This Study Guide addresses the topic of essay writing. The essay is used as a form of assessment in many academic disciplines, and is used in both coursework and exams. It is the most common focus for study consultations among students using Learning Development. Other useful guides: What is critical reading?What is critical writing?Thought mapping; Referencing and bibliographies; Avoiding plagiarism; The art of editing. A collection of Question lists is available via the Learning Development website. These lists suggest questions to ask of your writing when you are reviewing it.
This Study Guide addresses the topic of essay writing. The essay is used as a form of assessment in many academic disciplines, and is used in both coursework and exams. It is the most common focus for study consultations among students using Learning Development.
Other useful guides: What is critical reading?What is critical writing?Thought mapping; Referencing and bibliographies; Avoiding plagiarism; The art of editing.
A collection of Question lists is available via the Learning Development website. These lists suggest questions to ask of your writing when you are reviewing it.
To produce a high quality essay you need to demonstrate your ability:
to understand the precise task set by the title;
to identify, appropriate material to read;
to understand and evaluate that material;
to select the most relevant material to refer to in your essay;
to construct an effective argument; and
to arrive at a well-supported conclusion.
The need to use such a wide range of academic skills is probably the main reason why the essay format is so popular with tutors as an assignment.
The word limit adds to the challenge by requiring that all of these skills be demonstrated within a relatively small number of words. Producing incisive and clear written work within a word limit is an important skill in itself, which will be useful in many aspects of life beyond university.
Good, constructively critical feedback can give you excellent guidance on how to improve your essay writing. It is worth attending to all of the suggestions and comments you receive, and trying to act on them.
Common criticism given to students is that their essay:
does not keep to the title that was set;
has a poor structure;
is too descriptive;
does not have enough critical writing.
These criticisms highlight the three basic elements of good essay writing:
attending closely to the title;
establishing a relevant structure that will help you show the development of your argument; and
using critical writing as much as possible; with descriptive writing being used where necessary, but kept to a minimum.
These elements will be used to give a broad overall structure to this Study Guide.
Attending closely to the title
The most important starting point is to listen carefully to what the essay title is telling you.
You need to read every single word of it, and to squeeze out as much guidance you can from the title. Then you need to plan how you will respond to every single element of the title. The guidance given to you by the title is freely available, and is your best clue to what is required in your essay.
As a tutor has said (Creme and Lea, 1997 p41):
‘When my students ask me about essay writing, there are three main pieces of advice that I give them. One, answer the question. Two, answer the question. Three, answer the question.’
This is important at the start, but also throughout your writing, as it can be easy to drift away and waste valuable words from your word limit by writing material that may be interesting, but which is not relevant to the title set.
The Mini Guide: Essay terms explained, and Questions to ask about interpreting essay titles may be useful.
To start you off, and to minimise the likelihood of writer’s block, a useful exercise is to do a ‘brainstorm’ of all your ideas in connection with the essay title. It can be a way of making a lot of progress quite quickly.
It can be stressful and very difficult trying to work out solely in your mind how to tackle an essay title; asking yourself questions such as: What structure should I use? What are my main points? What reading do I need to do? Have I got enough evidence? It can be much less stressful to throw all your thoughts down on paper, before you start trying to find answers to these questions.
In these early stages of your thinking you may not be sure which of your ideas you want to follow up and which you will be discarding. So, don’t feel you have to make that decision in your head before you write anything. Instead, you can catch all of your ideas, in no particular order, on a sheet or two of A4. Once they are down there it will be easier for you to start to review them critically and to see where you need to focus your reading and note taking.
Breaking it down then building it up
Essentially, this is what you are doing within the essay process: breaking ideas down, then building them up again. You need to:
- break down the essay title into its component parts, and consider possible ways of addressing them;
- work with these component parts, as you select your reading and make relevant notes;
- build up the essay using the material you have collected; ordering it;
- presenting and discussing it;
- and forming it into a coherent argument.
Throughout this process, the essay title is the single immovable feature. You begin there; you end there; and everything in between needs to be placed in relation to that title.
All three of the processes described above will inform your decisions about what you need to read for a particular essay. If left unplanned, the reading stage can swallow up huge amounts of time. Fortunately, there is scope for developing efficiency in several ways:
- making intelligent decisions, based on your initial planning, about which sources to target, so you don’t spend time reading less relevant, or even completely irrelevant material;
- reading with a purpose, so that you are looking out for particularly relevant material, rather than paying equal attention to material that is less relevant;
- systematic note taking, so that you record the most relevant material, and that you have full reference details (including page numbers of direct quotes) of all material you may end up using.
While a certain level of efficiency is desirable, it is also important to remain flexible enough to identify relevant and interesting ideas that you had not anticipated.
Writing as thinking
You can use the writing process to help you think through, clarify and develop your early ideas about how you might respond to the title that has been set:
‘you may not know what you think until you have written it down’ (Creme & Lea, 1997 p115).
As with teaching, it is often not until you try to communicate an argument and its evidence that you find where the gaps are in your knowledge or argument. So don’t be afraid of writing down your ideas before they are fully formed, or in the ‘right’ order.
Writing is an active and constructive process; it is not merely a neutral recording of your thoughts. It is therefore useful to go into the writing process expecting to make revisions. The first words you write do not have to be part of the final version. Editing your writing as you develop your ideas is a positive not a negative process: the more you cross out, re-write, and re-order, the better your essay should become.
Establishing a relevant structure to support your argument
All essays need structure. The structure may be strong and clear, or it may be unobtrusive and minimal but, in a good essay, it will be there.
Underpinning the structure will be the ‘argument’ your essay is making. Again this may be strong and obvious, or it may be almost invisible, but it needs to be there. In different subject areas, and with different styles of writing, the term ‘argument’ may seem more or less relevant. However, even in those essays that appear to be highly creative, unscientific, or personal, an argument of some kind is being made.
It is the argument, and how you decide to present and back up your argument, that will influence your decision on how to structure your essay.
