Succeeding in postgraduate study
Succeeding in postgraduate study

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Succeeding in postgraduate study

9 Writing at postgraduate level – general characteristics

Different disciplines will have certain conventions, vocabulary and types of discourse that you will need to become familiar with over the course of your degree. There are, however, some general characteristics of academic writing that are relevant across disciplines. We will examine these further in the presentation below.

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Transcript: Session 2, slidecast 2: writing at postgraduate level – some general principles

Hello and welcome. This slidecast briefly explores some tips and general principles to help you with your writing at postgraduate level. But what do we mean by ‘writing at postgraduate level’?
At Master’s level, you are expected to produce more sophisticated arguments, and set these within a wider context than at undergraduate level. You will need to balance a variety of viewpoints; consider evidence from different sources; and to find your own academic ‘voice’ when communicating your argument. Your academic voice will emerge through how you structure your writing, the evidence and information that you select, your critical evaluation, your analysis and interpretation, how you link your argument to previous work in the area, and how you present and communicate your writing to your target audience.
So let’s talk a bit about what defines ‘good academic writing’.
The ‘universal’ principles of good writing can be best summed up as ‘Structure’, ‘Tone’, ‘Audience’ and ‘Relevance’, which can be abbreviated as ‘STAR’. The target audience plays an important role in determining the type of written work and its content and style, and is probably the first STAR principle you should consider when you start to write. Writing for a specialist audience usually follows a formal style and structure and often uses highly specialised or technical language, whereas accessibility is a crucial emphasis when your writing is aimed at a non-specialist audience such as the general public, so it should have a more informal style and use less technical terms.
As you begin to read more extensively you will find that academic writing styles also vary considerably; some texts are highly analytical, while others are much more discursive. These styles often contrast. A highly concise writing style typifies formal studies for example in academic journals, while a more conversational and informal style is used in magazine and news articles. Thus, there is no immediate ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer to what constitutes good writing, and advice on academic writing can also vary. Good advice means little unless you have the opportunity to put it into practice. It is the process of writing, and receiving feedback and critical comments on your work that will help you to determine what works well for you and what does not. Improving your writing will not happen overnight, as a particular ‘skills’ threshold is suddenly crossed. It will continue to develop as you make progress with your postgraduate studies and in your professional career.
Bearing this in mind, the following seven principles can be used as a guide to help you assess the development of your writing skills. Be concise and clear. Writing is not like speaking, where redundancy and colloquial language are commonplace. You need to avoid padding and waffling. Although it can sometimes be appropriate to use acronyms, abbreviations or technical jargon should generally be kept to a minimum, and used judiciously when writing for an audience who is familiar with the topic and the terms being used. Be your own text editor. You probably know the feeling of finishing some writing with a sigh of relief and ‘switching off’ without further thought. With written work however, it is essential that you read and revise your first draft, and often your second and third drafts. This also means checking the spelling, grammar, syntax and punctuation. Careful editing is one of the skills that will help you to improve your work and your overall result. Support your arguments. Make your ‘point of view’ clear. Your arguments should be reasoned, with coherent statements supported with evidence, citing your sources. Avoid plagiarism. The wholesale copying of material or closely paraphrasing another text without attribution is unacceptable, and the penalties are severe for authors who fail to acknowledge material they have used. Whenever you quote or use the work of others, cite the reference both in the text and in full at the end of your work. Use paragraphs and signposting. Paragraphs bring together related sentences that cover a coherent set of thoughts. This helps the reader enormously. Signposting, for example with headings, subheadings and lists, spells out the logic and direction of your text, but should only be necessary in longer pieces of writing. Avoid bulleted lists unless they are particularly appropriate to the context. Develop a sense of your audience. You won’t always need to explain everything in detail, but equally you should not assume that your audience will automatically have necessary specialist knowledge. This means that you need to know your target audience, what level of knowledge they have and write accordingly for them. Keep sentences short. In general, short sentences are more conducive to clear, logical argument. On the other hand, varying the length of your sentences can sometimes help with the flow of your writing, so try to avoid sentences that are all approximately the same length.
The presentation of your work should make it accessible, attractive and easy to read. All text and graphical material should be clearly presented; the latter appropriately labelled and referred to in the text. Bear in mind the following general guidelines for presenting written work. Use a consistent style. Select and use fonts carefully. The size and format of fonts must be consistent throughout the text. It is usually better to use bold or italic type rather than underlining for headings. Only use colour if it is necessary to aid comprehension; this holds true for headings, subheadings, paragraphs, quotations, references and figure captions. While you do not have to use the same font and size as the main text, you should aim to maintain an internal consistency in your piece of writing. Use appropriate spacing. Your work will be easier to read if you use more than single line spacing and leave adequate margins. Use logical page endings. Don’t end a page with a heading or a subheading. Also, avoid starting a page with an incomplete line at the end of a paragraph. This has the added benefit of helping control the pace when reading. Leave sufficient space between paragraphs. Use either a ‘hard return’ or the paragraph ‘styles’ in your word-processing package to add space between paragraphs. Paragraphs should be consistently aligned with respect to the margins; adopt a style that suits your particular needs and use it consistently throughout your piece of writing. Include headings for all tables, and captions for all figures and diagrams, and ensure that these are referred to in the text. Linking figures to the text is often essential if the work is being judged or assessed in any way, for example when writing your Master’s dissertation. Check and recheck. Check the final version of your piece of writing; look out in particular for any occurrences of poor spelling, grammar, punctuation or syntax errors. Also check that work has been appropriately referenced, that tables, figures and diagrams are cross-referenced in the text and that formatting is consistent throughout. Clarity in your writing is essential. It is important to note both general academic writing convention and any conventions that are particularly associated with your discipline area (for example around scientific writing). The requirement of a particular style would be dictated by the target audience, and the nature of your communication, whether formal, informal or reflective.
We end this presentation by focusing on some of the more general academic writing conventions that you should be aware of. These will help you to develop your writing skills further. Make sure that you avoid contractions, such as ‘don’t’, ‘won’t’, ‘shouldn’t’ or slang terms. Do use specific terminology in your field where necessary, but define key terms. Use a style that suits both your purpose and the target audience, and include only the ideas that are relevant to your argument and topic. Limit these, where possible, to one per sentence or a single point for each paragraph. Keep the style of your writing simple and clear - avoid complicated or elaborate writing styles. Present ideas in a logical order. Be cautious in your writing - present an objective analysis that is critical without being either too positive or too negative. Use clear, precise language, and avoid emotive language. Consider your reader; provide clues - signposts, transition words, summaries - to let them know where they are in your argument. Use subheadings and sections where appropriate. Cite relevant sources. Explain, not just describe. Use quotes and examples as required. Last but not least, make sure that you establish clear connections between ideas.
This brings us to the end of this presentation.
End transcript: Session 2, slidecast 2: writing at postgraduate level – some general principles
Session 2, slidecast 2: writing at postgraduate level – some general principles
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Activity 4 Reflecting on your writing

Timing: Allow approximately 20 minutes

Look again at the writing you produced for Activity 3 in Session 1. The activity required you to summarise information that was provided to you, and to condense this to formulate a written conclusion that put your views across clearly, concisely, and in your own words.

  • How well did your writing meet this brief?
  • In what ways did your writing conform to the ‘general’ academic requirements discussed in this section?
  • In what ways could your writing be improved?
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You can view an example that we have prepared for reference: Example conclusion from Session 1 Activity 3 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

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