Academic writing - an introduction

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Academic writing - An Introduction

Being able to express yourself clearly in writing and according to the conventions of the discipline you are studying is important to your success whether you are a student, academic, researcher or a practitioner. As a student not only will it assist you to obtain good marks, it is the method by which you confirm your entry into the research process. Writing allows you to share your thinking to external readers, and it provides a clear mechanism for both developing and demonstrating a critical argument.

  • Writing helps you to clarify your thinking
  • Writing shows your thoughts to external readers

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Does writing intimidate you?

Many people are fearful of writing. Some people worry that they just won't be able to put what they are thinking on paper and say "what they really mean." Others have bad memories of marks received in secondary school, and simply consider themselves to be "bad writers." However, writing is like building a table. There are fine artisans who can craft beautiful pieces of furniture, but in a wood-working class with a good instructor, most people can follow rules and use tools so as to produce a serviceable piece of furniture. There are a number of important writing rules and tools that most hesitant writers don't even know about that will be covered in this wiki, as well as instructions about what your lecturers will expect from the written assignments you will hand in.

The writing process

The writing process is all about saying what you really mean, and knowing that your readers will understand what you intend them to. In order to be able to write well, you do need to have a grasp of the English language. This module is designed for students who already know the basics of Standard English. Some students may require extra assistance prior to undertaking this module. If you have concerns about your ability to manage the basics of English, like writing a complete sentence, you may wish to have your basic skills evaluated at the learning support centre while you are going through this module.

Rules of good writing

It's all about structure! Good writing is good because the writer knows what he or she wants to say, and makes sure that everything in the paper not only relates to the topic, but is clearly connected 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 demonstrate how the information fits together to make you believe that which you are trying to convince your readers of. This way, the message you are trying to send out has the best chance of being understood by the reader exactly as you intended.

Document structure

It's all about structure!

You had better put a good structure in place for your written work. The structure needs to be present in the entire written document, but also 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 going to answer will be, and describes the pathway that the essay will take to get from the question to the answer.

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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 hear, 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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Grabbing the reader. How does this introduction attract the reader's attention?
  • It describes the seriousness of 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.

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.

Describing the does this introduction describe the pathway from the question to the answer?

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A second sample introduction

The paragraph below is probably more like the ones you have seen in essays before. Let's look at it closely.

  • Scientific studies don't actually prove that stretching enhances performance in sportspeople. 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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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 fixed? Look at the example of some simple modifications which can make a simple introduction 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?

  • It attracts the reader's attention by emphasising a surprising situation.
  • It uses an exclamation point 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.

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, which has supporting sentences with links, and 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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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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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 by the topic sentence? And, how do words "glue" the sentences together?
  • The chart below should provide some guidance to answer

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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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How did the writer made 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"
  • Make sure that the thoughts you capture in your paragraphs link logically between one another.
  • Each paragraph should follow on logically from the paragraph before.
  • The writer should assist the reader to see what logic is present.

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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 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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Describe another way that can help you to link two paragraphs?

Writing an academic essay

It's important to know how to write clearly, but as important is understanding the expectations of an academic essay. Writing an essay is a way of synthesising knowledge, and showing your lecturer than you are able to locate reliable information, analyse it and then apply it to a situation which tests your understanding of a particular aspect of the discipline you are studying. There are a number of strategies you must take in addition to clear and well-structured writing to ensure that you will create a convincing and effective essay.

Understanding the assignment

There are important things you need to understand about the assignment.

  • When is it due?
  • How long is it supposed to be?
  • What is the exact topic of the essay?
  • What are the types of sources your lecturer expects you to use to answer the essay question?

You should ask yourself these questions when the essay is assigned rather than when it is time to start working on it. By taking an early look, you will have a better sense of the scope of the project, you can plan you time effectively, and you can see how lecture and tutorial material contributes to understanding the essay topic. If you can't answer any one of these questions with certainty, speak with your lecturer or tutor and seek clarification.

Getting started

In most cases, your first look at the essay topic may be daunting. You may know little about the subject and feel anxious, worrying "what is it I am supposed to say?!#!" But, maybe you are in a better position, and already have a good understanding of the topic. Your first goal is to make sure you have a general enough understanding of the topic to know what you need to read to be able to answer the question competently and well.

Developing an argument

When your lecturer assigns an essay, they are asking you to look at information, and take a position with respect to this information. What does this mean? It means that your lecturer wants you to believe in something, and convince the reader why they should too. The argument is the position you are taking in your essay. It is important to identify your argument, because it provides the structure to the rest of your essay.

