Improving Your Academic Writing

R20–0735 HCRI60080, HCRI70040, HCRI70030 ASYNC ONLY

Introduction

Welcome to this resource. The resource aims to support the development of your academic writing. Here we will share with you some strategies that you can apply to your writing with the intention of improving your writing. We know that you will have differing experiences of writing and the strategies that you will practice here should offer something for you regardless of that.

You will practice an approach to planning an essay or as I like to call it the writing rehearsal. This is where you will get your ideas and your argument in order and where you can line up the relevant evidence to make your argument clear. You will then draft a couple of paragraphs that will inform what we do when we get together in November.

Work through the content at your own pace prior to the meeting and return to the materials as your course progresses or when you are preparing for new assessments. We very much look forward to meeting you.

(AW2.4) Planning your academic writing

Image of person writing in a notebook
Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Academic writing requires you to demonstrate a wide range of skills; from synthesizing information across a wide range of different sources to showing an in-depth and critical understanding of the evidence. In order to meet these requirements your writing needs be intentional, with every element included playing a role in your argument. So, don’t be surprised if the planning process takes a while — this is not wasted time. Creating a detailed plan before you start may seem counterproductive when you want to get on with your writing, but it will save you a lot of time in the long run. If your piece of writing is planned well and you know what you want to say, it will take less time for you to write it and you will spend less time editing your draft.

How to plan

There are lots of different strategies and a variety of software out there which can assist you in planning your academic writing. Mind maps can be an excellent tool for starting for starting off the planning process, as they allow you to collect your ideas together visually. With all the information in front of you, you can start to make connections between different ideas to form a basic structure for your writing. Don’t be afraid to try different approaches as this will help you discover what works for you. You may prefer to write out a plan or create a mind map on paper, or use an online tool to help you collect your ideas. Free mind-mapping software, such as Freeplane can be downloaded to a computer or portable USB stick from the Freeplane website. If you’re on campus, you’ll find Mindview mind-mapping software on all university PCs.

Writing the different sections of your essay

Not every type of academic writing is structured in the same way because different types of written work have different aims, which influence the content you are expected to include. One thing which is common to all types of academic writing is that, in order to obtain high level marks, you will always need to demonstrate critical skills. Every point you make should be supported by evidence and your own analysis. Instead of simply describing what you have found in the literature or using an experiment, you will need to offer your own opinion on it, explaining its significance and how it supports your argument. You can read more about how to use the Topic, Evidence, Analysis, Transition strategy to make sure your writing is critical in our blog post about Writing the main body.

One of the most common types of academic assignment is the academic essay. If you are asked to complete an academic essay, providing a response to a theoretical question, then you know that you will be expected to include an introduction, main body and conclusion. We have created several in-depth blog posts to help you explore the purpose and what you should aim to achieve when Writing the introduction and Writing the conclusion.

[ADDITIONAL CONTENT/ACTIVITIES]

Activity — Stop and Reflect

The Writing the Main Body blogpost gives many examples of how to engage with individual pieces of evidence. Think about how you will embed this type of critical engagement into your own note-making and writing habits.

Activity — Return and reflect

Come back to the Writing the Introduction and Conclusion blogposts when writing your first (and other!) assessments; do your own introductions and conclusions cover all the information suggested?

Creating flow

When you are writing or editing a piece of academic work it is important to consider your reader. You want to take your reader on a journey, clearly signposting the movement between one section in your assignment and the next. This is how writers create a sense of “flow” in their writing. If you signpost effectively the journey will be easy for the reader — they will understand clearly what is happening at each stage in your argument and how you have arrived at your opinion.

Image of a person creating a Lego structure.
Photo by Ravi Palwe on Unsplash

If your writing is not clearly signposted, linking each point to the next, then your reader will get lost. Signposting what you are doing at each point in your writing helps communicate to your reader how you have built your argument, with each section acting like a “brick” in your overall structure. The more effort a reader needs to put into understanding where your writing is going, the less able they are to concentrate on and appreciate your core argument. If “the reader” in this scenario is the academic marking your work they may find themselves struggling to identify where you have met points in the assignment criteria.

The Academic Phrasebank

www.phrasebank.manchester.ac.uk

The Academic Phrasebank is a database containing lots of example phrases written in academic style. You can use these short phrases in your academic writing without needing to mention it in your bibliography. The Phrasebank is broken down into different sections, which includes a section about signalling transition between different points/sections/topics. You can use the example phrases from this section to demonstrate how your argument is developing.

