Writing essays and assignments

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Once you have researched and structured your essay, it'll be time to start writing.

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7. A 'well-researched original piece of work'

You will be expected to produce a 'well-researched original piece of work'. Originality doesn't mean that nobody has thought of your idea before. Originality means that you have:

  • thought about the subject
  • researched it well, and
  • made the subject matter your own.

If all your arguments are presented in a concise, well-reasoned way, then the assignment will be on the way to a good mark, whether your ideas reflect your tutor's or not.

Don't be afraid to suggest new ways of looking at ideas - but always support your flashes of insight with reasoned argument.

Quotations

You must indicate quotations by punctuation marks, and acknowledge the source either in a footnote, at the end of the assignment or at the end of the quote (like this):

'Many have original Minds who do not think it - they are led away by Custom' (John Keats, letter to John Hamilton Reynolds 19 February 1819; in Rollins, H. E. (ed.) (1958) The Letters of John Keats. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. I-231).

Check your Department's guidelines for the style in which quotations must be referenced.

Plagiarism

Using other people's work without acknowledgement constitutes plagiarism, which is a serious offence. It is a form of intellectual dishonesty, and may lead to accusations of cheating.

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8. Writing the First Draft

Here are eight tips on writing your first draft. You should already have studied the earlier sections on researching and organising your ideas. We cover:

a. Get writing
b. The Inner Critic
c. Distractions
d. Breaks
e. Blocked
f. Two tips for Active Learners:
g. Another tip if you find you're blocked
h. Overall structure
i. Detailed structure
j. End of first draft

a. Get writing

The most important thing to do at this stage is to write. So, get busy writing. Write in your own words except when you are using carefully selected quotations. But the main thing at this stage is to write some words.

  • If you write in longhand, get words on paper.
  • If you use a computer, get words on the screen.

On a computer, keep saving to disk at 5-10 minute intervals - and make a back-up at least once a day.

If you have trouble composing your assignment with pen or computer, try dictating it onto a cassette recorder, and copying it out later.

b. The Inner Critic

Writing and editing are different jobs, and need to be kept separate. Each of us has an inner critic who is ready to damn our efforts. Fend off your inner critic for now. She or he will get their turn when the first draft is finished. But if you let them start too soon there won't be a first draft for them to work on.

c. Distractions

All sorts of stray thoughts will emerge to try to distract you from writing. List all these 'must-do' tasks on a notepad, to be dealt with later.

d. Breaks

You need to take regular breaks. If you're working at a computer, you need to rest your eyes and hands every hour or so.

Try not to take a break when you've just finished a brilliant paragraph or section; write the first sentence of the next paragraph so it's easy to get back into the flow when you return after your well-earned break.

e. Blocked

Here are some suggestions in case you get stuck:

Re-read

  • your opening paragraph, which is the key point of your assignment
  • your notes
  • your mind-map and
  • your index cards.

Talk

  • describe to a friend what you want to have in your assignment
  • record it on a cassette and copy it out later
  • if you can't get anyone to listen to you, dictate your assignment as if you were talking to a friend.

f. Two tips for Active Learners

  • Move around the room while you organise your ideas for writing
  • Move to a different place to do your writing, perhaps a different part of the Library.

g. Another tip if you find you're blocked

If you still can't get re-started, try this exercise:

  1. Set a timer for five minutes. Start writing. No thinking, no staring into space. Only writing. Write about your assignment topic if you can, but if not, write anything. Just keep your pen going over the paper, or your fingers pressing the keys, and making words.
  2. If you can't write about your assignment topic, you could write about the trouble you're having with it. You could even start with just, 'I'm writing but I haven't got anything to say'.
  3. Keep going until the timer sounds.
  4. You may find you're ready to get back to your assignment. If not, read over what you've just written, circle any ideas that look promising and write about them for five minutes.

h. Overall structure

Base your assignment on the outline, following this rule:

Beginning

tell your readers what you're going to say in your assignment: a statement of purpose

Middle

say it

Ending

tell the readers what you have said: summarising and stating your conclusion.

i. Detailed structure

As you write each section of your assignment, and even as you write each paragraph, try to structure it like this:

Introduce

the key idea of the paragraph

Explain

the idea

Give

evidence in support of your point

Comment

on the evidence and how it proves your point

Link

show how this paragraph fits in the context of your assignment and link it to the next paragraph.

j. End of first draft

When you reach the end of the essay, save your work. Make a back-up as well. And give yourself a break from it for the rest of the day.

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9. The Second Draft

You are now ready to edit your first draft, so put on your Editor's Hat. Read the question again, and then read your essay through. Look for seven things:

Sense

Does it make the points you wanted to make?

Language

Is it clear, or is it too woolly?

Style

Is it interesting? At the same time is it written in suitably academic language?

Structure

Do the ideas follow logically, or are they flitting around?

Are you keeping to one topic per paragraph?

Do the paragraphs flow logically from one to the next?

The writing

Read it aloud and listen to the words. It may help to record it on cassette and play it back later. Is there a good mixture of:

  • short and long sentences,
  • simple and complex phrases,
  • active and passive verbs?

Are there unintentional repetitions or puns?

Spelling

Check it even when you've run your text through a spell-checker. Spell-checkers don't tell you if you've put the wrong word entirely (e.g. from instead of form). If you know you have trouble with spelling, try to get a friend to read it through.

References

Check that you have given references for every authority you quote, and that they are in the correct format for your course.

When you have checked those seven points about your essay, it is time to rewrite your essay. Neat, legible writing (or accurate typing) is essential. Check for spelling and grammatical correctness. Leave it overnight and put on your Editor's Hat again. With one final polish your essay should be ready to hand in.

> further advice on writing scientifically

> return to the list of quick-reference guides

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Further Reading

Your next step should be to print out and work through the study guide Writing effectively

You might also want to work through the study guide Writing your Dissertation

There are further helpful tips about writing essays in the section on Excellent Essays on Arts.Net

See also the website on academic writing at Purdue University

University of Southampton

last updated on October 16, 2008
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