Academic Writing Skills Study Guide

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Academic Writing SkillsStudy GuideSchool of Health and Social Work

Why read this study guide?This study guide covers all the main points you need to know about successful academicwriting. Communicating effectively through your writing is one of the keys to becoming asuccessful student. Following the tips and advice in the guide will help you to express yourthoughts clearly and effectively, giving you the best chance of achieving good marks for yourwritten work.The Guide is divided into 6 sections: of speechGrammar and punctuationStructuring an essayArgument and reasoningProofreadingUseful tipsYou can find further advice and guidance on our Academic Skills Advice website at hope you find both the guide and the website useful, and that your writing continues todevelop and improve as you progress through your programme of study.Wishing you every success in your academic work,The Academic Skills Advice TeamSchool of Health and Social Work3

Parts of SpeechTo write effectively, you need to be knowwhat kind of words are used to formspeech.NounA noun is an object or a thing, such as a ‘desk’,‘phone’ and ‘mug’. A ‘proper noun’ is the actualname of the object or thing (if it has its ownname), such as the ‘University of Hertfordshire,‘Students’ Union’, or ‘England’. Proper nouns startwith a capital letter to show that what is beingreferred to is the actual, or proper, name. Forexample, there are lots of universities (noun), butonly one University of Hertfordshire (propernoun).PronounPronouns are words that are used in place of anoun, such as ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’, ‘him’, and ‘her’.Pronouns are used to avoid repetition of thenoun while ensuring that none of the meaning ofthe sentence is lost. For example, the sentence,‘Neto is friendly; he always smiles when I seehim’ is much better than ‘Neto is friendly; Netoalways smiles when I see Neto’.AdjectiveAn adjective is a word that describes a noun,making it more specific and identifiable. Forexample, the brown, wooden desk or the slim,metallic phone.In the example, brown,wooden, slim and metallic, are all words thatdescribe what the noun (desk, phone) is like.VerbVerbs are commonly described as ‘doing’ or‘action’ words. They describe what the nouns inthe sentence are doing, e.g. running, thinking,eating. In the sentence, ‘Izzy is walking to the busstop’, ‘walking’ is the verb.AdverbAn adverb is a describing word for verbs,adjectives and other adverbs. 'Quickly', ‘angrily’and ‘kindly’ are all adverbs. They make the actionof the verb more specific. In the sentence, ‘theman talked loudly’, the verb is ‘talked’ (what theman is doing) and the adverb is 'loudly' (how theman is doing it).PrepositionPrepositions are words or phrases such as: ‘to’,‘from’, ‘into’, ‘out’, ‘of’, ‘in’, ‘under’, ’by’, ‘with’,‘before’, and ‘after’.In the sentence, ‘After finishing my shift, I gotonto the bus and became stuck in traffic’, ‘onto’and ‘in’ are both prepositions: ‘onto’ describesmovement and ‘in’ describes position.In the phrase, ‘On Tuesday, .’, ‘On’ is thepreposition.It is important to use prepositions correctly tomake your meaning clear:Example:‘He stood in the stage.’In this example, the preposition describing hisposition on the stage is incorrect. He should bestanding ‘on’ the stage, not in it!It is useful to learn some combinations of wordsand prepositions commonly found in academicwriting, such as: different from; to result in; torefer to; to contribute to; to be consistent with;to focus on; to distinguish between; to dependon; and to benefit from.

