How To Improve Your Academic Writing - University Of York

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How to improve youracademic writingIn a recent survey, academic staffat the University identified theinterrelated skills ofwritingand reasoning as the two mostimportant skills forsuccessin higher education; when askedwhich skills students most oftenlacked, writing was again at thetop of their list.

What is thepurpose of thisbooklet?Although the nature of universitylevel study has changed in recentyears, not least because oftechnology, one element hasremained constant, guaranteeingsuccess to students with amastery of it: writing.This booklet has been structured into two mainsections: (i) Punctuation and Grammar, and (ii)Reasoning. These are preceded by sections onStructuring an Essay and Parts of Speech(essential reading if you have forgotten how totell your noun from your verb). In addition thereare also sections on Useful Tips, CommonlyConfused Words, Writing Support at Essex,and Further Reading. It can be read from coverto cover, or can be dipped into with a specificproblem in mind.If you want to be true to yourself – to befaithful to what you really think by expressingyourself clearly and precisely – then youshould care about language irrespective ofthe fact that it will improve your grades.In a recent survey, academic staff at theUniversity identified the interrelated skills ofessay-writing and reasoning as the two mostimportant skills for success in highereducation; when asked which skills studentsmost often lacked, essay-writing was again atthe top of their list. Needless to say, writingability is also highly prized by employers.The purpose of this booklet is to provide areference guide to some of the most commonmistakes in academic writing and to heightenyour appreciation of the logic and beauty oflanguage, a good command of which will helpyou to think more clearly and deeply, and havea positive impact on every aspect of youracademic work, not just assignments.The examples that feature in this booklet areadapted from an analysis of first-yearacademic work, covering all faculties. Theanalysis found that most students are makingthe same mistakes. The good news is thatthese mistakes can be easily corrected bylearning some simple rules, and it is never toolate to learn.Writing is at the very heart ofacademic life. Good writing makesa good student. This bookletprovides useful guidance andhelpful tips certain to set you oncourse to a clear expression of theplain sense of things, not only atuniversity but in the outside worldas well. An assimilation of itscontent will bring immediatebenefits. I recommend that youread it carefully before you writeyour next essay!Dr Leon Burnett, Dean of Faculty ofHumanities and Comparative Studies

1. Structuring an Essay22. Parts of Speech43. Punctuation and Grammar (the most common mistakes)63.1 Bad syntax3.2 Inappropriate use of tense3.3 Incorrect use of prepositions3.4 Incorrect use of colons and semi-colons3.5 Incorrect use of apostrophes3.6 Incorrect use of speech marks3.7 Confusing singular and plural3.8 Using unnecessary words3.9 Using inappropriate or informal phrases3.10 Not starting new sentences when appropriate3.11 Incorrect use of commas3.12 Mixing pronouns3.13 Inappropriate use of definite article3.14 Inappropriate or incorrect use of capital letters3.15 Using ‘and’ instead of ‘to’3.16 Insufficient proof-reading4. Reasoning (the most common mistakes)4.1 Poor structure4.2 Poor referencing techniques4.3 Poor or unclear reasoning4.4 Generalisations4.5 Speculations and assertions4.6 Poor choice of vocabulary4.7 Misusing or misquoting a well-known phrase4.8 Making indirect assumptions4.9 Inappropriate or inadvertent use of 16165. Useful Tips176. Commonly Confused Words187. Writing Support at Essex198. Further Reading20

