Pratchett, Austen and the beginnings of craftsmanship.

It’s always impressive for craftspeople to look over their early work. It’s said to always keep your first sewing project, attempt at a bird box, lumpy knitting and so on, to remind you of how far you’ve come. For me, looking back on my pre-teen notebooks and squirming at embarrassment- well, that does a similar job!

The fact is that writing is a craft that can be honed, and experience will take you a long way. Writing with another writer lets you watch another craftsman at work. A little like the medieval apprentice system. That’s one of the wonderful things about peer mentoring. One of the main reasons people come to the Study Skills Centre is simply that they’re new to the particular style of writing asked of them. Highly talented freshers or non-native English speakers are just starting this craft, and by ‘learning by doing’ with a writer who’s been through much the same, the whole style visibly matures and deepens.

This maturing of style and learning-by-doing is a lifelong thing. Fans of the Discworld series will notice the difference between the first and the last ten books. There are 41 Discworld books written over the course of thirty plus years, so naturally there will be development in the quality of writing! The earliest books are ones of very close parody- to Rock and Roll, to Shakespeare, and simply to the plethora of weak fantasy novels so popular in the 80s. In academic terms, there was over-heavy reliance on the source material, with limited originality. Pratchett’s inexperience also shows in the long, over emphasised sentences, weighed down by excess information, and an unclear central theme in the various strands.

Similar is the Juvenilia (juvenile writings) of Jane Austen, which you may be able to get a copy of online or from an old fashioned second hand bookshop. These short stories romp with energy, are clear parodies of the source reading material and don’t quite have the same readability or sound structure of her later work. Many believe that the finest novel she ever wrote was her last, Sandringham. Sadly this was never completed due to her early death, but the same theme of continuous improvement with experience remains the same.

So moving back to The Study Skills Centre, how is this likely to benefit the writers of Bangor University? For a start, I always assure the less confident ‘novices’ that they will only get better. And they do. To the point I can be little more than a sounding board for the more experienced mentees.

Secondly, neither the mentor, the text book or the lecture slides can tell you exactly what to write. While the assignment brief must be followed, a university student is expected to have their own words and viewpoints on the topic. A hand to hold can be comforting, but sooner or later it should not be needed. Two excellent quotes from one of my tutors are-

“Academics are always arguing. That’s what drives science forward”

“You’re becoming the academic now. People are going to look to you for advice”

So Peer Mentoring is interesting in that it helps writers at that early, awkward stage, which even the greatest have. By letting the mentee direct the session and taking a step back to focus on the issues at hand, we help others of our kind develop. And for my own early works? Maybe my parents’ attic is the best place for them…

Academic Writing for International Students

I recently had a more specified query from an International student than just about grammar and writing in a foreign language.  The writer specifically wanted to know how to make their writing more academic, and how to cope with academic terminology.  On the side of their subject, I suggested a formal glossary, as well as that they create their own version as they experience more of their subject over time.  On the academic writing side, then, I managed to find a couple of well-structured and accessible e-books which may be of use to someone in this position:

Academic Writing A Handbook for International Students.

Stephen Bailey

Florence : Taylor and Francis 4th ed. 2014

and

A Student’s Writing Guide How to Plan and Write Successful Essays.

Gordon Taylor

Cambridge : Cambridge University Press 2009

In fact, the way in which they are both set out might be useful for anyone who struggles to get their head around the rudimentary info, such as what a dissertation is as opposed to an essay, or how to break apart a question, for instance.  The first book also includes a fun little quiz on expectations of what academic writing really is.

 

 

Bird by Bird.

As it comes highly recommended, I decided to try Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott, a copy helpfully shelved the Mentor room.  Comic, vibrant, and honest – if quite dark in places – this book is all about the writing process from initial panic right through to the relief that comes with the final product.  Though the target audience is literary writers, there were lessons that could apply to anyone putting pen to paper.  This is what I took from it:

  • Irony: ‘That thing you had to force yourself to do – the actual act of writing – turns out to be the best part’ (p.xxvi); so perhaps we need to remember why we’re studying and/or mentoring when times get tough.
  • Expectations are often inaccurate, and certainly overblown, such as the supposed miracle of publishing, which can be really quite deflating.
  • Little and often is the key to success. It takes away the burden of productivity, allays fears from life in general, and defies the ogre of perfection.
  • Comparison to others is best avoided. It yields little, but harms a lot.  Instead, be compassionate to yourself as you would a friend (p.31).
  • Narrow a project so it doesn’t overwhelm you (p.34), but at the same time be open to new avenues of thought as the work progresses (p.53). Creativity is fun and productive, and can lead to marvellous discoveries.  Don’t let your Tutor or Editor sit on your shoulder as you draft (p.174).
  • When in doubt, cut it out. Literally, or virtually, cut and paste the draft to make it work as you need it to (p.88).
  • Find your own little rituals that work, such as working at certain times of day, or putting up inspirational quotations on the wall for motivation (p.117).
  • The exquisite pain and despair of a lost idea should be avoided at all costs, so keep a notebook/phone/index card/pen and the back of your hand available at all times (p.136).
  • Taking criticism is tricky, but the benefits of writing groups far outweighs the drawbacks (p.166).
  • Last but definitely not least, the beauty and simplicity of life is wrapped up in the author’s father’s words of wisdom on an otherwise overwhelming project: ‘’Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird’ (p.19).

I would recommend this book to anyone hoping to get a better sense of what it is to be a writer!

Academic Writing for Non-Native Speakers

Recently, a lot of my sessions have been with ESL (English as a Second Language) students. Many of these students have provided information prior to the session, and indicated that they are struggling with “writing skills” or “academic writing”. I have found in many of these cases, when we really start to discuss the problem, the issue is often that the student is not confident in their ability to effectively communicate their ideas in English.

I have found an interesting book from the University of Helsinki called “Academic Writing in English”. It is, as it says, an academic writing resource for writers where English is not their first language. This book covers lots of subjects in detail, and is great to pick up helpful tips and techniques for mentoring ESL students. This book is available in the “Resources” folder on the U Drive (U:\Service Departments\Student Support Services\Study Skills\Tutorials\Resources\ESL), and also by following this link: academic-writing-in-english-for-non-native-speakers.

Below is a help sheet that I have created which is essentially a summary of (potentially!) useful books, websites and university resources. This document is also available in the “Resources” folder on the U Drive (U:\Service Departments\Student Support Services\Study Skills\Tutorials\Resources\ESL).

Resources for Improving Academic Writing Skills, and Writing in English as a Second Language.

Below are some resources which may be useful to explore to help improve postgraduate academic writing skills, as well as helpful information for studying/writing in English when it is not your first language.

Books

  • Crème, P. and Lea, M.R. 2012. Writing at University: A Guide for Students. 3rd Berkshire, England: Open University Press.
  • Murray, R. and Moore, S. 2006. The Handbook of Academic Writing: A Fresh Approach. Berkshire, England: Open University Press.
  • Osmond, A. 2013. Academic Writing and Grammar for Students. London, England: Sage Publications Ltd.

Online Resources

University Resources

ELCOS – The English Language Centre for Overseas Students (ELCOS) provides English language and study skills courses to overseas students at Bangor University. ELCOS have their own Writing Advice Service.

“ELCOS runs Writing Advice Sessions for international students on degree courses at the University. The purpose of these sessions is to help students improve their written English and become more independent learners. Students can have up to three hours of individual, consultation with an ELCOS tutor per semester. Students should bring to the session the written work they want help with and it would be helpful if they have some general ideas about the kind of help they need with that work (for example, with organisation, coherence, paragraph structure, grammar, referencing, etc.). Tutors will work with the student, make corrections, offer advice on how to make improvements in structure and form and enable the student recognise and be able to correct errors in the rest of the written work themselves.”

Contact – “E-mail the ELCOS office on elcos@bangor.ac.uk to request an appointment for that day and time, giving your name, School, level of study (undergraduate, Masters or PhD student). An appointment will be made for that time and day if available or you will be offered some alternatives; you will also be given the name of the tutor and told where to meet him/her. (Usually Neuadd Rathbone on College Road).”

esl-lessons

 

 

 

Lost for words? Try Google define.

My masters thesis deadline is less than a month away and so I am in full writing mode. All stops are out and I need efficient access to the choicest vocabulary to describe a year of hard research.

Lot’s of clients I see are in the same boat and for years I have been referring them to a handy Google trick called “define”, as well as using it a lot myself.

It’s a really simple case of opening a Google search bar and typing “define” followed by your word of choice. What you get is box containing a series of definitions, example sentences, and, best of all, synonyms.

define1

What makes this better than a dictionary you ask? In a word: Efficiency, and that is exactly what you need when in mid-flow writing up your work.  If you want to use a word and be sure of it’s meaning, a quick Google define search is much faster than looking it up in a dictionary, and much clearer on the page, which is appreciated on a library graveyard shift.

But the clickable synonyms are also great for getting out of tighter knots; beating repetition for example. Consider:

“Managing the team was a complicated task, complicated further by the complicated social politics between members.”

