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How to write an academic essay


I’m a PhD student and so, inevitably, I tutor and mark coursework students. It’s good for my resume (you can’t land a teaching academic job without it), it’s good for my bank balance (my fountain pen habit doesn’t support itself, you know), and it’s good for my skills as a teacher.

Tutoring is great, and I love it. Marking, though, is another kettle of fish. I can guarantee you that at least one in ten papers that crosses my desk makes me want to curl up in a little ball under my desk and whimper, and for one in twenty you can add “while sucking down on a bottle of whatever’s handy and alcoholic” to that image.aI work in the same building as medicine and nursing, so there’s probably some 97% pure floating around So, in the spirit of me not needing a liver transplant at forty, I present to you:

How to write an academic paper, or, how not to contribute to your marker’s impending alcoholism.

In this post, I’m assuming that you’re not writing up experimental work. If you are, though, slot that in wherever it’s appropriate. It will probably come somewhere either during or after the preparation phase for the paper. Some of the paper prep will also be experimental prep, especially sections about research question, assignment instructions, and literature.

Stage 1: Preparation

Make sure you know what you’re doing. At a bare minimum, ask yourself the following questions:

What is my essay/research question?

You would not believe how many times I’ve marked a paper where the student hasn’t actually answered the research question. Don’t be that student.

What criteria are set out in the marking rubric?

If it’s in the rubric, I can guarantee you that you’re going to be marked on it. Generally, you get marked on your prose (the quality of your written communication), your content (your response to the question), your structure (how you set out and tell the story of your essay), and your referencing (how you cite external works in support of your conclusions). The standard rubric for courses I mark has seven criteria, with some of those areas having more than one rubric criterion.

What instructions are laid out in the assignment guide?

For the love of all things, follow the instructions. If your essay requires you to have, say, a section on background literature, then damn well include it. There will be marks associated with itbthe structure component of the rubric, if nothing else. and not including it will lose you points.

What does the literature have to say about my topic?

You should start reading the literature before you write your paper. It at least points you in a direction and gives you an idea of what the debates in the field are. Even if you’re using a research method that specifies naivety, such as some methods in qualitative research, that generally only applies to your data analysis. You should still be reading.

Stage 2: Planning & Structure

No, you don’t get to write an essay yet. By now, you should have a vague feel for what your arguments are. Here’s where you plan your essay structure, and note down what you’re going to write in each of those sections. Go wild. Diagram. Mind map. Do whatever it is you do to get ideas out of your head and on to paper, and then ruthlessly squash those ideas into the pre-formed mould that you’re required to use in your discipline. I personally mind map and then colour code that sucker until it looks like a pair of 90s athleisure pants.

Generally speaking, the bare minimum for an essay is Introduction – Body – Conclusion. Depending on your oeuvre, body might contain any number of things. In more technical fields, it’ll include any or all of Methods – Results – Discussion.

Introduction: outline your research question, and tell me why I should give a damn about it. If you don’t know why you should give a damn about it, then you didn’t read the literature well enough. Go back to stage one and have another root around the academic journals and textbooks. Heck, if all else fails, ask your tutor or lecturer why you should give a damn!

Body: If you’re writing an entry level humanities paper, generally this is all the structure you’ll get. Lay out your central points, link them together so it will have some flow when you get to the writing stage, and build your argument in sections. If you’re writing something more technical, the three sections below will help.

Methods: pretty much what it says on the tin. What you did, and why you did it. If you’re in a qualitative research field, like me, then you should justify your method according to your theoretical framework. If you’re in a hard realist discipline (STEM etc) then your method is going to have more to do with the nature of your data. Whatever you do, though, justify it. That shows your marker that you’ve thought through things.

Results: The things you found out. This is where you get to break it down like an 80s white b-boy.centhusiastically, but probably awkwardly at first because hey, you’re a coursework student. We want to know details.

Discussion: The significance of the things you found out. This could be “hey! We discovered this thing that overturns our entire knowledge of subatomic physics!” or “hey! We discovered nothing new but have confirmed things we already thought!” or anywhere on the spectrum in between. These are valid findings. The key thing is that the discussion is where you go for broke and you bring in all that literature that you should have read in stage 1. If you can’t relate your findings to the literature, there are two possibilities. The first is that you’re a super genius who has inadvertently created an entirely new field of study that has absolutely no connection to anything that anyone has ever studied in the recorded history of humanity. The second is that you’re super lazy. Even if your data completely disagrees with the literature in the field, there is literature in the field. Even research studentsdwho are purportedly extending the boundaries of human knowledge into new and exciting territory! still have literature to reference in their papers. With google scholar, and the assistance of your discipline’s research librarian, you have no excuse for not including literature in your discussion.

Conclusion: This is the easy bit. This is where you wrap it all up. “Here are the things I’ve shown in this paper, and here’s why they’re important”. You basically summarise your results and discussion, then refer back to the introduction. It’s that easy.

Stage 3: Writing

You forgot I wasn’t writing about writing in stage 2, didn’t you? That’s because most of writing isn’t actually the writing, it’s the planning. I can tell when a student hasn’t actually planned their essay, because it flows like the stream of consciousness from that visiting biologist who was free with his tokes on the unibar balcony back in the day: never ending and occasionally incoherent. My advice, if you find it difficult to get started, is to not worry about academic writing style in your first draft. Write it like you’re explaining it to the middle high school kid you’re tutoring. Your first draft is simply getting the ideas down on paper, finding flaws in your plan, and checking to see that all your metaphorical ducks are in a row. You can, and should, tidy the language later.

For those of you who struggle, here are some tips about academic writing:

  • Read other examples of writing in your field of research (journal papers, for a start) and pay particular attention to two things: one, do they use passive voice (the thing was done) or active voice (we did the thing);ethe latter is more common my field two, how are most papers structured? This will generally give you a decent shot at figuring out the things that most bug me as a marker. It’s a completely different style of writing to anything else you will ever do. Don’t feel bad if you don’t get it at first, but do keep practising.
  • Make friends with whatever your institution has in the way of a writing centre.
  • Become very familiar with the rules of grammar. In my estimation, at least 90% of errors in coursework writing I see are from using punctuation incorrectly. Punctuation exists for a reason: it structures and disambiguates language and, as precision is what we’re aiming for in academic writing, a good knowledge of punctuation can only be helpful for your development as a writer. My personal favourite grammarian tome is “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: the zero tolerance approach to punctuation” as it’s not only hilarious (to a stickler, anyway), but it also tells you the history of punctuation whilst educating you on how it works. Extra knowledge is never a bad thing. I often recommend it in my margin notes to students who struggle.
  • Be very sure about what you want to say. If you are precise in your mind, you will be precise on paper.
  • Don’t make value-laden statements in your writing. Present facts, and then interpretations of the significance of those facts. Your audience should be able to figure out for themselves what the “emotive” values of those conclusions are. If you want to overtly present values, go write a blog post or a newspaper editorial. Academics have to put up with being covert about these things and writing between the lines.
  • Get someone else to read your paper. If they don’t understand what you’re saying, go back and re-work it until they do.

References   [ + ]

a. I work in the same building as medicine and nursing, so there’s probably some 97% pure floating around
b. the structure component of the rubric, if nothing else.
c. enthusiastically, but probably awkwardly at first because hey, you’re a coursework student.
d. who are purportedly extending the boundaries of human knowledge into new and exciting territory!
e. the latter is more common my field

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