Tag Archives: how to write essays

Advice for Students: How to Write Your First University Essay

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Whether you’re coming to it from A Levels or the world of work, writing your first academic essay is a daunting task. The first thing to do is choose a topic, ideally a few weeks before the deadline so you have time to really think about it and avoid a last-minute panic! Make sure you go for something that interests you, ideally something that you attended the lecture and seminars on. The more you like a subject, the less of a chore the work will feel; you’ll spend more time on it and get a better result.

 It’s absolutely fine to start by reading a basic text book and online encyclopaedia articles to get an idea of the topic, but make sure you use serious, academic texts when in comes to referencing.

 The rule for referencing is if you are stating a fact or the opinion of another person, rather…

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Using Commas Like a Winner

I’m generally on board when it comes to Ernest Hemingway: I like the books; I like the beard; I like that he uses commas sparingly. Though I do think the last two are rather hard to pull off for anyone other than the great EH.  One does need to pause for breath now and again and, if you follow the rules, well placed commas can be an asset to your writing. Here’s how to use them:

1. To separate items in a list. 

For example, the terminator’s Christmas list: ‘Clothes, boots, motorcycle.’

2. To put a section of the sentence in parenthesis.

‘Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most famous catchphrase, the one from The Terminator, hopefully doesn’t apply to his political career.’

3. To indicate divisions between clauses in  a complex sentence. 

‘Arnie might, if given the funds and opportunity, make a sequel to Total Recall, focussing on his character’s declining short term memory: Partial Recall.’

4. To separate sections of a sentence to make it a smoother read. 

‘Released in 1990, Kindergarten Cop is an indisputable triumph of the genre.’

5. To introduce or end direct speech. 

‘Your clothes,’ he demanded, ‘give them to me, now!’

Generally, try reading your sentence out loud to see where the pauses naturally fall. Then decide, based on the guidelines, whether a comma would fit there. Essentially, a part of your sentence must be a complete clause. If it isn’t, you’ve used too many commas!

It is important to get them right: a misplaced comma can entirely change the meaning of a sentence. See seals.

In terms of Oxford commas (commas before ‘and’ in a list), the convention is not to use them in British English unless their omission could cause the meaning to be misinterpreted. See below.

In creative writing, like Ernest Hemingway’s, commas can be omitted for effect to create a faster pace, but make sure that the sense of the phrase is preserved.

It’s been said that when Joseph Conrad emerged from his study one midday after a morning of writing, his wife asked what he had done. He said,  ‘I took out a comma,’  She asked the same question that evening after several hours’ more work. He said, ‘I put back the comma.’ The moral is: commas matter.

If you would like any help putting yours in the right places, do get in touch!

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Semicolons Are Your Friends: A Quick Guide on How to Use Them

As a proofreader, I come upon semicolon issues in almost every piece of work I read. They are often seen as difficult and are frequently mis-used instead of commas or colons, or left out completely; some people are reluctant to use them for anything other than winking emoticons.  I remembering taking a while to grasp their uses when I was taught. But why do people struggle with them so? Perhaps they just aren’t taught well at school (stick that in your baccalaureate, Gove). What ever the reason, there are two simple rules that anyone can learn: 

1.  Semicolons are used to mark a break in a sentence, usually where both halves of the sentence could stand as sentences in their own right. You use a semicolon instead of a full stop to indicate that the points are closely linked.  This could mean that the second half explains or expands on the first, but semicolons should also be used when the two factors are directly contrasted. 

‘He loved the video of a kitten playing the piano on YouTube;  she preferred recordings of Glee-themed flash mobs.’

It would also be technically correct in this instance to use a full stop; the relationship between the two is more neatly expressed using a semicolon.

Another example: if I were to write out the lyrics to David Guetta’s ‘Titanium’, it would look like this: 

‘You shoot me down, but I won’t fall; I am titanium.’ 

You could use a full stop in between, but a semicolon nicely demonstrates the causality between the two assertions.

2. Semicolons can also be used to separate items in a list where they consist of more than one word. The list should be introduced with a colon and the items separated by semicolons.

‘He enjoyed a variety of other videos: the panda falling out of a hammock; squirrels spinning like whirligigs on bird-feeders or washing lines; that dog that does the lambada; and anything featuring Benedict Cumberbatch on a day off.’  

That’s it; there are just two uses. You can do it!

Have a go at punctuating these: 

‘All passengers have been informed that they must not carry sharp objects that random spot-checks can be expected that longer than usual delays are possible’

‘She couldn’t dance in her favourite ballroom it was being renovated’

Let me know how you get on in the comments! 