Conclusion1. Structuringan EssayThe conclusion is where you remind the readerof what you have done – the main issues youhave addressed and what you have argued.The conclusion should contain no new material.Your conclusions should be clear, leaving thereader in no doubt as to what you think; youshould also explain why your conclusions areimportant and significant. As Stella Cottrell(2003: 154) suggests, it may also be a goodidea to link your final sentence to the questioncontained in the title. In size, the conclusionshould be no more than 10% of the essay.Before we explore the micro issues of writing(grammar and punctuation), it may help tothink about the macro issues, especially essaystructure. While your grammar andpunctuation may improve gradually over time,you can take immediate and easy steps toimprove the way you structure your essays, forwhich the following may be useful.Reference list and/orbibliographyIntroductionThe introduction is where you provide a routemap for the reader and make clear how yourargument will develop (see opposite). Oneeffective approach is to outline the main issuesthat you seek to address in your essay. It mayalso be appropriate to explain how you interpretthe question. In size, the introduction shouldgenerally be no more than 10% of the essay.Appended to your essay should be a list of allthe sources you have referred to (a referencelist) and/or a list of all of the sources you haveconsulted but not referred to within the essay(a bibliography). Find out which is required byyour department and which referencingsystem is preferred; it may be that they requireboth, either separately or combined.Main bodyTipYou should be able to sum up thebasic opinion or argument of youressay in a couple of lines. It mayhelp to do this before you startwriting.It is up to you to decide on the best way toorganise your essay. Whatever you decide,make sure you adopt a systematic or logicalapproach that is transparent to your readers.Keep them informed about the steps in yourexposition (the presentation of your viewpoint).You are not writing a mystery or thriller, so donot leave the reader in suspense until the end;make your argument explicit and make sureevery paragraph in the main body of youressay links to the ones before and after it. If ithelps – and if it is appropriate – you coulddivide your essay into sections andsubsections, giving each section asubheading or summary in a few words; youcan always remove subheadings afterwards.Tip‘However they are worded, allassignment titles contain a centralquestion which has to be answered.Your main task is to apply what youknow – however brilliant your pieceof writing, if it does not ‘answer thequestion’ you may get no marks atall.’ (Cottrell 2003: 154)2

Essay ChecklistWhat is an argument?You may have come across the term‘argument’ in an academic context and feltconfused, not fully understanding itsmeaning. Outside of academia, ‘argument’usually refers to a disagreement. It tends tobe an event; a physical occurrence. This maybe the sense of the word that is most familiarto you, but an ‘academic argument’describes something quite different: it isessentially a point of view.1. Essay Title Does the essay have the full and correctessay title?2. Introduction Is there a significant introduction thatidentifies the topic, purpose and structureof the essay? Are key words or concepts identified inthe introduction?A good argument (a ‘sound’ argument) is apoint of view that is presented in a clear andlogical way, so that each stage of reasoningis transparent and convincing; it will includeevidence and possible counter-arguments. Itmay even help to make the assumption thatthe reader is in disagreement with you.3. Main Body Is there plenty of evidence that you havedone the required reading? Have you put each main point in aseparate paragraph?You will not only find arguments of this kind inacademic contexts. Whenever you read apaper, or watch TV, or listen to a friend, youare presented with an argument – a point ofview that has been articulated with theexpress purpose of convincing you of itsvalidity or truth. Almost anywhere wherethere is thought and communication, there isargument; although the same intellectualstandards and formal structure that areimposed in an academic context may beabsent. The editorial sections of qualitynewspapers are a particularly good place tolook for arguments. Are the paragraphs logically linked? Is each main point/argument supported byevidence, argument or examples? Are the ideas of others clearly referenced?4. Conclusion Is the conclusion directly related to thequestion? Is it based on evidence and facts? Does it summarise the main points? Is it substantial (a paragraph or more)?When constructing your argument, the firstthing to do is to read the essay question,then read it again. What does it ask you todo? Assess? Evaluate? Discuss? Compare?Each of these ‘question-words’ is different.Make sure that your argument matches thequestion-word. Once you are certain of yourpoint of view, start thinking about the kind ofevidence that would stand up in court.5. References Have you referenced all of your sources? Are all of the references accurate? Are all of the references in the essayshown in the bibliography and vice versa?6. Layout Is it neat and legibly presented?3

2. Parts of SpeechEach word in a sentence can berole it plays.defined by theThe different roles are known as‘parts of speech’. In order to fullyunderstand the examples in thisbooklet, it may help tore-familiarise yourselfthe basic parts of speech.4with

