structure

Jul 072014
 

Report WritingReport writing is an area of writing that should be expanded upon in undergraduate courses in academia. I frequently explain to my students that the majority of writing that they are likely to do in their professional careers will be report writing. Yet, universities don’t seem to value this as a skill as much as the professional world does. Report writing, and highly technical writing underpins all other writing types and formats promoted and necessitated and prioritised by universities. Even many purely research oriented journal articles are actually in a report format, so I don’t understand why it has become the black sheep of undergraduate course assessments.

Despite the importance of report writing, and the structured nature of report writing, it is the format that I find my students struggle with the most. Even mature age students who have written reports in the private sector, or for government, tend to fall apart when confronted with writing reports for an undergraduate course.

I understand that essays, critiques and analyses providing summaries and carrying arguments are important and are the backbone of undergraduate assessments. However, these can be present in reports as well. The fact that a report is structured seems to make it seem much more elementary than other writing formats. But for mine, it is the basis for presenting and demonstrating primary evidence – whether this is qualitative or quantitative.

Specificity, accuracy and succinctness are great skills developed and assisted by practice in report writing. Students who hide a lack of understanding with wordiness and vagueness tend to struggle with report writing due to the nature of what is required. Assessing report writing in an undergraduate course would encourage students to learn to focus their writing, and promote a balanced approach to argument.

Report writing is also as varied and adaptable as the other writing formats promoted in undergraduate courses. Reports can be generated for the representation of data, for the documentation of a process, or for providing recommendations and conclusions to an audience.

Being able to demonstrate ability to present primary evidence is something I would like all of my students to be able to achieve. The rise of evaluations for research programmes, community programmes, or projects undertaken by the private sector in my opinion necessitate a greater emphasis on teaching the basic parameters of report writing in greater depth.

Although I studied various science subjects, social sciences and humanities over the course over my studies, it wasn’t until I began working as a research assistant, and writing reports and evaluations for government, that I felt comfortable with writing reports. Apart from publications, I can’t remember writing anything else – which I find strange when I look at what is required in undergraduate courses.

So what do my students struggle with when writing reports?

Abstracts are the biggest problems that students face. Somewhere between an introduction and an executive summary, the abstract is hung out to dry. An executive summary is something that should be promoted as a tool to be used as an assessment piece, in and of itself, but I digress. I find that students haven’t read enough peer reviewed material to be able to write successful abstracts. Writing abstracts for students will be the subject of another post, as it is worthy of more discussion than what I can offer here.

Introductions are also problematic for many students, strangely enough. In reality, an introduction for a report should be no different to an essay or other format – just that it is structured differently. And this is where I believe reports should be used more frequently in higher education, because in the process of writing a report, students are forced to state their hypothesis or what they are attempting to prove/ disprove. The matter of factness of stating the intentions of what is being written and presented is not something that is done well by undergraduate students.

The inability to write in this way has consequences once students become involved in their own research, through further study or as a research assistant. I know that I had problems with this, and it probably took me the entire length of my thesis to realise this flaw.

The presentation of data is also something that students struggle with. It’s quite often lumped in without much thought given to it. There is often no lead in to the results presented, or context provided. Results and data are simply thrown in without much thought as to how they are to be interpreted. It’s perhaps my most common feedback in report writing assessments – that data in tables and figures must be referred to in the text of the document.

Discussions are an area where students really need a lot of guidance to be able to extend the concepts that they are analysing in their report. I don’t understand why this is so difficult for students. It’s essentially a mini essay within the report, which students should already be familiar with. However, it requires dovetailing and being tied into the investigation, experiment or other process which produces the primary evidence.

What are the opportunities for promoting report writing?

A lot is made of the technological savvy of generation y. For mine, the ability to be creative, using new technologies and data tools is an area on which this generation should actually focus. I would like to see new ways of analysis and presentation of data. Using traditional data tools and new tools alike to present and promote data in new and interesting ways. Presentation and explanation of data as a standalone assessment piece, is something I think should be promoted more explicitly in undergraduate courses.

There is a perception that report writing should be formulaic, traditional and ritualised. I think this has led to most reports going left unread and unused in the workplace. But they are an untapped resource, especially for promotional or corporate education purposes. I want to see my students playing around with different data visualisation techniques. I want to see them be able to show potential employers that they can reinterpret “boring” reports and evaluations in new and interesting ways. We live in a world which is data driven, and data is demanded by bosses and management. But we also live in a world where this data is hidden, and underutilised.

