As I have previously mentioned, when I see postgraduate students (here I am talking exclusively about Masters students as I’ve not had a session with any PhD candidates to date) the questions that frequently come up are “how is writing at postgraduate level different to undergraduate?” and “what am I meant to do differently/ what is the tutor looking for?” In truth, I wasn’t sure how to answer. Master’s level is different, but I can’t remember much about my experience of writing at undergraduate level to explain the transition. I advise the students that, basically, (N.B always avoid using ‘basically’ in an essay) Master’s essays need to demonstrate your ability to think independently and critically, whilst showing your understanding and knowledge of your field through theory. This doesn’t make is sound any fun at all so at this point I also add in that Master’s level is really enjoyable as you get to focus on what you’re really interested in, without having to write 100,000 words on it… . Anyway, I digress. In order to be better equipped to deal with these sessions I researched some tips for writing at Master’s level.
A good place to start is understanding what the Master’s is ultimately about. Holly Cruise effectively summarises that “the emphasis in all Master’s is on individual original research” (2015). There is considerably less guided teaching by lecturers and less contact time at this level, so students really have to be able to think independently and navigate their own research. Individual research as stressed by Cruise is the crux of it; students should aim to look at their subjects in a new and innovative way to contribute to the existing academic canon. Atherton states that “writing at Master’s level is a specialised activity or genre. It is “artificial” in the sense that it is adapted to a very specialised purpose, like legal drafting or even poetry. Its only other habitat is in the pages of academic journals” (2013). Although I don’t feel that I like the term ‘artificial’ here with the implication that the writing should be contrived in some way, it is worth noting that students should remember why they are writing this paper (for a good mark!) and target the responses to this purpose. If they should ever want their paper to be published, there is a time and a place to edit the essay after submission to fit the brief for journal entries!
From the sources consulted, I’ve compiled a check list of what a Master’s piece of writing should look like:
1- It is carefully planned. Good planning clarifies where the writer is going with the paper and therefore makes it more digestible to the reader. There are numerous ways to plan essays – from drawing spider graphs to using electronic databases – the key is to use (and stick to) a system that works for the individual. Good planning will mean that the writer: (1) understands how to address the essay question/topic; (2) will have an outline structure for the paper and where key points will be placed; and (3) will have done the research and know where and when to draw on the findings. Redrafting is also a vital part of planning; no paper is going to be perfect on the first go and so time must allocated to the editing process.
2 – It is literate. Master’s level is really not the place to be sloppy and to have ‘forgotten’ to proof-read. We all use Word (or alternative processors) and the paper should be formatted – uniform font, appropriate spacing, use of sub/headings, page numbers – appropriately. Language should be appropriate to the academic environment, and the work should demonstrate a coherent and strong structure. Clarity is key; if you don’t know what that sentence means or what you’re trying to say, it needs revision.
3 – It demonstrates evidence. Evidence of understanding and of research is imperative. This is where theory and critical analysis comes into force. The argument must be grounded in theory and have a theoretical framework from which it hangs. Theories will have been critically analysed in terms of their usefulness for the discussion and this demonstrates breadth and depth of research. Atherton adds that critical analysis means that ideas are not taken for granted but are subjected to critical examination; critical analysis explores implicit values and contextualises (2013).
4 – It pursues the argument. This means that the work should have a “coherent thread running through it” and pursue an idea, but not that it should necessarily have to argue for or against something (Atherton 2013). Part of this is that the writing does not try to say everything. Key to this is that the essay does not go off topic; it is good practice to note that additional points require discussion, but for the purpose of this paper they will not be addressed here.
5- It is accurate. At this level of writing, inaccuracy is inexcusable. Generalisations and sweeping statements must be avoided and all points and arguments made must be sufficiently backed up with evidence or theory. Appropriate language should also be used as this is a sign of academic rigour. A University of Reading guide makes excellent points on accuracy:
At Masters level you can’t get away with writing about something that you only vaguely understand, or squeezing in a theory in the hope it will gain extra marks – your markers will be able to tell, and this does not demonstrate the accuracy or professionalism of a researcher. […] At Masters level, the word ‘demonstrates’ becomes very loaded and potentially inaccurate. This is because at Masters level you are expected to interrogate the assumptions, boundaries, and way in which knowledge is constructed in your subject (Anon, N.D).
Therefore if the writer is unsure of a certain point, further research is required or omit the point from the paper.
6 – It demonstrates the writer’s ability. Atherton states that “M[aster’s] level work may not have to be ‘an original contribution to knowledge’ as required of doctoral work, but you are now drawing on all the knowledge and experience you have accumulated thus far, and doing something with it which is at least new for you” (2013, italics in original). Writing at this level should be demonstrative of the author’s breadth and depth of knowledge, gained through extensive research and analysis. Sensitivity to the reader is also a must and the writer should effectively target the writing to its audience (usually, course tutors at this stage).
7 – It is properly referenced. At this level there is no leeway for poorly cited quotations. All schools have a referencing system (e.g. Harvard, MLA) and writers should ensure they are following the system’s style. Ensure that page numbers are noted and references are always appropriately cited both in-text/footnote and within the bibliography. The writing itself must include the appropriate number of references. At Master’s level a writer is expected to engage with a wide range of readings although not necessarily delve into each in great depth; for example, a 6,000 word essay will certainly include more than a handful of references and definitely cite more than two authors!
All comments, additions or omissions welcome. In contrast to my own advice I’ve posted this as a first draft!
Atherton, J.S. 2013. “Doceo; Writing at Master’s Level”. Available at: http://www.doceo.co.uk/academic/m_writing.htm [Accessed 27.01.16]
Cruise, H. 2015. “Writing at Master’s Level”. Available at: http://www.salford.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/604709/Writing-at-Masters-Level.pdf
The University of Reading. N.D. “Writing at Masters Level”. Available at: https://www.reading.ac.uk/internal/studyadvice/postgraduates/sta-masterswriting.aspx [Accessed 27.01.16].