A bird’s-eye view

A bird’s-eye view

[check structure]

When you have a first draft of your undergraduate essay or report, you’ll want to check the structure. Are some sections too long or too short? Are they in the right order? Is anything missing? What you need is a bird’s eye view — and this is difficult to get from reading through your work on the screen.

[Navigation Pane]

Fortunately, there’s a better way. If you’re working in Word, it’s called the Navigation Pane. On the View tab, select the Navigation Pane checkbox. The Navigation Pane opens on the left and lists all the headings and subheadings in your document like a table of contents.

[Reorder headings]

But first, you’ll need to assign each heading a Style (Heading 1, Heading 2, etc.). The headings will then appear in the Navigation Pane, and you can drag a heading up and down the list to re-order the corresponding text in the document. If you are not using headings, you can create some as temporary place-markers to describe the content of each section. Once they’ve helped you shape your work, you can delete them.

Heather Dyer
30 January 2020

Break up long sentences

Young woman readingMiniscule pinprick of black — there’s not a lot to a full stop, but to your reader’s brain it can be like oxygen. We write sentences in order to hand our reader a piece of information, a unit of meaning. When we write a sentence that contains not one point, but two or three, or even four, our poor reader never gets the chance to process that initial point before another barges into their mind — a sense of suffocation soon follows; so find the place in over-long sentences where your first point has been made and insert a full stop.

Let’s try that again:
When we write a sentence that contains not one point, but two or three, or even four, our poor reader never gets the chance to process that initial point before another barges into their mind. A sense of suffocation soon follows. So find the place in over-long sentences where your first point has been made and insert a full stop. It will let your reader breathe more easily.

Chris Simms
13 June 2019

Don’t waste – recycle

Don’t waste – recycle

recycling sign

Elias Schäfer from Pixabay

When I was writing my 20,000-word critical paper for my practice-based PhD, I had to cut an entire chapter. When my supervisor said, ‘You don’t need chapter 2’, I was devastated. All that work for nothing! But I realised I could recycle my unused words and was able to turn them into two journal articles.

I recommend to my students that they keep a folder for any material they are unable to incorporate in their assignment — interesting (but irrelevant) sources, single paragraphs or entire sections. The materials might be relevant for another piece of work, helpful for developing ideas for a dissertation or useful for revision.

Lucy English
30 May 2019

‘Your academic writing isn’t academic enough.’

‘Your academic writing isn’t academic enough.’

Student on laptop

Jan Vašek from Pixabay

If you’ve ever got this kind of feedback for one of your essays, it can be a bit of a blow. You’ve tried hard to meet the expectations of your assessment criteria by including content you thought was necessary, but something about the way you’ve written the essay doesn’t quite fit the bill. What does ‘not academic enough’ mean?

The paragraph you have just read includes some language that is not appropriate for academic writing. The tone is informal, using expressions we might use in conversation with a friend. Notice the clichés (bit of a blow, fit the bill) and the contractions (‘you’ve’ instead of ‘you have’).

So how is academic writing different? In general, academic writing is more formal. One way you can achieve this is through the use of suitable verbs. Academic writers generally use powerful, single-word verb forms instead of phrasal verbs (verb + preposition). For example, instead of writing ‘bring about’ change, you could say ‘effect’ change’; instead of ‘wipe out’, you might use ‘eliminate’.

For more examples of the difference between appropriate and inappropriate academic language, this is an excellent resource:
‘Using Appropriate Words in an Academic Essay’ (NUS)


Anna Barker
4 April 2019

This… what?

This… what?

Writing tipsDo 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.

James McConnachie
21 February 2019

Where’s the conflict?

Where’s the conflict?

Image credit: Kona Macphee

Heather Dyer

When I’m writing fiction, I only recognise what a story is really about when it’s very near completion. Only then does it become clear that it’s about ‘control versus letting go’, for example, or ‘security versus freedom’. I realise I need to go back and find the places in the text where these tensions arise, and explore them more deeply.

This can apply in academic writing in the arts, humanities and social sciences, too. Try the following exercise with your essay, dissertation or thesis. Identifying opposing elements in your work can expose underlying conflicts and reveal potential themes.

  1. In two columns, list at least five pairs of ‘opposites’ within your project. You might identify opposing elements in relation to size, space or time — or personality, habitat or temperature, for example.
  2. Freewrite to reflect on the relationships between these pairs of opposites. (Freewriting is writing steadily without stopping and without knowing where you’re going.)
  3. Identify places in your work where you may want to consider these relationships further or make the conflicts more apparent.