Using elements of reports as assessment items that will be required in the workforce is the area of opportunity. Students are going to demand to be provided with relevant skills to what they will require once in the workforce. I can’t think of anytime I have been asked to write an essay. But I have been asked to write evaluations, procedures and policies. All of these are potential ways to integrate report writing as an assessment task within an undergraduate degree course, which will provide long lasting value to students.

May 142014
 

Flipping SentencesFlipping SentencesFlipping Sentences

 

Flipping SentencesFlipping SentencesFlipping SentencesFlipping sentences, reversing sentences or writing your introductory sentences as concluding sentences in a paragraph is a common problem I see with my students. Flipping sentences can also occur in the first two sentences of a paragraph. It was also a problem with my own writing before I embarked on my thesis. It wasn’t until I was given feedback by my supervisors that I realised what I was actually doing wrong. I was flipping sentences. Rather than writing good, strong topic sentences, I was hiding these within the paragraph, often as concluding sentences. Doing so leads to vague language, confused paragraphs, and all too often confusing sentences with more than one idea making an unwelcome appearance. Since then I’ve made an effort to discuss with my students how this problem presents itself, and how it can be resolved. Having this problem with my writing pointed out to me and corrected has improved the ease and proficiency of my writing no end. And I’m hoping it will improve your writing as well.

 

The Problem and Cause

Flipping sentences is a legacy from when we are taught to write. The narrative, story telling approach to writing that we develop from a young age encourages us not to write up front – to hide conclusions, to present a mystery to the reader, and only to provide a resolution after all information has been presented (in some cases at least). From this a habit of writing without telling the reader what is actually happening ahead of time, or has happened, can develop.

Academic writing is different. Academic writing demands that we state what we are saying up front. For the most part, we aren’t telling a story; we are telling a factual account or explaining a critical analysis. And it’s this element which students (and myself) have the most trouble in getting their heads around.

It’s not simply a matter of stating conclusions up front. It’s a little more of an art-form than that. And you will find the best, particularly scientific writers, are able to write their topic sentences fluidly – giving you just enough information to know what their thesis or argument is, without giving away the conclusions. But at the same time, giving you enough information to know what the paragraph will be about.

As with everything, changing a writing technique, or knowing how to employ an academic writing technique takes a lot of practice.

With most forms of errors in writing, flipping sentences are hard to self diagnose. But students will often tell me some pointers that indicate they are flipping their sentences, even before I’ve looked at their work.

 

Symptoms

A classic case is being overly reliant on quotes in the topic sentence. I tell my students that I don’t want to see references or quotes in the topic sentence, if it can be helped. There is a place for it, but not in most paragraphs.

I will often hear that students are continually concluding paragraphs with a question. Posing questions as a concluding sentence is a classic example of what is most likely a topic sentence. I don’t like seeing questions written in academic papers – they should be answered, argued and explained. The questions raised should be intuitive, and flow from one paragraph to the next. This issue of leading into another paragraph is especially if they raise a counterpoint.

Another piece of consistent feedback will be that the language is too conversational, vague or non-academic. Often, this feedback is ignored because the student doesn’t know exactly what to do with it, or about how to change it.

For me, I know when I’m flipping sentences when I get feedback such as, “repetition in consecutive sentences”. I don’t notice this myself. When I’m writing I feel as though I’m elucidating subtle differences. But what it actually is, is that I’m not clear enough, active enough and positive enough to state my topic sentence clearly. For me it leads to a lack of succinctness and accuracy in detail which is a great skill to have if you can pull it off.

When flipping sentences between the first and second sentences within a paragraph, it shows a lack of confidence in what is being said. What I have found in my own writing is that I know what it is that I should say in the topic sentence, but I lack the confidence and authority to be able to state it up front. And I notice this with my students as well. I’m often telling my students to have confidence in what they are saying. Sometimes, we should listen to our own advice.

All of these symptoms (and possibly more) are the result of flipping sentences, and can be corrected by employing the use of appropriate topic and concluding sentences.

 

Tips to Improve and Correct Flipping Sentences

As with all things, the most effective way to improve writing is to practice. But there are some ways that I have been able to correct my own writing, and the writing of my students.

It is a little more advanced than simply knowing what a paragraph structure looks like, you must be able recognise what each of the elements does. However, most students do know this and require more corrective instruction, rather than outlines and generic formulas.

The first tip is to eliminate any conjunctions in the first sentence of a paragraph. Words like and, but, or join two parts of a sentence together. In the topic sentences, these words have a tendency to create passive language, confuse the writer, the reader, and often lead to a messy paragraph. By eliminating the conjunctions in the first paragraph, the writer is likely to say what the paragraph is actually about, and then explain appropriately from there.

A tip to tackle this problem is to reformulate the topic sentence.  By reading out loud, you will begin to eliminate extraneous words, shorten sentences and write how it should be read.

