Tune Up Your Academic Writing

This guide is aimed at undergraduate university students faced with the rather frequent task of writing essays, term papers or reports (words that we will use here interchangeably).

It is hoped, however, that this guide will:

  1. Provide a rough guide to the various processes that combine to produce a quality essay.
  2. Alert you to some of the resources and services available at the library and beyond.
  3. Ease any anxieties you may have if writing university level papers for the first time.
  4. Do these things in a friendly, accessible way.

Attitude is Everything! Don’t worry! Accept your fate and get on with it. If you feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the assignment, think of it as a series of small, manageable steps. For example, a 1500 word essay might include: Introduction: 200 words Main body: 1000 words (5 core ideas at 200 words each) Conclusion: 300 words Devote time and energy to your essay and you are well on your way to a good mark! Some day you will know this was all worthwhile.

Get the Facts Straight Double-check your assignment to make sure you understand the requirements: How long is the term paper supposed to be? When is it due? How much analysis is required? How much personal commentary? Does the assignment require a literature review? The depth of research often depends on how long the paper needs to be. Because research is a lengthy process, give yourself lots of time. Students who leave too little time find that they cannot complete enough research, or that the materials they need for the assignment are not available. The night before is much too late!

Choose Your Topic Do you have the option of choosing your own topic? Has the professor assigned a broad subject that you must convert into an essay? Choose a topic that interests you, that is challenging, that has enough scope to meet the required size of the paper, and for which you think there is adequate information available in the library.

Know Your Topic Gain at least a basic familiarity with your topic before beginning in-depth research. The right reference book, or even your course text-book, may provide you with a well-written overview of a topic to guide your research process and give you confidence in your ability to handle the assignment. The library’s Reference Department has specific encyclopedias, dictionaries, handbooks and other materials on everything from Philosophy to Economics, Religion to Biology, Native Peoples to Mathematics.

Narrow Your Topic Narrow the topic if it is too broad. For example, if your subject is the novels of Jane Austen (too broad), and your paper length is only 1000 words, you might narrow the topic to an analysis of clothes in Pride and Prejudice. One way to narrow a subject is to check the Library of Congress Subject Headings, which is located at the Library Information Desk. Subject headings will lead you to related and narrower ideas relating to your topic. Browse the broad subject in the Novanet catalogue, or on a computer index in the library. Look at the titles of books (Novanet) and articles (computer index) on your topic, and identify a narrower focus that interests you. Still stuck? Consult your professor/lecturer! If you are floundering with the subject before doing research and writing, your paper will never shape up and you could waste a lot of time.

Analyze Your Topic Think about your assignment. Analyze your thoughts before starting to research. What is your personal view of the topic, as you understand it now? What points do you expect to discuss? What information do you need to find? Think of different words, phrases and synonyms that describe your topic, so that you have a variety of words to use when conducting research. By making lists of these related ideas, your library research will progress more smoothly. Have a firm grasp of your primary sources before turning to secondary commentaries or criticisms. In other words, read Pride and Prejudice first, then write down some of your own impressions and ideas related to your essay topic; then research other people’s opinions on the book.

The Thesis Statement A thesis statement identifies the purpose, scope and focus of the essay; it expresses the controlling idea and your point of view. It should be an assertion or positive statement that covers the topic. Some professors may suggest you phrase your thesis as a question. The thesis statement is the hook that snags your reader/professor and makes him/her want to read the whole essay. Be aware that the thesis statement will probably change as you research and write your paper! Examples of thesis statements: Assignment: Write a paper on Shakespeare\’s Macbeth discussing some element of the play that interests you. Thesis Statement: Shakespeare uses ghosts as a way for Macbeth to have conversations that he could not have with anyone else.

Read the full guide at: http://www.smu.ca/administration/library/perfectgathering.html

[Other USEFUL LINKS on Academic Writing]

http://unilearning.uow.edu.au/academic/1a.html

http://www.mdx.ac.uk/www/study/gloess.htm

http://www.wisc.edu/writing/Handbook/

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