For anyone who has spent little or no time in higher education, the form and function of academic writing can be hard to grasp. The rules and best practices of academic writing go beyond the simpler, formal style of business or workplace communications. Help is at hand, however; these tips will cover the main points including setting out your academic piece, review and style. By the end of the blog, you should know your essays from your articles.
It seems sensible to start with structure. At this stage, you should have a vague idea of what you’re going to cover and should have started your research. Your research should inform your essay, but the modules you’ve studied and the activities you have completed will have given you a good enough background to inform your basic argument.
Introduction – 1 Paragraph
This is where you frame your essay. Here, you should be addressing the question and contextualising it briefly so you have a good starting point. You may also want to state how you will answer the question, briefly mentioning the points you will elaborate on in the main paragraphs. In the introduction, you may also want to define some key terms you’ll be using. The use of the introduction will vary depending on your subject area and question, so remember to ask your module tutor for guidance.
Main Body – 3-4 Paragraphs
This is where all the hard work goes in. An average essay will have 3-4 points to make and you should make one point per paragraph and suitably back each point up with research. It is also good practice to add a concluding sentence to each paragraph, which briefly mentions the subject of the next paragraph, thus improving the flow of the essay.
A general rule is to summarise the main points covered in the essay and bring them together in a way that neatly answers the question.
Answering the question
Throughout your essay, you should be framing and answering the question. It is common for students who are new to academic writing to get so wrapped up in the research they forget to relate it back to the question. Books and resources will not always cover exactly what you need to know, but may have some relevant paragraphs, or chapters; the trick is to find the relevance in the research!
When you see a perfect quote in a text you may be tempted to use it straight away, but quotations are best used sparingly. An essay littered with quotations gives the marker the impression that you lack understanding or have not made an attempt at original work. When you feel you want to use a quotation, paraphrase instead e.g.
‘To manage is to forecast and plan, to organise, co-ordinate and to control.’ (Fayol 1916)
Cited in: Gerald A. Cole (2003) Management theory and practice. p. 6
Could easily become:
Fayol (1916) postulated that management consists of the ability to forecast, organise, plan and control.
Maintain the objective third person
Academic writing should be objective and impersonal. Phrases such as ‘I think’, ‘my research’ or any variety of phrase that references yourself in the first person may be negatively reviewed by lecturers and examiners. The third person shows that you are being objective in your answering of the question and the presentation of your research. An example:
My research shows that
This research shows that.
This is a good rule of thumb for any form of writing. In order for a piece of writing to be read easily and naturally, the sentence structure needs to be clear, the punctuation accurate and the text to be free of typos and other errors. A good editing tool is to record yourself reading your essay and listening to where you hesitated in the reading; revisit these areas.
Academic writing is a formulaic style that can work for you as its style makes it easy to plan and structure your essay. A great academic writing resource can be found on the Coventry University website.
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