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

Keep a critical prompts notebook

Keep a critical prompts notebook

Thinking critically involves asking questions. Academic researchers who have been reading material from their field for years do this automatically. To help you adopt the same questioning mind as a student, it can be useful to keep a list of critical prompts — questions to ask every time you encounter a new text. When reading a paper, you might ask: ‘Was the method the best choice to test the hypothesis?’ or ‘Does the conclusion follow on logically from the research?’ Keep a notebook to record these questions and try to add to the list every time you read for an assignment. You might not use all the questions every time you analyse a text, but they will help to remind you of all the different ways you can evaluate what the author is saying.

Dr Anna Barker
16 May 2019

Pictures make words

Pictures make words

Max Adams

Image credit: Kona Macphee / RLF

During workshops with undergraduate, graduate or doctoral students, I use images – anything from films to works of art – to help them to develop their sense of story and visualise its shape.

In great art, as in good writing, there is always tension. Take a look at Joseph Wright of Derby’s marvellous allegory of the Age of Enlightenment, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump of 1768.

The ten figures, portrayed in a room lit only by the light of a pale moon through the window and a candle behind a glass of liquid, are in a state of maximum tension; they are wondering if the scientist will let the bird die, each trying to process their own reactions. It is a moment of great drama. One figure is the protagonist — the character who will make the most profound emotional journey in the unfolding drama. But who is it? By exploring the web of tensions within and between the actors on stage, we are working out what is important to the story. How did this scene come about; what drives the action and characters; how is the narrative structured; what happens next?

The viewer must be emotionally or intellectually engaged in order to care. Will the bird survive? Will the tearful girl be traumatised for life? Above all – and this is the point of view of the protagonist – where will it all end, this toying with nature?

The drama is carefully structured, so that we know there is a past, present and future. For the academic writer, that past might be a literature review or introduction — and it’s vital that writers load these elements with sufficient tension that readers care about what happens next. Each character might represent a structural element (a theory or point of view) in a thesis or journal article. The experimental core of this painting’s story maps particularly well on to academic writing.

Good writers find a source of tension and raise the stakes (like the painter using techniques such as dramatic lighting) by suggesting a conflict or problem that must, somehow, find resolution. The props (for the painter, the costumes, furniture and landscape) are your data, which you need to manipulate to sustain the tension until you resolve them and satisfy the reader. In occasional instances, the tension is unresolved; this is a prompt for thinking or taking action.

All good academic writing needs these elements, and using art or film to visualise them can be extremely helpful in finding and structuring a narrative.

Have you spotted the protagonist in the painting yet?

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump 1768

Image credit: National Gallery and Wikimedia Commons

11 April 2019
Think in points

Think in points

Image credit: Anna Barker

Anna Barker

Recently, while working with some undergraduate students, we discussed what happens when they receive their essay assignment. Most said they immediately started thinking about the content they needed to include. They would then write an essay that they felt ticked all the boxes, including details about the subject the essay question had asked them to explore. Unfortunately, these students sometimes received feedback that their writing was too descriptive; it lacked critical analysis. How can you make sure that your essay contains critical analysis as well as the right content?

When you are planning your essay, it helps to get yourself into a critical frame of mind. You are setting out not just to describe what others in your field have said, but also to offer a line of reasoning, an argument, an analysis of the current research and thinking. Consider which points – or statements – you can make that will answer the question and deliver your argument. Points usually begin new paragraphs. Think of a paragraph as a container for a point. It might look a bit like this:

I – Identify one point or statement in your argument that relates to your essay question. (1–2 sentences)

D – Define or add detail to your point. (1–2 sentences)

E – Give evidence that underpins the point. What proof can you provide to substantiate what you have said? A study? Some statistics from a journal article? (3–4 sentences)

A – Analyse the evidence — explain the significance of your point. How does it contribute to your overall argument? What might the limitations be? Are there any other reliable sources that present a different view? (3–4 sentences. If your paragraph is becoming long, begin your analysis in a new paragraph).

