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!

How fonts help (and hinder) your writing

Your academic outfit is a big deal.  Every element related to learning impacts upon you in some way:

  • Time of day;
  • Location;
  • Lighting;
  • Output method (pen & paper, laptop, etc.);
  • Ambient sound;
  • Music (or lack of);
  • Disturbances;
  • Company;
  • And so on.

I give my study setup a lot of consideration and have always been aware of how my attitude changes, depending on my circumstances.

It seems that I overlooked one important element that alters perspective on productivity…Fonts.

photo by vial3tt3r

photo by vial3tt3r

Fonts, the styles of writing you see on screen and on the printed page, are not only useful for layout and pretty structure.  They have another special power.

Your workflow and approach changes greatly depending on the font you use on screen. Fonts bring a new dimension to your writing.

This all came about when I read about the different printing costs between different fonts.  The most efficient font is apparently Century Gothic.  And, as Ampercent mentions, “The more pleasing a font looks at the screen, the less tempted someone will be to print it.  This will save both ink and paper”.

In which case, you should be able to take the logic further to aid study.

When reading, different fonts alter effectiveness and motivation, leading the reader to believe something is more difficult than it really is.

Therefore, your own engagement with text as you type probably makes an impact.

The more pleasing a font looks on screen, you’d hope it would help your own output too.  As you type, you watch the text appear on screen.  You’re engaging with the text.  You’re creating.

Until recently, I didn’t try using different fonts to see if they made a difference to my writing.  But once I changed font to Century Gothic for printing purposes, I noticed a change in how I viewed the text.

After some (still ongoing) experimentation with different fonts, I found that my workflow changed.  Sometimes I wanted to write more and more and more and…

Depending on the typeface, the text suddenly let me open up further with ease.  Even on work that I considered complete.  Quite an eye opener.

I’m amazed I didn’t pay much attention to font use for productivity in the past.  It’s not like I’ve ignored fonts.  Yet I didn’t ever think far enough to imagine a simple change of font could noticeably change my relationship with the text on screen.  Neither did I think certain fonts would let me tap away at the keyboard and enjoy the writing process more.

If you haven’t got enough fonts, or want to experiment with a wider range, a good place to start is Addictive Fonts.  The site showcases all sorts, including:

That should be plenty to be getting on with.  I’m sure that the most effective fonts differ from person to person, so find out what works best for you and enjoy!

I’m curious.  How affected are you by fonts?

A Journal Journey – 10 Benefits of an Academic Journal

Keeping some sort of diary or journal isn’t restricted to your personal thoughts on how a hot date was, what you think of the stupid trick played on you by your so-called mates, and how amazing that low-key gig was last night.  Just look at the range of output you get from all the blogs out there.

One powerful way to whip yourself into great study shape is to start writing an academic journal.  The process can be as quick as you like and the benefits far outweigh the time you need to spend on it.

photo by lusi

photo by lusi

An academic journal doesn’t need to follow any particular structure, but you should take it seriously.  It only requires a few bullet points each day to show how you’re solving a problem, how you intend to find your voice, or what you’re doing to shape your future.  Feel free to write in whatever way you feel comfortable with.  It may take a few days to find a style or setup you’re happy with, but once you work through that, you’ll gain access to the bigger picture and take hold of a new perspective on your working:

  1. You can learn about yourself on a more engaging level;
  2. You can learn from your mistakes;
  3. You’re more likely to pick up on the ideas that work best for you;
  4. Your focus will remain pin-sharp;
  5. What was just a nugget of an idea, merely throwaway at the time, can expand into an elaborate vision when you revisit that thought;
  6. You can plan ahead with greater ease and pick up on flaws and overlaps;
  7. It helps you with the creative and written process;
  8. It helps you analyse at a deeper level;
  9. Your journal is a document of past moments that may be valuable to a great future;
  10. You should gain greater confidence through a journal, compared with just your thoughts.

I didn’t keep a journal while at university.  But I now see the value in making the effort.  I still don’t write a regular daily journal, but who needs to sit down with a ‘Dear Diary’ nowadays anyway?  All I do is fire open a journal on the computer and get down ideas for the day, respond to what’s on my mind and allow the creative juices to flow.  Often, it helps me ignore any Internal Editor sneaking around my head too.  It means my ‘journal’ is often subject to change.  But as it’s a personal document, it makes absolutely no difference.

In time, you’ll end up enjoying the process and realise how beneficial it’s become.  And it shouldn’t take up much of your time at all.  Bonus!

photo by dinny

photo by dinny