Much Ado About Academic Essay Writing

By virtue of a course on lecturing that I had to attend over the past year, I got to research a lot on student writing. And there’s a lot out there. I might speculate on why this is – the numerous email messages I get from students – and the high proportion of these that are about essay writing might give me a clue. In my research paper, one student gave advice for future students thus:

Make sure the content of your draft is as good as possible (i.e. read everything you want to before the draft deadline) so that the draft comments are focused on how to make the essay read better

What I sense in this, and in a lot of the messages I receive, is a fear of writing – of defining one’s own carefully thought-out arguments in the wrong way. Drafts seemed to be students’ safety net – the fear, about striking out alone. As an academic I have to do a lot of writing. And outside work, I write for pleasure, too. I love writing. It’s one of the best things about being an academic – getting paid to write (albeit indirectly).

Given the messages I’ve had from students about writing, I’d like to use this post to share some of their thoughts with you, and to look at ways of becoming a more confident writer. In a nutshell, of course.

Shut up and Write Group - Oxford Brookes Psychology

Shut up and Write Group – Oxford Brookes Psychology

1. Practise, practise, practise. Here’s a secret. If you’ve got the information straight in your mind, there’s no wrong way of writing it down. There are different ways of expressing said information, and some will be clearer than others. Play around with different ways of writing the same sentence. Find which you like. Find a voice that suits you. Don’t just write for academia either – write in your spare time; write something you’d like to read – write for no one else’s eyes but yours. The more experience you have with writing, the easier words will flow.

2. Don’t forget your reader[s]. Think about where they’re coming from, what they know already, and the  gaps you need to fill for them. In any piece of academic writing, always set out what terms mean for you, at the start. “Parenting” can mean different things to different disciplines – so can “depression” and “effective”. Tell your readers what they can expect the content of the piece to be – and afterwards, sum up what that content was. If the two descriptions don’t match – something needs revising.

3. Write [and plan] in paragraphs. Most academic pieces have word counts. So work out how many paragraphs you’ll need to write, and bound your writing into those paragraphs. Do not write outside of a paragraph. Ever. If you have six paragraphs,  you can make six points – so what are the six key points  that need to be made – what are the key things that need to be included to present your argument? Give each point a topic sentence, an exploration, and a take home-message.

4. Join a “shut up and write” group at your school or university (or start one). Sit down with a few friends in a coffee shop. Tell each other what you’re going to write, and then spend the next half hour writing, in silence. If you start with a clear goal, you’ll get more done in that time, than you thought you could (trust me). Sharing a little of what you write with the group, also prevents the isolating nightmare that academia can otherwise become from setting in, and gives you the chance to get and give encouragement.

5. Start now. Grab a note pad or start a blog and get going. You don’t have to start with writing your opening paragraph, or your take-home sentence. Start with what you like, what you know, work out what you don’t know, and write from there.

Happy Writing 🙂

Thanks to Tim Kourdi for this “shut up and write” location, and for chocolate cake to keep us going.