Writing Academic Essays and Reports

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Writing Academic Essays and Reports
Some Guidelines for University Students
Daniel Chandler
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Essays
The Essay as Performance
General Approaches
Relevance and Coherence
Use of Material in Different Assignments
Use of Sources
Presentation
Usage and Style
Reference Formats
Key qualities
Further Reading
Feedback Form for Written Assignments
Dissertations
Feedback Form for Websites
Further Reading
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Essays
The Essay as Performance
Since I work in a Department of Theatre, Film and Television Studies it may be useful to begin by suggesting that an essay is just as much of a performance and production as stageplays, films and videos are. The same level of attention needs to be given to 'production values', to narrative structure and the needs of the 'audience'. You should aim to get your essays as close to publishable status as you can. Similarly the task of writing an academic essay is no less a 'creative' enterprise, and there is plenty of scope for variations in approach. General approaches

The first rule concerning how students should set about writing academic essays is that there are no general rules, since what works well for one writer may not suit another person (or another kind of essay). You may have been told in school that ‘you should always begin with a plan’ or that ‘you should develop your essay through successive drafts’, but even such general guidelines suit only some people, some of the time, and may even be counter-productive for others. You need to try to find approaches which work for you - and which earn you the grades you deserve. Several general strategies have been identified amongst effective writers. These can be broadly characterized as follows. Do you recognize yourself in any of these descriptions? The Watercolourist: A few people seem to be habitually able, after appropriate reading and reflection, to dash off an entire and effective essay with minimal editing. Students need to learn to do this for exams, of course. People who are good at this are lucky, but: it is a strategy which works well only for a small minority; it might not work with every essay; and perhaps some of these writers could sometimes produce better essays if they planned and/or revised their essays more. Re-reading what you have written remains essential - at least to avoid careless slips. You may like to show what you have written to a friend to read with a critical eye. The Architect: Many people make extensive use of the very practical strategy of developing a workable plan, executing that plan and then minimally editing what they’ve written. If you have a very clear idea of what you want to write this can be an effective use of limited time and if it suits you or your task, that’s fine. However, essays written in this way can sometimes feel rather lifeless: try to exhibit some enthusiasm for your subject! Some users of this strategy might at least occasionally gain from more radical and extensive reworking of their ideas on paper. The Bricklayer: With or without a plan, some writers develop their essays by starting at the beginning and polishing each ‘chunk’ of text (usually a sentence or a paragraph) before moving onto the next. When they reach the end they typically edit very little. If this strategy works for you, use it. The greatest disadvantage is that it’s slow: it takes a long while to write an essay like this. And it is possible that sometimes more planning and/or reorganization might help to improve your essays. The structural organization of your essay, in particular, can suffer. Re-read what you have written with this in mind. You are welcome to show your essay to someone else who may make helpful comments before you submit it to your tutor. The Oil Painter: This approach involves sorting out your ideas in the act of writing with very little conscious planning. Those...
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