A Quick Guide to Reading and Notetaking

Reading and highlighting
Image by Raul Pacheco-Vega

Taking notes as you read helps you:

  • Engage with the material
  • Process your thoughts
  • Gather information and evidence to use in assessments

It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of taking too many notes, though, and it can be overwhelming to end up with pages and pages of notes that you don’t quite know what to do with. The key to avoiding this pitfall is to identify your purpose: if you don’t know what you’re reading for, you’ll risk turning into the ‘human photocopier’ and noting everything down.

To begin with, then, think about why you are reading and, relatedly, what you will use the resulting notes for. For instance, are you:

  • Reading for background to prepare for an upcoming lecture and/or seminar
  • Reading to clarify understanding from a lecture and/or seminar
  • Reading for further knowledge for an assignment. 
  • Reading to develop an argument by evaluating existing viewpoints on a topic or synthesising current knowledge and understanding with the viewpoints of other authors
  • Or, another purpose?

If you are reading to gain background knowledge, or to clarify your understanding of a topic, these questions might be useful in helping you stay on track and avoid tangents. They’ll also help identify exactly what you might need to make notes of:

  • Are there any specific questions you’d like your reading to answer for you? Any particular gaps in your knowledge you’re looking to fill?
  • What wider context do you need to understand and why?
  • What knowledge, information or data do you need and why?
  • Do you have any articles/texts in mind that it would be useful to consult? If you are looking to construct an argument, what answers/positions/debates/arguments already exist?

Once you’ve identified your purpose for reading and notetaking, you can think about the type of reading you need to do. For instance, if your main purpose is to get a general sense of somebody’s argument, you probably don’t need to read the entire article to begin with. Reading the introduction, conclusion and first line of each paragraph could well give you what you need (and ensure your accompanying notes are concise and relevant!). If you are working on your dissertation and are looking to adapt an existing method for your own use, then focusing on the methods sections to begin with will give you what you need. Identifying your purpose thus means you can be selective when reading and notetaking, which can also help you save time. If you’d like tailored advice on reading and notetaking, feel free to book a 1-1 session with us.

Time Management Essentials: getting the most from an independent study session

Time Management” by RLHyde is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

We’ve all done it: set aside some time to start that assignment or get some pre-lecture reading done and … somehow got distracted instead, spending a lot of time doing very little. Often, this is because we’ve sat down to do some work without really considering what it is we’d like to achieve. Our aims are either too vague or too ambitious to fulfil within the time we have available, meaning that we lose focus and motivation fast. Setting a clear, manageable goal for each session is the key to successful independent study and we’ve put together our top goal-setting tips for you here.

Be specific and break it down

A clearly-defined goal is easier to achieve. Instead of telling yourself you’re going to work on your assignment, for example, break this into smaller, more manageable chunks. The first few tasks might be choosing a question, analysing the question, and deciding what reading you need to do. Breaking a larger task down in this way makes it easier to recognise how much the process involves, meaning you’re less likely to be caught out with the realisation that something will take longer to complete than you thought it would. Setting smaller goals also makes it easier to …

Try working in short bursts

You don’t have to work for hours at a time to be productive. Often, you can make more progress by working in shorter bursts and taking regular breaks. Work with your concentration span and not against it by setting a timer for however long you feel you can focus for but no longer than 30 minutes. You might want to start by working in 15 minute bursts and then building it up. Follow each short session with a 5-10 minutes break. It’s easy to lose motivation if you feel you have to work for long stretches without a break so this method makes working feel more manageable. It’s also a good method to use if you’re trying to break a cycle of procrastination or feel particularly anxious about starting a task: spending 15-30 minutes making a start is a gentler way of ‘breaking the ice’ than committing to hours of studying or writing. 

Setting priorities

Deciding what to work on – especially if you have multiple deadlines and lots of tasks competing for your attention – can feel overwhelming and lead to procrastination. Additionally, if you’re feeling stressed about your workload, it can be tempting to view everything as urgent, making it harder to prioritise. Using the ‘3 Ds’ at the start of the day can help with this:

Do: Think about where you need to be at the end of the day: what do you need to have made progress on today to stay on track? This will determine what you need to spend your time on

Defer: What tasks are important but not urgent? You might need to get to them this week, but not today.

Ditch: Items on your ‘ditch list’ might be on your ‘to do’ list in a week’s time, but aren’t urgent right now, meaning you can easily switch your focus to more pressing tasks.

