By Desiree Fields (University of Sheffield), Matt Finn (University of Exeter), and Yvonne Oates (Cornwall College)
As an undergraduate just starting out at university, you already have loads of writing experience, but university requires some new and different writing skills. Perhaps the most fundamental difference is that your task will often be to use your writing not only to demonstrate that you can find relevant information and report it back, but that you can use the information you find to offer new insights and raise critical questions. In other words, you will be producing knowledge yourself by drawing on existing research. At university you will likely write more, and more often, than at school, and you will have to work more independently. This entails developing the ability to self-direct your writing, from breaking down the essay question to searching the academic literature, planning your essay, and organizing your time to write (and edit, proofread, and polish, plus prepare a reference list or bibliography).
Here, we offer some strategies to ‘level up’ your writing for university. Becoming a stronger writer is important for practical reasons: employers desire workers who can communicate effectively and think critically, and postgraduate opportunities will hinge to a large extent on the same skill set. But strengthening your writing will also help you become a more articulate person, one who knows what they think and how to say it effectively.
Developing your ideas
Whereas lecturers want students to develop original arguments based on academic literature, in their essays students often rely too heavily on reporting what the literature says, with little of their own voice coming across. It can be tempting to try and sound ‘academic’ but it is often better to write in a straightforward way, using short sentences and aiming to be as clear as possible. To develop your ideas and write essays that show more independent thought, we recommend taking some time to try to answer the essay question in one sentence before you even start reading, reviewing your notes, or researching it further. This can be the kernel of your argument and help you identify where there are gaps in your knowledge or understanding (and therefore where you need to read more). Starting with what you already know (or think you know), rather than going straight to what other people have said can support you in finding your own voice. Once you have written a sentence in response to the essay question and developed a plan for what you need to read to build up your argument, come back to your sentence after each text you read: what do you need to add or change? We should caution that ‘confirmation bias’ is a potential limitation of this strategy; that is you run the risk of only reading texts that support or confirm your initial thinking. However reading should change how you think. If your argument does not change after reading, you probably want to seek out some texts that explicitly challenge your argument. After all, acknowledging alternative views is a crucial way of strengthening our own arguments.
Plagiarism refers to using someone else’s work—not only their words, but also their ideas—without properly attributing it to them. Most undergraduates are fearful of committing plagiarism, yet many of them will in fact do so, often inadvertently rather than as an act of deliberate deception. The consequences of plagiarism can be severe both in terms of official penalties that affect your marks and in terms of the respect lecturers accord your future work. A recent study at the University of Otago found that while university policies frame plagiarism in moral and legal terms of dishonesty and intellectual property, students were often confused about what constitutes plagiarism and how to avoid it. The skills needed to avoid plagiarism include proper referencing and the ability to paraphrase the work of others, both of which take practice and will grow stronger as you become more familiar with your discipline and with reading academic texts and preparing academic writing. In other words, avoiding plagiarism is not simply about what happens (or does not happen) on the pages you submit, it is bound up in the broader process of becoming a geographer. Academic writing is about producing knowledge, and knowledge is not created ‘from scratch’. Instead, it is about how you combine the ideas of others to raise new questions or create insights of your own. As an author, you should therefore be able to trace the lineage of your work back to the ideas and authors that inspired your own thinking.
Writing can be a challenge and, given the other priorities you will have at university, it is easy to think, ‘just get it done’. However, writing, and writing well, can be very rewarding and many students find their understanding of an issue increases not just through listening to lectures or their own reading but as they write. To write clearly you need to think clearly so allow yourself the time to work through the challenges of how to order your thoughts and how things fit together. Everyone, including academics, can learn how to write more effectively and there are a wealth of underused books and resources available to you about how to improve your writing. The promise of writing is that over time and with practice it will allow you to know yourself and the world around you better as your thinking develops but also to know how to communicate in an engaged, informed and persuasive way.