Writing at undergraduate level

Writing at undergraduate level
‘In my experience the most important thing is to write the way they
want. You can write all kinds of stuff you know about, but you don’t
get good marks unless you write it the proper way.’
Northedge, A. The Good Study Guide 2007: 245
Sara Steinke
[email protected]
Aims of the session
• To consider what makes English academic
• To introduce the style and conventions of
academic writing
• To recognise the importance of academic
writing skills for undergraduate study
• To think about the writing process
• To reflect on how to develop your academic
writing skills to express and present your
critical thinking for undergraduate study
Why do you think writing gives students
the most anxiety?
A. They have not written an essay in a long
B. They do not know what an academic essay
looks like.
C. They miss deadlines as a result of poor time
D. They have no idea why they are writing an
Answer: A, B, C and D
• Importance of academic English for
undergraduate study
• What makes English academic
• Check your academic English
Why write the way ‘they’ want?
(Northedge 2007: 246)
1. Deepens your learning
2. Develops your writing skills
3. Doing yourself justice
4. Enables the reader to understand your point
of view
5. Strengthens your powers of self-expression
6. Major medium through which your progress
is assessed
Importance of academic English
• links and interdependent with other academic
- critical thinking
- reading for academic purposes (SQ3R)
- note making (linear notes, mind mapping)
- organisational skills, prioritisation, time
- the writing process
- exam technique
• transferable skill to the work place
What is academic English?
‘academy’ = place of
study, university
‘academic’ = doing
things they way they
are done in the
‘academic writing’ =
writing in the way
that is expected of
people at university
What makes spoken or written
English ‘academic’ is not the
ideas, but the way the
ideas are
presented - in a logical order,
with evidence to support them,
objectively and
expressed - using formal
language, using specialist
vocabulary, using words and
phrases that are expected in
writing at university
In a logical order
• start with a plan
• jot down any ideas that you have as you think of them
• group your ideas about the same point together and
present them in the same paragraph
• start each paragraph with a sentence that shows what
you are going to write about in that paragraph - the
topic sentence
• put your points in order so that they follow on from
each other
• develop the main idea in the topic sentence with your
other points
With evidence
• read and make notes from different sources
• use sources that are reliable and/or
recommended to you
• make notes of where different writers agree
or disagree so that you can compare different
• remember that things are usually more grey
than black and white
• make suggestions, not strongly emotional
• avoid stating your personal opinion
• do not involve the reader directly by asking
Using formal language
• write in full sentences
• do not use abbreviations or contractions
• use impersonal forms
Use formal language
• write in full sentences
• do not use abbreviations or contractions
• use impersonal forms (not the first person ‘I’)
• no slang or colloquial expressions
Use specialist vocabulary
• check the meaning of specialist terms in your
• note examples of how these terms are used in
the books and articles that you read
• do not use terms that you do not understand
Use words and phrases that are expected
• academic writers are expected to be cautious
e.g. ‘this suggests ...’, ‘this might explain ...’
• readers expect phrases that act as signposts to
guide them through the text
– additional information
e.g. ‘furthermore ...’, ‘moreover ...’, ‘in addition ...’
– to move to specific examples
e.g. ‘for instance ...’, ‘as an illustration ...’
How to annoy your lecturers
A group of lecturers
from different
subjects were asked
what really annoyed
them about
students’ grammar
and language . . .
1. Using apostrophes wrongly
2. Confusing common words, for
example there/their
3. Making spelling errors
4. Using informal language
5. Writing sentences without
6. Making every sentence a
7. Not using paragraphs
8. Writing long convoluted
9. Trying to write too pompously
10. Using run-on
sentences/comma splices
Check your academic English skills at
1. Grammar
2. Vocabulary
3. Punctuation
4. Spelling
5. Academic style
• Introduction to key academic writing conventions
• Importance of academic writing to express your
critical thinking at undergraduate level
• How to develop your academic writing skills
Academic writing: conventions (1)
• Do not use contractions or slang
• Use the terminology of your field
• Avoid the first (‘I’) and second person (‘you’)
• Define key terms you use in a particular way
• Include only ideas that are relevant to your
argument and subject
• Limit ideas to one per sentence/single point
for each paragraph
Academic writing: conventions (2)
• Use formal style
• Writing style does not have to be complicated
• Be well organised and present ideas in logical
• Present objective analysis that is critical without
being too positive or negative, be cautious
• Use clear, precise language
• Avoid emotive language
Academic writing: conventions (3)
• Be kind to your reader - give reader clues
(transition words, summaries) to let them
know where they are in your argument
• Use subheadings and sections, where
• Cite relevant sources
• Explain, not just describe
• Use quotes, examples
• Establish clear connections between ideas
Quick quiz
What is wrong with this piece of critical
writing? (Cottrell 2008: 209)
Mount Pepe is going up - it’s going to take
everything with it when it goes. And I mean
everything - villages, farms, trees, the lot. It’s
frightening to think of how powerful a volcano
can be. Think of the damage they cause!
Remember Pompeii and Mount Etna!
What is right with this piece of critical
writing? (Cottrell 2008: 209)
In order to assess whether it is necessary to
evacuate the villages on Mount Pepe, three main
factors need to be taken into consideration. The
first, and most important, of these is the element
of safety. According to seismic experts currently
working on the volcano, there is likely to be a
major eruption within the next ten years (Achebe
2007). According to Achebe, the eruption is likely
to destroy villages over a radius of 120 miles
(Achebe 2008, p.7).
