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.

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.

Dissertation Toolkit: Using X-rays to structure

Dissertations are long and complex. Planning and structuring are going to be even more important to help you stay in control of your material, make sure it flows logically and bring out your own argument. It’s very common to feel as if you’ve got lost inside your dissertation and can’t see your way out – and then it also becomes a common experience for the reader that they can’t see where the dissertation is going!

Writing is naturally a messy process, moving constantly between thinking through your ideas, writing them down, doing more reading and thinking, changing and reorganising the draft… It’s tempting to tell you to first do your reading and thinking, then plan your material, then write up, then edit. If only it were that easy! However, it can help to separate the way you think about planning and structure, to help you see your material and its organisation more clearly.

We can think of Structure as the natural shape of your dissertation. Each dissertation question will imply a particular sort of structure – is it a two-parter, in which you compare and contrast, look at for and against? Is it progressive, in which you look at a case study and identify the main themes/causes, then analyse what causes them, then evaluate what the best solution/explanation is? Is it thematic, in which you break the topic down into related aspects, ranked by importance? Are you looking at a problem, then methods, results, discussion, conclusion? Whatever structure might best suit your dissertation question, you can get a sense of this without getting bogged down in the content, which can cloud your sense of the structure. Think of it as the skeleton which gives your dissertation its shape. It’s the sections and the way the sections relate to each other. You can articulate it without any words at all:

structure 2 structure 3 Structure 1

Planning, on the other hand, you could think of as the content. It’s the flesh, the muscles that you add onto the skeleton. The points you want to make, the evidence and data you want to include, the quotations you want to use. Without a sense of the underlying structure, it’s hard to organise these into a ‘shape’ – they need a frame to hang on. Once you see the shape or structure of your dissertation, it’s easier to see where that point should go, or where that information would be useful.

Many people plan a dissertation by trying to organise the structure and the content at the same time. This is possible, but if it’s not working for you, try to separate the two out. Planning with content takes the form of words, and if you’re getting lost in all the words when you’re planning, go back and see if you can see through it all with x-ray vision to what the bare bones of your structure are. Drawing it out rather than using words is one way to approach this – it could be a mindmap, a diagram (as above) or a timeline, but getting away from all the words could help you to see where you’re going, and signpost that direction for your reader.


Posted by Helen

Dissertation Toolkit: A Lens for Critical Reading

Getting to grips with the literature on your topic is one of the earliest stages of the dissertation. Among other things, the existing scholarship helps you explore different perspectives, interpret your findings, build your own argument and position yourself in a debate. Immersing yourself in the literature is a great way to get to know the subject, but it can also be overwhelming – you can become so swamping with what everyone else has ever said on the topic that there’s no room for you to know what you think!

The danger here is that you can become too descriptive. In losing your own unique perspective, the literature review can just become a collage of what other people have said. You end up just describing what your reader can go read for themselves if they want, and not adding much of yourself. It’s your dissertation and yours is the voice we’re interested in, so avoid it becoming a catalogue of ‘Scholar X says this, Scholar Y says that’, and foreground your own views!

In this post, we’ll look at how you can read with an active and critical eye, questioning what you read so that you don’t lose sight of your own agenda. We’ll look at three things to bear in mind about critical reading:

  1. Evaluating research on its own terms – testing its validity
  2. Understanding research in relation to other scholarship- its place in the debate
  3. Critiquing research in relation to what you want to do – its relevance and usefulness

1/ In the first place, critical reading means taking a journal article or book etc and asking specific questions about it on its own to evaluate its validity. This is tricky – you have to have a good understanding of things like research methodology to answer questions like ‘was the sample size large enough?’ or ‘was the use of this theory appropriate?’ It’s important to remember that while you need to critique each source you’re using to test its quality, you’re not necessarily looking to find fault with it. Agreeing with it is as critical a standpoint as disagreeing. And it’s not black and white- you might be less convinced by one aspect, but still find valuable elements elsewhere.