We hope these tips help you manage your workload and make the most of your time. Remember, it’s just as important to schedule in regular breaks!

If you’d like tailored advice on managing your time and workload, feel free to book a 1-1 session with us.  

Welcome to the new academic year from your Academic Skills Team!


It’s autumn and the start of the new academic year and you may well have questions about the work you’ll have to do on your course and your assignments.  Luckily, the Academic Skills Team is on hand to help! We’re based in the Philip Robinson Library and are here to support you whether you are new to Newcastle University or are a returning student, whether you’re entering at stage one or doing your PhD. We have a wide range of resources and services to help you develop your academic skills throughout your time at Newcastle.

Firstly, we’re running a meet the team event from the 27th -29th September in the foyer of the Philip Robinson Library. During this event, we’ll be able to answer your questions about our services, show you some of our resources and help you book one-to-ones and workshop sessions. Plus, we’ve got some great freebies to give out!

Throughout the year we’ll be running focused clinics to help you with for example, exams and revision and completing a dissertation. You’ll also find us across Campus in a variety of locations where we’ll be able to answer your academic skills questions. You can find out when and where you can catch us at one of these events on our booking page.

We’ve also got lots of great material for you on the Academic Skills Kit, where you’ll find curated collections to help you at key points of the year. Our latest collection, New at Newcastle, contains useful resources around studying, from applying critical analysis to your work, avoiding plagiarism to time management and healthy study habits. We’ve been working with students over the summer and have created a resource around managing and planning your time, and we’ll be releasing a student led podcast over the next few weeks, where students talk about a range of academic skills issues and provide some useful contacts and advice.

Throughout the year you can make use of our one-to-one sessions, which we offer in person or online. You can book an express slot if you have a quick, focussed question such as how to get started with your work or talking about different reading strategies. If you’d like to discuss a piece of work in more depth, you can book a 50- minute appointment, which will give you the opportunity to work with one of the team and develop strategies you can apply to your work moving forward. Again, you can see all existing availability and book an appointment on our booking page.

Keep an eye out for us on your course, too, as we work with academics across the university to embed our teaching into a range of courses and Canvas sites. In addition, we contribute to the Your Skills programme, where you can sign up to our wide range of sessions run in conjunction with colleagues across the university. These sessions are interactive and focus on information and academic skills to help you reach your full potential as a student. You can find out more on the dedicated Your Skills page (https://www.ncl.ac.uk/academic-skills-kit/enhance-your-skills/your-skills-programme/). If you’d like to get in touch quickly, you can use our LiveChat service, just click on the icon on any of the Academic Skills Kit pages between 12 and 4 pm on weekdays and you’ll be able to make contact with one of the team. Lastly,  you can email us with any questions, comments or suggestions on academicskills@newcastle.ac.uk.

The Academic Skills Team wishes you all the best for the coming academic year!

Tackling essay-based exams

Exam season is almost upon us and one challenge you may find yourself facing is revising for essay-based exams. These can cause a lot of anxiety, not least because essay-based assessments are often something we are used to doing over the course of several weeks. How do you plan, structure and write an essay in the space of a couple of hours? And how on earth do you revise when you don’t know what you’ll be asked? 

Read on for our guide to effective revision and exam technique for essay-based exam questions:

What are essay exams testing?

Before you jump into your revision, it can be helpful to remember that essay exams are not just testing your memory. Instead, your lecturers are looking for evidence of how well you can apply the knowledge you have gained throughout the course to solve a problem or answer a question under timed conditions. Therefore, whilst memory is still important – you’ll need to be able to recall that knowledge in the exam – it’s only part of the story. You’ll also need to make sure you have an in-depth understanding of that knowledge and have practiced applying it to different questions, problems, and contexts.

How do I revise for essay exams?

You may be tempted to write a ‘generic’ essay on each of the topics you’re revising and memorise them so you can repeat them in the exam room. However, keep in mind that your lecturers are asking you to solve the specific problem they’ve set for you and simply ‘dumping’ everything that’s relevant won’t address the question and is unlikely to earn you good marks.

