How do I improve my academic writing?

Unsurprisingly, given our name, one of the most common questions we’re asked at the Writing Development Centre is “so how do I improve my academic writing?” Although writing is only one of the topics we can help you develop, it is one of the most prominent ones as writing is the main way that learning is assessed in most subjects. Our writing is a reflection of ourselves, our voice, so it can be quite personal, and academic writing in particular can feel a bit of an alien way to express ourselves.

Each subject and level of study ‘does’ academic writing in a slightly different way, and each of us will have different things we need to work on in our own writing. So in our latest “You Ask the WDC” video, our tutor Caroline shares some ways which you can target things to work on and develop your own academic voice.

If you’ve got a question for our You Ask the WDC agony aunts, let us know!

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

#unhelpfulstudyadvice 1: the placebo effect

There’s a lot of study guidance around. Top tips, how-to’s, help sheets, study guides, skills books, online resources, not to mention all the advice (solicited or unsolicited!) from lecturers, other students, family, friends, online contacts and yes, Writing Development tutors… All of it’s well meant, most of it is given by people who have been students at some point and presumably know what they’re talking about, and much of it may be genuinely helpful or encouraging.

There’s also plenty of study advice out there which is unhelpful. It may look useful, it may be accurate, it may seem reassuring, but for one reason or another, it just doesn’t quite work.

  • “Your writing should be clear”
  • “Make sure you have a strong argument”
  • “One point per paragraph”
  • “Check your work has a logical structure”
  • “Follow these simple steps to writing an essay”
  • “Plan your time effectively”
  • “Don’t include any unnecessary material”
  • “Ensure your grammar is correct”

None of this is untrue or unreasonable. Your work should be clear and critical, well argued and logically structured, grammatical and well written. You should just get on with it and plan your time effectively. Easy.

So why aren’t you just doing it?

What does it mean?

Clear. Concise. Relevant. Well-structured. Effective. All good qualities to aim for, all good things to check your work for. But what do they actually mean? All of these words are ambiguous, abstract, subjective and context-dependent. What is clear to one person may not be to another. What is well-structured in one subject may be inappropriately organised in another. What is concise at one level of study may be simplistic at a higher level. These words are almost meaningless out of context. So how could you even begin to aim for them? Any advice that tells you that your writing or study practices should conform to a subjective term like this should at least try to unpack in concrete terms what they mean by it, and help you understand what it might mean in your own subject or level, or the audience you’re writing for.

How do you achieve it?

Telling you that “your writing should be clear” or “you should check that your structure flows” doesn’t actually help you to get there. Much of this type of advice doesn’t actually give you concrete and practical things to do, but only tells you what you should be. But never mind the what; what about the how? Leaving you without practical strategies to achieve this goal isn’t really helpful.

Other advice might give you attractively practical-seeming suggestions:Ten Simple Steps to Successful Essay Writing! Always do this! Never do that! But it doesn’t acknowledge that there might be other ways to achieve the same goal, exceptions to the rule, or that the process might be less simple and clear cut, more messy than that. Much of this type of advice may have worked for the person giving it (possibly a long time ago, and with the benefit of hindsight…), and it may well work for you, but then again, it may not. Giving the impression that there is only one correct way, that the same advice should work for everyone, or that it’s just a straightforward process, may set you up for failure if it doesn’t suit you or if the simple steps turn out to be not so simple in practice.

What would it look like if you did? How would you know?

Does anyone actually try to write unclearly? You think it’s clear; of course you do, you wrote it.  It makes sense to you. Is it clear to someone else? Well, how would you know? It’s all very well to tell you to check your work, but without a idea of what you’re looking for and strategies to reflect on your practice and edit your work, you’re not going to know if your efforts are working until you get your mark back and it’s too late. Does the advice show you what clear writing might look like and why, with examples? And does it offer practical technique to read back your work as if through a marker’s eyes?

The Placebo Effect

University study is challenging, complex and diverse. It teaches you that nothing is ever that simple, to question everything. And this can be unsettling. It would be nice to think that there are simple tips which could make sense of all this complexity; straightforward steps you could take through the challenges of higher level study. And that’s why this kind of study advice is so appealing. It’s tempting and reassuring, it looks very certain and authoritative, but doesn’t actually offer you any way to act on it. It’s a placebo. It might make you feel better but does it actually help you to develop and learn? It doesn’t do justice to the challenge of university study, and it doesn’t do justice to the complex, diverse individual that you are. Ultimately, it disempowers and undermines students by making them feel that they are the failures- all you had to do was just had to ‘write clearly’, such a simple thing, and you failed to do so.

