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FeaturesEach month, the Academic Writing Centre brings you a news feature that highlights some common point of confusion or error in academic writing.
It is often difficult to stay focussed when you write. Already, as I write this initial draft, I am tempted to go in all sorts of different directions. How should I demonstrate the way a student might deviate from their original aim? Every writer has a tendency, in early drafts, to veer off on a tangential journey, arriving far from the original objective.
Let us examine an academic article and see how the writer approaches the opening paragraph. As we do, let us bear in mind the number of drafts this piece has been subjected to and also the experience of the author, or authors in this case. I say this so that we do not become too intimidated. Rather, I wish to show that focussing your writing is something a competent student can certainly achieve with some practice.
Beissinger, Steven R. and Bucher Enrique H. ’Can Parrots Be Conserved Through Sustainable Harvesting?’.BioScience 42.30 (1992): 164-173.
Let us see how the writers approach their initial paragraph of information.
They describe the problem: neotropical parrots are now a threatened species of bird due to the destruction of their natural habitat and the international parrot trade. Then they proceed to the solution of the problem: ‘We propose a conservative model for harvesting parrot nestlings that requires the exploiter to make an environmental investment.’
The authors will then give us more details to convince us that they are right and that their model is the best way forward. The next sentences declare that sustainable harvesting without continuing the decimation of the species is achievable, but only with specific quotas based on the site concerned. They remind the reader of the low likelihood of ‘overharvesting’, the ease of quota management and the protection of the parrots’ habitat.
To balance their argument they accept difficulties are prevalent in the scheme. They conclude by outlining their approach, exploring the ‘biological potential for applying sustained yield approaches to parrots’ and taking account of the social cultural and political conditions that must be controlled, if their sustained harvest plan is to be successful.
While not perfect, this is a good example of clear, concise and coherent writing. The authors set out their aims from the first words. They do not deviate from the issue of parrot harvesting. Someone, like myself, who knew nothing of the subject, is somewhat more knowledgeable about it after reading only two hundred words. Note how the article does not waste time setting out grand generalised statements about parrots. Nowhere do we find emotive urgency in these words. We find only facts and the facts which concern the authors in this work.
This is the essence of focussing your academic essay. Stay on the point in the opening introduction. Every sentence in the opening words, as in the example, must relate to the topic or thesis statement. The thesis statement for this might be: ‘An immediate halt to the international trade of parrots is urgently needed to reverse the declines of many species, but habitat conservation is also required’. If you can isolate your thesis statement in your introduction, it should be straightforward to check if all of your other opening declarations relate to the topic you are approaching.
Any published article will have these elements contributing to the author’s objectives. It is something which looks deceptively simple, but actually takes quite some practice. However, it is certainly achievable with a systematic approach, as we have seen.
We have all experienced, at one point or another, that annoying condition that is writer’s block. Unfortunately there seems to be no known way to avoid it. What you can do, though, is keep it under control and avoid letting it turn the process of writing your essay into a nightmare. Coping with writer’s block is easier than it seems and following these few simple tips might help.
Tip 1: Start by making a list of everything related to the topic that you can think of. Once you have a list, you can use a bubble diagram to see how the various concepts are linked. The bubble-diagram will allow you to ease into writing by examining the connections between the different ideas.
Tip 2: Remember the saying ‘knowledge is power’? The more you research the more material you have to work on, and the less likely it is for you to incur in writer’s block. Many people make the mistake of just skimming through a couple of chapters on the topic and expect to be able to write 2,000 words, making a point and avoiding plagiarism along the way. That is not realistic.
Tip 3: Just write what comes to mind. You do not need to produce a masterpiece and you can revise your first draft later on. Leave the introduction until later, and just write as much as you can. By putting your ideas on the page you have a canvas on which to work for a better final result. By contrast, if you leave your ideas in your mind or in an outline stage, it will be harder to produce a polished piece of work by the deadline.
Tip 4: Give yourself deadlines. Break up the time the lecturer gave you and decide by which date you will have the first and your second or final draft ready. This way you will set up a work schedule which will help to organize the rest of your coursework around a particularly important essay.
Tip 5: If writer’s block hits you, don’t stay at home. A blank page or the black spacer line winking at you from your word processor will not help you focus. Go out, take a walk or exercise: it will be easier to start writing with a clearer brain.
Tip 6: Start your essay early. If your lecturer has given you a month, it is unrealistic to think you can do everything in a week. There is nothing like that quiet little voice at the back of your head telling you that you do not have enough time to trigger panic and writer’s block. So start early, and if it takes you three weeks instead of a month – well, enjoy your holiday.
Use this link to see a short film about a student struggling with a paper.
When writing an academic report or essay, one may have weeks, or even months, to carry out the necessary research. Journalists, however, often have to engage in the same process for an article in a matter of minutes. Particularly in terms of news writing, one’s copy must be concise, simple and lack technical jargon. Journalists must not talk down to their reader, but they must also refrain from assuming their audience are experts on the topic in question.