If you feel it necessary to have a conjunction in the first sentence, first consider if the second topic is worthy of another paragraph, and then link them – rather than potentially messing up one clear paragraph.

Avoid vague descriptors in paragraphs, but especially in the topic sentence! Words like very, many, most, some will lead to passive language. These words can point to something important, so back it up with statistics or a reference – be forceful and active by taking out these words. If it requires further specification, move it to the second or supporting sentence and write another topic sentence introducing the topic of the statistic.

Remove references and quotes from first sentences. On occasions, using references and quotes can work in a topic sentence. But generally, as a marker, I want to see that students can explain the concept, topic or element of the work in their own words. Referencing and quoting detracts from that. When I’m under time constraints to mark and grade papers, if a student has placed quotes and references in each of their topic sentences, immediately I’m looking to place their grade in the middle of the pack.

And what to do with posing questions in an essay, especially as concluding sentences in a paragraph? There are multiple ways this issue can be tackled and corrected. The question rewritten as a solution can be used as the next paragraph’s topic sentence. The question, rewritten as a problem can be used as that paragraph’s topic sentence. And it can be stated as such. If you feel a question needs to be raised, it’s often a signal that the topic hasn’t been clearly explained, it lacks detail, or it hasn’t been fully argued.

Academic writing is a process of presenting, critiquing and arguing. Once a student is into the body of their work, questions raised should almost become intuitive to the reader. It’s fantastic when I’m reading a journal article, or book, and I think, “But what about this?” And without even posing the question, the author is able to tackle the question; the points raised or further explain. It is a hard skill to achieve, but when I see students that have been able to master this art, I do feel as if they “get it”.

I’ll write in upcoming addition about tips to produce high quality introductions. In that, I state there should be a justification for what it is that is being done. If a question is to be raised, it should be in there. Different pieces of work are different, but most undergraduate assessment pieces should follow that structure.

Answers, explanations, critiques and premises of that question are then expected to be unpacked through the assessment. If a student has a persistent problem with posing questions throughout the work, I would suggest listing these questions at the beginning of the paper, and analysing which are most beneficial to be stated there, as a way of shaping and structuring the paper.

Repetition, my own writing problem when flipping sentences, is solved by a drill that I work out. I delete the first two sentences of a paragraph that contain repetition, and I write one. Sometimes it is necessary then to rewrite the paragraph, but so be it. It makes my paragraphs more concise, succinct, to the point, active and confident. These are all things that I want to be aiming for when I write, and when I’m trying to eliminate flipping sentences.

What have you found helpful when rewriting topic sentences? What symptoms do you notice in your writing when you experience some of these symptoms? Let me know, and I’ll lend some assistance in the next writing tips post.

Mar 202014
 
Planning Writing to Death
Writing Planned to Death

It appears to me that a strange affliction amongst some of my most diligent students holds them back whenever there is an assessment due, or a deadline for submitting work approaches. I call it planning writing to death and it is a particularly pervasive procrastination technique. It is problematic because one is not aware of it when they are impacted. One may even think they are being productive when in actual fact they are not.

As a procrastination technique, planning is well known to novelists and fiction writers. But it is something that I notice grips academic writers and students especially badly.

It is almost the opposite extreme of unstructured writing which I’ve dealt with in previous posts (headings and so on as a way to organise your writing). This is a disorder where headings, plans and structure inhibit writing altogether.

Symptoms may include excessive note taking, copious amounts of reading, thinking and an absence of words on the screen.

Those most at risk include binge writers and perfectionists.

Treatment includes some of the tips described in ‘How to Write a Lot’.

Most importantly it requires you to realise that your writing sucks. But that it doesn’t matter.

My writing sucks. Most people’s writing sucks. But that’s not the point. It’s there. Starting, doing and finishing something are much more important than doing something perfectly.

Writing is like Golf – the perfect round is never going to happen. Ever. But by starting, getting things down and doing them regularly, you will improve.

I used to be a serial sufferer. It impacted on my own writing greatly. I didn’t know I was doing anything wrong. Not until my line manager (2 weeks into my first Research Assistant job) asked me what I had found out. I explained, this, that and the other. She then asked, “So what have you produced?” The penny dropped and I had to change my ways.

It doesn’t matter what you know, it only matters what you have to show.

So how do you approach this problem? There are a number of things I now prescribe when treating planning writing to death.

Ban yourself from reading any more.

Chances are you’ve already read enough. What is important is getting something down. Set yourself a writing target and don’t read anything else until you’ve met that target.

Read with a pen in hand.

Reading with a pen in your hand will encourage you to read actively, rather than passively. Look for an excuse to write something meaningful if you are devoting large tracts of time to reading.

