Tips for achieving high marks in academic writing

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Tips for achieving high marks in academic writing

Post by choirgirl » Wed Jan 14, 2009 12:06 am

Tips for achieving high marks in academic writing

This Wiki has been compiled from a thread seeking advice on how to move undergraduate grades from 2:1 to first class standard and other comments about how to improve academic standards; however, many of the tips could equally be applied to other levels of study, such as postgraduate courses.
Please remember that this is not a foolproof guide on how to attain high marks – none of the suggestions have been scientifically ‘proven’ to elevate marks, and some are more ‘humorous’ in tone (but have nevertheless been included if there is a likelihood they might encourage attainment or reflect well on you as a learner). Some tips may be more fruitful for you than others, and any, all or none of them may fit your individual style of learning and how you express yourself, your ideas and your knowledge in a psychological way!

It may help you to achieve a higher mark if you....

• Read outside the set texts – i.e. not just the ‘Core’ and ‘Further Reading’ lists, but also less familiar (but still relevant) references in addition to the same core seminal textbooks/papers which the majority of your colleagues are likely to cite. Use reference lists to seek more references.

• Look for some relevant research which is as up-to-date as possible. Use any relevant journals to which you have access, as well as textbooks. Don’t over-use common reference/encyclopaedia websites like Wikipedia – it’s a pretty fair bet that many of your colleagues will be using exactly the same information. Cite research carried out by your university department and/or individual staff members, if relevant.

• Don’t be a solitary animal - if you have a friend or colleague interested in studying together, or there are few of you studying different subjects, chat over your work. Explaining it will make you better at remembering it and another person may ask a question which gives you a different angle on the topic; or, if studying something other than psychology, they may see a link with their subject which can give you that little extra/unique point.

• Give your writing structure. Have a beginning, middle and ending, and try to use good opening and closing statements to a)-set the scene and contextualise your essay and b)-summarise what you have said and look to the future for more research in that area, and also to re-contextualise to bring your piece full circle back to your intro. In simpler contexts tell the readership what you are going to tell them, tell them and then tell them that you have told them.

• Try to bring something to your essay beyond just answering the basics of the original question; one member suggests incorporating “appropriate critical perspective [and] intellectual reflectivity”. Similarly, another member suggests “present several perspectives on a subject and critically reflect on them.” Show evidence of original and critical thinking as part of a well-structured essay containing a clear and strong argument.

• Make sure that you always create an argument in your essays. Put what YOU think. Think about it and, if you feel confident to do so (i.e. that you can support/justify it), put your opinion down. Don’t parrot the ‘received wisdom’ on the topic if you’re not convinced by it, just because you think that’s what the marker wants to hear.

• If you are challenging long-standing and/or widely-accepted beliefs, do it sensitively – remember the marker may be unwilling to give up their beliefs for the sake of your essay! – and back your opinions up with references.

• Find out if you can – e.g. via study groups – whether colleagues achieving the kind of marks to which you aspire tend to use a particular style of writing (NB: do NOT plagiarise others’ work, there will be serious penalties for doing so according to your university’s policy on plagiarism).

• Use appropriate grammar and punctuation. Check the spelling. Keep a semi-formal tone (normally academic work is in the third person perspective). Lay out the essay so that it is easy to read, and ensure you follow the university's guidelines on length, format, and referencing. This is not the place for txt abbreviations or a chatty conversational style.

• One member said it is more impressive to "obfuscate using words that sound clever but mean something much simpler (such as using the word 'obfuscate')" but other members felt that using clear and simple language actually shows a greater level of understanding of complex ideas. If you do try to use an expanded vocabulary, always ensure you know exactly what the words you use mean, and how to use them, or this idea can misfire!

• Remember that whoever is marking your paper will be an overworked lecturer/underpaid PhD student/doing it at night with a glass of whiskey in their hand, so make it readable and vaguely entertaining (but not as if you are writing for Loaded or FHM).

• If applicable to the question you are answering, correctly state the classical position and critique it, then the post-modern (or equivalent) position and critique that, and then use your own opinion to integrate these for a conclusion.

• Challenge the premise of the question (appropriately) - is there an assumption that lies behind the question (or the methods)? Or clarify that you are going to tackle a specific example or aspect to a broader question.

• One member finds this technique helpful: “Once you've drafted your essay or revised a topic, try going for a walk with notebook. Enjoy the scenery, let your mind wander to other things and then pootle along. You may then find an idea/point about the topic springs into your head. Jot it down, perhaps run with what if..... (mind maps can be useful here). ...Sometimes it’s not extra time in the library that is needed, but a bit of time to let your mind drift over what you have learned so it can make the connections and generate some ideas.”

• Leave it a day and proof-read it again; or ask someone else to proof-read it; or ask someone if they would listen to you reading it aloud (a great way of picking out ‘invisible’ errors).

• Make sure you do enough reading. Lecture notes, 2 or 3 papers and a quick glance at a book will not get you a good mark. On the other hand, don't read so much that you are drowning in a sea of information or don't have enough time left for the writing. One member said "for my better essays (3000 words) I typically read around 15 journal articles. 2 or 3 of those would turn out to be no use or surplus to requirements. Books are ok for a background but usually turn out to be too out of date to be much use as a reference".

• When you do your reading, make sure you are really reading not just sliding your eyes over the page :shock: Highlight bits, make notes, write things in the margin (unless it is a library book of course!), attach post-it notes. When you see something interesting, make sure you mark it out in some way so that you will recognise it when you come to the writing stage.

• Make a plan before you start writing. This applies to exam situations too - despite the time limit it is always worth spending a couple of minutes on a rough plan. A plan helps give your essay a coherent structure and keeps you from wandering too far off track. If you regularly have a problem with the word count, allocate a likely number of words for each section in your plan. Remember though, the plan is just a guide and if you suddenly have a brain wave or just more to say in one section of the essay, you can always change it.

• Be organised. Arrange all your books and bits of paper in a meaningful way, ready to be referred to when needed.

• When discussing someone else's experiment, there is no need to go in to great detail about everything they did, as you can give the reference for more information. Pick out aspects you thought were good or rubbish and comment on them.

• Finally, and importantly: Try not to worry 24/7 about getting a first, and have some fun too! Remember the university experience is not all about getting a decent grade; nor is it all about having the world’s best social life. It’s a balancing act :)

Some texts which you may find helpful:

Dixon, T. (2004) How to Get a First: The Essential Guide to Academic Success.

Silvia, P. (2007) How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing

With thanks for their contributions to: gez1809, Spatch, Charlotte, psychologee, russ, Kentucky_Freud_Chicken, mungle, eponymous85, mutterley, Bella ,thedreadpersephone and katyboo.

Note: If you have a suggestion about how to improve or add to this wiki please post it here. If you want to discuss this post please post a new thread in the forum. There is information about the structure, rules and copyright of the wiki here.

Content checked by qualified Clinical Psychologist on 10/09/2009 and a Team Member on 20/04/2012.
Last modified on 20/04/2012
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