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Critical thinking, following a structure and revising will help you produce a successful essay, says Nichola Lambert
Writing in an academic style for the first time can be daunting, but following simple guidelines will make it easier.
There is no need to be intimidated - academic writing is just a more formal and structured way of presenting ideas than other writing forms.
Reading journals and scholarly articles is a good way to familiarise yourself with academic writing conventions and tone.
Before you start, allow plenty of time and note any assignment instructions. Accept any help that has been offered by the lecturer and be aware of the expectations of the assignment markers. Most assignments will be accompanied by a marking grid so that students can see the allocation of marks for different parts of the essay.
All assignments require referencing. Familiarise yourself with the referencing system required by your university - usually Harvard or Vancouver. As you read around the assignment subject, keep notes with references so information can always be located again and accidental plagiarism avoided. Clarity over which ideas are your own and which should be credited to other writers is essential.
You will be urged to develop a critical approach to your reading; this means questioning the ideas you encounter. For example, theoretical models often contain impractical propositions, perspectives are often omitted in arguments and research can almost always be improved on in further studies.
Many students find a mind map helpful for organising their thoughts and ideas into a sensible, workable format. Everyone writes differently, so don't feel under pressure to sit down and knock out the essay perfectly at the first attempt.
Structuring your essay can be like building a brick wall. Solid foundations in the introduction tell the reader what to expect and provide the basis for the development of a logical argument.
Paragraphs are vital to break up complex ideas, and a theme in each paragraph can be linked to one in the next and help the reader to follow your ideas.
The conclusion of the essay sums up all the preceding paragraphs and allows you to leave your reader clear about your perspective and its rationale.
Finally, revise your work. Put the finished essay aside and come back to it later to re-read with a fresh perspective. Revisit the assignment guidelines and remove unnecessary thoughts or words. It can be painful to cut words you have worked so hard on, but it will pay dividends. Proofread the final copy for spelling and punctuation.
Make sure that the final essay is what has been asked for in the assignment. As you read through your work, imagine that you are reading it for the first time - does it still make sense? If it does, read it in lecturer mode with the marking grid and see if you would pass it.
Academic writing resource (PDF): tinyurl.com/learned-writer
Quick reference guide: www.studyskills.soton.ac.uk/getstart.htm