Break up long sentences

Young woman readingMiniscule pinprick of black — there’s not a lot to a full stop, but to your reader’s brain it can be like oxygen. We write sentences in order to hand our reader a piece of information, a unit of meaning. When we write a sentence that contains not one point, but two or three, or even four, our poor reader never gets the chance to process that initial point before another barges into their mind — a sense of suffocation soon follows; so find the place in over-long sentences where your first point has been made and insert a full stop.

Let’s try that again:
When we write a sentence that contains not one point, but two or three, or even four, our poor reader never gets the chance to process that initial point before another barges into their mind. A sense of suffocation soon follows. So find the place in over-long sentences where your first point has been made and insert a full stop. It will let your reader breathe more easily.

Chris Simms
13 June 2019

Don’t waste – recycle

Don’t waste – recycle

recycling sign

Elias Schäfer from Pixabay

When I was writing my 20,000-word critical paper for my practice-based PhD, I had to cut an entire chapter. When my supervisor said, ‘You don’t need chapter 2’, I was devastated. All that work for nothing! But I realised I could recycle my unused words and was able to turn them into two journal articles.

I recommend to my students that they keep a folder for any material they are unable to incorporate in their assignment — interesting (but irrelevant) sources, single paragraphs or entire sections. The materials might be relevant for another piece of work, helpful for developing ideas for a dissertation or useful for revision.

Lucy English
30 May 2019

Keep a critical prompts notebook

Keep a critical prompts notebook

Thinking critically involves asking questions. Academic researchers who have been reading material from their field for years do this automatically. To help you adopt the same questioning mind as a student, it can be useful to keep a list of critical prompts — questions to ask every time you encounter a new text. When reading a paper, you might ask: ‘Was the method the best choice to test the hypothesis?’ or ‘Does the conclusion follow on logically from the research?’ Keep a notebook to record these questions and try to add to the list every time you read for an assignment. You might not use all the questions every time you analyse a text, but they will help to remind you of all the different ways you can evaluate what the author is saying.

Dr Anna Barker
16 May 2019

Get a new perspective

Get a new perspective

student reading in cafe

Image credit: elisandropootcarrillo from Pixabay

Sometimes when you’re immersed in a writing project, academic argument or tricky email, you get stuck. How can you view the situation from a new perspective and gain the insight to progress?

To see your work in a new light, try the following:
1. Take a break in which you do something completely absorbing, but completely different. You’ll return to the work refreshed.
2. Work somewhere different to see things from a new angle. Write in a café, a laundrette, the library — or just move your desk.
3. Switch to another project and then come back to the problematic one.
4. Leave a piece of work overnight or for a few days to ‘grow cold’ before you begin editing. It will help you to achieve objectivity and spot the necessary changes.

Heather Dyer
2 May 2019

‘Your academic writing isn’t academic enough.’

‘Your academic writing isn’t academic enough.’

Student on laptop

Jan Vašek from Pixabay

If you’ve ever got this kind of feedback for one of your essays, it can be a bit of a blow. You’ve tried hard to meet the expectations of your assessment criteria by including content you thought was necessary, but something about the way you’ve written the essay doesn’t quite fit the bill. What does ‘not academic enough’ mean?

The paragraph you have just read includes some language that is not appropriate for academic writing. The tone is informal, using expressions we might use in conversation with a friend. Notice the clichés (bit of a blow, fit the bill) and the contractions (‘you’ve’ instead of ‘you have’).

So how is academic writing different? In general, academic writing is more formal. One way you can achieve this is through the use of suitable verbs. Academic writers generally use powerful, single-word verb forms instead of phrasal verbs (verb + preposition). For example, instead of writing ‘bring about’ change, you could say ‘effect’ change’; instead of ‘wipe out’, you might use ‘eliminate’.