A more effective approach to revising for essay exams is incorporating strategies that develop your understanding of the topic so you can apply your knowledge to different problems effectively. Some revision strategies you might want to try for this are:

  • Questioning and interrogating the knowledge: why does this happen? How does it happen? Does it always happen this way? Is this always true? What about if we apply it to a different context? What are the implications of this?
  • Try applying the knowledge to case studies or different scenarios to get a better understanding of how theory works in practice.
  • Look at past papers or devise your own questions and either answer them in full or sketch out an essay plan under timed conditions. This will help you to test your recall and practice skills you’ll be using in the exam.
  • Compare and weigh up different approaches to the topic. Does everyone agree on this? Why? Why not? Which perspective is stronger?
  • Identify gaps in your knowledge and do some additional reading to fill them.

What about strategies for the exam itself? 

You might be used to spending hours or even days planning, writing, and editing a coursework essay and be wondering how on earth you do all of this under timed conditions. Keep in mind that your lecturers know that this is a big ask and they are not expecting the same level of sophistication in the way you construct your arguments that they would be looking for in a coursework essay. However, it’s still necessary that your lecturers can follow your answer and see clearly how it addresses the question so:

  • Spend some time at the beginning paying attention to what the question is asking you. Our video on question analysis offers some strategies for understanding essay questions: 
  • Sketch out a basic structure to follow. This needn’t be more than the main points you want to argue and the order you want to argue them in.
  • Clearly state your point or communicate your main focus at the beginning of each paragraph to help your reader get their bearings and follow your argument.
  • If you find yourself running out of time, write down a few bullet points around your remaining points – you may still pick up a few extra marks for this! 

Do I need to reference sources in an essay exam?  

While you won’t be expected to reference others to the extent you do in a coursework essay, it’s worth incorporating a few references to back up your points and show how you worked out your answer.

Try to memorise a couple of key arguments and/or debates made by others for each topic as well as the authors’ surname(s) and the year of the article so that you can cite it in the exam. Don’t worry about the details – just one or two lines summarising their main argument is enough.

What about other types of exams?

Exams exist in various formats in addition to the traditional essay-based exam type. For example, your course may also have multiple choice papers, vivas/oral presentations or exams relating to specific processes, techniques and interactions. All types of exams test your ability to recall and apply your subject knowledge, so most advice on revision and exam technique is applicable to different exam types. Effective revision trains your brain both to retain and to retrieve information; a process that’s equally useful for all exam formats. However, different types of exams can also present different challenges, and transitioning from online to in-person exams is a key change for this year. For more details on this and other exam-related issues, see our ASK Exams Collection and our calendar for upcoming workshops on revision and exam preparation.

The 1-Hour Writing Challenge!

Photo by Kaitlyn Baker on Unsplash

In need of some writing motivation? Try our 1-Hour Writing Challenge!

Are you spending your summer working on that dissertation, project or thesis? Are there times when you just don’t know where to start, or when you can think of at least 900 things you’d rather do than write?! Never fear, our 1-Hour Writing Challenge is here to help you get focused, avoid overwhelm and make some progress with your writing.

Step One: Setting Writing Goals (5 mins)

You’re more likely to lose focus if you don’t specify a clear writing goal. And you could end up putting yourself off if the goal you do identify is too ambitious. So let’s spend the first 5 minutes of the session ensuring that your goal is SMART.

Specific: the specific idea I will write/section/paragraph I will work on is ….

Measurable: I will write _____ words

Achievable: this will be a rough draft/quick bullet points for me to work up later/polished final version/edited final draft

Relevant: where this section will fit in is …

Time- bound: I will write for 1 hour.

Step Two: Freewriting (8 minutes)

You wouldn’t run a marathon without warming up first (well, you’d be unwise to!). Similarly, diving straight in to a piece of writing can sometimes feel a bit daunting. Freewriting is a great way of helping you settle down, get focused and think a little more about what you’re going to write. For instance, you could use this time to plot out how you might structure your ideas in the section you’ve chosen to work on. Or you might use the time to help you decide which of your ideas to work on and develop further in the upcoming writing session.

Freewriting can be particularly useful if you tend towards perfectionism with your writing, as it gives you permission to write a messy first draft. This, in turn, can really help you capture your ideas without worrying that they’re not “academic enough” (you can develop your ideas and polish your writing style in the editing stage).

The rules of freewriting are:

  • Set a timer for 8 minutes
  • Start writing whatever comes to mind about the section you’re going to be working on.
  • Write in full sentences
  • Don’t stop writing
  • Don’t look back or edit
  • If you get stuck, write about that – why are you stuck? What would help you get unstuck?! You just might be able to untangle yourself!
  • If you don’t like what you’re writing, write about why

Step Three: Review (2 minutes)

Look over what you’ve just written. What points could you pull out of your freewriting that you might use in your draft? Or maybe you’ve just used the 8 minutes to ‘unload’ any anxieties you have about your writing, which is perfectly fine – and very useful – too!