The essay structure is not an end in itself, but a means to an end: the end is the quality of the argument.
By creating a relevant structure, you make it much easier for yourself to present an effective argument. There are several generic structures that can help you start to think about your essay structure e.g.:
- by context;
These can be useful starting points, but you will probably decide to work with a more complicated structure e.g.:
- overall chronological structure; broken down by comparisons according to the elements of the title;
- overall thematic structure; broken down by sub-themes;
- overall comparative structure; broken down by context.
In addition to these macro-structures you will probably need to establish a micro-structure relating to the particular elements you need to focus on e.g.: evidence / policy / theory / practice / case studies / examples / debates.
You may feel that, for your particular essay, structures like these feel too rigid. You may wish to create a more flexible or fluid structure. Perhaps a more suitable word than ‘structure’ in those cases may be ‘pattern’, or ‘impression’, or ‘atmosphere’; although these merge into the field of creative writing rather than essay writing.
An analogy could be that of symphony writing. The composers Haydn and Mozart, working in the 18th century, tended to write symphonies to fit reliably and closely within what was called ‘symphonic form’. This set out a pattern for the numbers of movements within the symphony, and for the general structure of writing within each movement. The continued popularity of their work today shows that they clearly managed to achieve plenty of interest and variety within that basic structure.
Later composers moved away from strict symphonic form. Some retained a loose link to it while others abandoned it completely, in favour of more fluid patterns. It would be rare, however, to find a symphony that was without structure or pattern of any kind; it would probably not be satisfactory either to play or to listen to. Similarly, a structure of some kind is probably essential for every essay, however revolutionary.
Your decisions on structure will be based on a combination of:
- the requirements of your department;
- the potential of the essay title; and
- your own preferences and skills.
An iterative, not necessarily a linear process
The process of essay planning and writing does not need to be a linear process, where each stage is done only once. It is often an iterative process i.e.: a process where earlier stages are repeated when they can be revised in the light of subsequent work. A possible iterative process is:
- analyse the title
- brainstorm relevant ideas
- read around the title, making relevant notes
- prepare a first draft
- analyse the title again
- critically review your first draft in the light of this further analysis
- read further to fill in gaps
- prepare final draft
- critically edit the final draft
- submit the finished essay.
‘Helping your readers’
This section heading is in quotes as it is also the heading of chapter 8, pages 80-92, in Barass (1982). Barass (1982 p80) makes the simple but valid statement, that:
‘By making things easy for your readers, you help yourself to convey information and ideas.’
The tutors reading and marking your essays deserve your consideration. They will be reading and marking many, many student essays. If you make your argument hard to follow, so that they need to re-read a paragraph (or more) to try to make sense of what you have written, you will cause irritation, and make their job slower. Realistically, it is possible that they may even decide not to make that effort. It is your task to present your argument in a way that your audience can follow; it is not your audience’s job to launch an investigation to detect the points you are trying to make.
Your tutors will not necessarily be looking for the perfect, revolutionary, unique, special essay; they would be very happy to read a reasonably well-planned, well-argued and well-written essay. They will not want to pull your essay to pieces. They would much rather enjoy reading it, and be satisfied by the thread of your argument. In the words of a tutor:
‘I’m looking for focus, for a voice that I feel confident with and not bored by – someone who knows the area and is going to take me round the issues in an objective, informed and interesting way.’ Stott (2001 p 37)
A powerful introduction is invaluable. It can engage your readers, and can give them confidence that you have thought carefully about the title, and about how you are going to address it. A useful generic structure is to:
- begin with a general point about the central issue;
- show your understanding of the task that has been set;
- show how you plan to address the title in your essay structure;
- make a link to the first point.
It may be possible to use only one paragraph for your introduction, but it may fall more easily into two or more. You will need to adapt and extend this basic structure to fit with your own discipline and the precise task set. Here is an example of an introduction for an essay entitled:
Examine and compare the nature and development of the tragic figures of Macbeth and Dr Faustus in their respective plays.
- Begin with a general point
Dr Faustus and Macbeth are both plays that show their respective playwrights at the pinnacle of their careers.
- Show your understanding of the task set
When comparing the nature of the two plays’ respective heroes, both parallels and contrasts can be found.
- Show how you plan to address the title
In the first section of this essay, the role of the tragic hero will be considered … The second section of the essay will examine the nature … Finally, a comparison will be made of the development of the two …
- Make a link to the first point
In examining the characters’ tragic qualities, a useful starting point is Aristotle’s definition of tragedy…
Although the introduction appears at the beginning of your essay, you may prefer to write it towards the end of the drafting process:
‘It is only when you have completed a piece of writing that you can introduce it to the reader.’ (Crème & Lea, 1997 p115)
Questions to ask of your introduction and conclusion may be useful.
The heart of the essay
The middle part of the essay must fulfil the promises made in your introduction, and must support your final conclusions. Failure to meet either or both of these requirements will irritate your reader, and will demonstrate a lack of self-critique and of editing.
The central part of your essay is where the structure needs to do its work, however explicit or implicit your chosen structure may be. The structure you choose needs to be one that will be most helpful to you in addressing the essay title.
The content of this central part will probably contain: ideas; explanations; evidence; relevant referencing; and relevant examples. It will be characterised by:
- appropriate academic style;
- interesting and engaging writing;
- clarity of thought and expression,
- sensible ordering of material, to support and the development of ideas and the development of argument.
Questions to ask of your essay content may be useful.
A powerful conclusion is a valuable tool. The aim is to leave your reader feeling that you have done a good job. A generic structure that you may find useful is:
- brief recap of what you have covered in relation to the essay title;
- reference to the larger issue;
- evaluation of the main arguments;
- highlighting the most important aspects.
The example below relates to the essay title used on the previous page.
- Brief recap
The characters of Macbeth and Faustus are very similar in many respects; for example they both willingly follow a path that leads to their damnation. …
- Reference to the larger issue
The differences lie in the development of the characters in what are essentially two different types of plays.
