You and university writing

Why a book on university writing? • Working with others • You as a writer • Different types of writing • Talking for writing • Getting started, keeping going and dealing with writing blocks • Getting help • A note on word processing • A tour through the rest of the book

I never understand what they want.

Writing here seems completely different to anything I've done before.

The thought of writing assignments just makes me panic.

This book is about writing university assignments at degree level. Some parts will also be relevant to students taking postgraduate courses who are new to an area of study. One of the main reasons why we decided to write this book was that we wanted to help students find ways of putting writing at the centre of their learning. We believe that writing for your studies and learning for your studies are so integrally related that they cannot be separated from each other. Obviously an important aim for you as a student is that you complete your written assignments on time and get good grades, but writing essays and other assignments is about more than that: it is fundamentally about learning. As you learn to write in a particular way for a particular subject you are learning how to make sense of that subject. Academic disciplines have their own ways of organizing knowledge, and the ways in which people in different subject areas write about their subjects are actually part of the subject itself and something that has to be learnt. This is something that we will return to later in the book.

As authors we obviously do not know the readers of this book, nor how they came to be at university, but we do know that there have been many changes in universities during the last decade and that not everybody makes a simple and smooth progression from school after achieving the required A-level grades. There are now many routes into higher education and it is increasingly common for students to have had a variety of different learning experiences, both good and bad, before deciding to embark on a university course. Therefore, it is quite likely that you have been used to both learning and writing in many different ways. Now, at university, you will be asked to complete written assignments which not only seem very different from each other but also appear to have very different criteria for assessment. We hope that by working through the strategies and tasks suggested in this book you will become familiar with ways of working that will enable you to tackle a range of different writing for university.

1.1 Why a book on university writing?

There is a common belief that writing is writing and that, if you are taught the basics, you are either good at it or you are not; that either you can do it or you cannot. We disagree with this point of view. So why is it that some students seem to find it so easy to complete their written work while others seem to struggle? From our own experience of working with university students we believe that the key to becoming a successful writer at university level is understanding what is required and what is involved in the process of completing assignments. Once you have grasped what it is that you are meant to be doing, writing tasks become much more straightforward. Our own work has helped us become aware of how complex writing university assignments actually is, and we wanted to write something for students which helped them to understand this. This book is designed to help you to think of yourself as a writer, and to understand the ways in which you may need to adapt what you already know and do in writing, to the writing that you have to complete at university level. Whether you are just starting your course or are still wondering about it all after a while, then working through this book should help you clarify matters and tackle your assignments more confidently.

You may be surprised that, apart from a section in Chapter 11, there does not seem to be very much about grammar and punctuation. You may think that these are the main difficulties that you have with your writing. You may even have picked up this book because you have been told by your tutor that you have writing problems and that therefore you need to improve your grammar and sentence structure. Just because we don't deal with these issues very much directly until a later chapter does not mean that we do not think that they are important, but we do believe that writing involves much more than a working knowledge of the formal structures of written English. We feel that if you learn to work on your writing in the ways that we suggest and through the tasks that we introduce, it will become much easier for you to attend to the more formal issues of grammar and punctuation.

In your university assignments you will usually be expected to use standard English, formal written English, the language of education and other public institutions. For many students this can seem an 'unnatural' form, but these formal structures should become much easier to grasp and apply as you become used to a wider range of reading as well as writing. One good way of increasing your own command of standard English is to read articles in the broadsheet newspapers. Articles about issues are more useful in this respect than reading the reported stories. In general, reading is a very good way of broadening your own knowledge of different forms of writing as well as being essential for writing your university assignments. In this book we will help you to identify different ways of approaching reading materials and how you can incorporate them into your writing.

