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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Encouraging creativity in your essay writing

Encouraging creativity in your essay writing

Writing tipsWhen writing an essay it is easy to get so concerned about following the academic ‘rules’ that creativity goes out of the window. How can you encourage your self-expression and creativity, while still following the conventions? Here is one suggestion.

Before you do any research, write down what you know, think and feel about the theme of the essay. Write this down as a stream of consciousness, not worrying about ‘getting it right’. You might want to jot down your ideas as a mind map, flow chart or some other kind of diagram. Doing so encourages you to unlock your creativity and generate and connect ideas, to break away from the more linear thinking you do when you start writing ‘seriously’. These thoughts and feelings can influence how you carry out the research and what you choose to feature in your essay.

Trevor Day
21 September 2016
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Just do it

Just do it

Writing tipsFeeling stuck with your assignment and don’t know how to get started? Stop worrying — your work doesn’t have to emerge perfectly written straight away. You don’t need to start by crafting a brilliant opening paragraph. That will come later. Start by scribbling down your ideas and work your way into the writing. You will soon get into the flow. Don’t worry about academic language either. Students frequently feel the pressure to write in an unnatural academic style full of jargon. Have confidence in your own voice — you have a unique contribution to make. Write in the way that feels most comfortable for you; later, you’ll rewrite and edit your work to ensure the content is accurate and expressed in the correct style. For the moment, just do it.

Lucy English
7 September 2016
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Smoothing out the rough: paragraphs that won’t flow

Smoothing out the rough: paragraphs that won’t flow

Writing tipsSo often, in a long piece of writing, there are paragraphs that refuse to flow. When you read them aloud, you stumble. If you’re busy and stressed, the temptation is to pretend the paragraph is fine. Resist temptation! Go through the paragraph underlining the words (usually nouns, verbs and short phrases) that form the subject of the paragraph, i.e. words that MUST be included. Leave out fillers and connectors. Take the underlined words and either type them out of order on a rough sheet, or print them out, cut them up and shuffle them. Leave your desk for half an hour, or, if you’re up against a deadline, work on a different part of the thesis/essay/report. Return to the shuffled words. Ask yourself ‘what’s the point I’m trying to make with these words?’ Rewrite, adding only enough extra words for the paragraph to make sense. Read it aloud again, and with luck, this little trick will have smoothed out the ruts.

Katie Grant
24 August 2016
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Maintaining your focus

Maintaining your focus

Writing tipsIf you’re finding it hard to maintain the focus of an argument throughout your thesis or other long piece of writing, here are two exercises that might help. Firstly, answer some simple questions. What is this thesis about? Why is this research valuable to the world? What is the story I am trying to tell? What am I trying to prove/disprove/change/advance? Write down a sentence in response to each question. Your argument is right there, in those answers. The second step is to identify the points that contribute to your overall argument. Imagine you are building a path for your reader to follow from A, a position of open mindedness, to E, a position of being persuaded absolutely by your argument. This argument is made up of a series of points in a logical order that help your reader to arrive at a conclusion; play around with the order of the points until you are satisfied with the structure. These exercises will help you to reconnect with the core ideas of your thesis and stay focused.

 

Anna Barker
10 August 2016
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How can you analyse your own writing?

How can you analyse your own writing?

Writing tipsThe hardest thing for writers is to read our own work and gauge how it comes across. One effective way is to examine the first sentences of your paragraphs. Are they mostly descriptive? Do they often start with someone else’s idea, or perhaps an accumulator such as ‘furthermore’ or ‘also’; or do they contain an argument or a pivot, such as ‘however’, ‘on the other hand’, and so on?

Writing with mainly descriptive openings can read like a list, while too many accumulators suggests a lack of nuance. Too much use of others’ work sounds derivative and too many in-your-face arguments turn your piece into a polemic, or a rant. Often, the very best writing starts with an argument, followed by evidence, followed by scrutiny and doubt; then affirmation by another source, then significance. Those rules work well within paragraphs; they also work well on a larger scale, so that groups of paragraphs follow those structural rules too. And it’s easy to see how your writing comes across if you analyse those first lines: they are a dead giveaway to your writing behaviour.

Max Adams
27 July 2016
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