Grammar and PunctuationTogether,goodpunctuationandgrammar act as a vehicle for deliveringyour message clearly. Without it, yourlecturer will need to work much harder tounderstand the points you are making.Poor use of punctuation and grammar isone of the commonest reasons thatstudents find themselves unable toimprovetheirgradesbeyond‘satisfactory’ or ‘good’.Syntax‘Syntax’ is the word used to describe sentencestructure. A well-ordered sentence makes themeaning clear, whereas a poorly structuredsentence obscures the meaning.Example:‘Ordering the key words and phrases in asentence takes some thinking about. Trychanging the order of the words if you arestruggling to get the meaning right’.‘Think about the best way to order the keywords and phrases in your sentences. If you arestruggling to make your meaning clear, trychanging the order of the words’.TenseTenses, e.g. past, present, future, can bedifficult to get right, especially if English is notyour first language.When you are introducing and discussing otherpeople’s opinions, use the present tense, e.g.‘Portway believes’ or ‘Stein states’ rather than‘Portway believed’ or ‘Stein stated’.By putting them in the past tense, their opinionscan seem out of date; it also suggests that theirviews may have changed, which can weakenyour argument. However, there are times whenit is appropriate to use the past tense, e.g. if theperson in question has been dead for a long time.At other times the present tense can work well,especially if you want to be assertive and confident,e.g. ‘The purpose of this essay is to explore ’or‘This essay explores ’.Aim for overall consistency in your use of tense asswitching between tenses can be confusing for thereader and will reduce the fluency of your writing.Colons and semi-colonsColons and semi-colons may look similar, but theyare actually very different. Used properly they canhelp you to express complicated ideas clearly,although you should only use them if you areconfident to do so.The semi-colon is used to link two sentenceswhich are closely related in subject matter, butwhich can stand alone as separate sentences.Example: ‘The woman stood up quickly and thenfell to the floor; she hurt herself badly.The colon can be used in several ways. Forexample, to separate an idea or a claim, from theexplanation of that idea or claim.Example: ‘Simone has one dream: She dreams ofbecoming a therapist’.Colons can also be used to introduce a list.Example:The price includes the following: flight to Italy,conference accommodation, and gala dinner.Sometimes they are used before a quotation, andsometimes before direct speech.Examples:The banner read: ‘Save our NHS’.They shouted: ‘Our children are starving!’5

ApostrophesApostrophes are most commonly used to indicateownership of a noun but they are often usedincorrectly.Example: ‘His mothers’ house was big enoughfor all the puppy’s’.Singular and pluralNouns can be singular or plural. For example,there may be one service-user (singular), or theremay be many service-users (plural). Wheneverthere is more than one of a thing (a noun), itshould be expressed as a plural. Plural nounsfrequently have ‘s’ at the end of the word.In this sentence, ‘mothers’ should be ‘mother’s’because the house belongs to his mother not tolots of mothers. ‘Puppy’s’ should be the pluralform ‘puppies’ because there are lots of them andthey do not own anything in the sentence (and sothey do not get an apostrophe!).Examples: dogs, cats, tables, books, computers.Apostrophes can completely obscuremeaning of a sentence if used incorrectly.Excess baggageAcademic writing that is concise, objective and tothe point, is much easier to follow than writingthat is full of unnecessary (superfluous) words orrepetitive phrases. Another way of describing thiskind of writing might be to say it has ‘had the fattrimmed off’. This means that the author hasselected to use only those words that arenecessary to make their point clearly and hasremoved any additional, unnecessary ones.theA general rule to follow is that the apostrophegoes before the ‘s’ if the noun is singular (e.g. thegirl’s crisps meaning the crisps belonging to thegirl), and after the ‘s’ if the noun is plural (e.g.the girls’ crisps meaning the crisps belonging tothe girls).Apostrophes are also used to show that a letteris missing, e.g. ‘It’s nothing to do with him’instead of ‘It is nothing to do with him’. These arecalled contractions and they should be avoidedin academic work.Speech marksSpeech marks indicate the beginning and end ofreported (quoted) speech.Example:In his inaugural speech, the new Health Ministersaid, “This level of funding is unsustainable”.Speech marks are only used when reportingsomething that was said (spoken) not whenreporting something that has been expressed inwriting. Most academic quotations willtherefore require inverted commas, not speechmarks.When writing in the singular and plural, you mustmake sure that your nouns and verbs match, e.g.‘the bird flies’ or ‘the birds fly’. If there is only onebird, it flies, but if there are two or more, they fly!When reading through your work, ask yourselfwhether each word is necessary and whether it isthe best word to use. Writing concisely requiresyou to know the right words to use to expressyourself clearly and precisely. For example, do notwrite ‘very essential’ or ‘very crucial’. Saying‘essential’ or ‘crucial’ is more than enough!Reading widely, especially research and scholarlyarticles, will help to extend your vocabularyconsiderably.Once you have found the right words to use thereis no need to add extra words with the same or asimilar meaning (no excess baggage please!).Example of ‘excess baggage’:‘I feel being reflective has enabled me to learnmore including learning from my practice andlearning from my peers. Overall, being reflective