2/ Of course, you can only read one thing at a time. However, what you’re also doing is contributing each thing you read to your own mental map of the literature. If you read each source in isolation, without thinking about how it relates to everything else you’ve read, it will again lead you to very descriptive writing, which doesn’t build an argument or position you in a debate, but instead just catalogues each text in turn. Think about how each text relates to others – Can you see scholars who disagree with each other, or take up positions which are mutually exclusive? Can you see clusters of scholars who agree with each other- a school of thought? Can you track the development of an idea over time, seeing how it’s been refined or adapted for other contexts? Can you see scholars approaching the same topic from different perspectives, perhaps different subject backgrounds? Are these approaches complementary?

3/ Finally, you need to remember your own agenda. Academic writing is by nature very persuasive. It’s easy to get sucked into the agenda of the scholar writing a particular article or book – for them, this is the most important thing you can read on the topic. Of course it is – to them! But they’re not writing to help you solve your dissertation question, they’ve got their own agenda which may or may not be useful to you. So try to keep in mind your own research aim when reading – yes, the information may well be interesting, but is it relevant or useful to you? This is no reflection on the research itself – it may be the best journal article in the world on that topic, but if it doesn’t help you further your research goals, then it’s not relevant!

 Your note-taking strategies can also help to support this kind of critical reading. Instead of copying down or highlighting what the text says (it’ll still be there, so there is often little need to ‘capture’ the text in this way!) think about how you can use your notes to respond to the text in the three ways described above, whether it’s annotating your response in the margin, devising a system of note-taking that provides you space to look at all three aspects, or even the folders or categories (keywords and tags) that you’re saving the information in!

We’ve developed a resource that might help you think of the kinds of question you might ask in all three categories, which you can download here: Three Domains of Critical Reading

Posted by Helen


Dissertation Toolkit: Starting on the Right Track

Your dissertation is very often the first piece of academic work you get to decide for yourself. It can be really exciting to explore in depth an area of your subject which you’re passionate about – it can also seem like a big decision to make! Alternatively, you might have been allocated a project topic, and need to find a way to make it ‘your own’.

Getting a good initial grasp of the dimensions of your topic is crucial to the success of the dissertation. In this blog post, we’ll explore ways to ensure you’re on the right track. Having said that, what is the right track? Dissertation research is a bit more original and open ended than other assignments. You’re heading into the unknown. Neither you nor your supervisor quite know where you’ll end up, and after all, what would be the point of the question if you already knew what the answer would be? So, where should you start?

To help you focus and refine your dissertation proposal at any stage, you might try working your way through these questions. Try writing the answers down or talking them through with someone (perhaps your supervisor) so you’re articulating them clearly – this will also help with writing your proposal, title, introduction and conclusion.

