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

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusFacebooktwittergoogle_plus
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

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusFacebooktwittergoogle_plus
Blurbing is a serious business

Blurbing is a serious business

Image credit: Soren Levy Sands

Image credit: Soren Levy Sands

One-day workshops for PhD students can be heavy-going when you are trying to pack them full of writing know-how. So I like to intersperse challenging tasks with exercises that feel like fun, but the lessons they impart are extremely valuable. A favourite exercise of mine is book blurbing.

Composing jacket copy is an extremely useful activity, since it serves the vital function of getting to the core of the purpose of the work, while at the same time selling it to readers. The blurb has to summarise, convince, beguile, describe and entertain, all at once.

If you simply ask students to write a blurb for their own thesis, the danger is that you will paralyse them; the task of summarising their work artfully is no small one. It is far better to approach the task obliquely. I bring in a novel, with the back-cover blurb taped over. I summarise what the novel is about, who it’s aimed at, and what the writer might be trying to achieve. I pass the novel round the room, get the students to talk about their casual impressions as they flip through its pages, and allow those who might know the writer’s work to characterise it for their peers.

Then I ask the students to take their best and most creative shot at approximating the blurb that I’ve hidden. All of their attempts at writing an alluring blurb go into a hat, from which I then invite each student to pick one blurb at random. Going round the group, reading out the newly minted blurbs, usually generates great hilarity. At this point, I inform the students that I’ve sneakily added the genuine blurb to their offerings in the hat, and that I’d like them to vote on which blurb they think is the real one.

The intention behind this exercise is for students to get to the heart of how they might like their PhDs to be read. What is the best ‘sell’ they can imagine composing for their own work? And what will someone gain by reading it? If a student comes away from this exercise feeling that they’ve learnt what is really at stake in their work, the exercise will have succeeded.

31 January 2018
Facebooktwittergoogle_plusFacebooktwittergoogle_plus
The elevator pitch

The elevator pitch

Jen Green

As an RLF Consultant Fellow, I specialise in giving workshops on dissertation writing to third-year undergraduates and to postgraduates. These sessions pull together and help embed the skills needed to write what is the most ambitious assignment of a student’s career.

For students who are well advanced in the writing process, my favourite exercise is the ‘elevator pitch’. This is designed to help students refine their argument and also write the abstract. I introduce the scenario, asking students to imagine they find themselves alone in a lift with their head of department. It has recently been announced that a highly lucrative grant is available for just one student from their year to continue their studies as a doctorate. As the elevator doors close, they have one minute with the tutor to introduce themselves and their research topic with a view to winning the grant.

I give students four minutes to prepare their ‘sales pitch’, with key questions as a prompt. What is their research topic and why is it important? What does it add to the knowledge/debate within their field? The students work in pairs. I then time them as one student delivers his/her pitch to their partner in exactly one minute. The partner is asked to listen carefully and has time afterwards to question the speaker if anything was unclear, and jot down notes. The listener then has 30 seconds to précis the pitch back to the original speaker. Did the speaker manage to put their key points across? Can they give any tips on making the pitch more persuasive? Then it’s the second student’s turn.

From the hubbub that rises as the minute starts each time, it’s clear the students find this exercise energising. The response is overwhelmingly positive, with some students relishing the chance to shine while others enjoy the challenge of martialling their argument. Feedback suggests that the elevator pitch helps students summarise what’s important about their thesis, while some report using their scribbled notes to write their abstract.

22 November 2017
Facebooktwittergoogle_plusFacebooktwittergoogle_plus
What is an argument?

What is an argument?

While researching for a new poem sequence, I was reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I found myself constructing an argument for a possible essay or article. Why did Victor Frankenstein end up creating a monster? What part was played by his education? Later, preparing writing workshops for MA Literature students and looking back over essays from previous years, the problem of argument recurred frequently in a sample of markers’ comments. Students were advised to ‘argue rather than illustrate’ or were told: ‘Your paragraphs and arguments don’t have a clear discursive shape’. Not being clear about the basic outline of the argument means that an essay lacks direction, with consequences for the quality of the writing.

Alerted to this problem, I went back to Frankenstein. Could I retrace my steps? Victor’s studies began at home in his early teens with alchemy, investigating works by Cornelius Agrippa and Paracelsus. Entering the university at Ingolstadt, in Bavaria, Germany, his tutors introduced him to ‘natural philosophy’.

Constructing an argument involves identifying its main concepts, establishing their exact meaning, where they occur, their provenance and background, plus any further relevant research. This information can be presented as a concept grid.

A concept grid works well for humanities students at any level. Visualising the material helps us discover connections, oppositions, pathways and links, out of which a complex argument can emerge. The grid below is just a simplified version of what could be a spreadsheet or a message-board in an incident room. As you define your concepts and see where they lead, you will be able to take your reader with you. Under Alchemy: Content, we might enter ‘transmutation of metals, elixir of life, philosopher’s stone’, all of which are consistent with a belief in magic. ‘Natural philosophy’ – what we would now call science – would have exposed the young Frankenstein to a whole new set of procedures based upon experiment, observation and probability. Victor’s problem was not to progress from one form of knowledge to another, but to embrace them both. He had to find a way to transmute mortality, and used modern science as his means.

So what went wrong at Ingolstadt? The last two sentences above could serve as an attempt to frame the argument, with further questions to follow. An argument is a vehicle able to carry you far into your topic, opening up new spaces for exploration. Concepts clarified in detail stimulate research, generate insight, and bring to writing a ‘clear, discursive shape’.

Title: What part did Victor Frankenstein’s education play in the creation of his monster?

 

1 March 2017
Facebooktwittergoogle_plusFacebooktwittergoogle_plus
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

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusFacebooktwittergoogle_plus
Paragraphs: stepping stones through your argument

Paragraphs: stepping stones through your argument

Image credit: Christopher Collins

When I’m talking with students about how paragraphs function within an argument I sometimes use the metaphor of stepping stones across or along a river. I like to offer a local image when I can. Last year, teaching at the University of the Free State in South Africa, I found some great pictures of the Orange River. This year, at a business conference at the University of Bath, I used photos of the River Avon (or the ‘Riv Raven’ as we West Country folk call it) to illustrate my point.

The metaphor is flexible. Sometimes the stepping stones/paragraphs take the reader across the flow of water – the raw material out of which the essay is created – to the far bank. Sometimes the reader will step from one paragraph to the next to follow the flow of the argument down the river to the sea.

Recently, my own writing has thrown up more river metaphors. I’m writing a biography of three people who were in Africa at the time of the Anglo–Boer War. It wasn’t until I was revising my first draft that I appreciated how important a role rivers play in their stories. One of my subjects writes about sabotaged rail bridges, and having to push train carriages one by one across a narrow wooden bridge built to take ox wagons. Another describes a river choked with human corpses and animal carcasses. Both of these, I realised, work as metaphors for various stages in my own laborious writing process.

The process always involves a struggle across broken bridges and through carcass-choked rivers to produce a seamless final draft, which appears as a sweeping onward flow or a clear path of dry stepping stones. This finished stage is illustrated by the third subject of my biography, who writes of the joy and exhilaration of paddling a canoe down a moonlit river in West Africa, swooping past the menacing tree- and liana-crowded banks on either side. Now that’s an image I’d like to find and share with students in my next workshop.

18 January 2017
Facebooktwittergoogle_plusFacebooktwittergoogle_plus
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

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusFacebooktwittergoogle_plus
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
Facebooktwittergoogle_plusFacebooktwittergoogle_plus