Hook your reader

Hook your reader

Mountains British Columbia

Keith Johnson, Pixabay

What’s the best trick academics can learn from journalists? Don’t start with what I call the ‘boring background’ — find a ‘hook’ instead. Too often, you only find out why you’re reading an essay or article on the second page, after a page of facts and figures, key dates, broader context, and so on. Academic writing is not journalism but you might still choose to start with a striking fact, key question or core idea. Here’s one from my colleague Heather Dyer: ‘Fifty miles from Victoria, British Columbia, the earth is splitting.’[1] After your reader has been ‘hooked’ you can then retrace your steps to cover how and where and when this question arises. That’s your ‘boring background’ — except it’s not boring any more, because your reader now knows it is there for a reason. And when you return to the core idea, the reader gets that satisfying feeling of looking at it in a new light.

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[1] https://rlfconsultants.com/show-or-tell/

James McConnachie
13 February 2020

A bird’s-eye view

A bird’s-eye view

[check structure]

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.

[Navigation Pane]

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.

[Reorder headings]

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.

Heather Dyer
30 January 2020

A fresh pair of eyes

A fresh pair of eyes

student with pile of booksIt’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.

Lucy English
16 January 2020

Hinge sentences

Hinge sentences

RiverStudents 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.

James McConnachie
12 December 2019

Keep the title in view

Keep the title in view

man writing on notepad

Ulrich Wechselberger, Pixabay

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.

Amanda Swift
28 November 2019

Free reading

Free reading

woman in library

Klimkin, Pixabay

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.

Katie Grant
14 November 2019

Logical ligaments

Logical ligaments

graphic of human bodyThe 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.

James McConnachie
31 October 2019

Don’t stop the flow

Don’t stop the flow

Flowing streamWhen you’re writing the first draft of an assignment, it’s good to work in concentrated bursts without stopping. To maintain the flow, I make myself notes in square brackets as I write. I’m looking now at the draft of the introduction for my next book. There’s a statistic I need to look up later, so I’ve noted [CHECK]. For one paragraph, the information source is old so I need to double check elsewhere [CHECK OTHER SOURCE]. In a couple of places, I’m not sure of the date so I’ve made a rough guess and noted to verify it later. The final sentence should be really strong so later I’ll [IMPROVE] it. Once my draft is completed, I’ll go back and fix all the issues in one go. This method stops me from becoming distracted by details and allows me to concentrate on my main ideas.

Cath Senker
17 October 2019

Creating space to think

Creating space to think

no mobiles signSmartphones and social media are designed to keep you going back to them by offering little hits of the chemical dopamine — tiny rewards that entice you and then hold your attention. We know this; their inventors have admitted it. Smartphones could just as well have been designed to disrupt writing, because what writing requires is absorption: sustained attention without distraction. So give your brain a chance to think. If you can’t bring yourself to switch off your phone and Wifi connection, then at least mute alerts. That way, you go to your device when you want to, not every time it calls. Why not try working for an hour with your phone on airplane mode, and an hour as normal? Afterwards, compare your productivity over the two hours. You might be shocked by the difference.

James McConnachie
3 October 2019

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