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Proof reading your work

Proof reading an essay is simple, not time consuming, but vital to good grades.

Proof reading essays is vital if you want better grades. Work with lots of errors in spelling and grammar, or sentences that do not make sense, suggest to markers a student who does not care about the quality of their work. You can find and correct all of these things with a little time spent proof reading your essay.

Listening to your work: an easy way to proof read

The first step in proof reading your essay is to check it for sense and flow. While one can try to do this by looking at the text, it is much better done by listening. Listening to a computer interpret what you have written is especially revealing. (The computer has little or no understanding but follows rules of grammar and intonation that have been programmed in, it is thus good at showing up clumsy sentences.)

As well as clumsy sentences, listening to your work can help us spot where we have failed to make the ideas flow. By listening you may spot jumps in logic that you missed while focussing on looking at the words.

Many commercial word processors, like Microsoft Word, have the capacity to read text aloud (MS Word on PC instructions). The open source word processors use an add-in to do this. Read Text can be downloaded and installed from this link. The add-in adds a small icon to your menu bars, I needed to move this so that it did not occupy a whole line to itself, or the description linked above tells how to use it.

It helps to follow along with your eyes as the computer reads, what you should spot (and probably correct) are places where the computer has not made sense of what you wrote (reword it, add or revise punctuation, etc. till it works) or places where you spot jumps or repetitions (again edit to correct the problem).

Spell and grammar checkers

Most students know about spelling checkers, some foolishly don’t use them to check their spelling, or ignore their warnings. Ignore the warnings at your peril! Poor spelling may not be important to you, but it will signal loudly to your markers that you are careless.

Grammar checkers can also be really useful. Even the basic grammar checker in Libre Office often shows me silly mistakes that students could have avoided in essays I am marking. A better grammar checker, like the one in commercial word processors, or the free Grammarly, will do an even better job.1 Correcting your errors will also improve your writing, meaning you have less errors to correct next time.

The last step in proofing your essay

For the final step, you will need a friend or family member who can write good English. (Perhaps you can offer some service in return, or cook some treat as a thank-you : ) The ideal person will be  able (and if you encourage them enough) willing to be a tough audience. You want them to say things like: “What did you mean to say here?” or “I’m sorry I don’t understand this!” or “This does not seem to follow from that…” Much better such comments come from a friend than the marker!

Previously…
  1. There is a subscription “pro” version of Grammarly which catches far more mistakes and corrects more complex errors. It is too expensive for me to try, but then I have spent decades learning to correct my own grammar. []

Writing an essay

Writing an essay is like riding a bike, practice makes perfect.

Here are my top tips for writing an essay. Each year I mark hundreds of essays. Most could have got much better grades. Clear, well-structured essays earn better grades. I’ll show you an easy way to write clear well-structured essays.

People hate to write

Don't let writers' block stop you writing an essay. Writing begins with research. Most people hate writing. Even professional writers suffer from “writers’ block”. They will do anything else except actually write. Students with assignments do not have the luxury of years to prepare their masterpieces. They work with tight deadlines. If you follow the advice in the earlier post “researching an essay” then you are already past the first barrier, you have begun to write!

Let me explain: As part of the research process, indeed as the goal of that process you have a title and a summary paragraph. I described the summary paragraph like this:

The first sentence should define the areas or issue. The last should present a conclusion. In between the sentences should each address one thing, and together they should present the arguments and sorts of evidence that lead to the conclusion.

If you have actually done this, instead of skipping over it as an unnecessary extra, you have a framework that you will now expand writing your essay.

From summary to essay

Keeping an essay on target means writing a better essayYou are basically going to turn each sentence into a paragraph or two of your essay. So, how many sentences do you have? (Remember, they need to be short and focused.Long and complex sentences should have been edited out!)  If each sentence was a paragraph (of the average length of paragraph you write) how close would you be to the word target? When this estimate is over you may need to begin thinking of what to cut, or trying to write shorter paragraphs – often shorter simpler sentences will help you do this ;)  If the estimate is under, you may need to make each sentence of the summary (or some of them) into two paragraphs. Ideally, at this stage, you are aiming to write an essay that will be 10-20% over the word target. Don’t worry at the next step, editing, you will cut it down to size!