For more examples of the difference between appropriate and inappropriate academic language, this is an excellent resource:
‘Using Appropriate Words in an Academic Essay’ (NUS)

Anna Barker
4 April 2019

Lose that redundant paragraph

Lose that redundant paragraph

What’s the best thing to do with the first paragraph of your essay? Write it, then put it in the bin. Now this isn’t always true, but it often is. Many writers ‘write themselves into it’, like an engine warming up before it runs properly. They might write vague opening lines like this: ‘Experts disagree about how best to begin an essay, and it is easy to feel confused by conflicting rules.’ You’ll often find that it is better to start with your second paragraph, which might start like this: ‘A surprising writing tip is to put your first paragraph in the bin.’ Typically, paragraph 2 is where you start getting down to the important stuff — and that’s precisely where your essay should begin. The writer Hilary Mantel put it most memorably. When you write that first paragraph, she asked, ‘are you performing a haka, or just shuffling your feet?’ Most of us, I’m afraid, start with a stiff shuffle. The agile, exciting, showy war-dance of the haka only gets going in paragraph two.

James McConnachie
21 March 2019



Paraphrasing is explaining what an author has said in your own words. It’s an important skill in academic writing that indicates that you have understood the source and are able to use it to advance your own argument.

Some students think that you can paraphrase by simply changing some of the nouns or verbs but keeping the sentence structure of your source. But to paraphrase properly, you need to really understand what you’re reading and be able to explain it.

Effective paraphrasing is a skill that can be learned. In workshops at Edinburgh University and Heriot Watt University, I try to encourage good paraphrasing by addressing two key principles: using your own words, and employing a sentence/paragraph structure that is different to the original. Here’s how to do it.

Read the passage first. Underline or highlight key phrases. Then put the text away. Now use your voice – I’m talking vocal chords here – to articulate what the text is saying. Pretend you’re explaining it to someone. You could give yourself an opening line, such as ‘Here, X argues for a novel methodology because . . .’ or ‘Y’s theory is important because . . .’ Once you have said it, scribble it down; it doesn’t matter if the style is informal — you can edit it into shape. Now check it against the original. Have you captured the essence of what the author is saying?

Cherise Saywell
7 March 2019

This… what?

This… what?

Writing tipsDo you often start sentences with the words ‘This is’? If so, you might be making your reader sweat, while missing a chance to underline or refine the point you’re making. When you write ‘this is’, your reader is often forced to try to remember whatever it was in the last sentence you were talking about.

So remind them. This . . . what? This belief, this breakthrough, this reappraisal, this campaign, this experiment, this opportunity . . . You need to figure out precisely what you were talking about and then tell the reader in one single, crucial word. This is about more than just reminding the reader. (Actually, that sentence should be, ‘This technique is about more than just reminding the reader.’)

When you add a word between ‘this’ and ‘is’ you force yourself to reimagine, in an abstract way, the underlying nature of whatever it is you are describing. And that little move towards a higher-level evaluation of what it’s really all about, is the very essence of academic thinking.

James McConnachie
21 February 2019

Summarise your argument

Summarise your argument

students talkingCan you express the central idea or argument of what you’re planning to write, in a couple of sentences spoken aloud? This short but effective exercise works for both academic and creative writing. It will test the project’s roadworthiness before you start. You don’t need to tell an expert; you can present your idea to a friend or a family member — as long as it is someone whose judgement you trust. Your listener can tell you if the argument is compelling and if the connections between the elements are robust and logical. Without doing this simple test, you might waste time writing up an idea that will never work.

Amanda Swift
7 February 2019

Create breathing space in your writing

Create breathing space in your writing

Paragraphs punctuate your writing, clarify your meaning and strengthen your argument. A typed page without paragraphs is like a wall of words; it’s very hard for the reader to find a way in to your writing, and it’s very hard for your meaning to get out. Paragraphs don’t add words but they do help get your point across. Remember: one point per paragraph. As a rule of thumb, I’d advise two to three paragraphs for each A4 page. Every paragraph is different, but many contain the following parts in the following order:

I           Introduce the topic

D         Develop the point / present your argument

E          Give your Evidence

A         Analyse / evaluate the evidence

S         Summarise and lead on to the next point

Each new paragraph is like a breath of fresh air. It breaks up the text and improves readability, helping your reader to grasp the meaning.

Jen Green
24 January 2019

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