Academic writing/Rules of good writing

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Thinking about the structure -- First draft.
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Image courtesy of luisvilla
Good writing is good because the writer has expressed clearly what he or she wants to say, has made sure that everything relates to the topic, and has ensured that the ideas are clearly connected and easy for the reader to follow.

This means that to write well, you have to state your position, reveal the information that supports your position, and show how the information fits together. This way, the message you are trying to send out has the best chance of being understood by the reader exactly as you intended.

It's all about structure!

When planning your writing assignment you need to think about

  • the structure of your document or research paper;
  • the structure of individual paragraphs.


For an overview of the structure of an essay, you might like to visit this site [1].

Document structure

It is important to put a good structure in place in your writing. The structure needs to be present in both the entire document and in each part of the document.

Once you know what you are going to write about (we talk about that a bit later in the module), you have to make the framework for your written work. It always involves writing an introduction that

  • attracts the reader's attention,
  • shows the reader what the question you are answering is, and
  • describes the pathway that the essay will take to get from the question to the answer.



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Example

Take a look at this sample introduction:

The focus on overweight and obesity is a major preoccupation for health promotion organisations and individuals alike. On the one hand, weight-loss education initiatives and programmes abound, and on the other rates of obesity and correlated disorders skyrocket. And paradoxically, the fatter we get, the thinner we would like to be. While the population gets fatter and fatter, media portrayals, particularly of women, get more and more slender, resulting in a significant unsettling and angst amongst those who fail to achieve the articulated ideal. History provides an explanation for this fascination with weight. Despite the fact that people have not always valued thinness, strong beliefs about the significance of appearance nonetheless provide a foundation for the contemporary preoccupation with calorie-counting, body sculpting, exercise and diets. These practices are based on three important premises. Firstly, in the range of senses, vision ranks highest. What we see is somehow more reliable than what we here, taste or feel. Secondly, from this follows the notion that appearance mirrors the "true" inner self, and reflects a supreme order. And finally, attention to health and diet is a virtuous activity which may be witnessed in physical appearance. This article briefly reviews how these beliefs have, over many centuries, merged to set the standards which lead our contemporary society to an over-reliance on weight as an indicator of health.




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Questions

  1. Grabbing the reader: How does this introduction attract the reader's attention?
    • It describes the seriousness of the problem using high impact examples.
    • It speaks in the first person plural ("the fatter we get, the thinner we would like to be.") to try to get the reader to identify with the writer, as if they were members of the same group. This may help the reader to feel included and concerned.
  2. Introducing the topic: How does this introduction show the reader what the essay is going to be about?
    • It clearly states that this essay is going to show how a set of beliefs have merged to lead society to rely excessively on weight as a measurement of health.
  3. Describing the pathway: how does this introduction describe the pathway from the question to the answer?
    • It ...




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Example

Lets take a close look at a second sample introduction. The paragraph below is probably more like the ones you have seen in essays before.
Scientific studies don't actually prove that stretching enhances performance in sports people. But, despite these findings, I still believe that sports teams should encourage their athletes to stretch. In this essay, I will show why I believe that stretching is important in the training for competitive sport.




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Questions

What's missing in this introduction?

  • It doesn't do anything to attract the reader's attention.
  • It doesn't explain the pathway from the question to the answer.

How could this introduction be improved on?

Look at the example of some simple modifications which can make a simple introduction more effective.

Despite the fact that most sports teams use stretching as an important part of their training, it's a surprise to learn that most scientific studies have not shown that stretching enhances performance! How can we explain why so many coaches and athletes still believe in stretching? In this essay, I will review the scientific literature on stretching and sporting performance, but will also show some of the potential non-physiological benefits that stretching can bring to sport.

Any better? Why do these changes make the introduction more effective?

  • The introduction attracts the reader's attention by emphasising a surprising situation.
  • It uses an exclamation mark to underline the surprise.
  • It uses a question to make the reader scratch his or her head and share in the wonder the writer wants us to feel.
  • It tells us what pathway the essay will take, and gives us an idea about what the explanation (answer) will be.