These paragraphs should be easy to write – you have already done the research. They will be focused – since each expands on one simple sentence. They will lead your reader sensibly through the arguments and evidence to your conclusion. Congratulations. You will be one of the few students to write a coherent essay!

Already you are on track for better grades. It would horrify you how many incoherent essays teachers have to mark. If you doubt this befriend some (ex)teachers on Facebook ;)

The final steps in writing an essay

Cutting the flab means writing a better essay.

According to the Daily Telegraph:
Mark Smithers, from Kent, recently revealed that he lost 11 stone in one year

You have two tasks left:

Edit, then edit again. Cut the waffle. In speech we need time to think. So we use words and phrases that mean nothing, or which add little to the meaning. They give us time to think. Cut them out!

We imagine descriptive words, especially superlatives, make our writing and ideas stronger. Usually they don’t – cut them. A slimmed down, taut and powerful essay will come out of this painful process!

Write a conclusion. What it will look like depends on the subject and type of essay. BUT it should say nothing new. A conclusion should merely repeat in compressed form what you have already said. It serves to remind your reader what you said. Ideally it also draws attention to how cleverly and in what a focused way you arrived there.

Researching an essay

Researching essays

Literature search

The first step to a good essay is a “literature search”. Researching essays well is vital to getting good grades. The goal of research, whether conducted with the aid of an academic library or in the wild with “merely” the Internet to help, is two-fold:

  • to get an overview of the topic. If you do not have a narrow topic set for you, also to identify a precise topic to write about (see below).
  • to begin collecting resources (researching the essay). Useful resources are of two sorts:
    • Simple overviews of a broad topic. (We called them “Noddy guides” when I was young ;-) Articles on the topic in specialised dictionaries or encyclopedias are usually good possibilities.1 A good noddy guide will help you gain a broad context of what experts have said and are saying about the topic. It will also probably help you to identify a narrower topic within the broad topic. Pick something scholars are debating. It will make a good topic to write on.2
    • Specialist works. You also need works written by specialists. Often these are journal articles, but (in theology and biblical studies at least) will also include chapters from books3 focused on your narrow topic. As you search you should not read everything. Glance through the works getting an idea what each is about. Gradually you will get a sense of which are the “best” works in the area. They are the ones other authors’ bibliographies and footnotes mention by more often. You should prioritise these for reading later. They may be the only ones you put in the final bibliography for the essay. Quality is usually better than quantity in bibliographies.

Beginning to sketch out the field

Title

The overview(s) you found should begin to give you an understanding of the topic. They will point you to the issues that scholars debate in this area. At this stage, you aim to produce a provisional title for your essay. The title should (if you have a choice) be short, and identify a narrower area within the broad topic. (If you are working with a set title, unless the rubric demands that you offer a broad overview, you should create a private title that identifies the focus – within the official title. So, you will give to your essay a sharp focus.

Draft summary and conclusion

When you have your defined area or issue to address, try to write a first draft of one paragraph summary of the relevant information, or the issues in dispute. This should suggest a provisional conclusion. (Usually in writing such a summary one side or other of the issue will seem weightier or more attractive.)

If significant things seem still really unclear you should read more. It is better to research an essay more than to write with muddy ideas.

Now revise your summary paragraph. The first sentence should define the areas or issue. The last should present a conclusion. In between the sentences should each address one thing. Together they present the arguments and sorts of evidence that lead to your conclusion.

This summary paragraph will provide the structure of your essay. It may provide also give you its opening. At this stage, indeed until the essay is finished, it is provisional and can be edited whenever you find a need.

Researching the specialised works

Now, you can begin to read the specialised works you prioritised earlier. While you may read short articles from start to finish any longer work should be read following the sort of process outlined here. Note taking will be covered in the another post.. Here it is sufficient to say that you should focus on getting relevant information, arguments, and ideas. They will help you fill out the sentences of your summary. So you are looking for material that relates to the special topics of each sentence.

Excursus: advice on Wikipedia and Internet resources in researching essays

Wikipedia is often a useful place to start, but many scholars depreciate its use. Lack of expert editorial control may allow inaccuracies or ignorant bias in some articles. If you use Wikipedia as your first read, you should still not cite it.  So, make sure that the information or ideas it gave you can be sourced from works of conventional scholarship. (This is not merely pandering to scholarly prejudice, but simple prudence, remember Wikipedia does not have expert editorial control and so is more likely to contain errors or serious bias without supporting arguments and evidence.) Because of how Wikipedia is produced its articles are NOT usually useful in providing an outline for your essay (see above).