  1. What is your dissertation about? This question is the first step: identifying the general topic. Without this, there is no dissertation! Follow your heart as much as your head – you need to be interested to sustain the project. However, if you don’t probe deeper than the overall subject, you may end up with a dissertation that is too broad, unfocussed and descriptive.
  2. What about it? What aspects will you focus on?  One of the pitfalls of writing a dissertation or research project is trying to cover too much ground, leaving you no room for in-depth analysis or fully working through an argument. Depth is always better than breadth – narrow down the topic again by choosing selected aspects to focus on in detail. You may not have written an assignment this long before, but once you get into it, trust us, you WILL find more than enough to write about! This process will also help you explore search terms when looking for literature.
  3. What are you going to do? You’re going to do more than just tell the reader everything you’ve found out- that would be too descriptive. How would you describe the intellectual work your dissertation will do? Are you analysing how something works or why something happens? Evaluating the best strategy or interpretation? Identifying common themes and patterns? Arguing for a new approach to solve a problem? Make sure you’re working at an appropriately high level – look at the kind of language used in marking criteria.
  4. What question will you answer? Even if your title isn’t in the form of a question, it’s useful to have a research question formulated in your mind. Phrasing your topic as an actual question (with a question mark!) is a very concrete and precise way to articulate your thinking and help you really put your finger on what you’re doing. A question implies an answer – they give you a direction, help you know when to stop (when you’ve answered your question!) or if you’ve gone off track (when you’ve stopped answering your question, but wandered off to answer a different one!).
  5. What problem will you solve? There are lots of questions that can be asked, but not all of them deserve an answer. Problematising the question helps you justify why it’s worth addressing so intensively. What exactly is the problem here, why is it significant enough to invest time in creating a solution? Why should your reader care?
  6. What might your answer look like? Go back to your research question. What range of possible answers might you reach? You might want to formulate this as a ‘hypothesis’ that you’re aiming to prove or test, or an aim you want to achieve, but remember to remain open minded. This will help you to make sure that you stay on track – that you answer the question you set yourself.  You might also have a look at the literature – have people tried to address this question, or a related question before? What kinds of answers were they proposing? Is there a debate here, or anything you can build on? Is there already a well-established answer to your question (which may mean a lot of literature to wade through, and might not leave you much scope)?
  7. What literature, sources and methods/tools/ideas will you use to reach it? Again, there are lots of questions that can be asked, but not all of them can be answered. Either the literature, methods, data, sources etc don’t exist, or they can’t be accessed or carried out in the timeframe you have. This question helps you address the feasibility of your project.

Part of your supervisor’s role is to help you answer these points and ensure that your dissertation or project has a clear focus and is do-able and worth doing, using their experience of the research process with all its trial and error. They understand that research is an open-ended process, and can help you to review and adjust your answers to these questions as you progress, and stay on track – wherever that track ends up leading!

You can download a worksheet with these questions: Refining your Dissertation or Project Topic

Posted by Helen

Write here, write now!

NOTE: these sessions ran in the summer of 2015 – we’d be happy to run another series if there’s demand!

Now that the semester has ended, and the long summer vacation has begun, the library has really started to quieten down. For those of you who are Masters students working on your dissertations or PhD students looking forward to getting some concentrated writing done over the summer, it’s a great opportunity to find some quiet study space now library seats are no longer in demand from undergraduates revising for their exams.

And yet… many of us find that lots of unstructured time is harder to work with, with no other commitments to break up the day or week, and little reason to do today what can be put off til tomorrow. It can be a struggle to find the motivation to work productively over the summer, and to develop a routine which will help you keep going. Writing can also be a solitary practice, and if there are no peers around to support us, cheer us on and keep us on track, we can start to flag. Those of us who encounter issues like writer’s block, perfectionism, procrastination or loss of focus or motivation in the course of our writing can feel particularly isolated during the summer.

If this is your experience, you might be interested in the initiatives offered by the Writing Development Centre and by Student Wellbeing.

The WDC will be running regular Write Here, Write Now! sessions over the summer. There aren’t formally taught workshops – they are simply a space during the day in which to sit down with others and create a productive and encouraging environment in which to get some focussed work done. The sessions are facilitated by the WDC tutors, but our role is simply to get you writing with a few quick warm-up exercises, and then to give you the space to write, together with others who are similarly focussed. This approach is based on the work of Rowena Murray, a researcher who has written a great deal on graduate student work, and similar sessions have been very popular at other universities. The WDC tutors will also be hosting writing clinics following these sessions, for quick queries and consultations alongside our usual tutorials which are still available over the summer.

Update! Write Here, Write Now sessions will run:

  • Tuesdays 2-4, Tees Cluster

  • Thursdays 10-12, Tees Cluster

  • between 21st July – 27th August

No need to book, just come along with something to work on! Of course, there’s no reason why you can’t set up your own writers’ groups with your peers – if you’d like to explore this, then here are our slides so you can see how we do it!