Chapters 2 to 11 take you right through the work of preparing and completing your university assignment. Although this book is designed to be worked through from the beginning to the end, and the tasks and strategies we use do build one upon the other, it is also the kind of book that you can dip into if you are having particular difficulties with a piece of written work. However, we would encourage you to try some of the tasks at the beginning as they form the basis for what comes later. The book does not just consist of these tasks; we also illustrate how to develop your own understanding of what it is that you are supposed to be doing when writing for university. We don't pretend it is easy but we do believe that you can work on, improve and develop your own writing. Writing for university need not be a mystery.

1.2 Working with others

Although this book is addressed to the individual reader, we want to emphasize the value of working with others on your writing. Sometimes at university you will have the opportunity of joining a study skills or writing development group, or will get some practice or guidance in the kinds of writing you have to do within your courses, but often you are left to work this out for yourself. It is true that a large part of writing is a solitary activity, an aspect that some people value but others find difficult, especially if you are used to working with others most of the time. However, there are many parts of the writing process where it is enormously useful to get ideas and feedback from others. Many professional academic writers make use of a 'critical friend' to read drafts or talk though ideas.

On some of your courses you may be asked to produce a group report or other piece of writing. Your group will have to work out how to do this and how to get as much benefit as possible from using the different resources of the group. Even when you are working on your own it is very useful to look at someone else's assignments after they have been completed. We would suggest that you try to find ways of working with other students on a range of aspects of your studying, including writing. For instance, you could form a structured self-help group or work less formally with a friend. This is not cheating! There will still remain the central core of the writing that has to be done on your own. We are not suggesting that you co-write an assignment (although there may be occasions when this is appropriate), just that you find a critical reader to explore and perhaps provide feedback on what you may be doing. A few of the tasks in the following chapters specifically need to be done with someone else, but it would also be beneficial to work through the book as a whole collaboratively.

1.3 You as a writer

How do you think of yourself as a writer? You may feel more or less confident about writing, but whatever your background, whether you have come straight from school, whether you left formal education many years ago, whether you have completed an access or foundation course, whether you are from a professional background or are studying purely for personal interest later in life, you will have already experienced many different forms of writing. At university level, writing can seem strange and unfamiliar. Even for those who have recently done A levels, the requirements can be very different from what they are used to. Puzzling over the assignment title in front of you, gathering your thoughts and ideas together, and incorporating what you have read about the subject into your work, can feel pretty daunting. Rest assured, this does not only apply to first-year students - even hardened academics feel like this when they are writing articles for learned journals.

The first activity in the book asks you to think about the way in which you have used language before coming to the university; this is in order to help you to think consciously about the experience you have to build on as you tackle university writing. Focusing on the different types of writing that you have experienced, and what each one entails, helps you to think more clearly about university writing and how it is similar to, or contrasts with, other types of writing that you have been used to. This activity is not only about writing but also about using language in general; it is important to remember that writing is just one particular way of using language, and that your other language experiences are also important influences on how you write.

Activity One: Writing your own linguistic history

Think, and write down as much as you can, about your own personal linguistic history, the ways in which you have written, read and spoken in your life. Here are some questions to help you to think about this:

• Think back to your childhood and what sorts of writing you had to do. What were the writing tasks at school? Did you write for other purposes?

• Did you find writing easy or were there some things that you found particularly difficult? Do you know why?

• What sorts of reading have you done over the years and what have you enjoyed?

• Have you ever kept a diary or written poetry, a short story or a novel?

• Do you regularly write letters, emails, text messages?

• Have you had to write reports, minutes or formal letters in your work?

• Thinking more generally, how did people speak around you when you were growing up? Can you remember different ways of speaking in different circumstances, for example at school or home?

• Do you, or did you, speak more than one language? If so can you think of any things that you find difficult to say in one language and easier in another?

Now read through what you have written and think about the different kinds of writing that you have done in your life. Write down the ways in which you think essay and assignment writing differs from, or is similar to, other kinds of writing. Think about:

• The types of writing - how would you describe the writing?