Step Four: Write (40 minutes)

Write for 40 minutes and work on your draft.

Just something to bear in mind: if you really like working in timed writing sprints, but there are days when 40 minutes seems too long or, indeed, when it doesn’t seem long enough, you can always adjust the time to suit you. The important thing here is to break writing down into manageable chunks.

Step Five: Next Action List (2 minutes)

Use the final couple of minutes to leave notes to your future self about the next steps you need to take to progress this piece of writing. This helps you maintain momentum.

9 Awesome WDC Resources Master’s Students Can Check Out Right Now!

Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash

If you’re a Master’s student, then this time of year is less about walking on sunshine and more about working to deadlines. But, if you’re busy wrangling that dissertation, worry not, for the WDC is on hand with these super helpful resources!

  1. Read All About It

Doing a dissertation involves so. Much. Reading!! Often, you’ll need to read things more than once to develop your ideas and understanding. Here at the WDC, our modest assessment of our Three Domains of Critical Reading is that it is completely and utterly brilliant, and can really help you get the most out of your reading.

2. Making Sense of It All

Once you’ve done the reading, you then need to pull it all together. What are the common themes and patterns? Where are the gaps? What does it all mean?! Our – again, we’re being modest and objective here – absolutely splendid Mapping the Literature resource can be a great way of making sense of all your reading. Perfect if you’re working on that literature review!

3. Let’s Talk it Over

Speaking of literature reviews … here we are, quite literally, speaking of literature reviews! Now, this Q&A discussion, led by WDC tutors Helen and Caroline, was filmed for a lovely group of PhD students in the SAgE faculty. However, it does contain lots of top tips that can be applied to literature reviews at Master’s level, too, such as advice on structuring and writing critically. The video is handily timestamped, too, so you don’t have to watch the whole thing. Unless you really want to …

4. It’s All Under Control

Odds-on, the dissertation is the longest piece of writing you’ve ever produced. The longer a piece of writing is, the harder it gets to stay in control of your material. Hence, trying to structure your dissertation and ensure everything makes sense might not be the most fun you’ve ever had. Luckily, the WDC is on hand with some top tips on getting everything to hang together.

5. Never Out of Style

Once you’ve got all those ideas down on paper, it’s all about polishing up your writing for your reader and presenting that academic persona that they’re looking to see. Once again, the WDC has you covered with our handy tips on academic writing style.

6. Proof it!

The last thing anybody wants to do when they’ve just finished writing a long, complex piece of work is go through it with a fine toothcomb looking for all the things they might have got wrong, Unfortunately, this really *is* the last thing we have to do, But, yes, you’ve guessed it! The WDC has a brilliant Study Guide positively brimming with handy proofreading hints!

7. Words, words, words

Student at the very start of their dissertation: I will never be able to write that many words EVER.

Student towards the end of their dissertation: How have I managed to write 2000 words more than I was supposed to?!

Is this you?! Then read this.

8. When the going gets tough

We’ve all be there: we really need to write but we can think of 2,908 things we’d rather do instead. Sounds familiar? Check out the WDC’s top tips on staying motivated and productive this summer.

9. When the going gets tougher …

Working on a Master’s dissertation isn’t easy at the best of times and, let’s face it, the summer of 2020 is *not* the best of times. We put together some time management tips for troubled times back in spring. If, quite understandably, you’re finding it difficult to focus on your work this summer, check out our advice on how to be kind to yourself and boost your productivity.

And remember, if you’d like to discuss an aspect of your work with one of our WDC tutors, they’re still here for you over the summer and are offering appointments via Zoom.

Your Writing Playlist: “Words” by Boyzone

Your favourite mix of 90’s hits and writing tips is back and hopes you’re all doing okay out there. This one goes out to all the writers who find that they just have too many words.

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

“It’s *only* words,” croon Boyzone on their lovely 1996 cover of the Bee Gees classic.

That’s all very well for them to say, though, isn’t it?! It would be a ‘brand new story’ if they were only meant to write 6,000 words, for their dissertation say, and then ended up with nearly 10,000 of them! Or if they somehow had to cut 500 words out of their essay! It wouldn’t be all linen suits and chandeliers then, would it?