What can I do to make my writing more
• attend free Academic Development Workshops offered
by Centre for Learning and Professional Development
• enrol for an one-term Academic Writing module:
• note how the ideas in the books and articles that you
read on your course are presented and expressed - use
active reading and note making strategies
• Write, write write
Importance of feedback to improve your
writing skills
Read through work and lecturer’s comment
Check you understand lecturer’s comments
Make list of major issues and minor errors
Compare with comments/lists from previous essays
- Which comments appear more than once?
- Which issues have you improved?
5. Number issues in order of priority
6. Act on them!
Self evaluation: S.W.O.T.
• What are the strengths of your writing? Are you able to
express complex ideas clearly? Do you know how to
structure your essay well?
• What are the weaknesses of your writing? Do you
struggle with spelling and grammar? Are you simply not
used to writing in a formal/academic way?
• What opportunities do you have to improve on your
writing? Have you attended one of the essay writing
• What threats do you face in your writing? Do you
understand the essay question? Are you struggling to
find enough time for proof reading? Do you lack
confidence in your ability to write?
• Stages of the essay writing process
• Analysing the question
• Writing introductory, main body and
concluding paragraphs
• Essay structure
Stages of essay writing
Cottrell 2008: 176-177
1. Clarify task
8. Act on feedback
2. Collect and record
7. Final draft
6. Work on your first draft
3. Organise and plan
4. Engage, reflect and
5. Write an outline and first draft
Analysing the question
Essay questions can be
broken down into:
• Its topic
• Any restriction/
expansion to the topic
• The aspect/angle you
are asked to consider
• Instructions you need
to follow
An analysis of the
changes in US policy
towards China
during the 1970s.
An analysis of the
changes in US policy
towards China
during the 1970s.
Writing introductory paragraphs
• State title of essay in first
line/link to question
• Explain the title/why the
question is important/
establish the field/give
background information/ state
aim of the essay
• Outline approach to the essay/
thesis statement
• Narrow the field/ particular
focus/outline issues
• Outline structure of essay
• 10% of word count
Writing main body paragraphs
Topic (first)sentence:
main idea of the
Supporting sentence:
gives details about/
explains topic sentence
Concluding (last)
sentence: repeats the
main idea/gives final
comment about topic
Writing concluding paragraphs
• Summarise main arguments/
• State general conclusions
• Make it clear why conclusions
are significant
• Refer back to question/directly
answer it
• Make recommendations or
suggest way forward/further
• Do not present new material/
ideas in your conclusion
• 10% of word count
• Overcoming writer’s
• Suggestions for
generating ideas
• Sources for academic
Overcoming writer’s block
Scribble - what ever comes to mind
‘Its only a draft’ - something you are working on
Write in pencil - reminds you that the draft is rough
Write on loose paper - can throw it away
Ignore mistakes in early drafts - can sort out later
‘For you eyes only’ - handwriting/mistakes do not
7. Start anywhere - in order to suit you
8. Write by talking - if you find it hard to express
yourself in writing
9. Take one step at a time - break task into manageable
10. Rest and relax - avoid stress
Generating ideas: brainstorming
• use a large piece of paper - A3 or flipchart
• identify and write down as many different
possible answers (rather than ‘one solution’) to
the question that you can think of
• asking ‘what if’ or ‘supposing’ questions will
help you
• allow yourself to think of crazy or wild
suggestions - do not think of an idea as ‘stupid'
• it is fine to make mistakes - they may turn out
to be productive
Generating ideas: free writing
• use A4 lined paper
• write nonstop for a set period of time (about 3-5
• do not make any corrections
• do not write in sentences
• use the writing tool you are most comfortable with
• write/type as fast as you can
• do not cross anything out
• do not punctuate
Generating ideas: map mapping
turn the paper sideways, A3 landscape is best
write the topic in the centre of the page
write related ideas around this centre
add secondary ideas to the main ideas
link up these ideas to show relationships
use colours, different line thickness, symbols, pictures
add details to points as you go along
Produced on Inspiration 8.0, on all
library computers
Useful reading for academic writing
Cottrell, S. (2008) The Study Skills Handbook (3rd edition) (Palgrave
Macmillan, London) chapter 8 ‘Writing for university’ and chapter 9
‘Developing your writing’
Crème, P. (1997) Writing at University (Open University Press, Milton Keynes)
Greetham, B. (2008) How to write better essays (2nd edition) (Palgrave
Macmillan, London)
Northedge, A. (2007) The Good Study Guide (Open University Press, Milton
Keynes) chapter 10 ‘Writing the way ‘they’ want’ and chapter 11 ‘Managing
the writing process’
Peck, J. & Coyle, M. (2005) Write it Right: A Handbook for Students (Palgrave
Macmillan, London)
Redman P (2001) Good Essay Writing (Sage, London)
Rose, J. (2007) The Mature Students Guide to Writing (2nd edition)
(Basingstoke, Palgrave)
Useful websites for academic writing
Get ahead Stay ahead interactive tutorials
Website supporting the Palgrave MacMillan
study skills books
Useful listening
Writing - recap
Can you:
express your ideas clearly in written form?
make an outline of what you are going to
write in clear sentences and paragraphs?
link your ideas in a logical order?
use correct grammar?
develop your own argument?
identify your audience and write in an
appropriate register?
Presentations can be found at