A quick google search later and we have:

“Managing the team was a tricky task, complicated further by the intricate social politics between members.”

define2

It can also be fun to consider some of the more exotic suggestions, depending on how extravagant you are feeling.

Another handy use is when paraphrasing information from source material. As well as changing the word order you can change some of the key words themselves to alternatives with similar meaning. Just Google the word in question and you have an arsenal of alternatives at your disposal so you can really make the phrasing your own.

Lastly, for me this feature really comes into it’s own when you have the tip-of-the-tongue dilemma: you know what you want to say, but can’t quite find the word you need.Here the clickable synonyms are really useful, allowing hot and cold experimentation with words until you find what you are looking for. For example:

“It was set to be a long night in the library, but she was determined to …oh, what’s that word again? Continue? Sort of but not quite.”

*Googles define continue*

Synonyms include: sustain; persist; commence

“Persist? Warmer, but not quite.”

*Clicks persist. Google automatically searches define persist.*

Synonyms include: endure, persevere…

“PERSEVERE! That’s it.”

“It was set to be a long night in the library, but she was determined to persevere.”

Such a process would take much longer using a Thesaurus. Google define allows you to juggle a whole bunch of words and try on multiple until you get a good fit.

So there. A handy tool that you may like to use or recommend. Have a play with it.

 

Writing an Encyclopaedia Entry

By Phil Davies, 10th March 2016

Writing an encyclopaedia entry can be a quicker and easier way of getting published than submitting an article to a peer-reviewed journal. It is also a way to get your own specialist area of research out into the public domain, and, where appropriate, your own work cited, and therefore publicised.

An encyclopaedia is generally understood as an ‘authoritative’ reference work suitable for students and professionals, whether online or in printed form. They are normally ‘scholarly’ and ‘professional’ but of interest to a wider audience. They give a comprehensive view of a subject (more than is available in a dictionary) without going into the complicated detail of a specialist text. Very often, they are the entry-point to a topic for students and researchers alike.

Many authoritative encyclopaedias are now found online, along with a host of more traditional printed versions, along with ‘companions’, ‘quick reference guides’ and ‘[extended] dictionaries’. Most online encyclopaedias accept online submissions for entries.

The objective, structure, contents, format and style of an encyclopaedia entry are different to other forms of academic writing, and we attempt to give an overview of the most important points here.

  1. Getting started

Most professional encyclopaedias, both on-line and in print, have their own guidelines for the objective, structure and style of their entries. Where available, this should be consulted first, as it may determine your choice of which publication to approach. They will, for example, detail the acceptable length of the entries in word-count, the required structure and format, and the word-processing software required (e.g. Microsoft Word) or text format (e.g. HTML). Some encyclopaedias may require a formal contract to be agreed by the contributor (an agreement to transfer the copyright of the material from the author to the publisher) before accepting an entry for publication.

  1. Word count

The word-count of an entry varies greatly from encyclopaedia to encyclopaedia, depending on the scholastic objective of the publication. ‘Quick reference guide’ entries can be as short as 200 words, entries in large, specialist subject-matter encyclopaedias can be as long as journal articles and even short monographs (6000-12,000 words). Here are some examples:

A Dictionary of Critical Theory (OUP): c.200-400 words

Encyclopedia of Postmodernism (Routledge): c. 800 words

Encyclopedia of Literature and Criticism (Routledge): c.4000 words

The Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory (Blackwell): c.4000 words

Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy (online): up to 12,000 words

  1. Structure

The exact structure of an entry varies from publication to publication and is usually outlined in the submission guidelines. However, the following are common characteristics:

  • A short one, or two-word title, sometimes including relevant dates for people, organizations, or events
  • A brief definition, or description of the subject at the beginning, followed by more detailed examination in the main body. This initial description might also state the subject’s interest and significance, and mention the main topics to be covered in the main body
  • A main body, sometimes with sub-sections and sub-headers depending on the length of the entry
  • References and further reading
  • Related entries
  1. What to write about and how

Encyclopaedia entries are an introduction and a guide to a topic, not a critical evaluation of it. They include the important facts about the topic, person, place, etc. (the “who”, “what”, “when”, “where”, “why” and “how”), like the dates of birth and death, birthplace, parents’ names, education, career highlights, and place of burial of a person. When discussing a person, they should always be objective, not hagiographical. The following guidelines from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarise these requirements quite well I think, and are pertinent to all disciplines:

“Entries should be objective/neutral analyses/surveys that offer a broad perspective of the topic rather than advocate a point of view. Authors should see their mission as that of introducing advanced undergraduates (or grad students and colleagues), who may have no special knowledge of the topic, to the main issues and the most important pieces of primary and secondary literature on the topic, so as to bring them to a state where they can read that literature with insight and understanding. Clarity of substance and style should also be one of the most important goals / Encyclopedia entries should therefore not be idiosyncratic or polemical, or promote the author’s work, but rather strive for balance by presenting the important arguments that have been put forward on both sides of an issue. Controversial claims should be identified as such […] Authors should not use their SEP entry to raise or respond to objections if those objections and responses aren’t already in the published literature.”