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Advice for Students: The Wisdom of Graduates!

I think the best advice comes from experience, so  I asked my friends, acquaintances and the lovely people of the Internet how they coped with university life and what advice they would give to current undergrads. Here is their collective wisdom! Thanks everyone!

(p.s. Please add yours in the comments!)

New addition from Sorcha: ‘YOU ARE NOT A NUMBER!  Now is the time to start developing your own personality. If you want to party every night – fine! If you don’t – fine! Live on the edge of your comfort zone – it’s the best time to find out what your comfort zone is – but don’t live beyond it. You are the only person you have to live with for the rest of your life so you are (in the end) the only person you have to answer to – that, and the police!

Reading/essay writing? Read as many essays as you write. Twain, Swift, any of the modern essay writers – you get to see how the good, the bad and the ugly write essays, so get to see how it (should not) be done.’ I think that’s such excellent advice- thank you for your contribution!

Ricky wrote: ‘My advice would be to use your first year wisely. It doesn’t count towards your degree, so is the perfect opportunity to find your own style with which you’re comfortable, to make mistakes and learn about university expectations for when it really counts.’ I’m not sure if this is true of all universities, but is certainly the case at many. It’s definitely worth using this time well  and gaining the skills that will make subsequent years more manageable.  

Peter says: ‘The things I learnt, sometimes the hard way, was to leave yourself plenty of time, research something you

Honey on toast will make your essays better. FACT.

find interesting / relevant and get a friend or proofreader to read through it as well. This was my survival guide to third year!’ Great advice, and very on message! 

Sara has 3 excellent points: ‘1- the thinking is the most important bit-spend a few hours with research books closed,

computer off and just a piece of paper and pen to doodle out your ideas.

2-tell people what you’re going to say over and over again. It’s an essay, not a James Patterson, so while it is important it is engaging, cliffhangers and plot twists should be avoided in favour of clarity

3-honey on toast.’ The perfect blend of sugar, carbs and comfort to keep you going! 

Clare gives this vital advice: ‘When you’re researching and you find something useful, always write down where it came from – there’s nothing worse than reading that perfect quote in your notes and not being able to reference it!’

From Holly: ‘Always give yourself at least 24 hours before the deadline to print your essay — I don’t know about anyone

WWOD? What Would Orpheus Do?

else but our uni printers were a mare. Also, once it’s printed, channel the mythical lyre-player Orpheus when he was given the chance to save his beloved Eurydice from Hades: don’t look back. Just hand it in.’ This was absolutely true for my uni too, I’m pretty sure physical fights broke out over printers on deadline day! Also, what a reference! If in doubt, I always think what would Orpheus do?  

Jonathan adds this: ‘from someone who has 3 college degrees and wrote more 20 page papers than should be allowed, I have one tip that was not brought up yet when writing a paper. Write it as if  you were going to tell a story. Know your beginning, know your ending and figure out how you are going to get from A to Z. Use plenty of examples, quote, use APA style, and use examples. However, the most important thing? Read-understand what is asked of you. Understand the assignment. Lastly, when possible, choose topics you enjoy, that interest you. My grad school thesis was “parental rage in youth sports” I looked at the many examples of parents who became violent because of their child playing sport and I concluded that there are 2 main causes… My thesis was 76 pages…but you don’t have to worry about that till you get to grad school!’ Marvellous points: I especially agree that you must make sure you fully understand what is being asked of you and keep to that brief. 

I’m afraid for want of space I have to paraphrase the quality, extensive advice from Rachel: ‘First if you’re a psych, nursing, or anything to do with APA use, use and use!  Even just in your citation every bit counts! 
As to more general tips.

1. Please don’t be like my friend (well a few of the friends I have had throughout the years) and edit every single sentence or paragraph as you write. Wait until the very end! If you do you’ll get nothing done.
2. Don’t let a teacher influence the writing. I held my writing up and I didn’t want to do it or wasn’t as motivated because I hated my teacher, bad idea: nearly failed the class.
3. Essays actually take time, more time and even more time. don’t wait till the night before! Do it as soon as you can, because you’ll regret cramming it in to a space of a few hours! 
4. Research a somewhat popular topic. I am very known for searching stuff there is no research for, or else very little.