1.4 Different types of writing

In some ways we can see all writing as being the same. Writing consists of words and these words are put together in particular formations to make sentences. Sentences are then grouped together into paragraphs. However, even at this point things begin to get tricky if we think of all writing as being the same. It is quite possible to communicate what we need to say in writing with an incomplete sentence. A good example of this would be a note left for maybe a partner or a work colleague:

Dinner in the oven Three copies please, asap

As long as they were in the know, and the context was familiar, people would easily understand these simple messages, but they do not consist of complete sentences. Neither phrase contains a main verb. If we wanted to turn these into formal standard English we would have to say something like:

Your dinner is in the oven.

Please would you make three photocopies of this article as soon as you can.

In these examples 'is' and 'make' are the main verbs of the sentences. Of course when we are writing a quick note to somebody we can still express ourselves clearly despite the fact that words are omitted. One of the reasons for this is that as writers we can reasonably assume that the reader will understand what we are trying to communicate by leaving the note. When we write letters or emails to friends we often use a rather informal chatty style and leave out words because the meaning is still communicated clearly. In fact, if we wrote to our friends in formal standard English it could sound quite cold and unfriendly. However, in other circumstances we use language in more formal ways, resulting in different types of writing.

As you work through this book you will see that we emphasize that, as in the rest of life, at university there is more than one way of writing. Your writing will have different purposes and functions, although university assignments are mainly produced to inform your tutors and lecturers about your knowledge and understanding of the subject area. You will find that you can communicate with your reader, the tutor, through various types of written assignment depending on the discipline and subject areas that you are studying.

1.5 Talking for writing

We have said already that working with others can help you to develop and enjoy your writing. There is another reason for working with others, whether as part of your course contact time or in a self-help group, or just informally with a friend: talking about ideas and material from the subjects you are studying is always a good way of learning the subject. It allows you to state something boldly, even if you are unsure about whether it is 'right' or indeed really what you think, and then you can expand and modify it as you get other people's reactions. In talking around a subject you can also raise and explore your own questions, clarify your understanding and discover a variety of other ways of seeing a topic. Talking can help you to develop your writing. For example, tutors sometimes report that when they are giving verbal feedback to a student the student will say 'What I really meant was this . . .' and the tutor says 'Well, that's not what you put in your essay'. The advantage of a tutorial, or any face-to-face contact with your lecturers, is that it gives you the opportunity to ask questions and clear up misunderstandings. If the tutor does not understand you in a seminar then you can always say the same thing in a different way, but when you are writing an assignment you have to let the reader know exactly what you mean through your writing. This is often extremely difficult, particularly as many people find that speaking an idea is generally much easier than writing it.

The following activity should help you to explore, for yourself, the relationship between speaking and writing. You will need to work with a fellow student to help you with this activity and you will need to record your conversation. This activity will be useful practice for drawing on discussions and other 'course-related talk' for your writing.

Activity Two: Speaking and writing

Work in pairs. Think about an assignment that you are having difficulty with at the moment.

Record yourself (for no more than ten minutes) having a conversation with your friend about the problems that you are having with this piece of work.

When you have finished, both of you should take a blank piece of paper, and without listening to the recording again write about the things that came out in your conversation.

Discuss your writing with your friend. Do you both think that it really reflects what you said?

Listen to the recording again. Is what you have written a fair reflection of the conversation? Has writing it down changed what you now think about what you said?

1.6 Getting started, keeping going and dealing with writing blocks

I always put off the assignment until the last minute. I simply don't give myself enough time to do a good piece of work.

I just sit there; I can't write anything. My ideas just don't come.

When I am writing my mind just keeps wandering - I can't keep up my concentration.

At this early stage it might be useful for you to anticipate some difficulties with starting and getting on with writing that students frequently experience. Writers traditionally find writing difficult. There is something about the 'blank sheet of paper' that can induce panic. It may make you question whether you can possibly have anything to say that is worthwhile. You may be asking how you can bridge the gap between what is in your head and a complete piece of writing. Most students find getting started on an assignment difficult at some point. They may have spent a long time reading and thinking, and feel that they cannot transform this into a manageable plan for an assignment. If they have tried to make a plan, the step of actually writing might stall them. They may come to a full stop after writing for a while - or think that perhaps they should start the whole assignment again in a different way, when there is no time left.

