Approaching academic writing in terms of a process is useful for the following reasons:
- It allows you to think about writing as a set of manageable sub-tasks.
- You become more aware of the preparation stages as well as the actual writing stages.
- It helps you to (time) manage your assignments more effectively.
According to the University of Leicester (UK), to produce a high quality academic essay you need to demonstrate your ability:
- to understand the precise task set by the title;
- to identify, appropriate material to read;
- to understand and evaluate that material;
- to select the most relevant material to refer to in your essay;
- to construct an effective argument;
- to arrive at a well-supported conclusion; and
- to do this within the word/ page limit set.
In other words, as will now be outlined, you need to be aware of and use the writing process.
What is the writing process?
The writing process is a series of steps a student should follow in order to produce a solid piece of academic writing. The steps are as follows:
- Step 1(a) – Analysing the question.
- Step 1(b) – Choosing and narrowing a topic.
- Step 2 – Brainstorming.
- Step 3 – Researching your topic.
- Step 4 – Developing your thesis statement.
- Step 5 – Planning (Outlining).
- Step 6 – Drafting and redrafting.
- Step 7 – Editing and Proofreading.
It is recommended that students follow the order of steps as set out above, but this is not set in stone. For example, students may develop a provisional thesis statement (step 4) after analysing the question (step 1), or they might start outlining (step 5) after brainstorming (step 2).
Step 1 – Analysing the question
The first thing to do is to look at the essay prompt (the essay question) carefully and decide what kind of essay you are being asked to write. Analyse the task for key words. These can be divided into task, content, and limiting words. For example, consider the essay prompt below:
Computers have had a significant impact on education in the 20th century. Discuss the changes they have made.
Task words indicate what you are being asked to do. Task words are usually verbs (action words or processes). In this question, the task word is discuss.
- Content word(s): education, computers
Content words set and define the essay topic area. Content words help you to focus your research and reading on the correct area, in this case on computers in education.
- Limiting words: changes, significant impact, 20th century
Limiting words define the topic area further, indicating aspects of the topic you should focus on. For example, in this question, you should not write broadly about computers in education, but focus on analysing the changes computers have made to education in the 20th century.
Some important task words are listed in the table below:
You will need to:
Examine each part of an issue or argument, and describe the relationships between them. You may need to consider causes and effect or find a solution to a problem.
Present your thesis i.e. your opinion and the reasons for it. Your use of argument and counter-argument should persuade the reader to agree with you.
Compare and contrast
Focus on the similarities and differences in a topic.
Identify what is good and bad about the information and why; probe, question, identify inaccuracies or shortcomings in the information; estimate the value of the material.
Present your point of view; you may need to choose your own focus.
Appraise the worth of something in the light of its truth or usefulness; assess and explain.
Show how well you understand a topic or phenomenon.
Select and list the main features/ factors.
Explain, clarify, make clear by the use of concrete examples.
Give reasons why particular decisions should be made or certain conclusions drawn.
Give a short description of the main points; give the main features or general principles; emphasize the structure, leaving out minor details.
Give a concise account of the chief points of a matter, removing unnecessary detail.
Bring elements together to make a complex whole, draw together or integrate issues (e.g. theories or models can be created by synthesizing a number of elements).
Step 2 - Brainstorming
What is meant by brainstorming?
When you have a topic, start brainstorming. Write down all the possible answers to your question, and write down all the information, opinions, and questions you have about your topic. Brainstorming will help you see what you already know, what you think, what you think you know, and what else you need to find out about your topic. Writing things down also ensures that you will not forget your great ideas later.
- Take a sheet of paper and write your main topic in the centre, using a word or two or three.
- Moving out from the centre, start to write down, quickly, as many related concepts or terms as you can associate with the central topic. You should probably set a time-limit e.g. 15 minutes.
- Once the storm has ended, you will have lots of terms and phrases and you can start to cluster. Circle terms that seem related and then draw a line connecting the circles. Find some more and circle them and draw more lines to connect them with what you think is closely related.
- Now you should be able to see a set of clusters, or a big web, or a sort of map. At this point you can start to form conclusions about how to approach your topic.
