26 March 2020
26 March 2020
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.
12 March 2020
It’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.
27 February 2020
13 February 2020
When you have a first draft of your undergraduate essay or report, you’ll want to check the structure. Are some sections too long or too short? Are they in the right order? Is anything missing? What you need is a bird’s eye view — and this is difficult to get from reading through your work on the screen.
Fortunately, there’s a better way. If you’re working in Word, it’s called the Navigation Pane. On the View tab, select the Navigation Pane checkbox. The Navigation Pane opens on the left and lists all the headings and subheadings in your document like a table of contents.
But first, you’ll need to assign each heading a Style (Heading 1, Heading 2, etc.). The headings will then appear in the Navigation Pane, and you can drag a heading up and down the list to re-order the corresponding text in the document. If you are not using headings, you can create some as temporary place-markers to describe the content of each section. Once they’ve helped you shape your work, you can delete them.
30 January 2020
It’s always useful to ask a colleague, friend or family member to look over your work — or exchange the favour with a researcher in a different field. Agree with your reader that they will look at the writing rather than the content. If it’s a good piece of writing, it doesn’t matter if you don’t understand the topic; you should be able to follow the argument and spot any gaps in the logic. To make the task manageable, ask your reader to check only the section you feel needs the most attention. Allowing time in your schedule to seek and incorporate feedback will help you to improve your writing.
16 January 2020
Students are often advised to use ‘topic sentences’ at the start of paragraphs, and this method certainly helps organise ideas. It helps build an essay, brick by brick, until it stands up. The downside is that it can make your reader jump from one thought to another — less like bricks and more like stepping stones. For a more advanced approach, try adding what I call a ‘hinge sentence’ before your topic sentence. Suppose one paragraph is about Mustafa’s idea, and the next about Olende’s. A basic hinge sentence might look something like this: ‘Where Mustafa is sceptical, Olende is dismissive.’ Hinges do not have to be single sentences, so you might try something longer: ‘Mustafa, in short, is sceptical. Her approach is influential but Olende goes one step further: he is dismissive of the entire concept.’ So, yes, plan paragraphs with topic sentences, but think about how they connect. Arguments emerge from connections. Your essay should be the river, not someone hopping across it.
12 December 2019
Whether I’m writing a chapter of a book, a report, or indeed a blog post, I keep the title in front of me. I write on a computer but always have a notebook and pen next to it. I jot down the title when I am planning my writing and leave the title visible when I am putting the piece together. It serves as a reminder to keep the writing focused and not stray off-topic. I may even underline key words in the title. This technique is useful for any type of writing.
28 November 2019
However deeply you are immersed in your research, always do some reading that is not one of your required texts. A text outside your subject can act like an invigorating shower, its new themes and different forms freshening the mind. When I’m writing a novel, I often turn to poetry – not for its subject matter but for its economy – and find my own writing becomes crisper as a result. For students across all disciplines, reading a novel or a collection of poetry unassociated with your work is both a necessary reminder that there is life beyond your studies, and an opportunity for words or phrases to trigger new thoughts and ideas. Freewriting is well-documented as a writing aid, but if you really want to nurture your mental health and keep your writing in shape, I’d advocate free reading too.
14 November 2019
The words ‘therefore’ and ‘however’ are sometimes used loosely, as if to add an argumentative feel. But they are potent words with highly specific uses. ‘Therefore’ expresses a strictly logical consequence. There are no eyewitness accounts. We must therefore treat other sources with caution. ‘However’ signals strong contrast or contradiction. The inside temperature fell. The outside temperature rose, however. (Note that you can’t use these words to join two sentences at a comma, as you would with ‘and’ or ‘but’. They need a full stop or, if you like, a semi-colon.) If the underlying logic is not there, adding these words will expose the gap not paper it over. Are you really describing a consequence or only a connection? Are you revealing a contradiction or only a distinction? We sometimes think about writing like we look at the human body – paying attention to the organs, bones, muscles and the surface of the skin. The ligaments, the elastic tissues that connect our joints, are often ignored. Yet ligaments hold bodies together. And logical ligaments hold essays together.
31 October 2019