Other Internet material.You should treat Internet sources with greater suspicion than material found in an academic library. Articles from online scholarly journals, databases and books may be exceptions. However, librarians act as filters removing works that lack scholarly quality. (Nb. this is more true of academic libraries and less true of public libraries.) The Internet has no such selectivity. You can access any and all sorts of rubbish as well as works of real quality. If you use the Internet (including Google Books as it has little such filtering) you must assume responsibility for this selectivity yourself. Look for works with a scholarly air. Signs to look for include:

  • authors associated with reputable institutions (and who work in the field of study they write about)4 or who have a solid CV
  • referencing – Works that are referenced are more likely to be of solid worth.
  • arguments and evidence – Works that simply state conclusions are of little value. Real scholarship NEVER rests on assertions of authority, but always on arguments and evidence.
  • balanced tone and relative avoiding evaluative language – The more a site expresses clear and strong opinions, the less likely it is to be scholarly. (There are exceptions, but unless other more reputable sources agree do not assume you have found one – however much you agree with the author’s opinions).
  1. Encyclopedia articles are often too long to really serve. However, they may have introductions that set the scene or conclusions that will work well. []
  2. By and large the narrower a title you choose the better your essay. However you need sufficient material to give you the ideas, information, and arguments that you need. []
  3. Sometimes indeed whole books. []
  4. Many scholars in other disciplines have websites on institutional servers (with .edu or .ac domains) that discuss theological topics. Treat these as you would contributions from the general public, a research nuclear physicist is no more likely to be a good theologian than an equally intelligent bricklayer! []

Referencing (citing) for beginners

One of the biggest hurdles new students face is learning to reference their work “properly”. Schools seldom teach this skill but increasingly Universities and colleges are demanding it. Life is not made easier by the fact that, to all except for OCD suffers getting proper citations is no fun :(

That’s the bad news. However the good news is that “proper” citation has never been easier.

This is a short guide how to cite. It explains the principles of citing, and also points you to a free tool that makes the job easy!

Software that cites

You can use a program that keeps track of all your references and even formats them differently for different teachers at the click of a button. The two commonest ways to do this (at least in NZ) are:

  • EndNote: an expensive program for which many institutions have bought site licences. These allow students to install a copy. Its greatest advantage is that it may come with institutional support (e.g. free classes on how to use it). Its greatest disadvantage is that it is a big heavyweight that has a history of slowing your wordprocessor to a crawl and crashing machines. (I’m told it is better behaved now, but have no recent experience to confirm this.) It will do everything you need and 16,000 other things as well. You won’t be able to use it when you leave study without paying a whopping fee.
  • Zotero: a free program that works as a standalone or integrates with your browser.1 Zotero also integrates with both MS Word and the main free Wordprocessors. This free program does everything you need and a score or more of things you should use but probably won’t. It has been known to crash, but in my experience less than Endnote.

The choice is probably really simple :)

  1. If your institution offers Endnote and supports it, choose it.
  2. If not choose Zotero.
  3. Unless you like using free software and hate your computer running slowly in which case use Zotero anyway.
  4. Not using either is plain stupid, and if you were stupid you would not be looking at this ;)

Learn to use it. (If there is demand I might do updated Zotero tutorials but I think the ones on the site are good.)

Getting the data to cite

Unless you are a fossil from the dark ages, do not try to enter the data (author’s name, title, etc.) by hand. There are easier ways :)

For books and e-journals your institution’s system should integrate with your bibliography software, on the catalogue page just click the link to “add citation to Endnote” (or however it is phrased).

NB: this data is prepared by librarians so is usually good, but occasionally even librarians have brainstorms or bad hair days. If the author’s name appears in capitals, or the Title includes a description or something, then you may need to “clean up” the data. This is rare, and if you do it in the bibliography software itself you will only have to do it once for any item. One piece of “tidying” I often have to do is add the place of publication.

Citing right

Add your citations in your wordprocessor.

