Re-ordering paragraphs

Re-ordering paragraphs

Writing tipsIt’s often difficult to look at your essay with an objective, critical eye. I use the following strategy when I need to examine the order of my paragraphs — here is what to do:

Print out a hard copy of the draft of your essay and number each paragraph. On a separate sheet of paper write a list: 1, 2, 3 etc., leaving a space between each one. Then write down next to each number what that paragraph is about, in one word or phrase if possible. Let your eye drift down the list. Did you intend, in paragraph 19, to return to the topic of paragraph 11? Did you aim to spend paragraphs 20–25 on one aspect of your argument, but only one paragraph on another aspect? If so, fine. If not, you can rearrange your paragraphs to improve the structure and flow of your essay.

Sarah LeFanu
22 February 2017

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Why is an essay like a kebab?

Why is an essay like a kebab?

A good essay is like a shish kebab. It has a handle (your introduction). It offers bite-sized chunks of nourishing meat (your main points, organised in paragraphs). Peppers and onions (evidence and quotations) accompany each chunk, in careful balance. The kebab is seasoned with salt (meticulous writing) to bring out the flavour, and a little pepper (a sprinkle of style) – but never too much. Most importantly, a skewer (your argument) holds the whole assembly together, guiding you along its length towards a sharp point (your conclusion). Once when I offered this analogy to a student, she looked at me scornfully before replying, ‘But I’m a vegetarian.’ Tofu works well too.

James McConnachie
8 February 2017

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Let your unconscious do the work

Let your unconscious do the work

Writing tipsSometimes our unconscious mind knows the answer before our conscious mind does. Here’s how to harness the power of the unconscious when working on assignments:
1. Start early. Make notes on what you think the answer might be, even before you’ve done any research. This prompts your unconscious to start mulling it over.
2. Alternate between research and writing up your notes. Writing about what you’ve just read, in your own words, will help your unconscious to process the information before you continue to research.
3. Stop and start. Taking a break or working on two assignments gives your unconscious time to work on one problem while you are busy with another. When you return to the first assignment you will bring a fresh perspective — and maybe new insights.
4. If you finish early, don’t hand your assignment in just yet. There’s still time for your unconscious to wake you in the night and provide another insight.

Heather Dyer
25 January 2017

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Cut the waffle

Cut the waffle

Writing tips‘Less is more.’ This is what I say to my PhD students, most of whom don’t have English as their first language. In academic English, short sentences and paragraphs are often clearer, more readable and more effective than long ones. When you edit your writing, read it aloud, either to yourself or to an interested friend, and be ruthless about cutting waffle — those parts that use lots of words but do not say anything important or interesting. To quote from George Orwell in his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ (1946): ‘A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?’ All writers would be wise to heed Orwell’s words today.

Miranda Miller
11 January 2017

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Rambling: best left for the outdoors

Rambling: best left for the outdoors

Writing tipsWriters shouldn’t ramble. Yet it’s such an easy mistake to make that many writers don’t realise they’re doing it. But your reader will. And soon they’ll feel the constricting effect of your sentences slowly wrapping round them. Bit by bit, your words will weigh the reader down, make them stumble and, eventually, rob them of the will to go on.

How do you know if you’re rambling? Read your work aloud! Struggling for breath and still no full stop in sight? How many words are in your sentences? More than thirty? You’re rambling.

To see how it works, replace the first five full stops in this piece with commas. What do you get? A 59-word sentence that’s like trudging across a muddy field. Instead, follow the one-point-per-sentence rule. Find the place in your sentence where your first point has been fully made and insert a full stop. If needed, use a suitable connective – such as ‘and’, ‘but’ or ‘nevertheless’ – to continue with what you were saying. This makes your writing easy to read.

Chris Simms
14 December 2016

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The joy of sticky notes

The joy of sticky notes

postit-1726554No, I am not one of the sales team for a famous brand of sticky-note pads, but I do find these coloured squares useful for organising my thoughts and planning my work. Whether you are writing an essay, a report or a dissertation, you can jot down themes, arguments or evidence on a series of sticky notes and then juggle the order. For example, you might choose different colours for the points of your argument and counter-argument. Then you can organise the sticky notes. You might decide to group the argument points together and then the counter-arguments. Or you might decide to interweave the argument and counter-argument points. Of course, you can do this on a computer with the cut and paste tool or sticky-note software. But I favour the paper version, which has the added attraction of being available for contemplation away from the computer screen. Further possibilities include the use of sticky notes for group work and mind maps. Please also consider the slender cousin of the bright squares: page markers — they are fantastic for bookmarking and referencing.

Amanda Swift
30 November 2016

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Read your work aloud

Read your work aloud

Writing tipsRhythm and flow and sense can all be put to the test when you read your work aloud, because the ear is so sensitive to dissonance. And because reading aloud is strangely alienating (work you’ve written doesn’t sound like your own), you judge it differently, listening for flow and movement, and how engaging it is. The exercise also catches faulty punctuation: when your tongue trips, so does the mind. Reading aloud helps you to check that your voice is coming through clearly in an appropriate tone and you find that you can easily detect any clanging notes of falseness. The tool is simple, but it’s invaluable.

Marina Benjamin
16 November 2016

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Five top tips for successful grant applications

Five top tips for successful grant applications

Writing tipsThese tips are written primarily for staff in universities, but students applying for grants may find them useful too.

• Quality applications take time — calculate your chances realistically and apply only for the grants you are most likely to get.
• Make sure you know who your target audience is at every stage of the selection process (there may be several). Identify and exploit all possible sources of information about their priorities. Be creative — use your networks.
• Analyse the funding criteria in depth and ask yourself what is important to these decision-makers — don’t start to write until you know what the funders want.
• Identify the key strengths of your research in terms of the funders’ agenda and make sure these strengths appear in a prominent position in the proposal, e.g. in a summary paragraph at the start.
• Remember that you are competing with many others. Always keep in mind the big picture from the funder’s point of view.

Anne Wilson
2 November 2016

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Encapsulate the essence of your argument

Encapsulate the essence of your argument

Writing tipsAlways ask yourself: ‘what am I actually trying to say?’ Then attempt to say it as concisely as possible. This might sound self-evident but it is often forgotten. Students get so involved in the detail of their research findings that they fail to encapsulate the essence of their arguments. My best advice, in this context, is to find a reader who knows absolutely nothing about your subject and then ask that person to read your work and explain the main argument back to you in two sentences. If they can’t, you need to clarify your main points.

Esther Selsdon
19 October 2016

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Getting ‘distance’ from your writing

Getting ‘distance’ from your writing

Writing tipsTo assess your own writing, it’s vital to get a bit of distance so you can look at it dispassionately. When you’re at the (almost) final stage of drafting, print out the day’s work at the end of your writing session. Set the page(s) aside and have a fresh look at them the following day. Looking at a printout makes it much easier to assess what you’ve written, and to spot errors, typos and repetition. As well as distance from your writing, you need distance from your research so that you can consider whether any particular piece of research merits a place in your work. This is why I advise against continuing to research once you have started writing. Articles that you’ve only just read will loom larger in your mind than ones digested days or weeks before. Being too close to either your writing or your research can cloud your judgement, skew your argument or even wreck it entirely — the last thing you want when you have a deadline.

Jen Green
5 October 2016

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