Thinking about points you can make in your essay puts you in a critical frame of mind right from the beginning. Describing evidence will get you marks, but presenting a point that you underpin with critical evaluation of the evidence will be marked higher. When you are planning your next assignment, start with an open mind, do some reading and think about which points you can make.

You can find out more about thinking in points in Step 3 of the RLF’s free essay-writing tool, ALEX.

https://alexessaytool.com/

14 March 2019
Paraphrasing

Paraphrasing

Paraphrasing is explaining what an author has said in your own words. It’s an important skill in academic writing that indicates that you have understood the source and are able to use it to advance your own argument.

Some students think that you can paraphrase by simply changing some of the nouns or verbs but keeping the sentence structure of your source. But to paraphrase properly, you need to really understand what you’re reading and be able to explain it.

Effective paraphrasing is a skill that can be learned. In workshops at Edinburgh University and Heriot Watt University, I try to encourage good paraphrasing by addressing two key principles: using your own words, and employing a sentence/paragraph structure that is different to the original. Here’s how to do it.

Read the passage first. Underline or highlight key phrases. Then put the text away. Now use your voice – I’m talking vocal chords here – to articulate what the text is saying. Pretend you’re explaining it to someone. You could give yourself an opening line, such as ‘Here, X argues for a novel methodology because . . .’ or ‘Y’s theory is important because . . .’ Once you have said it, scribble it down; it doesn’t matter if the style is informal — you can edit it into shape. Now check it against the original. Have you captured the essence of what the author is saying?

Cherise Saywell
7 March 2019

Summarise your argument

Summarise your argument

students talkingCan you express the central idea or argument of what you’re planning to write, in a couple of sentences spoken aloud? This short but effective exercise works for both academic and creative writing. It will test the project’s roadworthiness before you start. You don’t need to tell an expert; you can present your idea to a friend or a family member — as long as it is someone whose judgement you trust. Your listener can tell you if the argument is compelling and if the connections between the elements are robust and logical. Without doing this simple test, you might waste time writing up an idea that will never work.

Amanda Swift
7 February 2019

Think around your research question

Think around your research question

Image credit: Anna Barker

Anna Barker

On a writing retreat recently with students from the Arts and Humanities, we were talking about how research is about finding answers. You start – typically after much deliberation – with a research question, and everything that follows is about discovering answers. It seems simple enough, although of course it’s rarely that straightforward. The research takes you on a journey down rabbit holes, around blind bends, up steep cliff faces, and every now and then you can feel like you’ve hit a wall: obstacles, unexpected deviations, surprises. Suddenly, what you’ve got in front of you seems a long way from answering your research question. Unsettling as this might be, it’s all part of the research story.

When your research journey hits a wall, it can be useful to take a step back and forget for a moment that you are searching for answers. Instead, dig for more questions. This not only helps you to recalibrate your research question, but it can also open new doors and push your thinking into new, previously unexplored territory.

The technique works well for essays. Having received your essay question, you might set off immediately to answer it. But by taking some time to think of additional related questions, you can work out what you know about the subject already and where you might focus your thinking and reading. Take this essay question as an example:

Critically evaluate the suggestion that problems of overcrowding, bullying and poor conditions have always been, and will continue to be, of concern to penal reformers.

  • What is the extent of overcrowding and bullying in prisons — facts, figures?
  • What is meant by ‘poor conditions’ and what are the causes?
  • What has contributed to this situation — has it become worse over time, and why?
  • What are the reasons overcrowding might concern penal reformers — it leads to less time for penal education/other activities that encourage rehabilitation of inmates?
  • Examples of other activities?
  • Evidence that education/other activities enable rehabilitation?
  • Opposing views?

Once you have a list of additional questions, you can begin reading and note down some possible answers. Your notes might even prompt you to ask further questions. Best of all, you’ll have focused your reading time and begun to get some words on the page that can later be used to shape a first draft.

31 January 2019
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

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

  • 1
  • 2