So you think flip flops are better than sandals? Prove it!

also, a bad idea, especially in APA when they ask for only peer reviewed journals. 
5. Make your intros interesting, and don’t put a note there telling people you’re going to screw with their heads. If you plan to great but don’t tell them. We read an essay in class like that last semester and after that we had no interest really in reading it any more.  But about intros, start with a good topic sentence, lead, hook, whatever you want to call it. but you want one so we don’t all fall asleep! 
6. REVISION! The most crucial part of writing! Make sure you edit edit edit after you write. the most important thing to writing is editing, and it is the most important and takes the longest in the writing process, read it aloud, have someone else read your paper aloud, have a friend edit it, wait a day till you can edit and catch mistakes, use spellcheck, whatever!
7 Evidence! make sure you have evidence in your paper don’t just say stuff without backing it up. If you think sandals are better then tennis shoes and tennis shoes are better then flip flops, great! write it down and prove it to us, with some research!

8. THESIS! If you write a paper, somewhere in that paper you need some sort of claim summary sentence to tell us what it’s about!
9. Conciseness is key! 
10. Conclude! that’s important, while your favourite sci-fi action horror comedy can get away with a cliff hanger, you can’t!  End it. Summarize it, put some sort of closing statement that lets people’s minds rest!
11. Some things to avoid at all costs in academic writing: writing your paper like this post, it’s not okay for ‘!’ to appear in your paper: don’t do it! You’ll either sound, overly angry, angsty, upset, or something like that! Don’t ask your readers questions throughout your paper and don’t talk directly to them. Stricter academic writers don’t like you even using contractions. So don’t. Don’t write like you are speaking and don’t use text chat.
12. Plagiarism is NOT okay! Also cite correctly, use in-text citations, put everything that are another person’s exact words in quotes, don’t quote too large of a bit otherwise it would sound like you’re filling space, and irrelevant. 
13. Don’t mimic.’ See the full version here.

Thanks so much to everyone who shared their brilliant thoughts! If any of you would like me to put in links to your blogs or anything, do get in touch. Is there anything we haven’t covered? Tell us in the comments or send me a message!  The more contributions the better!

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Advice for Students: How to Write Your First University Essay

Whether you’re coming to it from A Levels or the world of work, writing your first academic essay is a daunting task. The first thing to do is choose a topic, ideally a few weeks before the deadline so you have time to really think about it and avoid a last-minute panic! Make sure you go for something that interests you, ideally something that you attended the lecture and seminars on. The more you like a subject, the less of a chore the work will feel; you’ll spend more time on it and get a better result.

 It’s absolutely fine to start by reading a basic text book and online encyclopaedia articles to get an idea of the topic, but make sure you use serious, academic texts when in comes to referencing.

 The rule for referencing is if you are stating a fact or the opinion of another person, rather than your own comment or interpretation, you must use a reference. If in doubt, always reference! This doesn’t have to mean hours in the library, online journals are a quick way to find the proof of facts that you need, or search Google Books and it will show you all the texts it has on record with the phrase you’ve searched for in them.

 That said, do start with a few books from the library. Your faculty has chosen, and so implicitly recommended, many of these books; they may well be more reliable sources than you’ll find elsewhere. Take notes as you read with page numbers. You will thank yourself later when many other people are trawling back through what they’ve already read, desperate to find a reference at the eleventh hour. It’s good to have a range of references, try not to rely too heavily on one book. Six to eight is about the minimum number for a 1,000-2,000 word essay.

 Collect your notes once you’ve done your reading and decide what order you’re going to present your argument in. At university, unlike A Level, you must pick a side of the debate and argue it. You can present the alternative argument, but only to refute it with stronger evidence. Your points should follow logically and be summarised in your conclusion.

 Your introduction should say what you’re setting out to do and how you are going to do it: nothing more. For the body of the essay, make sure you start a new paragraph for every new point. Each paragraph should begin with your point, be followed by your evidence (a fact or quotation from an academic) and then finish with an explanation which specifically addresses your title. Point, Evidence, Explain.

 Don’t plagiarise: quote or use your own words and always reference. Have a read through before you submit it: some

Yes, it’s hard for you, but you only have to write one- your tutors have to read hundreds!

institutions award marks for spelling, grammar and punctuation, but whether yours does or not, your tutors will be more pleasantly disposed towards you if your work is well written and easy to read, it might just earn you a few extra marks!

 Before you submit it get someone else to have a read, perhaps a family member, course friend or a professional proofreader: anyone who will give you helpful, honest advice and check for the typos you’ve missed. Click here to see how I can help! 

 Then print it off! At my uni there was always a fight for the printers on deadline day so get in early, use your own or bribe a well-equipped friend! Hand it in (ideally with a bit of time to spare) and treat yourself to a drink, some food and a lie-down!

 Try not to stress about it too much, just read a few books, stick to the word count and get it in on time and you’ll be doing better than a lot of freshers! Relax and enjoy learning about something new: its surprising the things you’ll become an expert on in your uni years! 

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