(AW1.3) Structure and flow within your writing

You need to give close consideration to the overall flow, or direction of travel, within your writing. Your aim is to provide a straight and clear line of argument which runs throughout from the introduction to conclusion. Ideas and/ or evidence should be introduced in a logical manner, which connect strongly with your central themes and ideas. This will allow you to build your argument incrementally, and gradually convince your reader of the value of your position.

There are some general rules methods you can use to improve your writing fluency. These are discussed below. However, a key writing objective, and principle, should be to keep your focus firmly on the following simple consideration.

“Why am I writing about this?”

It can be very easy to lose your overall focus when you begin analysing and discussing complex articles, datasets or concepts. This may lead to comments about a lack of clarity, or focus, when you receive feedback on what you have written.

Keeping your focus on “why” you are discussing something can help to avoid this. It will also ensure that you consistently connect your writing back to your central ideas and themes. This will help to ensure that your writing maintains a consistent structure and flow. You can use words, sentences and paragraphs to help you maintain this flow throughout your essay.

Words, sentences and paragraphs
Thinking about how we use language when we are writing can be an effective way to improve. Your words, sentences and paragraphs should all form building blocks which help in the construction of your overall ideas and themes.

Words (less can be more!)

There can be a temptation in academic writing to over-elaborate when you are writing. We may feel that this helps our language to sound more scholarly, or authoritative. However, it can have the effect of making our language overly clunky and confusing. Simple, concise expression is a good thing to aim for.

Consider using the shortest form of a word possible — think “use” instead of “utilise”! Also, try to limit the number of times you use phrases which don’t actually add anything meaningful to what you are saying. Terms like “However”, or “as such”, are good examples of these. They can be useful occasionally to signal a transition, or change in direction, but should be used sparingly. This will help your writing to be more concise.

Technical terms (such as ophiophagus hannah rather than King Cobra if you were writing about snakes) are often preferred. They can often be the most concise way of saying something. Look for guidance on this within your course handbook, or try reading some relevant journal articles within your field. This should help to give you a good idea of what is expected.

Above all the language you use should be natural and consistent. Searching for “clever” words or expressions in a thesaurus may be tempting, but can actually inhibit the natural flow and expression of your writing.

Sentences

Your sentences should be short and clear. It is generally better to express one thought clearly and succinctly if possible. You should also try to make it obvious what is important by placing the subject of your sentence at the beginning. This will help add clarity to your writing.

Example sentence:

It was only following extensive criticism in the media that the government finally acknowledged that the algorithm was flawed and unfair to those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

In the sentence above it is very unclear who is the main subject or focus. This can be improved by splitting it up into two sentences. This makes the writing clearer and easier to understand. It also makes it clear that “the government” is the primary focus of our writing.

The Government finally acknowledged that the algorithm was flawed, and unfair to those from disadvantaged backgrounds. This came in response to extensive criticism from the media.

Another effective strategy can be to change the length of your sentences. Sometimes they can be short, and sometimes long but they always be to the point.

Paragraphs

You may often hear people refer to the advice that a paragraph should consist of one idea. This can be problematic in academic writing, as our ideas may be complex. This can lead to VERY long paragraphs. It can be more helpful to think of the paragraph as providing a distinct movement in your argument. It may require multiple paragraphs to construct a full idea, but each paragraph should form a clear building block in the construction of the argument you are introducing.

A common way to do this is to analyse a specific section of key reading within an individual paragraph, which is relevant to the idea you are discussing. You might follow this up in a subsequent paragraph with discussion of related readings. These might offer further supporting evidence in support of the overall idea introduced in the first paragraph.

My Learning Essentials provides further guidance on this in our series of blog-posts on essay writing.

(AW 2.5) Using RAFT: Getting prepared to write

Understanding your task

Before getting started with any academic task it is important to make sure you you fully understand what is expected of you. Carefully read the assignment information given to you and keep returning to it as you progress with your task; this will help keep you on track. RAFT is a strategy which is designed to help you understand your task and what you need to do. It concentrates on four key elements you should consider before starting an academic assignment:

1. Role: Ask yourself: What is your role as a writer? What do you need to do in order to make sure the reader understands your argument?

2. Audience: Ask yourself: Who is reading your work? How can you make sure that you demonstrate the necessary skills to them? How can you make your argument clear?