- Evaluation of the main arguments
As has been shown, the character of Macbeth has a nadir from which he ascends at the conclusion of the play. This is in keeping with Aristotle’s definition of tragedy. For Faustus however, there is no such ascension. This fits with the style of the morality play: the erring Faustus must be seen to be humbled at his end for the morality to be effective…
- Highlighting the most important aspects
It is this strong element of morality in Dr Faustus that ultimately divides the two leading characters.
Questions to ask of your introduction and conclusion may be useful.
Being a critical writer
After attending closely to the title; and establishing a useful structure; a third main element in the essay-writing process is the confident use of ‘critical writing’. The study guide What is critical writing? provides more extensive guidance in this area, but it is useful to present one section from that guide below:
The most characteristic features of critical writing are:
- a clear and confident refusal to accept the conclusions of other writers without evaluating the arguments and evidence that they provide;
- a balanced presentation of reasons why the conclusions of other writers may be accepted or may need to be treated with caution;
- a clear presentation of your own evidence and argument, leading to your conclusion; and
- a recognition of the limitations in your own evidence, argument, and conclusion.
With critical writing, you are doing work with the evidence you are using, by adding a level of examination and evaluation. Stott (2001 p37) proposes that, ‘Knowledge-telling is the regurgitation of knowledge in an essay. But knowledge-transfer is what’s crucial: the ability to manipulate that basic, raw material in order to make a convincing argument’. Questions to ask about your level of critical writing may be useful.
One way to practise critical writing is to make sure that you don’t leave any description to speak for itself, if it is part of your evidence and argument. If a quote or piece of data is worth including, then it’s also worth explaining why you’ve included it: ‘Do not leave your reader to work out the implications of any statement.’ (Barass 1982 p80).
Another useful tool to support critical writing is the paragraph! Aim to present one idea per paragraph. Within the paragraph you could:
- introduce the idea/piece of evidence/quote/stage of argument;
- present the idea/piece of evidence/quote/stage of argument;
- comment on it – this is where you demonstrate your critical thinking and writing.
A different pattern would be to use a paragraph to present and describe an idea/piece of evidence/quote/stage of argument, then to use the subsequent paragraph to explain its relevance.
Finally, you need to take a break from your essay so that you can return to it with fresh eyes for the final editing.
'Editing and proof reading are not the icing on the cake, as some people think. They are absolutely crucial because it is only at this stage that the student can see that the argument hangs together, has a sequence and is well-expressed. Editing is both difficult and important.’ (Stott, 2001 p39)
Yes, editing is important, but no it does not need to be difficult. You’ve done most of the hard work already in the reading, evaluating, and writing. Also, criticising your writing tends to be easier than creating it in the first place. The study guide: The art of editing and the sheet: Questions to ask when editing may be useful.
A tutor can learn a worrying amount about the quality of your essay simply from how it looks on the page. The lengths of paragraphs; the lengths of sentences; the neatness of the reference list; the balance of length between different sections; all offer insight into the kind of essay they are about to read.
In general, think ‘short and straightforward’. Shorter words are often preferable to longer words, unless there is some specific vocabulary that you need to include to demonstrate your skill. Short to middle length sentences are almost always preferable to longer ones. And over-long paragraphs tend to demonstrate that you are not clear about the specific points you are making. Of course, these are general points, and there may be some occasions, or some subject areas, where long paragraphs are appropriate.
Accurate grammar and spelling are important. Consistently poor grammar or spelling can give the impression of lack of care, and lack of clarity of thought. Careless use of commas can actually change the meaning of a sentence. And inaccurate spelling and poor grammar can make for very irritating reading for the person marking it. The previous sentence began with ‘And’. This practice is now widely accepted where it makes good sense. It is however possible that some tutors may still prefer not to see it.
Summary of key points
The title is the most important guidance you have. The task ahead is nothing more and nothing less than is stated in the title. When in doubt about any aspect of your reading for the essay, or about your writing, the first step is to go back and consult the essay title. This can be surprisingly helpful. It informs directly: the choice of reading; the structure you choose for the essay; which material to include and exclude; what to do with the material you use; and how to introduce and conclude.
A relevant and useful structure to support the presentation of your response to the title is vital.
Expect to undertake an iterative process of planning, reading, drafting, reviewing, planning, reading, re-drafting, and editing.
Editing is a crucial part of the process not an optional extra.
Barass R, (1982) Students must write: a guide to better writing in coursework and examinations. London: Methuen.
Creme P & Lea MR (1997) Writing at university: a guide for students. Buckingham: Open University Press.
Stott R, (2001) The essay writing process. Chapter 3 pp36-58. In Making your case: a practical guide to essay writing. Eds. Stott R, Snaith A, & Rylance R. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.
Questions to ask of your reference list may be useful when reviewing your own reference list.
It is a long list. People have a lot of problems.
Some of the items sound picky or trivial, even to me. Yet bad grammar, bad style, and poor organization will make it very difficult for you to convey your ideas clearly and professionally, and will limit your academic and professional success. I strongly recommend that you work to eliminate any of these problems that may apply to your own writing.
-- Dr. James A. Bednar
- Formal writing is not just dictated conversation
- In general, it is inappropriate simply to write as you would speak. In conversation, the listener can ask for clarification or elaboration easily, and thus the speaker can use imprecise language, ramble from topic to topic freely, and so on. Formal writing must instead stand on its own, conveying the author's thesis clearly through words alone. As a result, formal writing requires substantial effort to construct meaningful sentences, paragraphs, and arguments relevant to a well-defined thesis. The best formal writing will be difficult to write but very easy to read. The author's time and effort spent on writing will be repaid with the time and effort saved by the (many) readers.
- Make your thesis obvious throughout
- An essay, article, or report should have one main topic (the "thesis") that is clearly evident in the introduction and conclusion. Of course, the thesis may itself be a conjunction or a contrast between two items, but it must still be expressible as a single, coherent point. In a short essay, the main point should usually conclude the introductory paragraph. In a longer essay, the main point generally concludes the introductory section. The reader should never be in any doubt about what your thesis is; whenever you think it might not be absolutely obvious, remind the reader again.