Make sure you have chosen the “correct” format. Hint: the “correct” format is the one your teacher told you to use, even if you think a different one is better :(

There are more possible formats than there are days in a leap year, but there are a few in common use:

MLA 7th Ed Bulkeley, Tim. Not Only a Father: Talk of God As Mother in the Bible & Christian Tradition. Auckland, N.Z: Archer Press, 2011. Print.
APA 6th Ed Bulkeley, T. (2011). Not only a father: Talk of God as mother in the Bible & Christian tradition. Auckland, N.Z: Archer Press.
Turabian Bulkeley, Tim. Not Only a Father: Talk of God As Mother in the Bible & Christian Tradition. Auckland, N.Z.: Archer Press, 2011.
Chicago Bulkeley, Tim. 2011. Not only a father: talk of God as mother in the Bible & Christian tradition. Auckland, N.Z.: Archer Press.

Learn what the ones used at your place look like, so you’ll notice if somehow your document is set to the “wrong” one ;)

What about citing interesting things like videos, blogs etc.?

Ths is the most frequently asked question. The first answer is this: “Don’t panic”2 The second answer is go to Son of Citation Machine, click the appropriate link, and enter the data (or at least those that you can easily discover, how much effort you make probably depends on how IT savvy your lecturer seems ;)  Though nowadays Zotero or Endnote are probably up to the job without Son of Citation Machine once you have done a few and got the feel of things :)

It should look something like this:

Bulkeley, Tim. Not Only a Father: Talk of God As Mother in the Bible & Christian Tradition. Archer Press, n.d. Web. 7 Apr 2013. <http://bigbible.org/mothergod/>.

  1. On PCs, Macs, iPhone/iPad, Chrome for Android, Android Browser, Firefox Mobile Browser or Opera Mobile/Mini []
  2.  Douglas Adams (1992). The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: A Trilogy in Four Parts. Pan, 537. []

Write tight

Flabby writing loses readers and marks, write tight!

Photo by Dick Rochester

In the real world flabby writing loses readers. For students, it’s worse flabby writing loses marks. Learn to write tight and gain marks!

In our intro class, students write a summary of the message a biblical text had for its intended audience. This should be one or two sentences and less than 50 words.

Writing a summary is like packing for a journey, some people want to take everything! Then it is an exercise in writing tight. Most students write much as they speak. In speaking we include padding – unneeded words and phrases that allow us time to think. Writing tight involves removing the padding.

Googling “tight writing” produced lots of advice, but many writers could not practise what they preached. (Several high ranked hits were written on contract. A higher word count means more pay for the writer ;)

So, here’s Tim’s guide to writing tighter

Don’t repeat yourself

If a word occurs several times in a paragraph some uses may not be needed. Using two words where one will do (tautology) is wasteful: “tightly stretched” only says the same as “stretched”.

Focus

Writers should have something to say. They should say it. Often, though, we also want to say other things. Tight writing omits such diversions. It keeps focused. The asides that often pepper this blog in brackets or as footnotes are examples that I should cut! (Except that I like the effect, and am not trying to save words, and anyway I try to help the reader by using parentheses to mark digressions off from the body text ;)

Don’t be passive

Good Grammar checkers (like MS Word used to have) hate passives. They are correct. Passive sentences are longer, and usually less clear: “The ball was kicked by John” vs. “John kicked the ball”

Cut conjunctions

Long sentences usually waste words, needing extra coordination. Several short sentences work better.

Very that

“That” is often unnecessary. It can often be pruned, it sometimes signals other words that1 can be pruned. Extra adjectives are also an easy target “very” for example usually adds little. Karen Luna Ray offers this sentence: “See how many unnecessary words that you can remove from this very lengthy sentence that I am writing..” Which becomes: “See how many unnecessary words you can remove from this sentence.”

To be or not to be

The verb “to be” often encourages wasted words. Compare: “She is a powerful writer” with “She writes powerfully.”

Avoid adverbs

Often we employ adverbs when a stronger verb does the job better. Suzanne Lieurance compares:

Flabby: She smiled slightly at the photographer.
Fit: She grinned at the photographer.

Above all, rewrite right

We seldom manage to write paragraphs, and even sentences, right first time. Edit cutting the flab. Read your text aloud. Read it silently. Each reading will show fat to prune.

Have a sit-down and a nice cup of tea

After a break (better a good night’s sleep, but a cup of tea will do), edit again. Cut again!

  1. Though notice sometimes it IS needed ;) []