Student Wellbeing will be offering its ‘Want to Work group’ over the summer. This group is aimed at students who are struggling to move forward with their studies, for whatever reasons. These may include procrastination, difficulties concentrating/focussing or lack of motivation or/and interest. The group welcomes students who are stuck with part or all of their work. Rather than looking at study skills, the group will take a Solution Focused approach – exploring possible ways forward by identifying what works as opposed to what does not. Please contact Rob at rob.bedford@ncl.ac.uk if you’re interested – the group will run as soon as there are enough students signed up.

 Update! Want to Work group will run:

  • beginning 27th July, 2pm

  • running for 4 weeks

    See Wellbeing for more information including booking



Editing: Clarifying your Reasoning

One of the trickiest things I find about being both the author and the editor of your own work is knowing whether you’ve explained your thinking clearly enough. When I’m writing, my argument is obvious enough to me, of course! How can I tell if I’ve spelled out my reasoning clearly enough for the reader, though? Have I skipped stages of my argument, assuming they’re obvious? Or perhaps I’ve gone the other way and patronised and bored them by over-explaining every little obvious thing at great length.

Argument, reasoning, analysis – these are some of the highest level thinking skills, and they’re what lecturers will be looking for above all in your university work. But to check whether or not they’re apparent to the reader, I turn not to university but to primary school for help. Small children are some of the most critical thinkers I know – most of us know some small children and certainly all of us have been children at some point. So I channel that inner three year old to help me check if I’ve layed out my argument clearly enough.
I don’t mean write as if for a child – I mean read your own work with that same persistent use of very simple but powerful questions:

  • Why? (the most powerful question of all)
  • What’s that? (am I defining my terms?)
  • How does that work? (am I explaining cause and effect, or analysing something enough?)
  • What does that mean? (am I defining my terms, or explaining the significance of a point?)
  • What’s that for? (why I am telling the reader this?)
  • Where does that come from? (Have I explained the context enough, or traced the course of a process or argument?)
  • What happens if…? (am I thinking creatively enough – could there be other conclusions to draw?)
  • What’s that made of? (am I analysing enough?)

You can also, as my colleague Alex suggests, channel your inner sulky teenager:

  • So what? (what role does this play in my argument? What’s its relevance or significance?)
  • Says who? (what authority do I have backing up my point?)
  • How do YOU know? (if I don’t have an authority to back up my point, am I explaining my evidence and how I reach that conclusion?)

As you read through your work, pause at the end of each sentence and see which of these questions apply. Have you answered them, either in that sentence or the one just after? If not, would answering them help to unpack your thinking a bit more for the reader?
Of course, there comes a point when even the most patient grownup has to resort to the response ‘Because it just IS, ok?’ And this raises the question of what general knowledge and shared understanding you can assume on behalf of your reader. At what point can you start to feel that you don’t have to explain everything? That some things are just generally known and accepted, and you don’t need to completely unpack every statement you make? This will depend very much on your subject and the level you’re studying at, so it’s hard to give a straightforward answer. But remember that it’s the higher level thinking that your lecturer is mostly looking for, your ability to use and interpret evidence to reach an informed conclusion via sound reasoning. It’s that chain of reasoning that they need to be able to see. These questions can help you make sure you make that thinking stand out.


Posted by Helen

Why Read Aloud?

If you ask me, one of the most useful strategies for editing your academic work is the simple act of reading it out and listening to the way it sounds. I do it when drafting my writing, and I recommend it to students all the time. This little anecdote, which builds upon previous posts on this blog, describes why.

I discovered this technique when I was preparing an essay for an academic conference. I knew it was probably too long, but I wasn’t really interested in editing it any more. I thought it was basically finished, so I wanted to practice reading it aloud in order to develop my presentational skills and make sure I wouldn’t go over my allotted time.