- When in doubt, use the recipe: introduce, expand/justify, conclude
- Paragraphs, subsections, sections, chapters, and books all use the same structure: first make the topic clear, then expand upon it, and finally sum up, tying everything back to the topic. At each level, you need to tell the reader what you will be trying to say (in this paragraph, section, etc.), then you need to cover all the relevant material, clearly relating it to your stated point, and finally you need to tie the subtopics together so that they do indeed add up to establish the point that you promised.
- Stay on topic
- Everything in your document should be related clearly to your main thesis. You can write other papers later for anything else you might want to say. The reason your reader is reading this particular paper of yours is that he or she wants to know about your main topic, not simply about everything you might want to say (unless for some narcissistic reason "everything you might want to say" is your clearly stated main topic).
Conversely, there is no need to bring up items simply because they relate to your main topic, if you do not have anything to say about them. If you do bring something up, say something important about it!
- Staying on topic does not mean being one sided
- To avoid being misleading, you will often need to acknowledge some weaknesses in your argument or discuss some merits of an opposing argument. It is quite appropriate to discuss such opposing views when they are relevant, i.e., when they relate directly to the main topic of your paper. For instance, if you are reviewing a paper and arguing that it was not written well overall, it is usually a good idea to point out the few things that were done well, e.g. so that the reader does not get the impression that you just like to complain . Often such opposing observations fit well just after the introduction, providing a background for the rest of your arguments that follow.
Whenever you do include such material, i.e. things that go in the direction opposite to your main thesis, be careful to put it into only a few well-defined places, reorganizing your argument to achieve that when necessary. Jumping back and forth will confuse the reader unnecessarily. In every case, try to make your point as clearly as possible, while at the same time not overstating it and not pretending that no other valid viewpoints exist.
- Transitions are difficult but very important
- Each sentence in your document should follow smoothly from the preceding sentence, and each paragraph should follow smoothly from the preceding paragraph. The world is arguably an unstructured jumble of ideas, but anything that you expect the reader to read from start to finish needs to be a linear progression along one single path. Transition words and phrases are what make it possible for a reader to follow you easily as you explore the various ideas in your paper. Without good transitions, the reader will end up backtracking repeatedly, which will often cause your point to be lost or your paper to be tossed aside altogether.
One clue that your writing needs better transitions is if you find that you can cut and paste paragraphs from one section to another without doing substantial rewriting of how the paragraph begins and ends. If making such rearrangements is easy, then you have not been linking your paragraphs into a coherent narrative that reads well from start to finish.
In practice, making smooth transitions is very difficult. Learning to do it takes a lot of practice at first, and actually making the transitions smooth takes a lot of effort every time you write or revise something. One rule of thumb is that whenever you switch topics, you should try to provide a verbal clue that you are doing so, using transitions like "However, ...", "As a result, ...", "For comparison, ", etc.
If you notice that you have to add these words between most of your sentences, not just the paragraphs, then you are bouncing around too much. In that case you need to reorganize your document to group related thoughts together, switching topics only when necessary. Once the organization is good, all you can do is read and reread what you write, rewording it until each new item follows easily from those before it.
- Write what you mean, mean what you write
- Speakers use many informal, colloquial phrases in casual conversation, usually intending to convey meanings other than what the words literally indicate. For instance, we often speak informally of "going the extra mile", "at the end of the day", "hard facts", things being "crystal clear" or "pretty" convincing, someone "sticking to" a topic, readers being "turned off", something "really" being the case, etc. Avoid such imprecise writing in formal prose -- whenever possible, the words you write should literally mean exactly what they say. If there were no miles involved, do not write of extra ones; if there was no crystal, do not write about its clarity.
Among other benefits, avoiding such informal language will ensure that your meaning is obvious even to those who have not learned the currently popular idioms, such as those for whom English is a second language and those who might read your writing years from now or in another part of the world. Formal writing should be clear to as many people as possible, and its meaning should not depend on the whims of your local dialect of English. It is a permanent and public record of your ideas, and should mean precisely what you have written.
- Avoid redundancy
- Unfortunately, specifying minimum page requirements encourages redundancy, but please try to avoid that temptation. When two words will do, there is no need to use twenty. Whenever you finish a sentence or paragraph, read over it to see if any words or sentences can be eliminated -- often your point will get much stronger when you do so. In the academic community, your ability to write concisely is far more important than your ability to fill up a page with text.
Academic courses specify page minimums to ensure that you write an essay of the appropriate depth, not to test whether you can say the same thing a dozen different ways just to fill up space. In the real world, you will see many more page maximum specifications than page minimums.
- Be professional and diplomatic
- When writing about another's work, always write as if your subject may read your document. Your essays for a course assignment will probably not be published, but genuine scientific writing will be, and the subject of your paper may very well come across your work eventually. Thus it is crucial to avoid pejorative, insulting, and offensive terms like "attempt to", "a waste of time", "pointless", etc.
If some of the essays I have seen were read out loud to the author under discussion, a fistfight would probably result. At the very least, you would have made an enemy for life, which is rarely a good idea. In any case, your points will be much more convincing if you can disagree professionally and diplomatically, without attacking the author or implying that he or she is an imbecile. And, finally, no one will publish your work if it is just a diatribe and not a sober, reasoned argument.
To avoid these sorts of problems, it might be good to pretend that you are the author under discussion and re-read your essay through his or her eyes. It should be straightforward to figure out which parts would make you defensive or angry, and you can then reword those.
- Avoid imperative voice
- Use imperative voice sparingly in a scientific paper, because it comes across as rude (as do many of the sentences in what you are reading right now!). E.g. do not say "Recall that ...". Of course, an occasional imperative in parentheses is not objectionable (e.g. "(see Walker 1996 for more details).").
