Introductions and conclusions

Introductions and conclusions

Common sense might dictate that the introduction should be written when you start your assignment. No: you write the introduction at the end, as a miniature description of the essay you wrote — not the one you were hoping to write before your ideas changed. So if you write the beginning at the end, what’s the conclusion for? It’s something entirely different. If the introduction is where you survey the battlefield of your ideas from above, pointing out the disposition of the various divisions of infantry and cavalry, then the conclusion is where you lie down after the battle and gaze up at the stars. You’ve argued this, and proved that. But what does it all mean? How does it all come together? And how will this battle shape the greater campaign of which it forms a part?

James McConnachie
20 June 2018

‘Wiggle room’

‘Wiggle room’

Every assignment is a creative process, during which you learn and develop your skills. You need to build in time and breathing space for your work to flourish. Assignments involve many stages: understanding the task; researching, reading and note taking; planning your submission; writing; reviewing and editing; and final polishing. When you start an assignment, you don’t know all the problems you’re going to encounter. If you did, there would be little point in doing the assignment; after all, it is supposed to stretch you. So build in ‘wiggle room’ – extra time you don’t think you need – for those unforeseen difficulties. Start early, pace yourself and build in at least 25 per cent wiggle room. After completing an assignment, reflect on how it went. To produce high-quality work you might need to start even earlier and build in more wiggle room. It can make all the difference between an average grade and a high one.

Trevor Day
6 June 2018

Cats, dogs and quotations

Cats, dogs and quotations

When you’ve found a good quotation, don’t drop it dead at your reader’s feet like a cat dragging in a mauled bird from the garden and looking up as if to say ‘aren’t I clever?’ No: treat it like a dog with a bone. Scurry off with it, and gnaw and gnaw away until you’ve cracked it open and sucked out all the marrow. Imagine you are writing about Jack Kerouac’s language. You discover that he wrote, ‘Soon I’ll find the right words, they’ll be very simple.’ After introducing this ‘leading American Beat author of the 1950s and 1960s’, you explain that the quotation comes from a collection of complex Buddhist meditations — which leads you to wonder how likely it was that Kerouac would have found ‘very simple’ words to express his thoughts. You might want to explore why Kerouac said that he would find the right words ‘soon’. Indeed, much more could be said, flowing from the one quotation. Your job, with any quotation, is to introduce it accurately, then expose all the juice and goodness hiding within.

James McConnachie
23 May 2018

Successful long sentences

Successful long sentences

Writing tips Often I find myself advising writers to make their sentences shorter, either to declutter their style, or for clarity. But sometimes a long sentence might be necessary to vary the rhythm of your writing. Properly done, it can work a treat. After a series of shorter sentences, a long sentence can help build a crescendo, and also build pace. Long sentences don’t have to be complicated. In fact, they are often at their best and most effective when structured very simply. The best advice I’ve seen suggests that the writer should state the subject and verb as early as possible in the sentence, keeping them close together. Additional clauses branch from there but have a direct relationship to the subject of the sentence.

Look at this sentence from Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing (page 129):
‘Unique and experimental structures can open up new ways of approaching familiar issues, a form of intellectual displacement that parallels the physical displacement we feel when we traverse an unfamiliar landscape or enter a room where the walls sit at unusual angles.’

There are 42 words in this sentence, but at no point should the reader feel lost. The structure is very simple. The subject and verb are established right away, and everything that follows relates directly to them.

Cherise Saywell
9 May 2018

Back to basics

Back to basics

Are you stuck with the development of your essay or dissertation idea and tempted to shelve it and start again with a different topic? Before you discard the idea, why not remind yourself of what attracted you to the idea in the first place? Then go back to the original premise and think about what you are trying to explore, debate or prove. Talk it over with someone else — the discussion may help you connect with your original passion for the topic. As you explain the idea, you will begin to clarify your thoughts and a new way forward may emerge.

