Academic writing subjects at University
One of the subjects I completed in my masters degree was Academic Writing and Critical Enquiry. Most people sigh when they see this subject as part of their curriculum, but for me I really enjoyed it. Recently I finished a fantastic online course through Coursera called English Composition 1. I learnt more about writing and English from this course than any subject I took through my undergraduate and post graduate degree, and would strongly urge those who wish to learn to be better writers, to take this course.
Academic writing at post-graduate level is was targeting and learning about the dimensions of expertise and what traits differentiate novice from expert Physiotherapists. There is a large body of research in this field that we all read as we embarked on this journey of developing expertise in our clinical reasoning, critical thinking, and manual therapy skills. Another aspect of this subject is to develop an appreciation and understanding of the complex ethical and moral dilemmas Physiotherapists will face in their career. Its fantastic to learn to recognise ethical issues and have ways to problem solve them.
Interestingly, as I look back through my notes and lectures from this subject, it becomes apparent that I didn’t learn many new skills in academic writing itself. I relied heavily on the skills I learnt at school. I didn't learn much in the way on how to structure arguments, make claims, share your opinion and produce an engaging piece of writing. There was one lecture I recall which provided tips for academic writing. Briefly describing the difference between a reflective piece, case study and literature review.
During this lecture I was given pointers for effective study such as; address the question accurately and adequately, take an argument or position, analyse rather than just observe, use formal language and present your grammar, sentence structure and spelling well. This is very good advice and similar to what I learnt on my English course. What I learnt during the English Composition course went well above any expectation I had. The English course gave me strategies for approaching tasks from a different perspective and I learnt new tools which have made my work so much more enjoyable, productive and useful.
Previously I found it difficult to write the 2000 word essay assignments, and whilst I was still pleased with the marks I received, I never really loved reading my own work. How things change over time... I’ve now been writing this blog since December 2013 and with Alicia, we’ve written over 70 articles. Currently I read and write a piece every 1-2 weeks, and I love it. Taking the course through Coursera has opened my eyes to different writing styles and given me tips on becoming a better educator, a better reader and active listener and certainly about developing succinct descriptions of my ideas. My hope is that this new knowledge is also reflected in my work. For this blog I’d like to share with you some of the tips I’ve taken away from the course.
What is the purpose of writing?
Some useful questions to ask yourself when you are drafting a piece may include:
- What is the main argument or claim you want to present?
- If you are evaluating the work of others, what is the writers main claim? What are their sub-claims and what evidence do they use to support this?
- What is the purpose of this piece?
- Who are you writing for?
- What inspired you to write this? Make sure this comes through in the paper. You don't have to use 'I' sentences and opinions but make sure the reader knows what the important messages are.
- What evidence can you use to establish credibility and strengthen your argument?
- What questions did you ask when researching for your project? Did you answer these? Did it lead to generating further questions?
There are four stages in the writing process
In the pre-drafting phase you are collecting evidence and researching your chosen topic. Normally I would highlight the articles I read and then once all the papers were finished, go back through them to collate my/the ideas.
How about this…. After each article spend 3-5 minutes writing continuously what the article was about. This is known as a quick write. Something I hadn’t done before but it’s incredibly effective. Just keep writing about what you learnt, what was the purpose of the paper, what did they find, did they answer their hypothesis, was there any errors in methodology etc? Then when you finish reading the articles you have a series or summaries reminding you of what you learnt, as well as highlighted sections you can use for quotes and evidence. This has been one of the best things I learnt.
If you don’t know what to write about try answer these questions:
- What was the main argument?
- What is the debate around this topic?
- What evidence did the writer use?
- Were there any other claims?
- What method was used to conduct the research trial? Are there any particular strengths or weaknesses you noted?
- What is the context of this argument in relation to the bigger picture? Why does it interest you or relate to the assignment?
- Is this information useful for your research, if yes/no then why?
- What questions does it raise for you? Are there any other articles cited in the paper you want to follow up on?
Another tip when reading each paper is making marginal annotation. When highlighting something during the reading process mark in the margin the reason why you highlighted it. Does it mean something to do? Does it make you ask a question? Is this something you need to look up? That way, when you come back to your highlighted notes, you have a running list in the margin of what your thoughts were at the time.
