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Understanding academic writing

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Structuring written work

"Form follows function."
– Slogan of the Bauhaus design movement in the 1920s

The structure required for any piece of written work will depend upon the nature of that work. It will usually be clear from the instructions or context what form it should take. Thus:

  • Exposition of an idea, development of an argument or critical discussion of a topic is generally best achieved by use of an essay form.
  • Presentation, summarizing and tabulation of data are most clearly seen in reports.
  • Detailed description or narrative relating to specific people, organizations or events is best set out as a case study.
  • Extended exposition of theory or research calls for an extended form such as a thesis or dissertation.

If you are being asked to submit a piece of work for assessment and there is any uncertainty about the format you are expected to adopt for the piece, it is always wisest to check with your tutor, or the person marking the assignment, whether they require a specific structure, or whether this is a matter for your own judgement.

Essays

An essay is a continuous piece of writing, without sub-headings or discrete bullet points. The aim is for you to show your knowledge and understanding of a given topic or subject area within your studies, often from a critical or evaluative perspective. A well written essay draws together ideas and information from a number of different sources and analyses these according logic, established theory and the interpretation of other authors' works.

Aim to develop an argument through your essay. This means planning in some considerable detail how the essay will flow from one idea to the next; how different theories and arguments from different authors will be introduced; what conclusions will be reached; and how they will be supported by relevant evidence, or deductive reasoning. All these factors need to be thought through and decided before you begin the actual writing of the essay. The thinking, analysis and critical evaluation of ideas should ideally happen during the reading and planning stage of the essay, leaving the flow of words to emerge during the final writing phase. Inevitably, you will sometimes be struck by a new thought or insight as you are writing, but when this happens, go back to your essay plan and alter it in the light of this new concept, rather than trying to fit a discordant or out-of-sequence idea into an existing structure.

A basic structure for an essay could be as follows:

Introduction:
What is the topic; how is being approached; why is it important/relevant/interesting?

Development:
Use one idea or argument per paragraph; summarize it and critique it; what are the principal strengths and weaknesses of each theory?

Conclusion:
Draw all threads together; summarize the main points of the essay's development; which argument previously explored appears the most robust; what conclusions do you draw from all of this, and why?

Bibliography:
A comprehensive listing of all the sources used in researching and writing the essay. Ensure that it follows the format required by your institution.

This simple approach can be elaborated and adapted in a variety of ways, depending on the precise nature and function of the essay you are writing. The important thing is to establish what you are trying to say in the essay and plan it in order to deliver that message in as coherent and convincing a manner as possible.

Reports

Reports are generally written in order to provide clear information about specific situations, and to enable sensible decisions to be made, often on the basis of recommendations included in the report. Clarity and organization of data are therefore of paramount importance when writing a report. The structure of the report should be transparent and intuitively easy for anyone with an interest in the topic to pick up and find the information they are looking for. For this reason, a detailed contents page is vital and the use of sequentially numbered or lettered sub-sections is considered ideal.

The body of a report should be as short as possible, using concise phrasing and presenting data in graphical form wherever this helps to convey the essential sense of the information more clearly. By the same token, too much numerical information is best avoided as many people find it difficult to assimilate large quantities of data in number form. In order to keep your reports as to-the-point as possible strip out detailed explanations, calculations and supporting materials from the body of the document. If this information is important to the understanding or validity of your conclusions, it can be added in appendices to the back of the report. Where you draw a conclusion, or allude to a fact that is detailed in an appendix, you must refer to it in the text so that a reader can find and check it easily.

A suggested report structure might be:

Title page:
Include the title of the report, author's name and date of submission.

Summary:
A short section, briefly setting out the problem, main findings and recommendations of the report – a page at most.

Contents page:
List the titles of all headings and sub-headings as they appear in the report, numbered as they are numbered in the report and stating the page number on which they can be found.

Exposition of problem:
What is the report about; why has it been written; what issues does it address?

Problem solving techniques:
What research methods have been used to prepare the report and why; how has the problem been addressed; are there any significant limitations to the approach taken?

Findings:
Any results that have been generated by research or evidence uncovered in the body of knowledge.

Conclusions/Recommendations:
Summarize key findings; draw conclusions of greatest relevance in solving the problem as set out above; make recommendations for a course of action or decision based on these conclusions.

Bibliography:
A comprehensive listing of all the sources used in researching and writing the essay. Ensure that it follows the format required by your institution.

Appendices:
These provide background information relevant to the report but necessarily part of it. They should add to the overall ease of use of the document, rather than detract from it.

Case studies

A case study is a qualitative, descriptive piece, often containing narrative elements, which seeks to explore a particular situation or sequence of events in a non-prescriptive way. Where case studies are written by students, their function is often to illustrate a larger general theme as part of a longer, research-based piece of writing such as a thesis or dissertation. Conclusions may either be drawn by the author or left open to the interpretation of the reader.

Whilst recognizing that no observer or researcher can ever honestly claim to provide an unbiased point of view, the writer of a case study must make a conscious effort to refrain from distorting the situation being described with his or her own beliefs, prejudices or assumptions. As far as possible, the subjects of the study should be allowed to speak for themselves and should be quoted, in context, whenever the opportunity arises. Ethical considerations such as confidentiality, anonymity and informed consent are important when planning case studies because of the impact that the publication of such material might have on the individuals who contributed to it. Information gathered specifically for the case study, and which doesn't already exist in the public domain, must be used with care and permission to use it should be sought from its source wherever possible and appropriate.

Because case studies are accounts of real events, people and situations, there is no single structure or format which will be appropriate to every instance in which one is written. Many case studies are written around a problem or situation faced by an individual or organization at a particular time. It is customary to start with a summary of their history and the background to the situation, followed by a detailed exposition of the problem itself and finally to discuss any actions that have been taken to resolve or change it. In some instances, it is appropriate for the case study writer to analyse of these efforts further and to make recommendations accordingly.