VerbAdjectiveA verb is the part of speech that people tendto identify most easily. In schools it is knownas a ‘doing word’ – an action word – whichdescribes what the nouns in the sentence aredoing, i.e. swimming, walking, eating, thinking,growing, learning, drinking, misbehaving. In thesentence, ‘Sam studies in the library’, ‘studies’is the verb.An adjective is a describing word that givesthe noun a quality that makes it more specific.For example, any number of adjectives couldbe used to ‘qualify’ the noun ‘lecture’. It couldbe an ‘excellent lecture’, a ‘long lecture’, or a‘boring lecture’ – ‘excellent’, ‘long’ and ‘boring’are all adjectives.AdverbNounAn adverb is a describing word, but for verbs,not nouns. For example, ‘quickly’, ‘stupidly’ and‘hurriedly’ are all adverbs (they often endin ‘–ly’). They are used with verbs to make theaction more specific, e.g. ‘drink quickly’,‘behave stupidly’, ‘work hurriedly’. In thesentence, ‘the lecturer shouted loudly’, ‘loudly’is the adverb.A noun is an object – a thing – such as ‘team’,‘girl’ or ‘car’. A ‘proper noun’ is the propername of the thing (if it has its own name) suchas ‘Colchester United’, ‘Nicole’, or ‘Porsche’.Proper nouns have a capital letter. This showsthat what is being referred to is the propername (‘Porsche’) rather than the common orcollective name (‘car’).PrepositionPronounPrepositions are words that describe theposition and movement of the nouns in asentence, such as ‘to’, ‘from’, ‘into’, ‘out’, ‘of’,‘in’. They precede the noun, e.g. ‘to theclassroom’, ‘in the lecture’. For example, in thesentence, ‘After being pushed into the lake, Iwas stuck in the water’, ‘in’ and ‘into’ are bothprepositions; ‘in’ describes a position,whereas ‘into’ describes movement.A pronoun is a word that is used in place of anoun, such as ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’, ‘him’, ‘her’, etc. Itspurpose is to avoid endless repetition of thenoun while ensuring that none of the meaningof the sentence is lost. For example, thesentence, ‘Abdul is punctual: he is always ontime for his tutorials’ is much better than‘Abdul is punctual: Abdul is always on time forAbdul’s tutorials.’5

3. Punctuation andGrammar‘Punctuation shouldn’t cause asmuch fear as it does. Only about adozen marksneed to bemastered and the guidelines arefairlysimple. What’s more, youcan see the marks being wellapplied every day in the seriousnewspapers.’Martin Cutts, The Plain English Guide, OUP, 1995, p.806

Although this section also coversgrammar, misuse of punctuationis at the heart of many of themost common mistakes inwriting. Good punctuation makesthe relationship between wordsin a sentence clear, while alsoacting as a substitute for featuresof speech such as pausing andaltering pitch and tone. Misusingpunctuation can be like talkingwith a mouthful of food,obscuring and obstructing theintended meaning.order the key words and phrases. If you arestruggling to make your meaning clear in asentence, try changing the word order.3.2. Inappropriate use of tenseMake sure you use the correct tense – and beconsistent with it. When you are introducingand discussing other people’s opinions, usethe present tense, e.g. ‘Mills believes’ or ‘Millsclaims’ rather than ‘Mills believed’ or ‘Millsclaimed’. By putting them in the past tense,their opinions seem dated; it also suggeststhat their views may have since changed.It may, however, be appropriate to use the pasttense if the person in question has been deada long time, or was writing in a different era.Student example: ‘A few years ago, Robert P.Crease asked physicians what they think is themost beautiful experiment of all time.’3.1. Bad syntax‘Syntax’ is the technical word that is used todescribe sentence structure. It is extremelyimportant, as a well-ordered sentence makesmeaning clear and concise, whereas a badlyordered sentence makes the reader (andmarker) work very hard to understand themeaning.In this sentence, the author shifts tense. Itstarts in the past tense (‘A few years ago,Robert P. Crease asked physicians ’) thenmoves into the present tense (‘ what theythink is the most beautiful experiment of alltime). As well as being confusing, thestatement could also be inaccurate, as thephysicians may have changed their mindssince they were asked. All that can be saidfor certain is that the experiment theyidentified was what they thought was themost beautiful at the time.Student example: ‘Although the current law forestablishing whether something is a fixture orfitting can be argued to be rather messy andincoherent ’In this sentence, the word order is, to use theauthor’s own phrase, ‘rather messy andincoherent’. A slight reordering, using thesame vocabulary, makes the sentence muchclearer and more logical: ‘Although it could beargued that the current law for establishingwhether something is a fixture or fitting israther messy and incoherent ’It is a common practice to use the futuretense in introductory sections of essays, forexample ‘The purpose of this essay will beto explore .’ or ‘This essay will explore ’.The future tense can sound uncertain andunconfident, however: you can be moreassertive by writing in the present tense,e.g. ‘The purpose of this essay is toexplore ’ or ‘This essay explores ’.Playing around with syntax can transformyour sentence. Think about the best way to7