- In this technique you would use the “big six” questions that journalists rely on to thoroughly research a story. The six are: Who?, What?, When?, Where?, Why?, and How?
- Write each question word on a sheet of paper, leaving space between them. Then, write out some sentences or phrases to answer them, as they fit your particular topic.
- Consider the relationships between your questions and answers and use them to organise your paper.
- You might also answer into a tape recorder if you’d rather talk out your ideas.
- When you freewrite, you let your thoughts flow, putting pen to paper and writing down whatever comes into your mind. You don’t judge the quality of what you write and you don’t worry about style or any surface-level issues, like spelling, grammar, or punctuation.
- When you freewrite you can set a time limit (“I’ll write for 15 minutes!”) or you can set a space limit (e.g. 1 page) and just write until you reach that goal.
- The crucial point is that you keep on writing even if you believe you are saying nothing.
- When you’re finished, highlight key ideas and phrases. Then repeat the process, focussing on the key ideas to further fine tune your ideas.
Step 3 – Researching your topic
Do not expect to do research once and find everything that you need for your paper. Research is an on-going part of the writing process. You will need to do it when:
- Choosing your topic
- Developing your thesis statement
- Planning your essay
- Writing your essay
- Revising your essay
Your reading should begin broad and become increasingly narrower. Do not be afraid to change your topic or thesis a little (or a lot) if your research leads you in a different direction.
What kind of sources will you use for your research?
- Primary Sources: These are original, first hand materials including interviews, speeches, letters, questionnaires and surveys. These documents are not analysed or interpreted.
- Secondary Sources: These are sources that have been analysed, interpreted or explained by a third party including books, academic journal articles, and newspaper articles.
- Electronic Sources: These include electronic databases (e.g. ERIC – Education Resources Information Centre), ebooks, web pages, podcasts, and other multimedia.
- Tertiary Sources: Tertiary sources typically summarize and re-present current secondary sources. Tertiary sources are often dictionaries and encyclopaedias. These are great starting points for research, but tend not to be used in the final products as they are too broad and general. Rather than using Wikipedia try Credo Reference: http://search.credoreference.com/ It includes a number of subject specific encyclopaedias and dictionaries.
Be careful! It is your job to judge how objective each source is. Poor choice of sources could negatively affect your credibility. Try using the CRAP test to evaluate sources:
- Currency: How recent is the information? Can you locate a date when the resource was written/ created/ updated? Based on your topic, is this current enough? Why might the date matter for your topic?
- Reliability: What kind of information is included in the resource? Is the content primarily opinion? Is the information balanced or biased? Does the author provide citations and references for quotations and data?
- Authority: Can you determine who the author/creator is? What is his/ her credentials (education, affiliation, experience, etc.)? Who is the publisher or sponsor of the work/site? Is this publisher/sponsor reputable?
- Purpose / Point of View: What’s the intent of the article (to persuade you, to sell something, etc.)? For web resources, what is the domain (.edu, .com, .org etc.)? How might that influence the purpose/point of view? Are there ads on the website or in the resource? How do they relate to the topic being covered (e.g., an ad for ammunition next to an article about firearm legislation)? Is the author presenting fact or opinion?
Step 4 – Developing your thesis statement
What is a thesis statement?
- The thesis statement is the most important sentence in your essay.
- It is usually one concise sentence that tells your reader what your argument is.
- If someone asked you, “What does your essay say?” your answer would be your thesis statement.
- Everything you write will support this statement.
When should you write your thesis statement?
- It depends on when you know the answer to your research question.
- You may have an idea before you begin researching, you may discover it as you research, or you may not know it until you have almost finished writing your essay.
- Try to develop a ‘preliminary’ or ‘working’ thesis statement once you have analysed the question/ chosen your topic
- This can change as you go through the writing process and develop your subject knowledge.
How do you write a thesis statement?
- A thesis statement usually comes towards the end of the introduction and summarizes what the entire essay is about.
- It contains the topic and the controlling idea for the whole essay.