What happened when I read the paper aloud really surprised me: there were all sorts of things wrong with it that I simply had not perceived when I had been writing it on the screen. I noticed loads of small punctuation errors, occasional typos, and small but important referencing details that I needed to check. I realised that some of my paragraphs were over a page long. I discovered that if a sentence has a massive subordinate clause in it (or maybe an unnecessarily long bracketed sentence, which adds very little to the meaning of the sentence), or if it features three semicolons, then it is very hard to read it aloud in a way that feels natural and clear. Reading aloud is great for identifying overlong sentences – if you’re running out of breath, you should probably stop!

Further, on a level deeper than presentational detail, there were some fundamental decisions about the structure of my argument that I needed to change. Two long paragraphs in my theoretical section, for example, were doing basically the same thing. When I had been typing them up, I was convinced that I was making lots of different, nuanced, and interesting points. But the act of saying all of these things aloud made me realise that for a lot of it I was simply repeating myself.

There was also something about reading for an audience that was particularly helpful. The conference audience were only ever going to encounter my paper once, and they were not going to have the luxury of going back over it in order to check whether they had understood (and if I wasn’t clear, they probably wouldn’t care). If they were going to follow my paper, I had to be really clear about what I was saying, why I was using certain bits of theory to help me say it, and how each example and piece of critical material helped me get my point across. If, when I read one of my own sentences, I thought, “why am I saying this?”, then I could be pretty sure that someone in the audience would think, “why is this guy saying this?” That imaginary audience member needs their questions answered.

Reading drafts aloud can help anyone who wants to improve their academic work. It helps you notice things to improve, it helps you gain some objectivity on your work, and it helps you develop a clear and readable style. It doesn’t matter if you’re not going to a conference – undergraduates can benefit from this simple technique just as much as can doctoral students. Get reading!

Posted by Alex

Editing: Reviewing Structure

Why is editing for structure important? A clear and logical structure is important in a shorter essay, but becomes even more crucial in a longer document such as a dissertation where the reader might become lost and literally ‘lose the plot’. Structure needs to be created first in your mind, through planning, of course, but it also needs to be articulated to the reader in the text. I find there’s three ways that structure can go wrong:

  • if you didn’t actually have one in the first place
  • or if you had one but didn’t follow it
  • or if you have excellent structure in your head, but somehow your writing just doesn’t give off the right signals and signposts, so the reader finds it hard to figure out where it’s going!

These three possibilities are things I check for when editing for structure.

How can I tell if my text is well structured? To tell if your text is well structured, it might help to return to your original planned structure, before all the writing got in the way and obscured it! If you’re the kind of writer who likes to plan beforehand, dig out your original notes on what you understood your aim or research question to be, what conclusion you felt you were aiming for, what content you intended to include and in what order. Of course, your thinking may well have evolved as you researched and wrote, so it’s a good idea to review your initial plan so that it now accurately reflects any new directions, material or ideas. If you’re not a planner and like to write first to develop your ideas and see what results, you might create a retrospective plan out of your material to help to help bring out the shape clearly in your own mind.

Where do I signal my structure to the reader? Introductions and conclusions play a key role in signposting structure to your reader, as well as clarifying it for yourself. I start by comparing the introduction and conclusion. The introduction should raise or interpret a research question or problem, and the conclusion should offer the overall answer or solution that’s reached. Do they? And does the question in the introduction match the answer given in the conclusion or have you drifted off onto a different question without realising? Finally, your introduction is a place to indicate to your reader how you’ve broken down the main body – how many sections, or chapters, and how they relate to each other.

How do I tell if the main body flows properly? The advice that structure should ‘flow’ is fine, but what does it mean and how do you tell? I look at the building blocks of the text – the paragraphs. It might be helpful to print out your document, which will give you a better overview of the sections and how they relate to each other. What I do initially is to scan the document – don’t read it – to get a sense for how long the paragraphs are. If there are pages with no paragraph breaks or only one, the paragraphs may be too long and unfocussed or mix several points in together; if there are more than three paragraph breaks per page, you may be splitting up single points or not developing them enough. You’ll need to look at this more closely when you re-read your paragraphs. Different subjects have different tendencies when it comes to paragraph length – Arts and Humanities tend to tolerate longer paragraphs than, say, Physical Sciences, but have a look at paragraph lengths in a typical book or journal article in your subject as a guide.

