Stylish segues

Stylish segues

In writing, you often pick up the outgoing idea from the end of a paragraph and show how it connects to the idea in the next one. This is a segue. Pronounced ‘seg-way’, it comes from cinema, referring to the camera moving from one scene to another without a visible cut. The classic way to create a segue, as I’ve described before, is with a hinge sentence.[1] But why not add a touch of style to your hinge sentences? Sometimes, repeating a single word is enough: ‘While political writing in the 1480s was successfully suppressed, legal writing proved impossible to censor.’ Good segue-writers use repetitions, echoes and word play to reinforce the connection they are making: ‘It was not just pubs that were forcibly shut in the revolution; publishers were closed down too.’ Your goal is to seize on the key idea linking both paragraphs so that your reader will effortlessly follow your thought process.

[1] https://rlfconsultants.com/hinge-sentences/

James McConnachie
23 July 2020

Breaks with benefits

Breaks with benefits

woman doing yoga

photodeinym from Pixabay

If you’re studying online for longer than usual, it’s more important than ever to take screen breaks every hour. Try to take some five-minute breathers that have additional benefits. For example:

  • You could take your rubbish and recycling to the bins: going outside will revive you and provide some physical activity.
  • Listen to some music, which will offer aural stimulation and a rest from the visual strain of the screen.
  • Brushing or combing your hair provides some self-care.
  • Why not splash cold water on your face and drink a glass of water to refresh and rehydrate you?
  • You might like to do some stretches or a short relaxation exercise to help reduce anxiety and encourage mindfulness.

These activities cost nothing but they will all give your mind a break and could even lead to great ideas — like Archimedes’ ‘Eureka’ moment in the bath.

Amanda Swift
9 July 2020

Wrestling with the question

Wrestling with the question

Arm wrestling

skeeze from Pixabay

When academics grade essays, originality is the one quality regularly cited as essential to a first-class grade. The way to stand out from the crowd is not just to answer a question but to challenge it, play with it — and maybe even rough it up a little. In particular, seek to wrestle with specific words in the question. Take this classic history question: ‘Why did the idea of “class” emerge when it did in the modern world?’ You might want to question the ideas of ‘class’ or ‘modernity’. Are they meaningful terms? You might attack the premise of the question — perhaps you feel that the concept of the ‘modern world’ only emerged with the idea of ‘class’. Wrestling with the question in this way indicates that you’re not accepting the usual assumptions and you’re up for a battle of ideas.

James McConnachie
25 June 2020

Fresh eyes

Fresh eyes

Woman reading work on laptop

Jan Vašek from Pixabay

It’s extremely difficult to proofread your own work. The brain sees what it expects to see and auto-corrects the errors, so any grammar mistakes and typos become invisible. And remember that standard spell-checking software may not highlight the incorrect use of words with the same pronunciation but different meanings, such as ‘there’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’. Try to put aside your work for a few days before you re-read it. You will come back to your text with fresh eyes and see errors you had skipped over before. It’s also worth inviting accommodating friends to read aloud sections of your work that you want to improve, for example, sentences that do not flow well. Friends may come up with helpful suggestions, and you never know — they might even be interested!

Esther Selsdon
11 June 2020

Most Important Task

Most Important Task

Robin

liggraphy from Pixabay

I’m an early bird, but I used to fritter away much of my precious morning. I’d switch on the computer, make a cup of tea and settle down to ploughing through emails and doing random bits of admin. I would studiously avoid the most important item on my to-do list: writing the next section of my book, wading through complicated proof corrections or planning a new academic skills workshop. Then I discovered the Most Important Task (MIT) technique. Since then, I’ve always spent the first hour at my desk on that crucial job. I make the best use of the time when my brain is fresh, and after a short break, I often carry on until the task is done. I recommend starting your work or study session with your MIT.

