Thursday, December 10, 2009

Presenting your essay

Text set solid vs. text set with added leading...Image via Wikipedia
If all has gone according to plan, your essay should now be finished and ready to print out. Here are a few tips for maximising its impact.

1. Make it legible.
Put yourselves in the position of the people who will be marking your work. Your essay will make for a much more pleasant reading experience if it is double-spaced in a decent-sized font (such as Times 12 point).

2. Cut out the packaging. 
There's nothing more annoying for a marker than having to extract an assignment from a plastic wallet and then slot it in again after marking. Don't use any plastic envelopes or binding—simply stapling the pages together is much easier for readers.

3. Follow the guidelines. 
You will have been given guidelines (in your course handbooks and elsewhere) on referencing style, word counts, electronic submission, etc. Make sure you follow them.

4. Make it easier for your marker to give feedback. 
Depending on the kind of assignment, your marker may or may not be writing comments on the essay itself. Either way, make it as easy as possible for him/her to refer to specific bits of your essay when writing feedback. Pages should be numbered, or course, but so should lines. (In Word, choose 'Document' from the Format menu. Click on the 'Layout' tab. Press the 'Line number' button and check the box, then click OK. Line numbers will appear in Page Layout View, and also when you print.)

5. Read it through.
Many errors of style, fact, argument or presentation can easily be picked up on a simple read-through. Plan the writing of your essay so as to give you a few days at the end in which you can have a break before re-reading it. Getting some distance on your work is not only good for the soul; it also allows you to gain some all-important perspective on what you have written, and to see it with fresh eyes.

I hope you've found this blog useful. I'd be very pleased to carry on in the New Year, but please let me know that you have found it helpful, and perhaps also suggest things you would like to see covered. You can email me through my departmental webpage or through my website, or else you can leave a comment right here on the blog. Have a good holiday.
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Friday, December 4, 2009

Drawing a conclusion

The arguments
You're getting towards the end of the first draft of your essay, and it's time to read back over what you've written so far. You need to be your own harshest critic here. What would you make of this essay if you were coming to it for the first time? Does the introduction set the themes up nicely? Are assertions supported? Does the argument have a logical, coherent flow? If you're having trouble judging what you've written, then ask a friend to read it for you. A fresh pair of eyes can often spot what is wrong when the author cannot.

This is the point to make changes if you are not happy with things. Are you really answering the question? Perhaps you can be more explicit about how certain findings relate to the essay title. Are you finding that bits are too digressive; that you are going off at a tangent and losing the thread of the argument? Be bold in cutting what you have written, if it makes the essay flow better. Are you evaluating the findings rigorously enough? Can you go further? Have you gone too far, and included too much of your own opinion and speculation?

Last week I noted that your conclusion should only go as far as the evidence allows it to go. Go ahead and speculate; gaze into your crystal ball at what delights future research will bring, but be clear about the limits of that kind of speculation. If you have taken other researchers to task for over-interpreting their findings, then make sure you don't fall into the same trap. If you have clearly established the limitations on the facts, then it will be clear to your reader what your basis is for any further speculation.

Don't be tempted just to repeat what you've said so far without developing it in any way. Your conclusion is the place to draw your argument together: that is bound to mean recapping on that argument, but you need to do it succinctly and in a way that builds on its meaning. For example, don't just repeat your judgement that the evidence favours Theory Y over Theory X. Put that conclusion in context, by perhaps returning to the historical background within which those theories were developed, or by highlighting some issues that are currently 'in the air', and might help to contextualise your conclusions.

A common technique in journalism is to return to the starting point for the piece. If you kicked off with a quotation, or a particular finding, then you might want to go back to it in light of what you've learned through the essay. Don't force it: that approach won't always be appropriate. But it is usually worth bearing your starting point in mind when you are considering your ending.
You're nearly there. Next week we'll talk about the all-important question of presentation.

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