the wrong way round. Over the years since, I’ve learnt that this is absolutely true. Proofreading isn’t just about looking for places where you’ve accidentally speed-typed ‘thus’ instead of ‘this’ and autocorrect or spell-check hasn’t picked it up. It’s a vital part of the writing process. For shorter pieces of work, I’d recommend at least 2 days before the deadline to let ideas settle, and for you to be able to go back through and critique your own writing as if you were reading someone else’s, and for longer pieces of work, the proofreading process can often take weeks.
If this sounds strange or impossible to you, and you think you’ll always be a ‘get it down and hand it in’ kind of writer, try the following exercise: take your essay, and on a separate piece of paper, summarise each
paragraph in a single sentence. Read back through the sentences you’ve written. If they make sense on their own, and represent the argument you thought you were making, then good job! If not, you may have to go back through your essay and tweak things slightly to reinforce your original argument. This counts as proofreading too, and is vital in securing the top marks at any level of study.
The Writing Café runs every Wednesday in Tommy’s Lounge, 3-5pm and every Thursday in Imagine, at 4-6pm. We look forward to seeing you there!
CeDAS also offers a range of academic writing support. Further details available at: royalholloway.ac.uk/cedas or try HASHTAG + SkillUp