3. Format(s): Different types of academic writing have different aims and you may need to demonstrate different skills in each. Different types of writing also have different conventions which you will need to follow.

4. Topic: Break down the question or assignment brief to make sure you understand what you are being asked about and cover all the relevant areas (see breaking down the question section for more detail).

Breaking down the question

Once you are clear on what is expected of you, turn your attention to understanding what you are being asked about. Assignment or exam questions follow a recognisable format and often include certain types of key words which indicate how you should answer a question, what you should cover and what is/isn’t relevant. The types of key words commonly used in academic questions are:

Instruction/task words:

  • Usually verbs
  • Used to explain how you should answer the question
  • You can find a list of common instruction words and what they mean here.

Topic words:

  • Usually nouns
  • These refer to the ideas, concepts or issues you need to cover

Limiting words:

  • Limit your focus/the scope of the question
  • Often refers to a specific period, place or population

Activity — Strategy Practice

  1. Work through the My Learning Essentials online resource Get a grip: Understanding your task, which will introduce you to the Question Matrix method. The Question Matrix can help you to understand and plan your response to a set question.
  2. Practice identifying breaking down your own questions and create your own Question Matrix for your essay using this resource Breaking down the question.

Use the following question as an example or a title of your own.

Drawing on your knowledge of the right to health of displaced people, critically discuss the provision of health care to undocumented migrants in Europe. You will need to consider rights to health care in theory and practice, including issues such as barriers to access, discrimination and quality and appropriateness of care.

  • Share your Question Matrix draft either as a document or a photo on the Padlet

(Embed padlet)

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Using the assessment criteria

The next step in ensuring that you carry out your writing assignment effectively is checking your assessment criteria (sometimes referred to as marking criteria). The assessment criteria is what your lecturers and tutors will use to mark your work once it has been submitted. It sets out the key skills and competencies you are expected to demonstrate in a particular piece of work, including descriptions of what students will need to do to be awarded a First, 2.1, 2.2 or Third mark.

However, marking criteria are not just useful for your tutors — they also let you know what is expected of you in an assignment. You can make use of marking criteria in a number of ways:

  • To understand tutor expectations for an upcoming assignment;
  • To help plan your assignment;
  • To understand the feedback you receive;
  • To action feedback by identifying areas for development in future assignments;
  • To self-assess your own work before submitting.

If you are unsure where to find the marking criteria for your next assessment, ask you lecturer/tutor!

The excerpt below is taken from an example of a marking criteria used at the University of Manchester.

(embed marking criteria pdf here)

From reading the example criteria above I know that, in order to reach a top level first for “critical engagement”, I would need to refer to and engage with a wide range of different types of high-quality source material. So, if I was to approach this assignment, when I started my research, I would make sure to investigate the different types of information available on the subject. Then I would choose the best examples of each of these, considering the evidence they provided and using it to formulate my own response to the question. Assessment criteria for your course, module or individual assignment is most likely to be available in your course Blackboard space or programme handbook.

Activity — Independent learning!

Before starting your first (or next assessment) read through your marking criteria to make sure you understand what each section is asking you to do. You can use My Learning Essentials resources to help explain any expectations, skills or strategies you are unfamiliar with.

Self-assessment

The marking criteria can help to self-assess your own work before submitting. Self-assessment is a useful skill to develop, both academically and professionally:

  • It helps develop your own critical evaluation skills
  • It can help in identifying the strengths and weaknesses of your own work.
  • It allows you to reflect carefully on your own performance and make action plans for further development.

TIP: Before submitting any assessment, use the marking criteria to self-assess your own work and make sure you are confident that you have met all the expectations.

Activity — Writing and assessing with the marking criteria

Now it is time turn to turn your Question Matrix into a short paper.

  1. Use two of the boxes from your own Question Matrix to write 2 short paragraphs in Google Docs (you can write this up in a separate document and then copy and paste the complete draft into the Google Doc, if that is easier for you). Make sure to incorporate evidence into your paragraph. Look back on the Writing the main body to help structure your paragraphs effectively.
  2. Self-assessment: Use the marking criteria to assess which expectations you think you have already met in your first draft and which you need to develop further in future drafts. (keep a list of these to act as your own action plan going forward)
  3. Peer-assessment: Use the marking criteria to review what others have written. While reviewing others’ work think about:
  • Have they have approached the task differently to you?
  • Look at the language they have used — are there any phrases or terms they use to signal transition of critical think you would like to incorporate into your own writing?
  • How have they incorporated evidence into their writing? Have they used a mix of quotations, paraphrasing and summarising?
  • Can you easily identify their own ideas and analysis from the evidence they use?