No, it would be “but we did loads of research! It took us ages! We can’t just cut it out!” And “but what if we cut the wrong bits?!” And “but we think it’s all important!”  

Luckily, if Boyzone were to re-evaluate their rather blasé attitude towards words and require assistance in these matters, we’d be there with these handy hints.

First thing’s first, try nibbling

There are two general approaches to getting rid of words, Cutting, which we’ll come to, involves bidding farewell to substantial portions of text – entire paragraphs or sections. If you’re significantly over the word limit, cutting probably can’t be avoided. However, it’s always worth ‘nibbling’ first to see if you can get rid of any unnecessary words. We’re all guilty of using more words than we need to at times, and reading your work aloud might be a good way of picking up on this. Have you said “during this time period” when you could just have said “during this time”? Any places where “prior to this?” could be replaced to “previously” and that sort of thing? Deleting the odd unnecessary word here and there can add up and once you’ve done this, you’ll have a clearer idea of how drastic your cuts will have to be.

Cutting words: it’s not about you

 It’s natural to get very attached to the words we write. We put a lot of work into them. It’s never a pretty scene at WDC HQ whenever we’re asked to cut a paragraph from one of our blogposts, we can tell you! But as writers, we’re not always the best judge of what’s important because everything seemed important enough for us to write it down in the first place. We have to take a step back and think of our readers. Sometimes, we need to write something – to develop an understanding of a topic or to untangle an idea – but the reader doesn’t need to read it.

Need to know versus nice to know

To establish what’s important for the reader, remind yourself what you are trying to tell them. What’s the take-home message of your dissertation, for example? Or the main argument of your essay? What do you want the reader to know, think, understand and/or believe after reading your work? The material that best contributes to this is “need to know” for the reader and also more likely to be critical – something that serves your argument rather than merely delivers “nice to know” information. When we do a lot of reading and research, such as when we’re writing a longer essay or dissertation, we tend to want to show this off. This can result in overwhelming our writing with facts and description that don’t contribute to the overall argument. Editing out these unnecessary facts will not only get the word count down, it will also open up space for the analytical writing that will make your writing more persuasive.

A few words on signposting

Signposting words and phrases tell the reader what you’re doing and why, and help them following your argument. A lack of signposting can cause the reader confusion. We can turn again to popular song to see what havoc a lack of signposting can wreak. It causes Dionne Warwick no end of bother in “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” And let’s not mention the struggles poor old Tony Christie has in “Is This the Way to Amarillo?”

When ‘nibbling’ words, it can be tempting to just get rid of all the ‘howevers’ and ‘additionallys’ but proceed with caution: these words could play a crucial role in conveying your argument.

It is also possible to ‘over signpost’. This can often happen when you’re writing a longer piece like a dissertation or a thesis. We can have a tendency to start a  chapter by recapping the previous one – often because it’s been a while since we wrote that previous chapter so we need a reminder for our own purposes. But the reader’s experience will be different. They will have just read the previous chapter – do they need a recap? A useful way of judging can be reading your work all the way through as the reader would: how much of a recap do you feel they might need at the beginning of new section or chapter?

We hope these tips have been useful but perhaps you have tricks of your own up your sleeve? If so, let us know in the comments or come and see us on Twitter (we’re @NCL_WDC)!

Make progress on your assignments with the WDC!

Tuesday 29th October is shaping up to be an exciting day for us all here at the Writing Development Centre as it will mark the launch of our brand new ‘…with the WDC’ workshops. What makes the launch even more exciting is that it will introduce a brand new format into our range of provision. For these are workshops with a difference. Instead of spending most of the session sitting listening to one of us speaking, you’ll be able to bring your assignments along and use the time to make progress in a supportive, distraction-free environment. We’ll be on hand to provide you with a structured session, along with strategies and techniques you can try on your own work. You will also have the chance to reflect on and discuss your approach to studying and writing with your peers.

‘…with the WDC’ workshops will take place three times a week in the Writing Development Centre (we’re on Level 2 of the Philip Robinson Library, which is, somewhat confusingly, the entrance level). The sessions will run on a first-come, first-served basis so there’s no need to book; just turn up ready to make progress with your assignments. To do this, you will need to bring your work with you on paper or a fully charged laptop or device given that the sessions will not be taking place in computer cluster.

The sessions we have on offer for you this semester are:

Kickstart Your Assignment … with the WDC!

