The 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.
31 October 2019
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
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?
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?
7 March 2019
Can 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.
7 February 2019
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.
23 May 2018