How to be a better writer

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This column is here to help the students of NUI Galway with all aspects of academic writing. Writing for academic purposes is an essential student skill, yet for many, it is a daunting task. Run in conjunction with the Academic Writing Centre (AWC) at the James Hardiman Library, the column will focus on a different aspect of the writing process every issue, giving advice, sharing ideas and hopefully easing the burden of assignments. You can find me in the AWC every Wednesday from 11-1 for one-to-one tutoring.

The Writing Process – how do you begin to write?

One of the most important things to learn about writing, whether academic or otherwise, is that it is a process. It’s almost impossible to just sit down, write in one session and walk away from it. Furthermore, the process begins long before you actually start to type. The time before you start to write your paper can be called ‘pre-writing’ and it entails the research, reflection and planning necessary for your assignment. Thinking about and reflecting on the assignment you have been tasked with is essential.

When beginning the writing process, look carefully at the assignment question or prompt. Read it over a few times until it is clear. You have to identify exactly what the prompt is asking you to do. Find the key concepts your essay must engage with in order to effectively fulfil the task your lecturer has set out. You can even underline or highlight keywords if that helps you focus.

A crucial element of deciphering the assignment prompt is establishing what approach is required. Look out for key phrases such as:

  • Summarize
  • Analyse
  • Critically evaluate
  • Respond
  • Argue
  • Compare and contrast

These words inform you of the purpose of the assignment and what approach is required. For example, if an assignment asks you to summarize a theory or idea, you should provide condensed, key factual information without forming an argument. In contrast, if the prompt asks for analysis or critical evaluation, it is essential to break the topic down for examination and form an opinion on the subject, backed up by academic research.  In an argumentative paper, you are expressing a viewpoint on an issue, backed up by research and evidence, in an effort to persuade others that your opinion is correct.

Different subject areas will generally have a tendency towards a certain mode of discourse. A personal response to a text may be commonplace in English Literature, whereas Science may more often require a summary of facts. Get comfortable with these key phrases and what they mean, and use them to inform the rest of your research and writing process.

Having figured out what approach is needed, you can turn to researching and finding resources. It can be easy to become overwhelmed with the sheer volume of books, journal articles and other resources available to you, so it’s essential to maintain your focus on exactly what the assignment is asking you to do.

While searching for resources, think about academics your lecturer may have mentioned in class and search for their work. Furthermore, lecturers will often include a supplementary reading list in addition to the required readings. Another method is to look to the cited works within the chapters of your textbook. This ensures that the sources are credible and relevant to your subject.

Constantly keep notes as you read and research, keeping track of page numbers as you go – this will make citation much easier at the later stage of the writing process. Try to write notes in your own words rather than copied verbatim, as this will help you to process the information and form your own ideas around it. As you read, you may find a certain idea or strand of thought continually emerges. Again, keep note of this, as it may later help to form the thesis statement for your essay, another area of academic writing that I’ll deal with in detail in a later column.

At this stage of the writing process, you may not yet have typed a single word and that is perfectly okay. What you have done, is set yourself up for a successful and worthwhile writing experience by allowing yourself the time to stop and think about the task at hand.

By Aoife O’Donoghue

Photo credit GoToVan

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