described in the sentence. Think carefullyabout the position and movement of nounsin your sentences. Is so-and-so in or onthis-or-that? Is this-or-that being taken toor from so-and-so?3.3. Incorrect use ofprepositionsWhat are prepositions? Prepositions arewords that describe the position andmovement of the nouns in a sentence (seeParts of Speech to clarify your understanding).They are very easy to use incorrectly, becausethey often seem to sound right in a sentence.The secret is to step back and think abouteach one and whether it is describing the rightposition or movement.3.4. Incorrect use of colons andsemi-colons.Colons and semi-colons may look and soundalike, but are actually very different. They cangenerally be avoided, so only use them if youare confident in your understanding.Student example: ‘We have disconnectedourselves with our fellow members of societyand no longer know the neighbours around us.There are so many of us now that we seem toof lost a sense of community and becomestrangers on our society.’Student example: ‘This problem can also beseen in the following example; in a marriageboth the man and the woman ’In this sentence, the author has used a semicolon where a colon should have been used.The aim of the punctuation mark is to join thetwo halves of the sentence together, whichare: (i) a claim or statement (‘This problem canalso be seen in the following example’) and (ii)the explanation, example or proof (‘in amarriage both the man and the woman ’).Sometimes this use of a colon is referred to asa ‘why-because’ marker (Cutts, 1995: 83).In this example, the author has used thewrong preposition in a number of places. Inthe first part of the sentence, he or she hasmisunderstood the relationship between thesubject (‘ourselves’) and the object (‘fellowmembers of society’) of the sentence: youcannot ‘disconnect with’, as ‘with’ means‘together’, you can only disconnect ‘from’.Semi-colons, on the other hand, are verydifferent from colons. Any two statements(or clauses) that are separated by asemi-colon should (i) be able to stand aloneas separate sentences, and (ii) be closelyconnected in terms of their subject matter. Forexample, ‘There are a number of different usesfor semi-colons; used in the right way, theycan be extremely versatile’.In the second part of the sentence, the authorhas made a mistake that is common inconversation: using ‘of’ instead of ‘have’ (i.e.‘we seem to of lost’ – of sounds a bit like‘ave). If the author stripped the sentence downand took out the clause (‘seem to’) which hasprobably caused the confusion, the sentencewould read ‘There are so many of us now thatwe of lost a sense of community’, which ismore obviously incorrect. In the final part ofthe sentence, ‘on’ is used instead of ‘in’.Crude as it may seem, the colon in thehuman body provides a very helpful analogywith the punctuation colon, particularly inthe way it functions as a ‘why-becausemarker’ (note that colons can also be usedCorrect use of prepositions shows clarity ofthought and a good understanding of therelationships between everything that is8

to introduce the following: a list of items; acontrast; and direct speech). Physiologically,the colon is the point at which one thing(here, food) becomes another (in this casewaste). In the same way, a grammaticalcolon separates (A) the introduction ofsomething, e.g. an idea or a claim, from (B)the explanation for that idea or claim.been ‘contracted’ – i.e. ‘It’s nothing to dowith me’ instead of ‘It is nothing to do withme’; ‘She’s been a long time’ instead of‘She has been a long time.’ As a generalrule, contractions should be avoided inacademic work.3.5. Incorrect use ofapostrophesSpeech marks ‘do exactly what they say on thetin’: they mark speech. Nonetheless, they arestill one of the most misused punctuationmarks.3.6. Incorrect use of speechmarksApostrophes are perhaps the most misusedpunctuation mark of all. Described as ‘erranttadpoles’ (Cutts, 1995: 89), they can, if usedincorrectly, completely obscure the intendedmeaning of a sentence.Student example: ‘In ‘The End of Education’,Nils (2004) states that “the only thing that cansave the UK education system is a completeoverhaul ”.’Student example: ‘The law does not specifyother eventualities, such as a situation where alost item falls onto a landowners land ’In this sentence, the author has used speechmarks (“ ”) instead of inverted commas (‘ ’).In most disciplines speech marks should onlybe used when something is being said, notwhen something has been expressed inwriting. The majority of quotations inacademic work will therefore require invertedcommas, not speech marks, though youshould check the conventions of yourdiscipline to confirm this.In this sentence, ‘landowners’ should be‘landowner’s’, because the land belongs to thelandowner. Apostrophes indicate ownership:‘the landowner’s land’ is another way of saying‘the land of the landowner’.Correct use of the apostrophe shows clarity ofthought and a good understanding of therelationship between the nouns in a sentence.Learn about apostrophes: they will help you tothink more clearly and help your reader tounderstand and follow your argument better(see Further Reading). Remember the rule thatthe apostrophe generally goes before the

mastery of it : writing . In a recent survey, academic staff at the University identified the interrelated skills of 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. The purpose of .

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