Write a fully formed paragraph.

Write a paragraph summarising what you have just read before going on to the next article/ book chapter on your list.

Chunk it.

Under each of your headings, spend five minutes writing off the top of your head the thoughts on the topic. Do this without reference to readings and literature etc. Once you have done this, you will have material to begin with.

Get the first sentence out of the way early.

The first sentence of the day, of an article, chapter, report etc is always the most difficult. Smash it as soon as you get to your computer. Get rid of it. You don’t need the weight of it to impede the work you do for the rest of the day.

With these tips, I think your writing may well go on to survive and make a full recovery.

Have you tried these tips?

Do you have any other hints to use when you find yourself planning writing to death?

Mar 172014
 

Previously, I have explained the importance of developing headings and consistent contents pages to assist in writing longer pieces of work. In this post, I will explain how to go about doing this, using Microsoft Word 2007, to automatically generate a contents page. But the same can be achieved using later versions of word such as Word 2010, or Word 2013.

The first step in generating automatic contents pages is to become familiar with the ribbon at the top of the page. Under the home tab, on the right hand half of the ribbon, you will see a selection of options for text, including Heading 1, Heading 2, Heading 3 and Title.

Contents Page Headings

Reserve Heading 1 for the names of your chapters as it is much easier to generate an automatic contents page with Heading 1 than it is for the Title setting. Experiment with the characteristics you like and keep them consistent throughout your work.

One you have the layout of the headings that you are happy with, click on the references tab. On the far left of the ribbon, you will see the ‘Table of Contents’ icon. Click the icon and a drop down menu will become available. Choose the layout you prefer. A Table of Contents will automatically be generated, and displayed according to your selection of Headings in the document.

Contents Pages Headings

If you have forgotten something, and add headings later, click anywhere in the table of contents, and click “update table”. This is particularly handy when you are merging multi-chapter documents, and making sure that the formatting of a large manuscript is consistent:

Contents Pages Headings

Any updated or new headings in the document will now be added into the contents page:

Contents Pages Headings

And it really is as simple as that.

Perfect for developing contents pages for reports, theses and other documents which require headings.

Feb 262014
 
My Thesis Contents Page
My Thesis Contents Page

A frequent problem a student encounters when beginning to write longer assessments and more detailed written tasks is the incorrect use of contents pages and headings.

This is of particular importance for those students who want to go on to complete a thesis or further study. It is also an important skill to learn for professional writing purposes.

Your thesis or report will require a contents page, and will most likely contain several chapters – which will also require multiple sub-headings to be organised and arranged.

Anything else you are likely to write for professional purposes will also require headings. Government reports, progress reports, grant applications and acquittals will require reports with headings.

So, how do you write appropriate headings and a contents page?

The first step is to have consistency.

Having the same colour is a must. Use font size to denote importance. The larger the font size, the more important it is etc etc.

I find using sticky notes (on top of my computer) to keep track of heading sizes and formats will help keep my headings consistent.

By keeping heading sizes, fonts, colours, etc consistent you can automatically generate a contents page in Word, for longer pieces of written work. If it has been done correctly, the layout of the contents page will reflect the importance of the headings within the body of the work.

Also, make sure you have numbers attached to your headings. Organise the decimal number under the main headings. For example: 4.0 Nutrient Pollution, 4.1 Nitrogen etc etc. By doing this, the headings will be divided into chapters, so that the reader knows exactly where they are when they turn to a section of the work.

Headings also help you organise your writing.

Those students that have had structural problems with their writing would do well to spend some time looking at writing headings before writing their assessment in full.

Headings can help you avoid the fear of the blank page.

Brainstorming your heading ideas in the structure you think (or know) is correct, and then fill in the gaps from there. This also helps when you have writer’s block, as you can always write on some topic – you don’t need the previous section to be finished before you write another section. “Chunking” is something that will get you through writing larger pieces.

It is much easier to write topic sentences when you know what headings or role that paragraph will play in your work.

Over writing headings is a problem.

If I am writing on say the Darwin Harbour, I don’t need a heading for every paragraph – unless that is specifically my area of focus. For example, unless my actual topic is on tides, I don’t need a new heading for low and high tides. I would explain them under tides as a general heading.

It’s the same in most pieces of writing.

My rule of thumb is that headings should include a section that contains a: thesis, antithesis and synthesis style (or something similar). For instance, I don’t need a heading for grounded theory; a heading for critique of grounded theory and; a heading for conclusion of grounded theory. It should flow intuitively.

If you have any thoughts on writing good contents pages, ways to use headings, or another related topic, feel free to provide comments below.