A draft is not incomplete or an outline, but it is not perfect or complete either.
A draft is a complete version of your paper or assignment ready for proof reading and feedback.
Making a claim:
When you set out to write an assignment ask yourself why you chose your particular topic. What claim are you going to make and what evidence will you use to support this claim?
Making a claim will often be directed by the assignment objectives but there are a few elements that you need to include to make your claim/argument effective:
- Compelling – why will others find this interesting?
- Connected – what work/ideas/hypotheses is this claim connected to?
- Contestable – try to qualify/quantify what you’re saying rather than being very general. If you do this well, there should always be another argument or another direction a reader can take. ‘Yes… but what about this?’ It helps drive further questions.
- Clear – easy to read and understand.
- Complex – don’t make it too obvious. Draw the reader in to want to keep finding out what you want to say. Take them on a journey.
When I’ve helped friends in the past marking their assignments I usually just looked for spelling errors. Now I do it differently.
- I highlight sentences that are written really well and in the margin state why.
- I highlight sentences that need to be reviewed and suggested recommendations in the margin.
- If I read something and have a strong emotional response to it or idea or question, I write in the margin “This is what this means to me…. Is this what you intended to say? If not maybe the argument or claim is not presented clearly enough?”
Questions to the reader
One of the new tips I’ve taken on board is listing out questions at the end of the paper for my readers to answer, that is, the ones who proof read my work. Maybe that might even be me.
This may include:
- I’m struggling on an opening line - can you help?
- Does the conclusion concisely summarise the argument?
- Is the argument clear?
- I’m over the word limit, where can I cut things out?
- I’m sure there are many more you might think of but that’s just an example…..
This is another tip I learnt. When you are reading through your draft, at the end of each paragraph write down a 1-2 sentence summary of the main idea. Then when you get to the end you have a running summary about what the paper is about. It’s a great way to check if your ideas are connected, if you’re still on track or if you’ve drifted into another topic.
I made the mistake once of not re-reading the marking criteria and just let my ideas and inspiration take over. The assignment was returned and my lovely lecturer just wrote “I love this assignment Sian, but you forgot to read the marking criteria. It’s not even the right topic.” Woops…. Won’t do that again :)
Once you have received feedback or revised your own work be honest and open to changing the draft. Thats why its called a draft. Don't become too attached to your work. Sometimes full paragraphs need to go and that it ok. A draft is flexible and you need to be open to that.
In the drafting phase take time to look for errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation. When you get to the proof reading look for sentence-level issues, word choice and clarity. What I learnt is that proof reading is a way to ensure that the message you wish to share is actually what the reader receives?
Are all the components there?
- Try write a title (if this is an option) that describes the purpose and context of your piece. Your discipline-specific terms to lure the readers in. You’re hoping to make the title engaging, informative, connected to Physiotherapy and unique profession-specific terms.
- Purpose is to hook the reader, to orientate the reader to the argument, the tone of the piece and to the disciplinary context, and to introduce key terms to the reader.
- Paragraph unity and cohesion
- First sentence is a transition sentence that moves from old information to new information. It needs to identify how the argument is progressing and tell the reader what the main point of the paragraph is and it has to link back to the main argument.
- Each paragraph should contain evidence, a discussion and context.
- The purpose of a conclusion is to recap what has been read, not repeat, to emphasize what is significant to answer the questions ‘so what?’ and to point towards future direction.
- Final sentences is important as it is the last words the person will read. Make it count.
When it comes to writing, everyone has an individual voice that should be harnessed and expressed. For me, I found these questions so valuable when I was reviewing and editing my work. Most importantly, why am I writing this blog? What do I want to share with my readers? Why do I feel this is important? What did I learn from researching it and why was I inspired? Previously I hadn’t spent much time thinking about these questions, but now it helps me to draw out the main message. When it comes to writing assignments, there are strict guidelines you need to follow to meet the marking criteria. But, don’t let this dampen down your opinion or voice. Writing is a public way of sharing ideas. What do you want to say?