Lucy English
25 April 2018

Go for the metaphor

Go for the metaphor

If you want your reader to really remember something, to think about an idea afresh, or simply to stop and take note, then summarise your point in the simplest, clearest, shortest words possible. Short sentences add emphasis. Then say the same thing again — but this time as an extended simile or metaphor. (The two are basically the same – both are comparisons – but similes contain the words ‘like’ or ‘as’, and metaphors don’t.) It’s like wine-tasting notes. First, you sum up your opinion of the wine, then you explain: ‘This wine is seriously lively. Zingy, herbaceous notes of lime and green apple ripen to passion fruit and peach.’ Then you hit the reader with the exotic, memorable and revelatory comparison. ‘It’s like licking sunshine off a gooseberry bush.’

James McConnachie
11 April 2018

How is a paragraph like a brick?

How is a paragraph like a brick?

A paragraph is a building block containing just one idea. The first sentence of a paragraph tends to make the point. This is the ‘topic sentence’. Next, there might be a sentence or two explaining or elaborating on the idea, followed by a few sentences that discuss the idea, using examples and evidence. The final sentence sums up the point of the paragraph and might link to the next idea. A solid argument is built idea by idea, paragraph by paragraph, the way bricks build a wall. If you find it difficult to sum up the main point of your paragraph in just one sentence, perhaps your paragraph contains more than one idea and needs dividing. If you can’t identify the main point, maybe this chunk of text doesn’t deserve to be a separate paragraph. Make these checks to ensure that all of your paragraphs are solid bricks in the building of your essay.

Heather Dyer
21 March 2018

How to write more concisely

How to write more concisely

As writers, we know that every word has to earn its place on the page. If it’s not doing a job, it can be cut, and the resulting sentence is usually better for it. Often we write ‘long’, especially in the first draft, as we feel our way into what we want to say. That’s why editing is so important; it gives us the opportunity to make our writing clearer and simpler, using fewer words. Unnecessary ‘filler’ phrases muddy up sentences, such as: ‘in spite of the fact that’, ‘for all intents and purposes’, and the one that I frequently see in student essays — ‘in order to’, when ‘to’ will do just fine. Check for common filler words and phrases when you edit. Cutting them out will reduce your word count and strengthen your writing.

Anna Barker
7 March 2018

What’s your point?

What’s your point?

One way to skim-read a text is to read just the topic sentence, a summarising sentence that is often the paragraph’s first sentence (but can be near the beginning or at the end of the paragraph). The topic sentence gives the main idea of the paragraph, so a list of topic sentences will be a list of all the main points in the text. You can test the flow of your own argument by reading your topic sentences. This can reveal gaps that need plugging. It can also reveal woolly paragraphs that have no topic sentence and don’t really make a clear point. Ask yourself, ‘What point is each of my paragraphs making? Does a sentence near the beginning or end of the paragraph make that point?’ If not, can you tweak the topic sentence to ensure it encapsulates your argument? If you can’t, you may need to alter or redistribute the contents of the paragraph. This exercise requires you to process a chunk of text and sum up the main point concisely — good practice for note taking, interviews and oral examinations, too.

Heather Dyer
21 February 2018

Signposting

Signposting

Using ‘signposting’ in your written work will clarify your argument and help the reader. Signposting is explaining the structure of your essay, dissertation or thesis in the introduction, and then reminding the reader of this structure throughout the work. Imagine your assignment as a journey from towns A to F, passing through B, C, D and E on the way — these are your major themes, or chapters. Your introduction provides the route map for this journey. Spell it out, for example: ‘This paper will first consider . . . It will then explore . . . and finally focus on . . .’ You’ve now signalled the structure, which will help the reader know where you are going. At key points in the assignment, refer back to the route map, making it clear you are concluding one section and moving on to the next. Signposting in this way not only helps the reader to follow your argument, but it also strengthens and reinforces your message and improves clarity — which can only improve your mark.

Jen Green
7 February 2018