Rules for formal writing are quite strict, though often unstated. Formal writing is used in academic and scientific settings whenever you want to convey your ideas to a wide audience, with many possible backgrounds and assumptions. Unlike casual conversation or emails to friends, formal writing needs to be clear, unambiguous, literal, and well structured.
- Overall structure
- The standard format for an effective essay or article is to: (1) present a coherent thesis in the introduction, (2) try your hardest to convince the reader of your thesis in the body of the paper, and (3) restate the thesis in the conclusion so that the reader remains quite sure what your thesis is, and so that the reader can decide whether he or she was convinced.
Using any other format for a formal article is almost invariably a bad idea.
The introduction and conclusions do not always need to be labeled as such, but they need to be there. Note that an abstract is no substitute for an introduction; abstracts act as an independent miniature version of the article, not part of the introduction.
- Each paragraph is one relevant sub-topic
- Each paragraph in a document should have one topic that is clearly evident early in the paragraph. Every paragraph should have a clear relationship to the main topic of your document; if not, either the paragraph should be eliminated, or the main topic should be revised.
- Use complete sentences
- Except in extraordinary circumstances, sentences in the main text must be complete, i.e., they must have a subject and a verb, so that they express an entire thought, not just a fragment or the beginning of a thought. Note that most "-ing" words are not verbs. "The light turning green" is just a fragment, i.e., a start to a sentence or a part of one. To be a sentence that you could use on its own followed by a period, it would have to be "The light turned green", which has both a subject and a verb.
- Put appropriate punctuation between sentences
Two complete sentences can be divided with a period, question mark, or exclamation point, or they can be weakly connected as clauses with a semicolon. However, they can never be connected with a comma in formal writing! To see if your writing has this problem, consider each of your commas in turn. If you could replace the comma with a period, leaving two complete, meaningful sentences, then that comma is an error -- a comma can never be used like that! Instead, replace the comma with a semicolon, in case you have two sentences that need to be linked in some generic way, or make the linkage explicit with a conjunction, or simply use a period, to leave two complete and independent sentences.
- Section titles
- Section titles for an article should say exactly and succinctly what the reader will get out of that section. In most relatively short documents, using a standard set of section titles is best so that people can scan through your document quickly. Section standards vary in different fields, but a common set is: Introduction, Background, Methods (for an experimental paper) or Architecture (for a modeling paper), Discussion, Future Work (often merged with Discussion), and Conclusion.
If you do not use the standard titles, e.g. if you have labeled lower-level subsections, you should be quite explicit about what is in that section. Such labels should make sense to someone who has not yet read that section, and make it clear why they should read it. For instance, a section about adding a second eye to a simulation of single-eye vision could truthfully be called "Multiple eyes", but that title is meaningless to someone scanning the document. Instead, it should be something like "Extending the model to explain stereo vision" whose meaning will be clear to the type of person likely to be reading the paper.
- Everything important goes in your introduction and conclusion
- Everyone who looks at your paper will at least skim the introduction and conclusion, and those who read it in depth will remember those two sections the best. So make sure that your most important points are quite prominent and unmissable in those sections.
- Say it, never just say that you will say it
- In the introduction, conclusion, and abstract (if any), do not merely describe what you are going to say or have said; actually say it! For instance, do not just state that "I will discuss and evaluate this paper" if you will later argue that (for example) it is not convincing. Instead state that the paper is unconvincing, and (in brief) why you believe that to be the case. Then you can elaborate on that point in subsequent paragraphs.
- If you have sections 1, 1.1, and 1.2, there must be introductory material between 1 and 1.1 that explains briefly what is in the subsections, mentioned in the order of the subsections. That is, 1.1 should never follow just after 1 without some intervening text. If you have 1.1, there must always be a 1.2; otherwise 1 and 1.1 should be merged. Each 1.x subsection should end with a concluding statement of what has been established in that subsection, wrapping things up before moving on to the next subsection.
- Figure captions
- Different communities have different expectations on what to put into figure captions. Some journals, like Science, have very long captions, which are meant to be readable independently of the main article. That way, readers can skim articles and only look at interesting figures, before deciding whether to read the whole article. In such cases, you must ensure that all of the main points of the figure are also mentioned in the text of the article, so that someone reading the article straight through will not miss them. Other journals and other publications like books, theses, and proposals tend to have very little in the caption, with the figures being understandable only when reading the main text. Even in such cases, I myself prefer to put all the graphical details like "the dotted line represents" in the caption, plus enough context so that the import of the figure is clear. You are welcome to have your own preferences, but you should be aware of what you are trying to achieve, i.e. whether you want the caption to be readable on its own.
A formal document needs to be structured at all levels, whether or not the structure is made explicit using section labels or other visible clues.
- Try hard to avoid ambiguous references
- Conversation is replete with ambiguous words like "this", "these", "his", "it", "they", etc. These words have no meaning in themselves, but in conversation the meaning is usually clear from the context. In written text, however, the intended meaning is quite often not evident to the reader, because there are e.g. many possible interpretations of "it" and "this".
It is a good idea to read over anything you write, searching for this sort of word. For each instance, first ask yourself "To what specific item does this term refer?". For such a reference to make sense, the object, person, or concept must have been explicitly mentioned just prior to your reference. Often you will find that "it" or "they" refers to something vague that was not even discussed explicitly in your paper, in which case you should reword your text entirely.
Even if the item to which you refer is explicitly mentioned in your paper, ask yourself whether there is any chance that the reader might not know to which of several items you might be referring. E.g. for the word "he", were there two or three people being discussed? If so then state the actual name of each; "he" would be ambiguous.
Often an ambiguous "this" or "these" can be disambiguated by adding a noun that specifies precisely the type of object or concept to which you are referring. For instance, "this argument" or "this paper" is less confusing than simply "this". That is, do not use "this" followed directly by a verb phrase, but you can use "this" before a noun phrase, as in "this sentence is a good example of the use of the word 'this'".