This session is for everyone who’s ever been given an assignment title and thought: “Where do I start?!” So, yes: this session is for everyone!! We’ll help to make this stage more manageable with a set of activities that will take you through: 

  • Narrowing the question down and finding ‘an angle’ 
  •  Analysing the question/task to work out what markers are looking for 
  • Planning your reading: considering what to read and how much to read!

Bring your current question/task along and get ready to kickstart your assignment!

This session will take place on: 

  • Tuesday 29th October: 10am-12pm 
  • Thursday 7th November: 2pm-4pm 
  • Tuesday 26th November: 10am-12pm 
  • Thursday 6th December: 2pm-4pm

Top tip! You may still like to attend this session even if you’ve already started your assignment. Our strategies and techniques can help you double-check that you’re on the right track and producing the best work that you can.

Strategic Reading and Notetaking … with the WDC!

Need to avoid getting swamped by your reading? Don’t fancy becoming a human photocopier? Want to read more critically? This is the session for you, with a set of activities that will take you through: 

  • Identifying your purpose – what are you reading for? – and the strategy to achieve it  Experimenting with critical reading techniques 
  • Reviewing your current notetaking strategy and experimenting with new ones
  • Remember to bring some of the reading for your current assignment! This session will take place on: 
  • Thursday 31st October: 2pm-4pm 
  • Tuesday 5th November: 10am-12pm 
  • Tuesday 12th November: 10am-12pm 
  • Thursday 28th November: 2pm-4pm

Write Here, Write Now! … with the WDC

Our regular writers’ group is here to: 

  • Provide you with a supportive, structured, distraction-free environment in which to get some work done 
  • Help you work towards a clearly defined writing goal for the session – such as drafting a particular section or achieving a specific word count 
  • Encourage you to reflect on your existing writing process and discuss your practice with peers
  • Highlight techniques and strategies that you can use to maintain your writing momentum – and help beat procrastination and writers’ block – beyond the session

You can use Write Here, Write Now! for any writing-related activity, including planning or outlining and editing and revising. Remember to bring your assignment materials and/or devices with you! These sessions will take place every Wednesday from 10am-12pm from 30th October to 11th December.

Editing Your Work … with the WDC!

You’ve got your thoughts down on paper and it all makes sense to you. But could someone else follow your argument? Does the structure flow? Are your points clear? Our editing session comprises a series of activities that will take you through: 

  • Writing for a reader 
  • Structuring paragraphs 
  • Transition and cohesion 
  • Ensuring relevance: need to know or just nice to know?! 
  • Unpacking and developing your points

Bring your current assignment and get ready to make it as good as it can be! These sessions will take place on: 

  • Thursday 14th November: 2pm-4pm 
  • Tuesday 19th November: 10am-12pm 
  • Thursday 21st November: 2pm-4pm

Refresh Your Revision Strategies … with the WDC!

How much am I expected to remember?! What are markers really looking for? Why isn’t it going in?! We’ve all been there. Take some of the stress out of exam season with our workshop, which features a set of activities that will take you through:

  • Establishing what exams are really testing
  • Selecting: what should be in your ‘Store Cupboard of Knowledge’?! (Don’t worry; we’ll explain!)
  • Memorising: evaluating your current approaches and considering new ones
  • Discussing and comparing revision strategies with peers

Bring your current revision notes along with you!

These sessions will run on: 

  • Tuesday 10th December: 10am-12pm 
  • Thursday 12th December: 2pm-4pm.  We’ll be running more revision sessions in January, along with sessions for Dissertation students throughout Semester 2.

Keep an eye on our website for further details. We’re really looking forward to launching these workshops and to welcoming you all along. If you have any questions about ‘..with the WDC’ or if you have any suggestions for future workshops you’d like to attend, don’t hesitate to drop us an email at wdc@ncl.ac.uk.

Your Writing Playlist: I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That) by Meatloaf

The third in our blog series in which we use popular song to help you consider the oft-posed question: “Is my writing academic enough?”

The most cursory of glances around this blog will reveal two important things about the WDC: 1.) we like 90s music and 2.) we dislike unhelpful study advice.

Advice like “make sure your writing is clear” is particularly unhelpful because, well, if we’ve written something then odds on we’re able to understand it. It can be very difficult to distance yourself from your work to the extent that you can respond to it as a reader would. This makes it tricky to spot any instances where your reader could get a bit lost and where communication between the two of you could break down.

