Writing essays and assignments

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Writing essays transcript September 2008 /

Writing essays and assignments

Vicky: Welcome to the second student podcast on writing essays. So you’ve listened to the planning podcast, you’ve done your research, you’ve used up all your highlighter pens, and can now produce beautiful essay plans and logical outlines. Well done you! But now it’s time to dust down the keyboard, stop browsing Facebook, put the strong coffee on, and actually think about doing some writing. Hey, it’s only 3000 words!

Alan: Hello again. This is the second student podcast on writing essays. You should listen to this once you’ve heard the podcast on the planning stage. It’s important that you listen to that one first. In the first podcast, we covered planning your essay, so by now you should already have done your research and organised your ideas. In this podcast we cover: Getting started; Distractions and how to avoid them; Taking breaks; Writer’s block; The overall structure; The detailed structure; How you know when you’ve completed your first draft!

Alan: As a university student, when you’re asked to write an essay or an assignment, you’ll be expected to produce a well-researched, original piece of work.

Vicky: Don’t worry, originality doesn't mean you have to be Einstein or that nobody’s thought of your idea before in the history of the universe. But it does mean that you’ve thought about the question, researched it well, and made the subject matter your own.

Alan: It’s not a question of trying to second guess what your tutor thinks. If your arguments are presented in a concise, well-reasoned way, then you’ll be on the way to a good mark, whether your ideas reflect your Tutor’s or not.

Vicky: Don't be afraid to suggest new ways of looking at ideas. But if you have a flash of brilliant inspiration you’ll always need to support your insight with reasoned argument.

Tutor: In answering any essay question, what I think is really important, and that’s the part about what is your view on this question. Say there’s a question about transport related to the provision of health services. Well I might come at that from a particular view that we should have more public transport. Now that’s my view. If that’s how I want to address the question, I have to find the evidence to substantiate my view. It’s not about me just setting out my endless opinion. In fact I’m not interested in opinion. That’s lovely, but that’s not what an academic essay’s about. So I think it’s incredibly important that students develop the confidence to put their point of view but to argue it well and support it with the evidence.

Alan: In your essay, you will almost certainly need to quote from the articles and books you have read during your research. One really important point is that it’s essential you clearly acknowledge any quotations you use.

Vicky: You need to indicate quotations by punctuation marks, and put the author’s name and the date in brackets. You can acknowledge the source of the quote in a footnote, or at the end of the assignment. Check the module handbook to see exactly how you need to reference quotations.

Alan: It’s important that you use quotations selectively. They must support the point you’re making, and you shouldn’t use so many that you haven’t actually said anything else! Remember, it’s your essay. Which brings us to….Plagiarism

Vicky: Plagiarism is basically a posh word for using other people's work without acknowledging it, or even trying to take the credit for someone else’s work. It’s a serious offence, and may lead to accusations of cheating, even disciplinary action.

Tutor: It’s fine to use other people’s work but it’s incredibly important to acknowledge that, otherwise it’s theft. It’s just unacceptable. You can be dismissed from a programme for plagiarism.

Vicky: So just don’t do it! Make sure you credit your material correctly by using quotations and correct referencing. This is sometimes referred to as academic integrity. You can find a guide to Academic Integrity on the university website.

Alan: With this in mind, you’re ready to write your first draft. The secret of getting started is simple - start writing! Except when you are using your selected quotations, you’ll need to write in your own words. But the main thing at this stage is to just write some words.

Vicky: If you prefer to write in longhand, get some words down on paper. If you prefer using a word processor, start filling that screen! And don’t forget, on a computer, keep saving at 5-10 minute intervals - and make a back-up at least once a day.

Alan: Remember, writing and editing are different jobs, and need to be kept separate. Each of us has an inner critic who is ready to tell us we’re basically rubbish. For now, just ignore him (or her). They’ll 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.

Vicky: And don’t be surprised if suddenly all sorts of stray thoughts emerge to distract you. Suddenly, it’ll seem utterly vital to put all your CDs in alphabetical order or wash the cat - anything to avoid actually writing! Try and list any 'must-do' tasks on a notepad, so you can deal with them later.

Alan: Remember, you’ll 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.

Vicky: And sometimes, you’ll simply feel stuck, with no idea how to get going. Here are some suggestions in case you hit - Writer’s Block.

Alan: Remind yourself what your essay is really about. Re-read your opening paragraph, which is the key point of your assignment. Re-read your notes, or your mind-map or index cards.

Vicky: Talk to someone. Describe what your assignment is about to a friend maybe. If you can't get anyone to listen to you, try dictating your ideas out loud or something.

Alan: Sometimes, you might find it helpful to walk about the room while you organise your ideas, or move to a different place to write, perhaps go to the Library. If you still can't get re-started, try this exercise: 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.

Vicky: If you can't write about your assignment topic, you could just write about the trouble you're having with it. You could even write: 'I'm writing but I haven't got a clue what I’m doing!' Keep going until the timer sounds. Hopefully, you’ll be 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.

Student: Sit down and start making notes. Start thinking about what you’re going to write. Even if you just scribble and it doesn’t make sense, it may make sense later. You may not use it, but you actually put pen to paper.

Alan: As we explained in the planning podcast, having a clear outline is a vital part of the writing process. This is because your assignment needs to be based on your outline. Start with these simple rules.

