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

Don’t be boring

Don’t be boring

Do you find yourself starting a lot of sentences with the words ‘there is’? They are not the most exciting words in the language, and they often lead to unnecessarily complicated sentences. See if you can dream up some leaner, cleaner or more colourful ways to express yourself. The trick is often to identify the most important part of the sentence and start there instead. ‘There is a possibility that the results could change if the experiment were repeated under different conditions’ could be rewritten as ‘Repeating the experiment under different conditions might change the results.’ It’s clearer that way, and shorter too.

James McConnachie

10 January 2019

Put your unconscious to work

Put your unconscious to work

Allow time between finishing your research and starting to write. That way, you give your unconscious time to assimilate the information and work out your own response to the topic, which then informs your argument.

I do my non-fiction writing in the early morning, having researched the topic the afternoon before. Just before I down tools, I have a think. How do I want to tell this particular story? I make a little mini-plan of the next day’s writing, listing the headings in the order that makes sense to me, and assign a word count to each section. Having organised and set myself the task in this way, I let my unconscious work on it overnight. This may or may not modify my ‘take’ on the subject, but either way, the next morning I have only to glance at my mini-plan and the writing almost always begins to flow.

Jen Green
6 December 2018

Show or tell?

Show or tell?

Starting a piece of writing can be the most difficult bit. The way I see it, there are two possible approaches: start big or start small. A ‘big beginning’ tells the reader something. A big beginning says: ‘The Juan de Fuca fault line could present the greatest geophysical hazard to Western Canada.’ There’s nothing wrong with a big beginning. But sometimes, a small beginning can be effective. A small beginning shows the reader something: a scene, a process, a case study. A small beginning says: ‘Fifty miles from Victoria, British Columbia, the earth is splitting. Steam shoots out of fissures in the sea bed and heats the surrounding seawater to over 400°C.’ A big beginning packs a punch, while having something concrete to visualize helps convey the significance of your ideas.

Heather Dyer
22 November 2018

Make your text more readable

Make your text more readable

According to Dr Alison Yeung Yam Wah at the University of Surrey, who researches the writing strategies of academics, ‘readability’ is one of the key ingredients of successful academic papers.

Yet academic writers frequently make their text hard to read by seeding it liberally with abstract nouns. These are nouns that express an idea, quality or state rather than an object you experience with your senses. ‘Transportation’ is an abstract noun. ‘Buses, coaches and cars’ are concrete nouns; you can touch, see, hear and smell them – I haven’t tried tasting.

Here’s an example:
The deposition of fish scales in the geological record over the last 1,600 years shows that sardine populations off the US West Coast have exhibited fluctuation – natural cycles of abundance each lasting some 50–70 years.

If we turn the abstract nouns into verbs, the sentence becomes shorter, more readable and no less convincing:

Fish scales deposited in the geological record over the last 1,600 years show that sardine populations off the US West Coast have fluctuated in natural cycles of abundance each lasting some 50–70 years.

Replacing abstract nouns with their equivalent verbs often injects energy into a sentence and usually makes it more readable. Why not try this when you next edit your work?

Trevor Day
8 November 2018

Swat the flies

Swat the flies

So you’ve finished a draft of your essay. It’s time for another look. Try squinting your eyes. Weird, I know. But it helps you see any places where there are lots of short words. There’s nothing wrong with short words, of course, but when lots of them gather together like flies on a horse’s back, it is sometimes a clue that your writing needs cleaning up. Look for words such as of, in, on, for, to, as and by. Search for it, this, that and which. Look for be, is, has and was. Your sentence may be contorting itself in over-complicated ways: ‘It is clear that the transformation of this policy in new ways that worked for the poor was one of the goals of this government, on which it hoped that it would be reelected.’ Now swat those flies: ‘The government’s changes in policy were targeted at helping the poor, and at being reelected.’ Cleaner and clearer, no?

James McConnachie
25 October 2018

A timetable you can stick to

A timetable you can stick to

Whether you’re a first year or a veteran undergraduate, good time management means more fun, less stress. It’s best approached at two levels: macro and micro. Macro focuses on the big picture: work, sport, social activities, chilling out, admin; micro on specific tasks.

For both macro and micro, wallcharts or screen timetables are excellent tools, but only if they’re based on reality, not an ideal scenario. For a realistic timetable, use the first couple of weeks of the new term to note down how long things actually take. For example, timetabling 20 minutes for laundry is optimistic, and four consecutive hours reading in the library equally so. And we all underestimate the time we waste browsing online. So don’t guess. Time your laundry. For assignments, note the time you spend researching, writing, re-writing, editing and proofreading. Of course no two tasks, either domestic or academic, are exactly the same, but with real-time information to hand, you’ll have a much better chance of creating timetables you can stick to.

Katie Grant
11 October 2018