- The topic is the subject matter of the essay (e.g. The Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union)
- The controlling idea defines the purpose of the essay and sets its direction (e.g. could have been averted if Stalin had followed the advice of his aides).
- Example thesis statement:
The Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union could have been averted if Stalin had followed the advice of his aides.
How can you ensure that you have a strong thesis statement?
The thesis statement or main claim must be debatable. If your thesis is something that is generally agreed upon or accepted as fact then there is no reason to try to persuade people.
- Bad: Pollution is bad for the environment.
- Good: At least 25 percent of the federal budget should be spent on limiting pollution.
The thesis needs to be narrow and specific. A narrow thesis will lead to a more effective argument that can be supported with evidence, and thus convince your reader. Avoid vague words or statements.
- Bad: Drug use is detrimental to society.
- Good: Illegal drug use is detrimental because it encourages gang violence.
Remember! The thesis is supported by your essay. Therefore, after writing the body of your essay, you may have to revise your thesis statement.
Step 5 – Planning (Outlining)
Why is an outline important?
Outlines help writers to:
- remain focused on the topic.
- logically order the research material.
- evaluate how much material has been collected to support the thesis.
- organise headings and sub-heading to guide their writing.
- organise their main ideas (arguments) and support them with details (evidence).
- establish connections between these points.
A well-organised essay helps the reader to understand the content. The degree of planning will depend on the individual student. However, everyone needs at least a basic outline as a guide. The length of your paper will often determine the depth of your outline.
Outlines are not just an organisational plan to help you draft a paper; you can outline at any stage of the writing process.
- Research Outlines: A research outline is a tentative one that can help to guide your research. It helps you to consider what you already know, and what you need to research more.
- Working Outlines: A working outline is a pre-writing tool that guides you in completing your first draft. It helps you answer the question: How am I going to present my information based on my thesis, my assignment and my audience?
- Draft Outlines: A draft (or reverse outline) is done after you have written a first draft. It describes each paragraph in your draft so that you can critique your organization. It helps you answer these questions: Do the ideas in my draft support my thesis statement? Am I addressing the task that was set? Does my draft flow logically from point to point? Have I discussed similar ideas in the same section or do I jump around?
- Formal Outlines: These may be a course requirement and may also be graded. They tend to be more detailed and may include notes on supporting evidence/ quotations etc. as well as the thesis statement. Here is an example paragraph outline:
Thesis: Although there are some disadvantages, birth control pills are safe.
Section/Paragraph1: Pills contain nothing harmful to women’s health.
- Pills contain hormones produced by women’s bodies.
- Combination (estrogen+progestin) and progestin only (Planned Parenthood, 2003)
- Estrogen – activates uterus, thickens walls. Progesterone – helps uterus accept egg (National Cancer Institute, 2003)
- Pills give women the right amount of hormones so they can’t get pregnant
- Estrogen pill stops egg production, progestin pill will “thicken cervical mucus” so no fertilization (Planned Parenthood, 2003, Basics section, para. 2)
- Hormones “fool the body into acting as if it’s pregnant” (Alice, 1998)
Step 6 – Drafting and redrafting
Writing the first draft
- The purpose of the first draft is primarily for you to sort out what you want to say. The main aim is to put something down on paper; to get your ideas and words flowing.
- At the first draft stage, it is advisable to concentrate on the content and structure of the assignment rather than language and style.
- Focusing on language and style at this early stage will interrupt the flow of ideas and delay progress.
- Don’t worry about writing a perfect introduction. Write it quickly and focus on the body of the essay. You can go back and rewrite the introduction later.
- Use a word processor to write your essay so it is easier to revise.
- Once you have done the first draft, even though you may not be happy with it, you are over the hardest part of the writing process.
- Put it aside and take a break.
- Redrafting should be done with the reader in mind, and involves looking at the style, as well as the flow of arguments and ideas.
- It is primarily about revising and strengthening the content of your essay.
- Read through your essay, preferably aloud, to check the flow and sense of the sentences. It is often better to read a hardcopy for revision purposes as problems/ issues with your paper are easier to find.
- Ask at least one other person to read your draft and make comments.