has helped me to develop a learning mind-setwhich has been a learning experience in-itself.’In summary, good academic writing has ‘noexcess baggage on board’. It also shouldn’tinclude metaphors like ‘trim the fat off’ and‘excess baggage’!Did you know?Tautology means: Needless repetition ofan idea using different words or phrases.Pleonasm means: The use of more wordsthan are necessary for the expression ofan idea.InformalityThe increase in informal methods of writtencommunication, such as email, text, and instantmessaging, has contributed to a rise in the use ofinformal and colloquial (everyday) language inessays.A good tip is to read your work out loud to listenfor where the pauses naturally fall. If reading outloud leaves you breathless, you probably need tomake some amendments. Try shortening yoursentences and/or introducing commas, semicolons or colons, to break the sentences intomanageable (and understandable) lengths of text.CommasCommas are used to separate parts of a sentence,usually to indicate a brief pause. Used correctlythey can transform a sentence from one thatdoesn’t quite make sense to one that makes apoint or argument very clear.Below are just some examples of the many waysin which commas can be used.To separate words and word groups in asimple series of three or more items.Example:In the end, I bought bread, peanut butter,bananas, and milk.Example: ‘Basically, the law is talking aboutimproving the quality of social services ’It would be incorrect to write:In the end I bought bread peanut butterbananas and milk.The word ‘basically’ is inappropriate foracademic writing, the purpose of which is toexplore complex concepts and issues. Terms like‘in essence’ or ‘to summarise’, are moreappropriate.To separate two adjectives when the order ofthe adjectives is inter-changeable.The use of the word ‘talking’ is unsuitablebecause the law is a concept and concepts arenot capable of talking! Words that could be usedinstead include state, articulate or describe.SentencesTry to express a single idea or point in eachsentence, and a single theme or focus in eachparagraph. Your aim is to deliver a clear messageto your reader, not to confuse them with anexcessively long trail of meaningless,unfathomable and impenetrable words Example: She is a tall, healthy woman. Wecould also say healthy, tall woman.Commas can also be used in pairs to cordon offinformation that is an aside, explanation oraddition.Example:The boy could, with a little help, write his nameand telephone number.7

The dependent clause ‘with a little help’ can beremoved and the remaining sentence will stillmake sense.A dependent clause is a group of words with asubject and a verb. A dependent clause cannotstand alone in a sentence, it is dependent onbeing attached to an independent clause to forma sentence.‘After he ran to the hospital’ is a dependentclause, i.e. it requires an additional group ofwords such as ‘he entered the ward’, tocomplete the sentence.‘He ran to the hospital’ and ‘He entered theward’ are both independent clauses, whichmeans they can each stand alone as a sentence.If two independent clauses are separated bya comma, it is called a run-on sentence or‘comma splice’. Comma splicing should beavoided.Example: He ran to the hospital, he enteredthe ward.There are several remedies:He ran to the hospital. He entered the ward.After he ran to the hospital, he entered theward.He ran to the hospital, and he entered theward.PronounsSee ‘Parts of Speech’ for a definition ofpronouns. A common mistake in writing is tomismatch pronoun and nouns in a sentence.Check what you have written, is it the rightgender? Is it first, second, or third person?Example:She was working on her presentation.He was ready for their feedback about his work.The definite articleThe ‘definite article’ is otherwise known as ‘the’.Although correct use of the definite article is acommon problem among students who do nothave English as a first language, it is becomingmore common among native English speakers too.It is important to learn when to use the definitearticle, ‘the’, and the indefinite article such as ‘a’or ‘an’. The definite article is used when you arereferring to something that is known to you ordefinite. The indefinite article is, as the wordsuggests, less specific.Example:The patient in the side room. This refers to aspecific person.A patient asked to go to the day room. This refersan unknown patient.Capital lettersStudents often make mistakes in choosing whento use, or not use, capital letters. The rules arereasonably straight forward to learn, essentiallythat capital letters should only be used if the wordis a ‘proper noun’ and not if it is a common noun.Example:She went to Beechdale Secondary School inSt.Albans.In the example, both the school and the town arespecific ones with names that distinguish themfrom others, and so they are capitalised.Alternatively, the sentence might have read ‘Shewent to secondary school in a local town’ in whichcase there would be no need for capitals.Using ‘and’ instead of ‘to’It is a common mistake to use ‘and’ instead of ‘to’,e.g. ‘I want to try and learn to swim’ instead of ‘Iwant to try to learn to swim’.