- Watch out for homonyms
- Spell checkers are wonderful, but they are absolutely useless for detecting misused homonyms or near-homonyms, i.e., actual words whose meaning is confused with other actual words. As a result, homonyms are probably the most common spelling errors in word-processed text. Even if you are lazy and let the spell checker fix all of your other words, make certain that you know the differences between words like:
- it's, its
- their, there, they're
- whether, weather
- to, too, two
- site, cite, sight
- waste, waist
- whole, hole
- fare, fair
- great, grate
- affect, effect
- discrete, discreet
- forth, fourth
- past, passed
- roll, role
- lead, led
- lie, lye
- throughout, through out
- seem, seam
- new, knew
- illicit, elicit
- complement, compliment
- extent, extend
- obtain, attain
- pair, pare
- personal, personnel
- suit, suite
- principal, principle
- bear, bare
If you do not know the difference, you must simply avoid using any of these words. Yet because the spell checker takes care of all the other words you may misspell, learning to use these few words correctly is surely not much of a burden, and is crucial for convincing your readers that you are competent and trustworthy.
- Avoid "comprise"
- Apparently the word "comprise" has now been used incorrectly so many times to mean "compose" that this usage is now becoming acceptable. But it is much safer simply to avoid "comprise" altogether, as anyone who does know what it started out meaning will be annoyed when you use it to mean "compose".
- "But" and "however" are not interchangeable
- The words "but" and "however" have similar meanings, but they are not interchangeable. If you take a grammatically correct sentence containing "but" and replace it with "however", or vice versa, the result will almost always be incorrect, mainly because of comma punctuation.
"I like oranges, but I do not like tangerines."
"I like oranges. However, I do not like tangerines."
"I like oranges; however, I do not like tangerines."
"I, however, do not like grapefruits."
"I like oranges however they have been prepared."
If you exchange any of these "but"s and "however"s, then the sentences would become incorrect, and in some cases meaningless.
- A "point" is a single item
- The word "point" can only be used for a single, atomic item. Thus it is not appropriate to discuss a "sub-point", "part of a point", the "first half" of a point, etc. Instead use "topic" or "section", etc.
- "A research"
- There is no noun phrase "a research" in English. Use "a study" or just "research", never "a research". Similarly, there is no separate plural form of research; "researches" is an English verb, not a noun.
- Avoid capitalization
- When in doubt, use lower case. Capitalization is appropriate only for specific, named, individual items or people. For example, capitalize school subjects only when you are referring to a specific course at a specific school: math is a general subject, but Math 301 is a particular course. Similarly: Department of Computer Sciences vs. a computer science department, the president vs. President Bush. When in doubt, use lower case.
- Avoid contractions
- Contractions are appropriate only for conversational use and for informal writing, never for technical or formal writing.
- Hyphenate phrases only when otherwise ambiguous
- In English phrases (groups of several words forming a unit), hyphens are used to group pairs of words when the meaning might otherwise be ambiguous. That is, they act like the parentheses in a mathematical expression. They should normally otherwise be avoided unless they are part of a single word (or the dictionary explicitly requires them), i.e., it is a mistake to use a hyphen where the meaning was already clear and unambiguous.
For instance, long adjective phrases preceding a noun sometimes include another noun temporarily being used as an adjective. Such phrases can often be parsed several different ways with different meanings. For example, the phrase "English language learners" as written means "language learners from England", because, by default, "language" modifies "learners", and "English" modifies "language learners". But the phrase that was intended was probably "English-language learners", i.e. "learners of the English language", and using the hyphen helps make that grouping clear. Note that there would never be a hyphen if the same phrase were used after the noun it modifies, because in that case there would be absolutely no chance of ambiguity: "a learner of the English language" (NEVER "a learner of the English-language"; the hyphen effectively turns the noun phrase "English language" into an adjective, and a prepositional phrase starting with "of the" must be completed with a noun, not an adjective).
Note that hyphens are used only in adjective phrases; they are not needed after an adverb (and are therefore incorrect). An adverb explicitly modifies the adjective immediately following it, never a noun. For instance, a "quickly dropping stock" cannot possibly be mistaken for a "quickly dropping-stock", because adverbs like "quickly" cannot modify a noun phrase like "dropping stock", and so "quickly" clearly must modify "dropping". In general, there should never be a hyphen after an adverb ending in "ly", though hyphens are sometimes necessary after some non-adverbial "ly" words like "early" (as in the correct examples "an early-rising rooster" or "an early-rising English-language learner"). You may want to search through your finished document for "ly-"; nearly all examples of those three characters in a row will be mistakes.
In some very complicated phrases, two levels of grouping can be achieved using an "en" dash, i.e. a slightly longer dash than a hyphen. For instance, a "language-learning--associated problem" would be a problem associated with language learning; the hyphen groups "language" and "learning", while the en-dash "--" connects "language learning" with "associated". Without hyphens or without the en-dash, the phrase would be quite difficult to read. But in such cases it is often clearer just to reword the sentence to avoid the ambiguity, as in "a problem associated with language learning".
In cases where the word grouping is quite obvious because the pair of words are so often used together, the hyphen can be omitted even when it would strictly be required to avoid ambiguity. For instance "chocolate chip cookies" is unlikely to be misread as "chocolate chip-cookies", despite that being the literal interpretation, and so the hyphen can usually be omitted from "chocolate-chip cookies".
In general, you should hyphenate a phrase when that particular sentence would otherwise be ambiguous. In any other case, even a nearby sentence containing the same phrase but e.g. after the noun it modifies, you should leave out the hyphen. I.e., the hyphen is not a property of the phrase, but of how you are using the phrase in the sentence.
- American vs. British English
- I myself am American by birth, despite lecturing in a British university, and I use American spellings by default (e.g. "organization", not "organisation"). Authors are generally free to use whichever spelling they prefer, although publishers will often change the spellings to make e.g. all the papers in a certain edited volume use the same conventions. Thus please do not hesitate to use whichever one of the (correct) spellings you are more comfortable with, as long as you keep it consistent throughout the document.