We look forward to discussing your experiences of this activity at the face to face session in November.

Get Started with referencing

(embed Referencing 1)

(embed Referencing 1.1)

Avoiding Plagiarism

Make a note for yourself describing what you think plagiarism is. To help with this reflect on what you think plagiarism is and is not.

Work through the ‘Avoiding Plagiarism’ online resource. This resource will allow you to work through different case-studies and stories related to different aspects of plagiarism and academic malpractice. These will help you to recognise and understand good practice in using and incorporating academic sources into your own work.

Activity — Reflect and share

After completing the resource, look back on the note you made beforehand, how has your initial understanding of plagiarism changed now. Share you key learning point from the resource in the Padlet.

(embed Padlet)

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Citing It Right: Introducing Referencing

The My Learning Essentials online resource ‘Citing it right: introducing referencing’ will outline:

  • What referencing is.
  • Why we need to reference.
  • What to reference.
  • How to reference.

We have already shared our thoughts on why referencing is important; so, before you start working through this resource, make a list of what you think we need to reference when writing academic work.

Activity — Resource and Reflect

  1. Work through the ‘Citing it right: introducing referencing’ resource.
  2. Reflect on the answers you gave in the first activity; has your understanding of why referencing is important changed or developed?
  3. Look back on the list of what you think we need to reference when writing academic work; do you need to add anything to this list now.

Referencing Guide at the University of Manchester

The Referencing Guide at the University of Manchester is a really useful tool to help get familiar with referencing at a starting point and also to help with specific queries and formatting issues when you start referencing in your assignments.

The Referencing Guide has instructions on how to reference a wide range of sources including eBooks, journal articles, YouTube videos and many more. If you find a source you wish to cite, but are unsure how to reference it, always check the Guide for help.

It is important to remember that you don’t necessarily need to know all about referencing from memory. It is perfectly acceptable to use tools and resources, such as this Guide, to help and remind you about referencing when you need it. Take some time to become familiar with the Guide and bookmark it in your browser so you can access it quickly when you need to.

Activity — Guide Practice

Pick an article or book from your reading list (or something you have found yourself that you are currently reading) and use the referencing guide to help you cite the resource.

  1. Identify what type of source it is.
  2. Find the corresponding source type in the Referencing Guide drop-down list.
  3. Read through the template and advice given.
  4. Use the template and advice to give the correct in-text citation and reference list citation for your own source.

Next steps

Use the guide in the same way you have for the above activity whenever you find a source you want to cite but are unsure how to reference it.

If you cannot find the answer in the guide, you can ask a Librarian by using Library Chat on the Library Website or MyManchester (log in required).

Reference Management Tools

What are reference management tools?

Reference management tools allow you to keep track of the things you have read or want to read; organise those things in a way you can find them when you need them; and allow you to generate citations and bibliographies in your written work, making referencing a little easier.

Some tools are based entirely online and accessed through your browser. Others are desktop applications that you can download, install and use offline. Others use a mix of online and desktop application. You can even find tools that have Android and/or iOS apps.

Many tools work with Microsoft Word while you will find other tools which are compatible with other word processing applications

Reference management tools at the University of Manchester

The Library supports users of several reference management tools:

EndNote Desktop (X9)

EndNote is a desktop application that can be downloaded to personal devices from the University Electronic Software Delivery System. You can find out how download EndNote X9 here. The University of Manchester subscribes the full version of EndNote and provides training and support.

You can find the Library’s online support for EndNote X9 here.

EndNote Online

EndNote Online is a browser-based tool which can connect with EndNote X9 or be used as a standalone application. Registering via Web of Science gives you enhanced features as a member of the University of Manchester. You can find out how to do that here.

You can find the Library’s online support for EndNote Online here.

Mendeley

Mendeley is a free tool which features both online and desktop applications which are used in tandem. Although the University does not subscribe to the paid-for product we do support users. You can sign up to a free Mendeley account here.

You can find the Library’s online support for Mendeley here.

Other reference management tools

There are many other tools out there which you might already be using or which might be a better choice for you. While we’ll endeavour to support your use of these tools our ability to do so can be limited by our experience and access to the tools or related software.

Help and support

For help finding and evaluating information, searching databases and referencing you can get in touch in a number of ways:

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