‘To try’ is an infinitive verb, i.e. a ‘to’ verb, whichneeds an additional verb, such as ‘learn’, toqualify it. Using ‘and’ instead of ‘to’, means thatthere are two verbs (actions) at work in thesentence. The first action is ‘trying’; the secondaction is ‘learning’. Therefore, the author iseffectively saying, ‘I want to try (first action) andthen I want to learn to swim (second action) ’ContractionsWords like ‘can’t’ and ‘shouldn’t’ are calledcontractions because they have beenshortened in length by removing letters. Inacademic writing, you can’t use ‘can’t’ andshouldn’t use ‘shouldn’t’. Write the words infull.AbbreviationsIf you are using abbreviations, e.g. NHS, makesure you write them out in full the first timeyou use them (National Health Service); youcan then abbreviate thereafter.Use ‘for example’ instead of ‘e.g.’, unless youare using e.g. or i.e. in parenthesis.Choice of personAcademic writing is usually written from thethird-person perspective. Writing in thirdperson means writing as an outsider lookingin, and makes use of pronouns like ‘he’, ‘she’,‘it’, or ‘they’. It differs from the first-person,which uses pronouns such as ‘I’ and ‘my’, andfrom the second-person, which uses pronounssuch as ‘you’ and ‘yours’.Writing from a first-person perspective isusually reserved for reflective pieces of workwhere you are required to share your personalperspective and experience.Do not write in the second person. This meansyou should not be using ‘you’, your’, yourself.Structuring an EssayA well-structured essay makes it easier foryour lecturer to follow your ideas andarguments.IntroductionThe introduction is your chance to ‘set the scene’for the reader, showing why your topic isimportant and what issues or points you will beaddressing in the main body of the essay. A goodintroduction shows the reader that youunderstand the essay question and that you havea plan for managing the answer.You may need to define key terms and concepts inyour introduction so that your reader is clear thatyou understand the topic you are about to embarkon.Main bodyUse paragraphs to break your work into separateareas or topics. Present an idea or several linkedideas in each paragraph and offer supporting andalternative viewpoints to show that you haveconsidered the issue from different perspectives.Ensure that you signal at the beginning of theparagraph what it will be about and conclude theparagraph by delivering a summary message ormain point that pulls together the various ideasthat you have presented.Read over your paragraph to ensure that it doesnot deviate into irrelevant topic areas or becomerepetitive. Remember, each paragraph shouldcontain an explicit message or clearly arguedposition.Make links between your paragraphs so that thereader can see the logical flow of the essay as youmove from one issue or topic to the next.9

You might find it easier to divide your essay intoheaded sections to give you a structure to workwith, but don’t forget to remove the headings atthe end (unless your assignment brief allowsheadings).Essay Checklist ConclusionThe conclusion is where you summarise themain arguments of your essay and provide afinal concluding statement which should linkback to the essay title. It should be clear whyyou have reached your conclusion and why itis of importance. Do not introduce any newinformation at this stage. Reference listThe reference list should be presented accordingto the guidelines you have been given andshould include all the sources you have referredto in your work. Take care to check back throughthe essay to ensure all the in-text citations arelisted in the reference list. A correctly presented reference lists is an easyway to get marks. A poorly presented,inaccurate or incomplete reference list is an easyway of losing marks!Do not include a bibliography unless asked to.Tips If the essay title uses words like analyse,evaluate, compare and discuss, makesure that you do just that – this is whatyour marker will be looking for.If you do not understand the assignmentquestion or essay title, you will not be ableto provide an answer to it. If in any doubtas to what you have been asked to do,check with your lecturer before you startwriting. Essay TitleHave you used the correct essay title?IntroductionDoes the introduction explain what thesubject of the essay is?Are key words or concepts identified?Does the introduction set the scene forwhat will happen in the rest of the essay?Main BodyDoes the main body show that you haveread widely and deeply?Does each paragraph address a main point?Is each point and sub-point, supported byevidence?Are all sources of evidence correctly cited?Have you linked the paragraphs?ConclusionDoes the conclusion relate back to theessay question?Does it summarise the main pointsdiscussed in the essay?Does it provide a clear and conciseconcluding statement?ReferencesAre all the sources used referenced?Are the in-text citations and reference listpresented correctly?Are all the in-text citations shown in thereference list?Do all the sources in the reference listappear in the essay? Presentation Is the essay presented according to theassignment guidelines? Have you kept within the set word count?

Argument and ReasoningAn ‘academic argument’ is a point of viewthat is presented with the expresspurpose of convinci

academic writing, the purpose of which is to explore complex concepts and issues. Terms like Zin essence or to summarise, are more appropriate. The use of the word Ztalking [ is unsuitable because the law is a concept and concepts are not capable of talking! Words that could be used instead include state, articulate or describe. Sentences Try to express a single idea or point in each sentence .

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