What’s the best thing to do with the first paragraph of your essay? Write it, then put it in the bin. Now this isn’t always true, but it often is. Many writers ‘write themselves into it’, like an engine warming up before it runs properly. They might write vague opening lines like this: ‘Experts disagree about how best to begin an essay, and it is easy to feel confused by conflicting rules.’ You’ll often find that it is better to start with your second paragraph, which might start like this: ‘A surprising writing tip is to put your first paragraph in the bin.’ Typically, paragraph 2 is where you start getting down to the important stuff — and that’s precisely where your essay should begin. The writer Hilary Mantel put it most memorably. When you write that first paragraph, she asked, ‘are you performing a haka, or just shuffling your feet?’ Most of us, I’m afraid, start with a stiff shuffle. The agile, exciting, showy war-dance of the haka only gets going in paragraph two.
21 March 2019
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
Do you often start sentences with the words ‘This is’? If so, you might be making your reader sweat, while missing a chance to underline or refine the point you’re making. When you write ‘this is’, your reader is often forced to try to remember whatever it was in the last sentence you were talking about.
So remind them. This . . . what? This belief, this breakthrough, this reappraisal, this campaign, this experiment, this opportunity . . . You need to figure out precisely what you were talking about and then tell the reader in one single, crucial word. This is about more than just reminding the reader. (Actually, that sentence should be, ‘This technique is about more than just reminding the reader.’)
When you add a word between ‘this’ and ‘is’ you force yourself to reimagine, in an abstract way, the underlying nature of whatever it is you are describing. And that little move towards a higher-level evaluation of what it’s really all about, is the very essence of academic thinking.
21 February 2019
Paragraphs punctuate your writing, clarify your meaning and strengthen your argument. A typed page without paragraphs is like a wall of words; it’s very hard for the reader to find a way in to your writing, and it’s very hard for your meaning to get out. Paragraphs don’t add words but they do help get your point across. Remember: one point per paragraph. As a rule of thumb, I’d advise two to three paragraphs for each A4 page. Every paragraph is different, but many contain the following parts in the following order:
I Introduce the topic
D Develop the point / present your argument
E Give your Evidence
A Analyse / evaluate the evidence
S Summarise and lead on to the next point
Each new paragraph is like a breath of fresh air. It breaks up the text and improves readability, helping your reader to grasp the meaning.
24 January 2019
Recently I partnered with Tina Pepler, another Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow, to deliver a five-day writing retreat for third-year doctoral students. Students were at the writing-up stage of their research and grappling with a large amount of material. As writers, we know all too well the muddle you can sometimes get into when working out the structure of a long piece of writing. There’s a familiar tension between being close to the detail but also needing to be able to zoom out and see the piece as a whole. You can sometimes feel lost in the fog. It’s often difficult to see the connections between ideas, the links that would provide a cohesive structure.
Every morning at the start of our sessions, we asked our students to practise freewriting. Freewriting is the act of writing continuously, not stopping to correct errors, or even really to think that much. It engages the unconscious mind, that place where the mulling over of problems ordinarily takes place. (See Heather Dyer’s blog post https://rlfconsultants.com/creative-insight/). You can write using a prompt such as, ‘What am I trying to achieve with this chapter?’ Alternatively, you can simply begin writing and see what comes out. When you feel you having nothing to write, you just fill in the blanks with ‘blah, blah, blah’ until another thought kicks you off again. It’s a terrific way of engaging the creative side of your brain.
Once you have been writing for 15 minutes, stop, and read through what you have written. You might like to circle or underline things that leap out at you as interesting. And keep the routine going; do it every morning. I’m always surprised by what comes out when I’m freewriting and indeed I’m doing a lot of it just at the moment as ideas for a new novel take shape. Our students at the retreat found it very helpful in making connections in the structure of their thesis. It also allowed them to slip off the cloak of academic writing, to write freely and to explore how they thought and felt about the material they were working with.