For more information about writing introductions to your essays, you might want to visit this site [2], which explains the "top-down" model.

Paragraph structure

Just like the essay, the paragraphs in your essay must be well structured. To do this, you have to have a good understanding of what makes a paragraph.

A paragraph is how we organise sentences into groups. It is a unit of thought and not of length. Being a "unit of thought" means that it deals with only one main idea.

How is a paragraph structured? Like an essay,

  • the writer introduces it by a topic sentence,
  • followed by supporting sentences with links, and
  • finally a conclusion or transition.



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Key points

  • The topic sentence: The topic sentence is the "claim" or point that you want to prove in the individual paragraph. Every other sentence in the paragraph must relate to it in some way or another. They become either the explanation, or the examples that support the claim.
  • Supporting sentences: Supporting sentences either develop, describe, or provide examples of the point made in the topic sentence. If it is on another topic, then it must be in another paragraph.
  • Concluding sentence: A concluding sentence may sum up the paragraph, prepare for the next paragraph, or prepare for other ideas which will/may/ought to be developed outside the document at hand.
  • Linking words: A number of words help glue the sentences in the paragraph together. You must choose the words after looking at the sentences you want to put together and thinking about the relationship between them. See the chart below for examples.




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Example

Let's take a look at the sample paragraph below:

Thousands of people visit New Zealand every year because of its beautiful scenery and overwhelming hospitality. New Zealand has some of the most spectacular mountains in the world, due to its young volcanic landscape. It also has unusual and lush vegetation as a result of mild winters and copious rain. But the friendly people of New Zealand make travelling through this wonderland even more exciting. Few tourists will return home without at least one example of overwhelming kindness or welcome. The prospects for the tourism industry to continue to grow in this exceptional country are promising.




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Question

What are the parts of this paragraph?
  • Can you see the topic sentence clearly?
  • Also, can you see how each sentence in this paragraph is related to the topic that the writer announced in the topic sentence?
  • And can you see how words "glue" the sentences together?

The chart below should provide some guidance to your answers.




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Example

Here's another paragraph which has a strong structure. See if you can identify the different parts of the paragraph, and the tools the writer has used to make it effective.

Paul Henderson may be the least well-known and yet the most successful All Black captain ever. While few may remember his name, he was nonetheless the man who led the All Blacks to a 147 point victory over Japan in 1995. This was the widest victory margin in All Black history. In spite of the impressive win, Henderson never again captained an All Black side. Instead, he returned to his native Southland to play out his career in the national provincial championship side.




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Question

How did the writer make sure these sentences all worked together?

  • The topic sentence identified a clear topic - Paul Henderson is not well know, but very successful.
  • The sentences all relate directly to the topic - either being about not-well-knownness, or success.
  • There are links between the sentences - "nonetheless," "while," "in spite of".
  • Each paragraph follows on logically from the paragraph before.
  • The writer assists the reader to see what logic is present.




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Example

Let's look at the sample paragraph we used above on tourism in New Zealand:

Thousands of people visit New Zealand every year because of its beautiful scenery and overwhelming hospitality. New Zealand has some of the most spectacular mountains in the world, due to its young volcanic landscape. It also has unusual and lush vegetation as a result of mild winters and copious rain. But the friendly people of New Zealand make travelling through this wonderland even more exciting. Few tourists will return home without at least one example of overwhelming kindness or welcome. The prospects for the tourism industry to continue to grow in this exceptional country are promising.



You will notice that the last sentence in the example above is preparing the reader for a new idea. While the paragraph is about the things that attract people to New Zealand, the next paragraph should logically be about the growth of tourism, and the concluding sentence announces this.



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Activity

Can you think of another way that can help you to link two paragraphs?



Links to more information and exercises

This Central European University[3] site has more information about writing paragraphs.

The OWL at Purdue [4] is a long-established site that clearly explains the structure of paragraphs.

Not only does this site [5] have further explanation about writing paragraphs, it also has some exercises for you to do.