Tutor: People who just sit down and try and write 3000 words straight off! I would encourage people to chunk it up and really focus neatly and tidily on the chunks.

Alan: Once you have a basic outline, you can expand each section in more detail. As you write each section, even as you write each paragraph of your assignment, try to structure it like this:

Vicky: Introduce the key idea of the paragraph….

Alan: Coughs and sneezes spread diseases

Vicky: Explain the idea…

Alan: Some diseases spread via droplets in the air

Vicky: Give evidence in support of your idea….

Alan: Research shows that respiratory diseases like colds are more likely to spread in warm moist environments.

Vicky: Comment on the evidence and how it proves your point - or not….

Alan: This suggests that some diseases will be spread by coughs and sneezes.

Vicky: Now link it all up! Make sure this paragraph fits in the context of your assignment and that it links to the next paragraph.

Alan: Although coughs and sneezes do spread diseases, vectors of infection vary. Some diseases may be transferred by other means.

Vicky: When you reach the end of the essay, save your work, and make a back-up as well. Give yourself a well-earned pat on the back and take the rest of the day off! You need to be fresh to take a good look at it tomorrow.

Alan: But tomorrow always comes and 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.

Vicky: Your writing needs to convey your ideas clearly, and succinctly.

Alan: Look for all of these things:

Vicky: Sense…

Alan: Does it make the points you wanted to make?

Vicky: Language…

Alan: Is it clear, or is it too woolly or rambling?

Vicky: Style…

Alan: Is it interesting? At the same time, is it written in a suitably academic language?

Vicky: Structure….

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

Vicky: Clarity….

Alan: Are you keeping to one topic per paragraph?

Vicky: Flow….

Alan: Do the paragraphs flow logically from one to the next?

Vicky: If you can answer yes to all the above, you’ve cracked it!

Alan: Now, try reading your essay aloud and listen to the words. There should be a mixture of short and long sentences, simple and complex phrases, active and passive verbs. Are there unintentional repetitions or puns? Listen to these two versions and see if you can spot what’s been changed – and why…

Vicky: Handwashing is like really important and that. All nurses and everyone should wash their hands. You mustn’t forget else you’ll get like superbugs which are like invincible and it costs the health service like huge amounts of money like so like it’s very important and that, innit.

Alan: Handwashing is an essential part of infection control within hospitals. All staff should ensure that they wash their hands thoroughly before and after contact with patients. Guidelines for hand hygiene need to be enforced, as evidence suggests that they are not always observed. This is a serious problem as the costs associated with hospital acquired infections such as MRSA are considerable. These costs are described in more detail in the next section.

Vicky: Oooh what a swot… We’re not really suggesting you’d write the first version, but we hope you get the idea.

Alan: And now you’ve done the hard work, it’s time for a final polish. Firstly, despite what you got away with at school, spelling is important. Your Tutor will deduct marks for sloppy spelling.

Vicky: And the bad news is - spell checkers don’t always get it right, unfortunately. They don't tell you if you've put the wrong word entirely. And don’t forget you need to use the UK spelling version, not the US version.

Student: You get word blindness. You know what you’re trying to say and you read that word that’s not actually there. So it’s always best to get somebody else to proof read it. Don’t always think that your spell checker’s going to pick things up – they miss things!

Vicky: If you know you have trouble with spelling, it’s probably worth getting a friend to read it through. Preferably a friend who can spell…

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

Tutor: Referencing is a system and we use the Harvard system here. It’s the means by which you acknowledge and recognise the material and work that you have used. Some people ask how many references should I have. You reference everything you’ve used and if you’ve used 97 sources, that’s absolutely fine. You write 97 references down.

Alan: When you’ve checked your essay with these points in mind, it’s time to do your final write up.

Vicky: Just as in life, presentation isn’t everything, but it does help. Your tutor won’t thank you if they need to decipher your spelling, decode your handwriting or untangle your messy script. Neat, legible writing, or accurate typing is essential. Check for correct spelling and grammar and number the pages. And make sure you’ve got the name of the assignment clearly marked.

Tutor: Presentation is incredibly important. We don’t directly deduct marks but it just does not go in your favour.

Alan: Now leave it overnight and then put on your Editor's Hat again to make sure you haven’t missed anything. And at last! Your essay should be ready to hand in!

Vicky: We hope you found this podcast helpful and that you’re now ready to write a successful essay. There’s more information in the module handbook, and on the student intranet. Check out the other guides there on essay writing. If you’re writing a scientific essay, check out the guidelines for writing scientifically.

Student: I think it does get easier and one thing I hope to improve on is not leaving things to the last minute. Leave yourself a little bit longer before the deadline. At least then, you can look at it from a more objective view instead of just rushing to get everything done.

Alan: You can also find further helpful tips about writing essays in the section on Excellent Essays on www.Arts.net. (NOTE: Unfortunately, in the time since this podcast has been produced, this website has been re-designed. The Excellent Essays section has been deleted.) And of course, don’t forget you can always ask your tutor if there’s any aspect you’re not clear about.

Vicky: And finally, good luck!

Tutor: It’s really interesting - they often are really daunted by trying to put 3000 words together, and yet by the time they get to the end of the programme, 3000 words are never enough, they’ve never got enough words. They’ve got so much they want to say, which is fantastic.

This podcast was a production of the University of Southampton. The presenters were Alan Brown and Vicky Sherwin. The producer was Jackie Curthoys.

September 2008

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