We’re working on a series of blog posts, #unhelpfulstudyadvice, in which we will examine some of the less useful tips and try to turn them into more useful guidance. Do let us know if there’s a particular example you come across and we’ll include it! We promise to explain what we mean, to give you concrete strategies to achieve it and ways to reflect on or edit your work to see if you’ve been successful!

And we promise to avoid the words “should”, “just”, “always” and “never”…

Posted by Helen


Editing: Killing Kittens


A friend of mine used to be a journalist, and she once told me that they used the catchphrase “kill the kitten” all the time in the office. Although it sounds like a ghoulish bit of journalist slang, this is actually really great writing advice, just like the literary saying “kill your darlings”.Why?

Particularly when you’re writing about something you’re really interested in, it can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between material that really needs to be in the essay or report for the sake of your argument and material that you have included just because you like it. This is especially common with long projects like dissertations: the process of research can throw up huge amounts of interesting ideas, facts and information, and it can sometimes be hard to focus on the things that are really important. The material that you include solely because you like it is the kitten. It is pleasing you, as kittens do, and that is why you have kept it.

There’s nothing wrong with putting information that makes you happy into your writing. Sometimes a point is productively demonstrated or reinforced through reference to something that is witty or unusual. For example, Mikhail Gorbachev earned the nickname “Comrade Orange Juice” when he tried to introduce policies that would reduce the amount of alcohol drunk by the general Russian population. This is a colourful detail, and if you were to write an essay about the public perception of Gorbachev’s morally-driven economic policy, it could also be a pertinent fact. It would demonstrate the ridicule and resistance that this measure was met with, and it would strengthen your essay by providing evidence for your argument.

A problem arises, however, when the information is only there because you like it. If you were writing an essay about another aspect of Gorbachev’s premiership, this same fun fact could just be an irrelevant bauble on your essay that detracted from the main point. Now, baubles are lovely, but there isn’t much room for them in academic writing, for which prettiness is optional but functionality is key. All of the information in any piece of academic writing needs to be doing a job, rather than being ornamental or entertaining. For example, I was recently writing about James Bond, and I desperately wanted to include a reference to “007 in New York”, a short story in which Ian Fleming provides Bond’s personal recipe for scrambled eggs. There isn’t a much clearer example of an unnecessary bauble than that! It wasn’t doing anything at all for my argument, and was only there to please me. I had to – however reluctantly – get rid of it.

The problem is that it’s not always going to be this clear. How do you know which points are the most important? How can you be more concise? Here are some questions I like to try on my own writing:

  • If you have several examples that illustrate one point, can you do without some of them? Do you need every single example, or will one strong example do it?
  • Sometimes you’ve found a really great quotation that can illustrate your point, and it’s funny too. Can you explain the point without this quote? Paraphrasing is a key academic skill, and it often helps you be more economical with language.
  • Can you identify what each piece of information in any given paragraph is doing? Is it evidence? Is it analysis? If you can’t explain the academic function of something that makes you smile, it’s a kitten and it needs to come out.

My unsentimental journalist friend was right. Sometimes a kitten has to die for the greater good of your writing. You don’t have to delete it – there may well be a way for you to rethink your argument so that the kitten can help you. But certainly try reading your work without it.

DECLARATION: No kittens were harmed in the writing of this blog post! Kittens can also sometimes help your writing. There is a great piece of online positive reinforcement software called Written? Kitten!, which is a lot of fun and very motivating.

Posted by Alex

So What? Part 2

In a previous post, I talked about a drafting strategy that helps me resolve issues with muddled paragraphs. I use questions that help me identify things to change, remove, or improve about paragraphs that are causing me problems. In this post, I want to go through an example to illustrate what I mean. The questions I use are:

  • What is this paragraph really saying?
  • How does this help me answer the question or problem I’m addressing?
  • How significant or essential is this point?
  • How is it related to the material that precedes and follows it?

Overall, the question is: So what?

Here’s an example of a paragraph that I used this method with. The text is from my own PhD in English literature, but you don’t need to read it in detail, it’s just an illustration of my approach.


Of course, I wouldn’t be this brutal on a piece of work that a student brought into the WDC! I’m able to be this critical here because it is my own work.