Bernadette O’Sullivan, former Director of NUI Galway’s MA Journalism course, thinks that both writing styles need to be focused, objective, and possess clarity of expression, all while attempting to bring about new knowledge, understanding and, insight. However, Ms O’Sullivan, who also worked as an Assistant Editor with an academic publisher, feels journalistic writing has much more freedom in terms of approach: ‘Strong journalistic writing can create a wave of empathy or a wave of outrage that brings changes in people’s attitudes and even changes in public policy. Other times it simply poses questions which cannot be answered definitively, but leave the reader with something to think about’
Not to add fuel to the argument that some journalists have a god complex, but they are tripartite in nature: at any given time, a journalist is writer, reporter and critic. In a paper entitled ‘Does Journalism Education Matter?’ G.S. Adam states:
The reporter in the journalist is concerned with the identification of news and the discovery of facts that support the accounts of it. The writer in the journalist seeks to create intelligible - at best, elegant, literate, and faithful - texts. The critic in the journalist judges the significance of things and, by a number of devices, adds layers of meaning and interpretation to their description. (Adam, 2006).
Professional academic writing generally appears in publications whose readers have previous knowledge, or even expertise, on the subject matter. Facts and figures, rather than personal stories (as is often the case in journalism), bring the topic in question to life.
On his website Using English for Academic Purposes, Andy Gillett describes academic writing as ‘linear’: ‘It has one central point or theme with every part contributing to the main line of argument, without digressions or repetitions. Its objective is to inform rather than entertain (UEFAP website).
Notwithstanding these differences, journalism and academic writing enjoy a symbiotic relationship. ‘Journalistic writing can be the conjugate between academic research and public knowledge. Effective journalism can make occasionally obtuse academic work amenable to ordinary citizens’, says Ms O’Sullivan. ‘I think we all need a variety of stimulation from what we read and write. It keeps us from being one-dimensional’, she adds. Journalistic and academic writing can complement each other greatly. They are two breeds of the same creature; two lanes on the same road.
American journalist and author John Grogan may well have hit the writing nail on the head when he stated: ‘In the English language, it all comes down to this: twenty six letters, when combined correctly, can create magic. Twenty six letters form the foundation of a free, informed society’ (Grogan, 2007).
Adam, G. S. (2006) Does Journalism Education Matter? Journalism Studies 7:1, 144 – 156.
Grogan, J. (2007) Bad Dogs Have More Fun: Selected Writings on Family, Animals, and Life from the Philadelphia Inquirer. Vanguard Books, New York.
UEFAP (2013) Features of Academic Writing. Using English for Academic Purposes: A Guide for Students in Higher Education. Retrieved from http://www.uefap.com/writing/feature/intro.htm on 17 February 2013.
Many thanks to Bernadette O'Sullivan, Journalism Lecturer at NUI Galway, for her contribution to this article.
These are the words of Hamlet’s father; what he says is grammatically wrong. The serpent did not sleep in the orchard; the king did. Shall we invite the Shakespeare’s ghost to attend the Academic Writing Centre?
A misplaced or ‘dangling’ participle is one of the most common writing errors. It may be found lurking in an otherwise excellent article or essay. It makes others laugh at your expense or lower your grades. It changes the meaning of your sentences and can turn tragedy into nonsense. Imagine for instance, if a journalist reporting a horrible accident involving an English professor wrote the following:
Sitting on the bank of the Nile and reading a book, a gigantic crocodile suddenly leaped out and ate the professor.
Now, nearly every book, on-line manual, or blog on grammar features an entry on dangling participles. The Grammar Girl article, for instance, explains that a participle is ‘a verb that acts like an adjective’. Participial phrases are ‘phrases that contain a participle and modify the subject of the sentence’. As the author puts it, ‘when you dangle a participle, it means your participial phrase is hanging there in your sentence with no proper subject in sight’. So you can get the following ridiculous sentences:
Walking through the town, the shop appeared on the right.
Chattering, screaming, and running around, the teacher thought the children could do with a break’.
Now, it is relatively easy to spot the errors in the above sentence: crocodiles do not read books; shops do not walk through town; and teachers do not (normally) scream and run around. Less funny and more frequent are sentences that refuse to separate a writer and his life or a war and its date:
Suffering from TB, Keats’s life was one of struggle.
Emerging out of a financial crisis, that month marked the start of the war.
But why do people make these mistakes?
One reason is that participles, or rather participial phrases, have no fixed position in the normal word order of the English sentence. We can say:
Eating a sandwich, John walked down the street.
John walked down the street, eating a sandwich
John, eating a sandwich, walked down the street.
All three sentences are grammatically correct. In all three cases the participial phrase gives information about John. Perhaps this movability of the phrase may be responsible for the fact that it is often left dangling, without a subject to modify. This is the view of Gleanth Brooks and R.P. Warren whose Modern Rhetoric provides a detailed discussion of modifiers that is superior to most on-line sources.
However, this still does not answer the question why the spectre of Hamlet’s father made an error. Is it because his world of confusion and crisis where there seems to be no more time for grammar or correct speech? After all, this is a world where Philosophy students, like Hamlet, are forced to dedicate his life to more practical matters (as often happens when a country is in a crisis) of revenge and general bloodshed.
Perhaps, but I still think he should visit the Academic Writing Centre.
Brooks, Gleanth and R.P. Warren. Modern Rhetoric. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World 1961.