How do I signal this flow to the reader? The next thing I look at is how the paragraphs link. You may have heard the advice: One Point Per Paragraph. That Point very often is the first line of the paragraph. It’s like a mini-introduction. I check that the rest of the paragraph matches the first line – is the rest of the paragraph essentially unpacking that point more, or does it wander off to other points? The other thing I find helpful is to look just at the first line of each paragraph in turn, as if the text was made up only of these. Does it still sort of make sense and logical progression or does it seem completely random and disjointed? You might need to look at those signpost words again, to show the reader the connection between your paragraph points.

Another strategy I find helpful is to imagine that you’re having a dialogue with your reader. They are asking you questions, and your chapters, sections and paragraphs are the answers to those questions. So for each of your paragraphs, what is the question that the paragraph is an answer to? Do the questions make a natural sense in that order? And are you actually answering them? Look again at how this blog post uses questions at the start of each paragraph – hopefully it sounds like a natural conversation, the questions in your voice and the answers in mine – and if you took those questions away, it would still feel clear and logical.

Posted by Helen

Editing: Distance is Critical

Editing is the process of working with a text to review it, improve it and ensure that it’s achieving its aims. The tricky thing about editing at university is that you have to act as editor to yourself – and I certainly find it’s hard to get the distance you need from your own writing to see it objectively! Checklists for editing work often include items such as ‘are your points clear’? ‘Do your sentences make sense?’ And the problem is, of course, how are you supposed to know? Well of course your writing seems clear to you, you wouldn’t have written it that way otherwise!

This is the first of a series of posts which aims to give you some practical strategies, not only what to look for, but how to look, and how to tell if your writing really does what you think it does. We use many of these in our work in the Writing Development Centre.

First of all, to get an objective and accurate perspective on your writing, you need to find a way to get some critical distance from your own writing. Working with someone else’s writing is easy, but how do you create that distance for a text which you wrote yourself and which is possibly so familiar to you that you can’t see it at all any more?

Seeing it with new eyes
Editing your own work means seeing it afresh through the eyes of your reader. One of the key strategies for successful editing is to make the text seem alien to yourself. As its author, you are often too close to it to see it objectively, and you are likely to see what you think it says, and not what it really does say. You can achieve this critical distance simply by putting it to one side for a while. Realistically, however, not all of us are organised enough to have time to do this before the deadline, or unforeseen issues might have arisen which mean that there is less time than anticipated to edit a final draft –such is the unpredictable nature of research. Other strategies for seeing your own writing afresh include:

  • View it in a different format. If you work primarily on a computer screen, simply printing it out can make it seem a different thing. Likewise, if you are used to working on paper, you might try working on a tablet gives you a fresh view of it.
  • Read it aloud. This might seem excruciating, but hearing the words come out of your mouth will often help you realise where sentences are structured awkwardly, don’t quite make sense or are too long, or if the tone is a bit too ‘academic’ to sound natural. I use this technique a lot on my own writing, and find it really helps. You could even record yourself reading, or text-to-speech software might be useful too, if you can’t bear to listen to your own voice!
  • Change its appearance. Times New Roman 12 point font looks so finished – it can make a text seem more polished than it is. Try changing it to a less usual, less formal font, or perhaps change the colour of the type and background.
  • View it in an unusual order. The eye can sometimes skip issues or overlook places where the text doesn’t say what you think it says. It could be that reading backwards can help you look at words or sentences in isolation and see them as they actually are without your brain filling in what it wants to see or getting distracted.
  • Look at different aspects in isolation. You might try an initial skim read to pick up any immediately obvious issues, but after that, try to look for one thing at a time. We’ll consider what some of these things might be and how to look for them, in future posts.

Posted by Helen