I wasn’t happy with it because it was trying to do too much at once. When I thought about what the paragraph was really about, I concluded that it was about one specific way that a particular movie was critical of American torture in the war on terror. The really key bit is the relationship between the quote from Cheney in the middle and a bit of dialogue from the film which echoes his words. However, there is other stuff getting in the way: the remarks about the film’s reception don’t add much, and a lot of the beginning of the paragraph is pretty vague. My concluding sentences also don’t really feel like they follow from the evidence that precedes them. I needed to tighten this up.

Armed with these decisions, I started typing.


It looks like a lot of editing. All I really did, though, was reorient the paragraph around the piece of information that I thought was most interesting: the relationship between Cheney’s remarks and the dialogue. I’d looked at each part of the paragraph and thought So What?

  • I cut out an unnecessary explanatory footnote and a sentence about the reception of the movie – I’d only put that stuff in there to show that I knew it, and not to help my argument. When I asked So What, I didn’t have a good answer about this information.
  • Likewise, I removed the term “heteroglossia”. I hadn’t defined it, and it was only there as a bit of jargon that made my argument less clear.
  • The quote from Cheney is interesting, in fact the key piece of information here. But in the first draft I’d assumed that a reader would just “get it”, and understand why I had included it without my having to explain it at all. I also had not reminded the reader about the connection to the topic of my essay. Asking So What helped me identify what was missing from these sections.
  • At the top of the paragraph I had to tell the reader what the paragraph was about. I had sort of done this the first time round, but actually I hadn’t been as specific as I had thought. By making a decision about doing one thing at a time, and not lots of things simultaneously, I made both the beginning and the conclusion a bit clearer.

Here’s the final paragraph without all the red boxes and blue lines.



Posted by Alex

So What?

When drafting academic work, it’s not uncommon to feel a bit unsure about or frustrated with what you have in front of you. There can be plenty of reasons for this. It can feel like the writing has too many things going on at once, or like it doesn’t really answer the question. Often, for example, I feel that I know what I want to say, but I’m not really sure how what I have written actually helps me get there. Perhaps you have lots of points that are good on their own terms, but the essay or report as a whole doesn’t really add up to much; perhaps you have made a lot of points and you aren’t quite sure which ones are the best. This post is about a useful and simple strategy that I find helpful when trying to resolve problems like this.

It’s often quite hard to see an entire piece of writing at once, so I like to break it down and look at it on the level of the paragraph. I try to answer a few simple questions about each point in a piece of writing.

  • What is this paragraph really saying?
  • How does this help me answer the question or problem I’m addressing?
  • How significant or essential is this point?
  • How is it related to the material that precedes and follows it?

Put simply, the question is: So what?

It is standard (and good) advice that academic writers should include topic sentences at the beginning of paragraphs in order to make it clear to the reader what each paragraph is about, and that each paragraph should end with a bridge or signpost to the next. This helps to structure and frame the material into a paragraph. Answering that fundamental So What about each paragraph of your writing can also make for much more readable and accessible work, because it helps improve the overall clarity of your answer to the question. Whereas topic sentences and bridging language help give shape to your writing, the answer to your So What question helps you define what it is about that material that is really interesting. This can help you identify and strengthen the really good bits of your work, and streamline away the parts that aren’t so good or important after all.

Perhaps you’ve had this experience: when reading a confusing or dreary academic text, a beautifully comprehensible sentence suddenly shines through and explains both why the author is making the point they are making and how it is connected to the broader aims of the piece.

This is signposting, and it has two helpful functions.

  1. It helps to orient the reader, to give them a foothold in your writing and help them follow what you are saying. Sometimes it’s easy to assume that the reader is following you, and including these sentences helps make sure that the reader actually can follow you.
  2. It can also help you as a writer. If you can clearly signpost to the reader precisely why the information in your work is pertinent to the question you are addressing, then you are able to answer that So What. 

Signposting like this can form the architecture of your writing, the scaffolding or skeleton that helps keep everything clear for both you and your reader.

So if the piece of writing you’re working on feels a bit muddled, this one question can help clarify it a little. If you’ve got a rationale for the inclusion of each piece of information – if you can give a definite answer to that So What? – then you may be more able to give your tutor something focused, interesting, and readable to read. Try it with your next assignment, and see whether it helps you. If you want to see an example of how it works, I’m preparing a post with an illustration from my own writing to demonstrate how I’ve used it – watch this space!


Posted by Alex

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