Staking out your premises

An argument then must be supported by premises. Premises are the facts that your use to explain why you have adopted a particular argument. These are the points that you are making to convince your reader that your argument is valid and based on solid evidence. From a structural point of view, each premise becomes a subpart of your essay. Your conclusion will logically follow from your premises To be effective, premises must not only follow a logical pattern, they must be based on well researched information. This is where you will incorporate the beliefs and assertions of established academics, and knowledgeable researchers in the discipline, as well as any independent research you may have undertaken yourself.

Otago Polytechnic 2006

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Key points
Be careful not to rely too heavily on anecdotal information, but to seek a high level of evidence for your claims.

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Identify some examples of anecdotal information, then consider other ways that evidence could be provided to support the examples

Using other people's work

There are two principle ways that you can incorporate the work and writing of others to support the premises of your argument: quotations and paraphrasing.

  • A quotation is a group of words taken from an essay, article, or book written by someone else and incorporated into your essay.
  • A paraphrase is the rewriting of someone else's ideas or words using your own words rather than theirs.

However, you must be mindful of two things when using quotations or paraphrases.

  • The external work must be carefully crafted so that it supports YOUR work.
  • The authorship of the external work must be properly acknowledged (or you may be accused of cheating!!)


Quotations can be very powerful. They lend authority to your argument, provide insights from established researchers, and illustrate the prevalence or pervasiveness of your position. BUT, a quotation needs to be worked in to your own argument.TO DO THIS YOU WILL NEED TO

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Key points
Demonstrate why the quotation has the authority to support your claim.

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Glenn Gaesser, sport physiologist from the University of Virginia, maintains that "weight loss may be detrimental, rather than helpful, even in obese individuals." (Gaesser, 1997, p. 47).

How is authority demonstrated here?

Explain how the quotation fits into your argument.

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One example of the benefits of an interpretive approach to outdoor guiding is described by Lucy Egmont from the Ecotourism Association of Australasia, who writes "there is much more to outdoor tourism than just ensuring client safety. Encouraging a full experience of the wilderness is an imperative for New Zealand's guiding industry." (Egmont, 2003, p. 21)

Do you see how this quote is threaded into the essay?

Make the quotation fit grammatically into the essay. If the language doesn't "fit" - fix it!

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Example of a quotation that doesn't fit grammatically: Dr Collins describes the effect of alcohol as "have a strong effect on national identity." (Collins, 1997, p. 22)

Example of a quotation that fits grammatically: Dr Collins describes the effect of alcohol as as "hav[ing] a strong effect on national identity." (Collins, 1997, p. 22) What did the writer do here to fix the quote?


When should you paraphrase?

  • the quotation is long and wordy
  • the words in the quotation are not powerful
  • the source of the quotation is unknown or dubious

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An example of a good use of paraphrasing:

Rather than: Graham Mourie said that the main emphasis of his talk was "stressing to players" the importance of team work.
Paraphrase: Graham Mourie felt that stressing the importance of team work to the players was the main emphasis of his talk. But remember, even if you paraphrase, you must acknowledge the person whose work you are paraphrasing!

Acknowledging the authors of external work

There are two reasons for acknowledging the authors of external work.

  • To acknowledge and or protect intellectual property
  • To provide resources for readers

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A note about academic style.

Every discipline has particular conventions about how citations and reference lists should be prepared. While on the one hand, it might be easier if all disciplines did things the same way, on the other, it's clear to see that each discipline has a different history, and different requirements, explaining why the conventions are specific to each group.

There are two ways that the acknowledgment must be made:

  • The citation: CITATIONS are the way of flagging a quotation or a paraphrase, and identifying where someone else's work or views are being reproduced. Usually, a citation contains brief information about the origin of the quotation or paraphrase. Citations may be made by footnote, endnote, or by placing the authors' names in brackets after the occurrence of their work. Deciding the form of citation you should use depends on the instructions your lecturer has given you.
  • The reference list: REFERENCE LISTS are lists containing detailed information about the origin of the quotation or paraphrase. It is placed at the end of the essay, and will either be in alphabetical order or in order of citation, depending on the academic style used in your course.

Presenting your assignment

Find out what submission requirements for your school and your individual lecturer are. All essays must be word processed, double spaced and with at least 2.54cm margins on both sides. A cover sheet will include the title of the essay, your name or student number and other information that your lecturer will specify. Use simple fonts like times new roman, arial or Helvetica. Do not include graphics or illustrations that are not part of the essay. Use your computer's grammar and spell-checker, and get a friend to proof-read too. You should read your essay several times to check for mistakes. Here is a list of common mistakes to avoid in your essay: