Tuesday 9th June 2020
Our guest author for this blog post is Jo-Anne King.
Jo-Anne is an adviser in the Academic Skills team, which provides opportunities and resources for students and researchers to develop their communication and study skills.
Jo-Anne’s role includes advising students and researchers in one-on-one appointments, and in this post she shares with us some of the common recommendations she makes while advising graduate students on their academic writing tasks.
As we approach the end of the semester, a key question on many graduate students’ minds is what aspects of writing they can focus on to improve their final assessments before submission.
My first piece of advice is always to carefully review the task you have been set and ensure that you have responded to each aspect of the task – including structing your writing in the way it is expected and using the required referencing style*. If you are unsure, ask your lecturer or tutor. They will appreciate it if you ask either on a discussion board or during a class, where other students can hear or see your question and their response. If you do have to email them, follow our email etiquette guide to make a good impression and increase your chances of a timely response.
*Bonus tip: if you have a question about the referencing styles in Re:cite, ask it in the Ask Librarian chat box or the academic writing and library research support from the Online Study and Learning Drop-ins.
Beyond that, there are four aspects of writing that can make a substantial difference to the quality of your work, which I often recommend when I am advising graduate students.
What exactly constitutes an ‘argument’ differs between disciplines. You may also hear it being referred to as a ‘position’ or ‘thesis’ depending on the type of writing you are doing.
The important question to ask yourself is whether you have a consistent message for the reader in your writing; a message that is introduced towards the start of the text, supported by each section of the text, and reiterated at the end of the text. This is what you can think of as your argument – a position on an issue, event, problem or question that you justify with logical reasoning and evidence, attempting to persuade the reader of the strength of your position in the process.
A common piece of advice I give graduate students when we are reviewing their writing is to make the argument more specific or qualified, rather than merely mentioning the topics the piece of writing will cover.
For example, rather than saying that the writing will outline the ‘causes and consequences’ of an issue, discuss ‘advantages and disadvantages’ of a course of action, or ‘provide recommendations’ to overcome a problem, state what those specific ideas are explicitly (e.g. name the causes, articulate the action you are recommending) so the reader can follow the points that support your position through the whole text.
These resources provide more specific advice for articulating your argument or overall message for your audience in different types of writing:
2. Paragraph structure
Readers of academic writing expect paragraphs to follow structures they recognise.
While introductions and conclusions, and report features such as executive summaries, have specific requirements – check the resources above to read about these – body paragraphs within the text should:
- Focus on one main idea
- State that main idea in the first sentence (the ‘topic sentence’)
- Support the main idea with other sentences containing evidence in the form of details, facts, examples and logical reasoning
- Finish with a sentence that concludes that point and/or links to the main idea in the next paragraph
The most frequent piece of advice I give graduate students about their paragraph structure is to work on their topic sentences.
While stating the main idea in the first sentence of your paragraph may feel like you are being ‘too obvious’, and you are keen to start writing about the supporting evidence you have uncovered in your research, topic sentences provide vital information for your reader. They provide a link between your argument and the key points you are presenting in support of that argument; they help readers navigate your text; and they are an excellent position in the text for you to express your own thoughts and ideas about the topic.
Keep in mind that the main idea in a paragraph can be of any ‘size’; if your discussion of one point is too long for one paragraph, you can split it into two components. What’s important is that each of those paragraphs still has a topic sentence that reflects precisely which component of the larger point the paragraph covers.
For more information about paragraph structure, refer to:
Using sources in assessments: voice in academic writing
Structure and key elements of academic paragraphs
Developing clarity and focus in academic writing
3. Cohesion and connectivity
The next aspects of writing where there is often room for improvement are cohesion and connectivity. These take the form of words and phrases that show the relationships between ideas within and between sentences and paragraphs.
Graduate students I advise are often so well-read on their topic that the relationships between ideas seem clear to them, but what they are trying to communicate may be unclear (even to a knowledgeable reader) if their writing lacks cohesion and connectivity.
As much as you may be tempted to eliminate connecting words to keep under a word count, remember that listing ideas one after another and hoping that the reader will understand how all those ideas relate to your overall message is a risky strategy.
To improve cohesion and connectivity in your writing, read it side-by-side with these resources to identify places where you can add connecting words and phrases and cohesive devices:
Connecting ideas in writing
4. Critical literacy
The three points above are the aspects of writing I most often give graduate students advice about when we are reading their writing together in individual appointments.
The question graduate students most often ask me is, ‘Is my writing critical enough?’.
‘Critical’ in an academic context is not focused solely on noting limitations or weaknesses in the sources you are using, although this could be one component of your critique. It may also involve comparing the ideas of different authors or sources, identifying the breadth of or gaps in the scholarly literature on a topic, or noting the relevance of research studies to your topic.
In truth, there is not much else I can write here about critical literacy that we have not already said in our online resources, which I always recommend to graduate students who want to understand more about critique:
For a greater selection of words and phrases you can use to indicate your stance on a source, I also find these external resources invaluable:
Academic Phrasebank (the University of Manchester)
Verb cheat sheet (Thesis Whisperer)
A final tip about editing
If your approach to editing is sounds something like: ‘I’m going to read the whole text from beginning to end and look for things to fix’, you may be selling yourself short.
Rather than simply ‘read it again’, which may not help you identify specific improvements you can make in your writing before you submit, try the editing techniques outlined in the resources below. You may be surprised how much of a difference they can make to the finished product.
Editing your writing
Hope all goes well for you in finishing off your written assignments this semester!