There are many reasons for finding writing difficult, but probably a fundamental one is lack of confidence and feeling that you don't have anything to say. Almost every writer, experienced as well as inexperienced, seems to face this sometimes. Every new piece of writing seems to be a new challenge. If you can accept this you might find it easier to cope. In Activity One we asked you to think about some of the ways in which you had been used to writing. It is possible that you have been used to a particular type of writing which means that you feel rather blocked when you first approach unfamiliar university assignments. This was the experience of one student who had held a senior position in the health service: she was used to writing comprehensive and detailed reports for management committees but still experienced a writing block when she began her degree. You may simply need more of a sense of method and practice, and many of the activities in this book are designed to help you achieve this. Try to accept yourself as a writer and acknowledge that getting started is a common problem. Think of being a student in a professional way. You might find studying either more satisfying or more daunting than work you are used to, and you might be expected to carry it out more independently; this is all the more reason for treating writing assignments like a job of work. Writing for university is not something you can just expect to come easily but nor should it involve so much of yourself that it is really daunting. In the end you simply have to do it as well as you can, accepting that, like any other activity, you will get better as you go along. Accept, too, that everybody works differently.

As you get more experienced you will gradually build up confidence in your own methods and approaches to writing. Always remember that having difficulty with writing does not reflect on you as a person or on your general ability to study. Put effort into your assignment but accept that it might be criticized (and tutors are not always expert at being tactful in these matters). Try to learn from their comments and accept that they are not criticizing you as a person or as a student. Remember that writing is fundamentally a way of learning as well as a way of producing an assignment for assessment. Some of your struggle with writing and getting started will be the result of tackling new material in new ways, as part of the learning process, so that even if you have difficulties with your actual writing it does not mean that you are not making progress with your learning.

It is also important to accept that the 'rhythm of writing' varies rather unpredictably. Sometimes you seem to be achieving a lot, sometimes very little. Sometimes, if you keep going even when you don't seem to be achieving much, suddenly you can have a breakthrough and it becomes easier again. If today everything seems to be slow, tomorrow the benefits of your hard work will show, and you find you can achieve a lot in a very short time. Develop realistic strategies, for example about what reading you are able to do in the time available. Make time for initial planning and for the final stages of redrafting and editing your work, as well as for the writing. There are many parts of writing assignments that you can do in smallish bits but for writing the whole thing you really need an uninterrupted period of time.

Keeping a learning log

• Keep a notebook to write down interesting ideas connected with your courses, from lectures, reading, talking and thinking.

• What questions or thoughts did a session raise for you?

• What was interesting for you?

Although we suggest that you should see writing as something like a job of work, try also to think of ways of making it enjoyable. Working with other students can be really encouraging. You might also want to think of ways of playing around with writing, for instance, brainstorming or making diagrams or mind maps to get down your ideas; there are examples of these throughout the book. What is more, we should emphasize that despite - or perhaps because of - the difficulties, learning to express and develop your ideas in writing can be satisfying and rewarding. A student who comes to think of herself or himself as a writer at university can feel like a new person.

1.7 Getting help

Try to talk about any difficulties with other students or your subject tutor, particularly if there is something that is course-related that you are finding difficult. It is most unlikely that your difficulties are unique. You may have the opportunity to seek help from a study support service in your university.

Problems with writing may be associated with other problems. If you still have difficulty in getting started and feel really blocked with your writing, you may find it useful to discuss the problem with a student counsellor, who will understand and who is trained to help.