I used this exercise on my own doctoral thesis, which explores parallels between the mythic archetype – or classic story arc – and the creative process. I quickly noted down the following ‘opposites’ in these paradigms:

Female Male
Starting out Returning
Conscious Unconscious
Not-knowing Insight
Surrender Questing
Heroine Hero


Studying the list, I noticed that these opposites might be further aligned by the typical qualities of masculine and feminine, or yin and yang:

Masculine Feminine
Male Female
Starting out Returning
Conscious Unconscious
Insight Not-knowing
Questing Surrender
Hero Heroine


I realised that the protagonist’s journey through a story and an individual’s creative process both swung between these two poles. This informed the conclusion of my thesis.

At a writing workshop for artists and writers, I asked them to consider opposites within their own work in progress. Participants identified contrasts they hadn’t previously been aware of: movement and stasis; smooth and rough; child and adult. These tensions triggered ideas that enabled them to develop the central theme of their work.

If you try this exercise, it might help you identify hidden tensions that reveal a theme. You may then want to ensure that you have highlighted these tensions within the work itself.

17 January 2019
Make your text more readable

Make your text more readable

According to Dr Alison Yeung Yam Wah at the University of Surrey, who researches the writing strategies of academics, ‘readability’ is one of the key ingredients of successful academic papers.

Yet academic writers frequently make their text hard to read by seeding it liberally with abstract nouns. These are nouns that express an idea, quality or state rather than an object you experience with your senses. ‘Transportation’ is an abstract noun. ‘Buses, coaches and cars’ are concrete nouns; you can touch, see, hear and smell them – I haven’t tried tasting.

Here’s an example:
The deposition of fish scales in the geological record over the last 1,600 years shows that sardine populations off the US West Coast have exhibited fluctuation – natural cycles of abundance each lasting some 50–70 years.

If we turn the abstract nouns into verbs, the sentence becomes shorter, more readable and no less convincing:

Fish scales deposited in the geological record over the last 1,600 years show that sardine populations off the US West Coast have fluctuated in natural cycles of abundance each lasting some 50–70 years.

Replacing abstract nouns with their equivalent verbs often injects energy into a sentence and usually makes it more readable. Why not try this when you next edit your work?

Trevor Day
8 November 2018

Sharing students’ concerns

Sharing students’ concerns

Miranda Miller

My RLF Consultant Fellow colleague, Amanda Swift, and I have been running academic writing workshops at the University of East London to help postgraduate students and research staff whose first language isn’t English. When I introduce myself at the beginning of each workshop, I always mention that I’ve taught English in Italy, Libya and Japan. Although my spoken Italian is fluent, I still find it difficult to write a simple Italian letter without making silly mistakes. When I say this I watch the students’ faces relax. I think it’s important for tutors to recognise that international students are being asked to carry out a difficult task; the level of English needed to write a Masters dissertation or PhD thesis is advanced.

Another way in which I try to empathise with students is by confiding my own struggles with completing the final draft of a novel. I always feel anxious about handing my work over to someone else to read and have developed techniques to ensure that it is as good as it can be before submission. I advise students to take a break of at least 24 hours from their work. Just like novel writers, they’ve been looking at their own writing for so long that they might find it hard to notice mistakes. I also suggest that students print out their assignment: it’s difficult to spot details such as incorrect punctuation on a computer screen. From the printed text, they can read their work aloud — a useful way of identifying awkward sentence constructions. Russian students, for example, often seem to write very long sentences and can make their writing in English clearer by breaking long sentences into two or more shorter ones. I admit that the process of finalising an assignment is not painless. At this point I sense the students’ relief that their problems as writers are shared. A group discussion about helpful strategies for overcoming anxieties follows naturally on.

2 May 2018
How to write more concisely

How to write more concisely

As writers, we know that every word has to earn its place on the page. If it’s not doing a job, it can be cut, and the resulting sentence is usually better for it. Often we write ‘long’, especially in the first draft, as we feel our way into what we want to say. That’s why editing is so important; it gives us the opportunity to make our writing clearer and simpler, using fewer words. Unnecessary ‘filler’ phrases muddy up sentences, such as: ‘in spite of the fact that’, ‘for all intents and purposes’, and the one that I frequently see in student essays — ‘in order to’, when ‘to’ will do just fine. Check for common filler words and phrases when you edit. Cutting them out will reduce your word count and strengthen your writing.

Anna Barker
7 March 2018

Add verbal highlights

Add verbal highlights

If you want to inject energy and flair into your writing, turbocharge your verbs. Verbs perform the action in any piece of writing. They carry the story and provide the power. Slumping into lazy verb habits is very easy. As an undergraduate I got stuck on highlight: it seemed to fit almost any argument. I was like a workman reaching for the all-purpose tool that’s always ready to hand. But another tool, perhaps one tucked away in a dustier section of the toolbox, might work better.
And highlight has a precise meaning derived from painting, meaning drawing attention to an area of an image by making it the brightest part. So I shouldn’t have highlighted all my student ideas. I should have emphasised, underlined, stressed or exposed them – or even spotlit them, which is a different effect. It’s best to search for the right tool, and the right verb.

James McConnachie
24 January 2018