Tricky, but not impossible. There are practical editing strategies you can apply to help identify any areas where your meaning might be getting lost. One such strategy is ensuring you don’t repeat the mistake Meatloaf makes in his stirring power ballad, “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That).”

Ever since its release in 1993, the song has been part of a running joke in pop culture as people across the globe puzzle over just what exactly it is that Meatloaf wouldn’t do for love. Wrestle a bear? Climb a mountain? Investigate what’s blocking the U-bend? If you’re simply agog to find out, you’re not alone. Apparently, “WHAT WOULDN’T YOU DO FOR LOVE MEATLOAF?!” is one of the questions most frequently put to the man himself.

Well, would it surprise you to learn that the answer was there in the song all along? It would? You don’t believe us? Let’s take a closer look at that first verse, then, shall we?

And I would do anything for love

I’d run right into hell and back

I would do anything for love

I’d never lie to you and that’s a fact

But I’ll never forget the way you feel right now

Oh no, no way

And I would do anything for love

Oh I would do anything for love

I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that

No, I won’t do that

See? The answer was hiding in plain sight all along. Meatloaf would do anything for love but he would never, under any circumstances, not even if you paid him a million dollars, “forget the way you feel right now” (eew). So why the confusion?

Well, in this case the cause of the confusion is a four-letter word: “that”. The relationship between “that” and the thing it actually refers to (“the way you feel right now”, remember?) is not clearly signalled. The fact that there are four lines of emoting in between them doesn’t help matters either. Even if you had managed to establish what “that” was, you’re likely to have forgotten by the time the word crops up.

So, if you’re wondering how on earth you can check whether your writing is clear or not, one thing you can do is ask yourself if it’s always apparent what you’re referring to. “That” is just one potential cause of confusion. You might also like to double-check any instances of “this”, “they” and “these”. That way, any “Meatloaf Moments” may be neatly avoided.


Your Writing Playlist: No Scrubs by TLC

The second in our new series in which we use popular song to help you consider the oft-posed question: “Is my writing academic enough?”

Academic writing is about constructing a scholarly identity. You might not *feel* like an authority on a particular subject, but it’s necessary to *sound* like one in order to convince your readers they’re in safe hands.

You can begin projecting this authority from the get-go with an introduction that tells your readers:

  1. I know exactly what I’m talking about
  2. I know exactly what I want to say

We now refer you to TLC’s 90s feminist anthem, No Scrubs, as the perfect example of an authoritative introduction.

To begin with, the ladies – T-Boz, Left Eye and Chilli – define their terms. You may notice that this series talks a lot about the need to avoid ambiguity in academic writing. Indeed, it’s crucial there’s no room for misunderstanding between you and your readers. In this case, you may be slightly mystified as to what a “scrub” is. Are the ladies declaring their refusal to wear protective overalls whilst working in a hospital? Are they happy with every other item in their Boots No. 7 gift set aside from that exfoliating face wash? It would be impossible for me to understand, let alone begin to agree with, their argument if I didn’t know what they’re rejecting in the first place. Luckily, the opening lines of the song inform me that a “scrub is a guy who thinks he’s fly”. Moreover, the group helpfully explain that a scrub “is also known as a busta” – just in case I’m familiar with the concept, but happen to call it something else. I’m also impressed that TLC’s knowledge of their topic is such that they’re aware of variations in terminology.

When it comes to your own writing, you may think there is no need for you to define your terms in this way. After all, you’re writing for somebody who already knows them: your tutor. But remember that one of the reasons this tutor is reading your work is to assess your knowledge and understanding of the topic. So you know that they know, but they want to know that you know. Right? And maybe there are – as in the case of a “scrub” – several possible definitions and even synonyms. It’s important for your readers to know which definitions you’re using.

Anyway, once TLC has clarified exactly what they’re talking about, they get right down to outlining their argument. “No, I don’t want no scrub,” they declare. “A scrub is a guy that can’t get no love from me.” Straight away, then, we know what critical stance the ladies will be adopting in this song. They then go on to provide a rationale for this argument, stressing that this gentleman is being rejected because he is “hangin’ out the passenger side/Of his best friend’s ride/Trying to holler” at them. Justifying your claims in such a way is, of course, good practice in academic writing where much of your authority stems from having evidence to support your claims rather than leaving them unsubstantiated.

Is your writing as authoritative as it could be? Use our TLC editing checklist to make sure:

Terms: have you defined them?

Lay out your argument and/or aims in your introduction

Check you have supported your claims with evidence