1.8 A note on word processing

Word processing has dramatically changed the way many people write. For example, first thoughts can look - misleadingly - as though they are in a finished state, and the ability to change what you write as you go makes revising a very different process from writing out many drafts. Here is one student's experience:

Since I have been at university I have incorporated word processing into the method I use for writing my essays. I make notes on the reading and construct an essay plan on paper and then move on to the computer to start writing the essay. I find it useful to write an introductory paragraph directly on to the computer as I think that the beginning is one of the hardest parts. Typing it on the computer forces me to start and lets me get into the flow of the essay without worrying too much about what I have written. I usually go back and change it into a coherent introduction at the end. Nevertheless, I feel I need to have something at the beginning so that I can get a feel for the essay before I embark on the main body of the assignment.

I normally print out what I have written when I am about halfway through so that I can read it properly and make changes by hand. I can then think through what I am going to write in the second half and how I will relate it to what I have already written. When I have finished the essay, written the references and done a spell check, I print it again to read it through as I find it difficult to read the essay as a whole when it is on the screen. Sometimes there are still typing errors or parts which don't link together very well so I change these by hand on the printed copy, then on the computer, and when I am satisfied I hand it in.

1.9 A tour through the rest of the book

As we have already said, this book is designed for you to choose the different sections and activities that seem the most relevant for you, but we do recommend that you read it all the way through to get a complete picture of writing at university.

Chapter 2 introduces some important ways of getting started and approaching university writing for the first time. It is a good idea to familiarize yourself with, and practise, the techniques covered as they will be useful for you to use later on in your studies.

In Chapter 3 we consider what it means to write for different courses. Most students find that they are being asked to write in a number of different ways during their time at university. This chapter should help you to identify the different course requirements that you will encounter for writing assignments.

Chapter 4 focuses on the importance of analysing the assignment title and addressing the question set. The activities in this chapter are designed for you to apply to any written assignment that you come across while at university.

Chapter 5 looks at reading as an integral part of the writing process and directs you to useful strategies that you can adopt when reading for your assignments. You will also be encouraged to think about yourself as a reader of your own work.

In Chapter 6 we introduce different approaches to planning, shaping and organizing your writing. Activities help you to think about your own planning process and how to find your central idea.

Chapter 7 takes up the subject of developing an argument and how to persuade, and how to take your reader into account in your writing.

Chapter 8 looks at how to draw on and cite different sources in your assignment writing. It also invites you to think about what plagiarism means in academic writing and how to use your sources so that you can avoid it.

Chapter 9 addresses a question that puzzles many students: how do I get myself into this assignment? It looks at different ways of writing academic knowledge and how to move from the personal to the academic. It also suggests strategies for using the first person and writing your own opinions.

By the time you get to Chapter 10 you will be concerned with putting everything together and editing and redrafting your work. These issues are dealt with here, in addition to approaches to writing introductions and conclusions.

Chapter 11 looks at the overall sense of your written text and how to make it coherent. Some attention is given to punctuation as one way of making sure that your writing will make sense to the reader. The chapter also suggests ways of building on the feedback that you will get from your tutor.

In Chapter 12 we explore how you could tackle different kinds of writing that you might have to do at university in addition to essays. We also look at issues of writing online.

Chapter 13 looks at learning journals and reflective writing, which help you to take a more personal approach to your learning and deepen your understanding.

Just a final note. This book is about writing for assignments and does not make any direct reference to writing for exams. However, we believe that developing your understanding and experience, through attending to the tasks and strategies in this book, should help you to tackle any of your writing that has to be undertaken under exam conditions.


• It is important to practise different kinds of writing. Try to build up the sense that for most university courses writing is a crucial element and that part of your work as a student is to write.

• Don't confine your writing to the required assignments. Try to turn yourself into a regular writer who does a bit of some kind of writing every day.

• Take every opportunity to take part in seminars and discussion groups, and try to set up a self-help group to discuss reading and related activities and to review assignments.

• Use the activities in the following chapters as ways of building up your range of writing and reading techniques, and remind yourself that at each stage of preparing an assignment you know more than you think.

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