Cath Senker
28 May 2020

Keeping revision fresh

Keeping revision fresh

pyramid

G Lopez from Pixabay

Exams are not the last mile of a marathon; they are a succession of sprints. The trick is not to arrive jaded and exhausted but to stay fresh. So don’t look at everything you ought to revise and wonder how on earth you’re going to cram it in. Consider what time you’ve got, and how you can divide it up so you are approaching peak condition by the end. One way to keep it fresh is to keep changing what you’re studying. I call it the rotating pyramid scheme. Each face of the pyramid is a paper or module. You start by devoting, say, a week to revising each module. That’s the solid bottom row of each face of the pyramid. Then you recap over two or three days — row two. Then a day per paper — row three. Then half a day. By the time you wind your way round to the top of the pyramid, you’ll find yourself making surprising connections between all the modules, which felt so separate at the start. You’re fresh — and you’re reaching for the stars.

James McConnachie
14 May 2020

Thinking time

Thinking time

Martin Vorel, Pixabay

Most writers fit their writing into busy lives full of all kinds of other demands. If you’re a parent or carer, it can be especially hard to clear your mind. But thinking doesn’t have to be done in a library or at a desk. Embarking on a PhD as a mature student with two tiny children, I made some breakthroughs when I least expected them: in the middle of hanging out washing, for example. When chores mount up, and you’re stuck at home, try not to worry that you’re not ‘working’. The particular rhythms of repetitive tasks and tedious domestic duties – chopping vegetables, picking up Lego, walking a baby to sleep – can give you valuable problem-solving space.

Lydia Syson
30 April 2020

Printing your work

Printing your work

man looking at map

Maël Balland, Pexels

We work so much on screen that I often wonder if the value of printing out a draft has been forgotten. Students often postpone printing until their work is finished, but I think it’s useful to do so earlier. All kinds of problems can emerge while drafting — the writing might become cluttered, or the argument might lose its flow or stop developing. The writing process isn’t just cerebral; it’s also physical, technical and practical. Seeing a hard copy of what you’ve written can confirm what’s working well, and what isn’t. Print your draft with 1.5 line spacing. Give it wide margins. Print one side only (you can use the other side later for something else). Spread the pages out and go in with highlighters, pens or sticky notes. It’s like taking out a map halfway through a journey, reminding yourself of where you’re going and how to get there.

Cherise Saywell
26 March 2020

Pruning versus felling

Pruning versus felling

felling a tree

Franz W. from Pixabay

When cutting words, most of us start by pruning here and there, trimming away the ones we do not really need. Or rather, most people start by pruning unnecessary words. (See what I did there? I just cut the word count of that sentence by more than half.) Selective pruning is a good approach, which makes writing clearer as well as more concise. However, sometimes you need to fell a whole tree. It can be painful, when you’ve struggled to complete a draft, to sacrifice an entire paragraph or section. But an essay is not a document you brandish to prove you did your research — it’s a focused answer to a question. So if a paragraph does not absolutely, definitely belong, put away your secateurs and bring out your axe. Sometimes, felling a tree is what the whole landscape needs. It lets in air and light, and life.

James McConnachie
12 March 2020

‘Find’ your tics

‘Find’ your tics

checklistIt’s easy to miss word repetitions, sentence structures you overuse or punctuation errors. The ‘find’ function in Microsoft Word (control+F on a PC or command+F on a Mac) offers an invaluable shortcut for eliminating unhelpful writing tics. If you know apostrophes trip you up, search for them and check every single one is correct — or look for particular words, such as ‘it’s’. Clusters of ‘ofs’ or too many words ending in ‘ion’ or ‘ment’ are sure signs you’re using too many nouns instead of active verbs. For example, you could amend ‘Mwangi was responsible for the introduction of an innovative system’ to ‘Mwangi introduced an innovative system’. Variations on the ‘it is . . . that’ sentence structure waste words and can become an irritating habit. Compare ‘If you know that it is apostrophes that trip you up’ to the original phrase above. You can catch your own bad habits by making and using a checklist every time you edit your work. Your readers will appreciate the effort.

Lydia Syson
27 February 2020