Additional guidelines specific to academic writingAcademic writing includes texts like original research papers, research proposals, and literature reviews, whether published or not.
- Formatting and grammar rules
- When in doubt about grammar or page format, researchers in psychology and computer science generally follow the APA style guide; biological fields use similar standards. Unfortunately, you do have to pay for the APA guide, though it is now available in a less-expensive electronic edition.
- Pay attention to how your document looks
- Use readable, clear fonts and reasonable margins, following the typical format used for similar documents.
If your word processor cannot make the spacing regular between words (e.g. most versions of Microsoft Word), turn off right justification. Poor spacing makes the page look jumbled and seem incoherent, even if the writing is not.
Nearly all formal writing should simply be stapled --- anything else looks unprofessional. For instance, using a fancy cover and binding for a short paper or report is distracting and makes it difficult to photocopy the paper; such binding is necessary only for long papers that a staple would have trouble keeping together. At the opposite extreme, it should be obvious that folding one corner is not an acceptable substitute for a staple.
- Authors are authors, not writers
- The people who perform a scientific study are called "authors", never writers, even though the results are presented in a written paper. Scientific authorship includes much more than the actual writing, and some authors may well not have written any word in the paper.
- Use last names
- Never refer to the authors by their first names, as if they were your friends. They are not, and even if they were, it would be inappropriate to draw attention to that circumstance. Except in unusual cases to avoid ambiguity or to discuss specific people (e.g. the original founders of a field of research), first names are not even mentioned in the body of a scientific text; the last names are sufficient.
- Author names are keys -- spell them properly
- In academic writing, an author's last name is like the key in a database lookup -- if the name is misspelled (e.g. "Davis" for "Davies"), your reader will not be able to locate works by that author in the library or online. Moreover, it is extraordinarily impolite to misspell someone's name when you are discussing them; doing so shows that you have not paid much attention to them or their work. So you should make a special effort to spell author names correctly, double and triple checking them against the original source, and ensuring that you spell them the same way each time.
- Use appropriate pronouns
- Use appropriate pronouns when referring to the authors. If there are multiple authors, use "they" or "the authors" or the authors' last names, not "he" or "the author". If there is only one author and you can determine the gender with great confidence, you may use "he" or "she"; otherwise use "the author" or the author's last name.
- Referring to other texts
- Use double quotes around the title of an article when you refer to it in the text. Italics are reserved for books or other works of similar length. Avoid underlining altogether --- underlining is just a way of indicating that handwritten or typewritten text should be typeset in italics, and is thus inappropriate when italics are available (as they are on any modern word processor).
- Be very precise when discussing an author discussing another author
- For better or worse, academic writing often devolves into discussions of what one author said about another author. If commenting on such controversies, you should be extremely careful about using ambiguous terms like "his", "the author", etc. Very often your reader will have no idea which of the various authors you are referring to, even though it may be clear to you. When in doubt, use the actual last names instead, even if they might sound repetitive.
- Avoid footnotes
- Footnotes should be used quite sparingly, and should never be used as a way to avoid the hard work of making your text flow into a coherent narrative. Only when something genuinely cannot be made to fit into the main flow of the text, yet is somehow still so important that it must be mentioned, does it go into a footnote.
- Avoid direct quotes
- In scientific (as opposed to literary or historical) writing, direct quotes should be used only when the precise wording of the original sentences is important, e.g. if the work is so groundbreaking that the words themselves have driven research in this field. In nearly every other case, paraphrasing is more appropriate, because it lets you formulate the idea in the terms suitable for your particular paper, focusing on the underlying issue rather than the way one author expressed it.
- Be careful with arguments about grammar
- If you are going to criticize the grammar or spelling of an author in writing, you should be extraordinarily careful to verify that you are correct. Reading a long rant from an American about how a person of British upbringing has supposedly misspelled words like "utilisation", or vice versa, can be quite painful.
- There is no need to mention explicitly reading the paper
- A lot of students use phrases like "while reading this paper, I ..." and "In this paper the authors ...". Try to avoid this redundancy. If you use the word "author" you need not also use "paper", and vice versa. Similarly, it is clear that whatever you discovered about the paper, you discovered while reading the paper; we do not need to be reminded of this. Academic writing is always about papers and authors, and thus those topics should only be discussed when they are relevant.
- Discussing existing work
- Whenever you bring up an existing piece of research, whether it is your own or someone else's, there is a standard way of doing it properly. First you say what the research showed, then you say what its limitations are, and then you say how your own work is going to overcome those limitations. I.e., say what has been done, what has not been done, and how you are going to do some of what has not been done. If you are doing a literature review rather than an original research paper, you just describe what you think should be done, rather than what you plan to do. Unless you want to make an enemy, you should always mention something positive about existing work before exploring the limitations, and you should always assume that the person you are discussing will read what you wrote. Of course, sometimes there is a good reason to make an enemy, e.g. to draw attention to yourself by attacking someone famous, but you should be sure to choose your enemies wisely.
- Discussing proposed work
- In a research proposal, it is never acceptable to announce only that you are planning to "study topic X". In the context of research, studying is a vague and unbounded task, with no criterion for success and no way to tell if you are getting anywhere. Studying is something you do in a course, where someone can tell you what to focus on and can test you to see if you got the right answer; research is not like that. In research, you need to spell out the specific questions you are going to try to answer, the specific phenomena that need explanations, and so on -- it's up to you to define the question and the methods, and until you've done so, it's not research, just idle speculation.
- Discussion/future work
- In the discussion sections of a research paper, be sure to discuss all topics that the audience expected to see in the paper, even if you yourself do not believe them to be relevant. The reader is more likely to assume that you have been sloppy about your literature review than to assume you knew about the work but believed it not to be relevant. Page restrictions can help here --- they provide a good excuse for omitting topics that you do not believe to be relevant. In a longer article or thesis without page limits you have no choice but to address the issue and explicitly state why the topic is not relevant despite the common belief that it is.
