Get to grips with academic writing

Does essay writing trip you up? Do you struggle to know how you’re meant to write? Are you annoyed by gaps in your understanding?

The Guardian says that the change from A-levels to a university degree is too much for many students. Essay requirements are overwhelming.

photo by katiew
photo by katiew

Echoing many people I’ve spoken to in the past, Daphne Elliston told the Guardian:

“…putting my own words into academic language was hard. And it was difficult to believe I was entitled to my own opinion or to disagree with all these academics who’d done years of research.”

You don’t have to write insanely academic language. Rather, you’re meant to create an argument. Your job is to research, assess and reach your own conclusions.

But how? Where do you start? Here are some considerations for tackling essays:

  • Write in whatever order you like – It’s not a linear process. Kate Brooks at UWE says the process is more cyclical: “do some research, draft a bit, read some more, think, consider what you’ve written, redraft.”
    You can write before you research, you can build a conclusion before an introduction, and you can make random points as you go along and reorder those points at a later stage. Your writing route is flexible. Nobody needs to know how you put it together. The end result is all they’ll look at. And all they care about!
  • Consider your opinion throughout – From start to finish, be aware of what you think. Take the essay question the moment you’re given the assignment and ask yourself how you would answer it. Write a paragraph straight away, before you do any further reading. After some research, has your opinion changed? When you’ve finished writing, has your opinion changed? Keep asking yourself what *your* opinion is.
  • Feel free to stop reading – Academic research can go on and on. And on. As an undergraduate, you don’t need to obsess forever. With a load of ideas and a grip of core texts on reading lists, there’s no need to relentlessly search for every last scrap of data and every opinion ever made. That’s impossible. And you’re not expected to mention all this stuff anyway. There’s no science in knowing when to stop. However, if you’re starting to feel overwhelmed with information and don’t have any of your own writing to show for it, you can probably stop reading…
  • Select the best examples – With all this research done and a trillion ways to say the same thing, pick the clearest, most relevant references to make your point. Leave the others to your references only. The simple act of referencing shows you are aware of it.
  • Don’t feel offended – Some departments introduced compulsory modules on writing at degree level. However, some students found this offensive, according to the Guardian piece.
    After completing A-levels and getting good grades, it may feel strange to start all over again. While some students sense an overwhelm from the beginning, others think the process is just a continuation. By stubbornly refusing to discover more about the academic writing process, some students will miss out.
    Be open to learning. Even if you were entirely comfortable all along, give yourself a pat on the back for being so awesome. Not many people reach that level of awesome so quickly. 🙂
  • Discuss the writing as you go along – If possible, grab some time with your tutor (either virtually or physically) to discuss your draft essay. It shouldn’t take long to find out where you’re headed. There’s no need to be specific. Your job is to make sure you’re on the right track before you commit more time.
  • Work in small bursts, over a long period of time – The difference between a First and a fail may come about solely because of the way you use your time. There has long been a tendency to leave essays until a day or two before they are due in. A risky move.
    By waiting until the deadline, you have no option but to write in a linear fashion. Research also goes out of the window. We’ve not even got on to the amount of stress you’ll feel with nothing written and only a short space of time left. This is one of the most common methods of writing essays, but also one of the craziest. Do you really want to take that risk?
  • Think critically – As Daphne Elliston says, it’s hard to accept you have any right to an opinion worth anything compared to acclaimed academics and prolific authors. But you do. On top of that, you are able to disagree with what these published writers have said. So long as you back up the argument with reason and other references, you can argue however you like. I find that one of the most enjoyable parts of the writing process. 😉
  • Use your own voice – YOU are the author of this essay, not someone else. An overactive vocabulary is pointless. Sounding clever and being clever are two different things. Simple language can be just as powerful when you have a solid argument.
  • List the points you want to make – Plan as simply as you can. Get some bullet points down with 4, 40 or 400 things you want to discuss in the essay. The number doesn’t matter; it’s the active consideration that’s crucial. This basic plan will get you thinking right away and will even help shape how you research. The search for references and quotations is much easier when you have an idea of what you’re looking for.

If you want to explore the academic and essay writing process even further, here are some other things you can do:

Your writing will improve as you go along. When you encounter a problem, make an active effort to overcome it. Gaps in your understanding are not weaknesses, they are merely challenges. We all face these challenges every day. Even academics with years of research have to overcome gaps in understanding. That’s why they are academics. If those gaps didn’t exist, there would be nothing left to learn!


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