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

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

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

Thinking about Writing – What’s your Story?

If you think about it, we all tell stories every day. Whether we’re talking about what happened at the shops, how bad our day was or our plans for the weekend, we are natural storytellers. We know how to make stories interesting; we know what to emphasise, what to cut and how to start and end a story. It might seem like writing an essay is different but really all we’re doing is telling a story.

Like any good story it’s good to give some context in your essay. It would be hard to make plans for the weekend with a friend if you only said, ‘I will be at the café at 7’. If you didn’t agree which café you meant then you might both wind up waiting in different cafés on different days. This is the same for essays; before getting into the specifics it’s useful to provide some context otherwise the reader will be lost. Imagine the introduction of an essay as the opening of a conversation. Give the reader some context, provide some details to the topic and then say what the aims are. It’s important that the reader, just like the listener, knows what is going on otherwise they might get left behind.

At one moment or other I’m sure we have all found ourselves part of a conversation that stopped making sense almost as soon as it started. I had an uncle who couldn’t mention a person’s name in a conversation without giving me their full biography; I would almost be asleep by the time he returned to his original point! It’s very easy to get carried away when telling a story, forgetting the original point. But good storytelling, just like good essay writing, is about staying on point. Every story has a purpose just like every essay and the purpose of an essay is the argument. When developing an argument/telling a story, it’s important to remember the audience. They don’t want to hear anything that isn’t relevant to the story. It’s best to stay on point and if the story seems to drift, ask ‘what story am I trying to tell?’ – this can help bring the story back into focus.

The majority of stories have a very natural way of ending. Typically we finish by summarising the main sentiment of the story. After telling a funny story about a night out you might end by saying ‘It was such a good night!’ Statements like this bring stories to a close; they indicate the end while highlighting the purpose. Essay writing is no exception. It’s good to bring a story to a close by highlighting the central argument and summarising the key points. It’s a way of not only reminding your reader of the argument but of showing that it’s at an end. Concluding an essay is a polite and clear way of ending a story.

It might be more formal but an essay is a story just like the ones you tell every day. A good storyteller is one who always has a purpose, always provides relevant information, always stays on point, never forgets their audience and ultimately reaches a happy ending.

Posted by Adam

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