- Ask yourself the following questions:
- Is your paper approximately the required length?
- Have you interpreted the question/ task correctly. Have you answered all parts of it?
- Have you defined any terms in the question or the body of the essay that could cause confusion?
- Is your thesis debatable and narrow? Do you still agree with it or does it need to be modified? Do the ideas in your essay support your thesis?
- Is your paper well-organised? Do your arguments follow a logical sequence? Do you have a clear paragraph plan with an introduction and conclusion? Are your topic sentences clear?
- Is there a balanced argument in your paper? Do you present all sides of the argument? Have you supported your arguments sufficiently?
- Is your paper itself balanced? Do you have too many details at the beginning, and not enough at the end?
- Is the information you provided accurate? Have you cited the information appropriately?
- Does your conclusion summarise and synthesise? Does it highlight the significance of you findings/ arguments and end on a memorable note?
- Is your writing analytical, objective, rational, serious and formal?
Step 7 – Editing and Proofreading
Whereas step 6 is mainly concerned with Higher Order Concerns (HOCs) such as thesis, organization and content development, step 7 focuses more on Lower Order Concerns (LOCs) such as connections between ideas, sentence structure, spelling and punctuation. Please see the AWARE handout: HOCs and LOCs for further details on this subject.
- When you are happy with your paper's content, it's time to edit.
- Editing will make your writing more precise and easier to understand (not necessarily shorter, but clearer).
- When editing, you examine every sentence and ask yourself if it has a purpose and if it’s complete, clear, concise and correct in English.
Think about the following specific problems when editing:
- Connections between ideas
- Wordiness (Can you be more concise?)
- Repetition, Lack of variety
- Sentence structure (Is it correct and are you using a variety of sentence patterns?).
- Word choice (Avoid big words if you are not sure they are the correct words).
- Clarity, Non-English structure (Are you translating structures from your first language?).
- Citations (referencing)
- When you think your essay is ready to be submitted, it's time to proofread (check for mistakes).
- Proofreading refers to the process of reading written work for “surface errors.” These are errors involving spelling, punctuation, grammar and word choice.
- If you don't proofread, your paper may be full of careless errors, which will not reflect well on you.
1. Print it off - It's much more difficult to read onscreen.
2. Leave it a day - It's better to proofread fresh rather than tired (this requires time-management skills).
3. Read aloud (possibly to someone else) - Small errors of expression and punctuation are sometimes easier to spot if you read aloud.
4. Punctuate your reading - Do this when you read aloud. Take a short breath for commas. Come to a halt for full stops. This is a good way to see if your sentences are too long, or if your writing is choppy.
5. Proofread for one type of error at a time – You will identify errors more easily if you are focusing on one type of error e.g. grammar, spelling, or punctuation.
6. Read backwards – Start at the end (conclusion) and read one paragraph at a time until you reach your introduction. This way you will not focus on content, organization and flow. Instead, you will focus on mechanical errors.
7. Take it slowly (use a ruler) - First read each sentence in a paragraph one at a time to make sure each makes sense. Then read the whole paragraph. Finally, when you've read all the paragraphs, read the whole essay through from start to finish.
8. Take care with cut and paste – You shouldn’t be doing this at this stage. However, if you decide to move things around, don't forget to check the whole sentence again afterwards to make sure all the tenses, genders and plurals agree.
9. Learn punctuation rules - Make sure you know how to use commas, apostrophes, colons and semi-colons.
10. Check your referencing - Check that all your citations in the text appear in the reference list.
11. Get another view (a fresh pair of eyes) - Ask a friend to read through your work. Offer to do the same for them. Another pair of eyes will be fresher.
12. Use your feedback - Always read and learn from your academic feedback. Use it to make a checklist of the things you often get wrong. Look out for these especially. They should then start to disappear as you get used to doing them correctly.
13. Check that your work is formatted properly (according to your chosen referencing style/ department guidelines).
For further information on this subject, please consult the AWARE handout: Editing and Proofreading Checklist.
Sources and Links
Liss, R. and Davis, J. (2012) Effective Academic Writing 3. Oxford: Oxford University Press