A couple of years ago I received a shock; I received a TMA result which I was not at all happy about.
I was initially really annoyed, but then after the annoyance subsided, I had a good look at my tutor’s comments. The main thrust of his feedback was that I needed to sort my academic writing out. He was kind enough to offer me a one-to-one chat that must have really helped, since I went from getting a score that made me really grumpy, to getting an EMA score that made me really happy.
What follows are three tips that I’ve picked up over the last couple of years. The second tip comes directly from my tutor.
Tip 1: Paragraphing
A paragraph should contain a single idea.
It shouldn’t be too short, and nor should it be too long. My own principle is: if one is writing more than 4 sentences, then perhaps the paragraph is getting a bit big? Also, regarding the sentences, don’t make them too long.
Tip 2: Making an argument using resources
This was the killer tip that was given to me by my tutor. When doing academic writing, you might want to use the following template. Each part relates to an element of a paragraph.
Part 1: The main point
This first bit is the main point that you want to make in the paragraph; the point that you want to assert or are arguing about.
Part 2: The evidence
Introduce some evidence that supports your point. This might be a quote from something that you’ve read (perhaps a chapter from a set text, a paper, or some of the module materials).
Part 3: The connection between the two
This final bit represents almost a conclusion to your paragraph. Explain how the evidence that you’ve provided is related to the main point that you’re making. This, essentially, is the critical bit.
When I was writing up my dissertation, I applied this pattern time and time again. I also had introductory and concluding paragraphs.
Tip 3: Referencing
One thing that my tutor was on my case about was referencing. This is important since it shows the extent of your reading, and referencing within an EMA demonstrates that you have understood the teaching from the module materials. A further tip is to make sure that your bit of writing is showing that you have met the learning outcomes that are being assessed.
My tutor was very insistent: put things in quotes, provide the name of the author, and provide a page reference. This final bit, the page reference, clearly shows how closely you’ve read (and have understood) the materials.
More information about referencing can be found by going to the OU’s Quick guide to Harvard referencing (Cite Them Right). Further information is available on the external Cite Them Right website.
There’s a whole set of resources that might be useful. One place to start is the OU Study Skills website which contains a section about writing and preparing assignments.
Further advice can be found on pages about Writing for University and Writing in your own words.
Another set of useful resources are the university’s Study skills booklets which you can print out, highlight sections and scribble over. A good one to look at is called Preparing Assignments (pdf). Looking back to my earlier Tip 1, part 5, which is about writing paragraphs, might also offer a good bid of advice.
Another booklet is called Thinking Critically (pdf). Again, looking back to Tip 2, part 5 of the booklet, Writing with a Critical Voice, might be useful too. The section on page 22, a process for getting critical thinking into your writing, certainly echoes some of those points that tutor told me, but presents everything in a slightly different way. Also, before you get to the writing, there’s also a booklet about Reading and Taking Notes (pdf).
Finally, I do recommend The Good Study Guide (pdf). I was sent a copy of this book when I enrolled for my first ever OU module, and when I read it, I thought to myself: “if only I had read this book when I was an undergraduate, I might have got a higher degree classification”. I have a paper copy of it on a bookshelf, next to my desk (it is that good!).
Two chapters that specifically relate to academic writing are Chapter 10, Writing the way ‘they’ want, and Chapter 11, Managing the writing process (Northedge, 2005, p.296).
The title of Chapter 10 is important, since academic writing is a skill, but one that requires the use of a whole set of hidden rules. Hopefully some of the resources presented in this blog will help to explain what some of those rules are.