- Students often seem to think that bibliographies are mysterious, tricky things with rules far too complex to understand or remember. Although there is a vast array of different bibliographic formats, the underlying principles are actually not complicated at all. Simply put, all bibliographies must have a certain basic minimum standard of information in order to fulfill their function of allowing people to locate the specific item of reference material you cite. In particular, every bibliography entry needs an author, date, and title, every journal article absolutely must have a volume and page numbers, and every conference paper must have the title of the conference proceedings, the page numbers, and some indication of who published it. Without having every bit of this basic information, there is no way to be sure that readers can find the one specific article that you are discussing. Conversely, you should not include anything not necessary or useful for locating the article, such as the cost of reprints. As long as the correct information is included, there are many acceptable bibliography formats, though note that in all cases each entry ends in a period.
- The bibliography or reference list in an academic paper must consist of precisely those sources that you cite in the text, without any extra sources and without omitting any. Each citation must provide enough information for the reader to find the correct source in the bibliography; beyond that, any number of citation formats will do unless there is some specific standard you are told to follow. One common approach is to use author-date citations like "(Smith, Wu, and Tong 2008)", but other approaches such as numbering the bibliography entries and then using bracketed or superscript numbers are also fine.
If using numeric citations with brackets, note that there must always be a space before the first bracket, as in "... known ", (not "... known").
If using author-date citations, you must remember that any item in parentheses does not exist, as far as the grammar of the sentence is concerned, and thus it cannot be used as part of the sentence. Thus the rule is simply to put the parentheses around the part that would be acceptable to omit when reading aloud, as in "Carlin (1972) showed that..." or "... as seen in rats (Carlin 1972)." (not "(Carlin 1972) showed that..." and not "... as seen in rats Carlin (1972).").
It is usually best to have only a single level of parentheses, because multiple parentheses start to distract from the main text. Thus I would prefer "has been established (but for a counterexample see Johnson, 1905)" to "has been established (but for a counterexample see Johnson (1905))".
- "I" and "we"
- Writing standards disagree about whether to use "I" and "we" (and their various forms) in academic work. Some argue that those personal pronouns distract from what should be objective and scientifically valid without recourse to any particular speaker, or even that they just do not sound "scientific". Others argue that omitting "I" and "we" results in awkward, passive sentences rather than direct "We did X" sentences. Personally, I believe that academic writing should use personal pronouns whenever what is being reported was an arbitrary and specific choice made by a human being, or for opinions or personal judgment, precisely because these pronouns emphasize that a human was involved in the work. When reporting universal scientific facts or observations, I would not use personal pronouns, because any reasonable observer would have reported similar results and thus there is no need to emphasize the role of the authors. Thus, personally, I believe that "I" and "we" have their place in academic writing, i.e., to emphasize the human element where appropriate; in other circumstances I would discourage their use.
Apology: My personal quirks
Please note that I happen to disagree with a few of the rules commonly accepted for English text, and in the text on this page I happily use my own rules instead. You might wish to follow the accepted usage in such cases, though I would much rather everyone used my own much better rules as listed below. If you do agree to join my one-man campaign to fix the English language, I cannot accept any responsibility for points deducted by less enlightened folks. :-)
- Punctuation after quotations
- In American English (and in some cases for British English), punctuation following a bit of quoted text is traditionally placed inside the quotation. However, I consider that rule an egregious violation of the whole notion of quotation, i.e. an obvious bug in the English language. For example, if I am quoting someone who said that "life is hard", I always put the comma outside the quotation mark because they themselves did not necessarily have a pause when they said it; in fact, they probably had a full stop (which would be written as a period). Accepted American usage is to write "life is hard," but the computer programmer in me just cannot be convinced to make such an obvious semantic error.
- Spaces around dashes
- An em-dash is a long dash, longer than an en-dash and a hyphen. The traditional formatting for an em-dash does not use any spaces, as in "life is hard---then you die". However, I myself much prefer to put a space before and after the dash. Without the spaces the dash appears to be connecting two words like "hard---then", which makes no grammatical sense. Grammatically, the function of the dash is to separate and connect phrases or clauses, not words, and I prefer to make that visually clear by putting spaces around the dash. Again, in my opinion the accepted usage is a bug in the language.
- Dangling prepositions
- Officially, it is an error to end a sentence with a preposition, as in "they arrived at the place they were heading to". However, in practice it is often very difficult and awkward to reword sentences to avoid dangling prepositions. Thus I consider this rule to be optional at best.
- Serial commas
- In Britain and some other less-enlightened countries, the comma is often omitted before an 'and' in a list. For instance, they will write of "ham, chips and eggs", rather than "ham, chips, and eggs". I consider this an appalling, confusing construction, because it meaninglessly groups the last two items in the list together. Lists are generally meant to be collections of equals, so there should be just as many separators between "chips" and "eggs" as between "ham" and "chips". In many cases, omitting the serial comma is ambiguous. Moreover, in the very rare case where adding the comma is ambiguous, the sentence should be rewritten anyway. Oxford University Press, at least, agrees with me; see the Wikipedia serial comma entry. Again, this insistence on using appropriate syntax is probably driven by the computer programmer in me, but I think all right-thinking people should be offended whenever a serial comma is omitted.
- Commas after "i.e." and "e.g."
- Many grammar books state that a comma is always required after "i.e." and "e.g." used in a sentence, as in "sentences often contain spelling errors, i.e., words spelled incorrectly". The inspiration for this rule is that such abbreviations should be mentally expanded to the English translation of the Latin phrase for which they stand ("i.e." translating to "that is", and "e.g." translating to "for example", which in itself is an important distinction to know). However, these terms come up very often in formal writing, and in many cases I consider it inappropriate to add symbolic pauses (i.e. commas) around them. Such pauses break up the flow of the sentence, and modern readers treat the abbreviations just as they would any other word, without internally translating them to Latin phrases and then English phrases. Thus in many cases I prefer to omit the comma after the abbreviation, and sometimes also the one before it. Some people, even more pedantic than I, disagree.
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