  1. Style

Entries should be written in a formal, authoritative, register. ‘Editorialization’ (the inclusion of evaluative statements such, “… was the greatest sprinter of all time”) and personal opinions should be avoided. Entries should be precise and specific, the use of jargon minimized, and technical concepts expressed in plain or previously defined language. Entries on technical topics themselves should include definitions of the technical terms used.

  1. Formatting

The exact requirements for each encyclopaedia should be provided in the guidelines. If not, keep it simple and unadorned in the first instance when submitting something to the editor. Some additional tips:

  • Spell out acronyms the first time they are used, e.g.: “Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB)”, and then “RSPB” for all further references
  • The readers of an encyclopaedia can be generalist, non-specialist and geographically dispersed (especially on-line encyclopaedias). Care should be taken to explain acronyms which might in the first instance seem obvious to the specialist or local reader
  • The entry will be copy-edited in most cases, but avoid typos, spelling errors and grammatical errors wherever possible. It has a greater likelihood of being published if the editor does not have to do too much work to it
  1. Images

Some encyclopaedias permit/encourage photographs and other images to be submitted with the entry. If this is the case, make sure you include the copyright details of the image for the editors to seek the appropriate permissions

  1. Personal biographies

Some encyclopaedias require a brief biography of the contributor (e.g. 300 words) and contact details such as email address, the URL of a relevant website you might have. Writing a personal biography is an art in itself, but as a rule it should be concise and focused on the details relevant to the entry, publication and readership. For those wishing to write regularly in the academic world (and make applications for grants, scholarships, project funding, book/article proposals), it is worth having a well-crafted, stock, biography in your store cupboard which can be used each time, perhaps adjusting it slightly for different audiences. Some encyclopaedias may request a personal photo for use on the contributors section as well.

  1. Originality

The work must be original, and it is worth consulting other encyclopaedias to check what has been written on your subject before; even Wikipedia. Usual considerations of plagiarism and copyright protection apply, but properly quoted and cited extracts would normally fall under the “fair use” principle widely recognised in scholarly and academic writing.

  1. Sources / further reading

Encyclopaedias differ in the quantity of sources which they require/permit to be cited but this is normally a low number (e.g. 3). These sources should be ones where the ‘best’ information in your entry comes from, and the ‘best’ additional information for readers will be found. They are not ‘footnotes’ in the formal sense of the word, although large encyclopaedias with long entries such as Stanford do permit footnotes.

Academic encyclopaedias normally require that only ‘refereed’ publications may be cited, and most discourage citing of unpublished and inaccessible materials.

The editors will normally format the bibliographic details as they see fit during the copy-editing process, but they may provide detailed requirements in the guidelines. In the absence of specific advice, err on the side of caution and provide full details of the works you cite (Author, title, place and date of publication).

Likewise, encyclopaedias differ on the acceptability of citing Internet sources, and while this is increasingly common, they might differ on what type of internet source is acceptable (e.g. “.edu”, “.gov.” and “.org” domains may be considered more acceptable than “.com”). They discourage citing on-line versions of major printed texts (e.g. Encyclopaedia Britannica), preferring the original printed version, but when doing so, most require that the URL is included.

Some encyclopaedias prohibit or discourage the citing of the author’s own published work, except where that work is the only, or most, authoritative source available (e.g. Stanford).

  1. Related entries

Some encyclopaedias end their entries with a ‘Related Entries’ section. This will normally be a list of key concepts or people mentioned in your entry for which there is a separate, dedicated entry in the encyclopaedia. If these are not known in advance, there is no harm suggesting some in your submission, you may be asked to contribute more!

Good luck and have fun…

 

Submission guidelines consulted (online)

Blackpast.org, ‘Online Encyclopedia Entry Guidelines’, (http://www.blackpast.org/about/online-encyclopedia-entry-guidelines)

Duke University Scholar Works, ‘Writing an encyclopedia article’ (https://scholarworks.duke.edu/copyright-advice/copyright-faq/writing-an-encyclopedia-article)

Kentucky African American Encyclopedia, ‘Guidelines for Writing Entries’, (https://www.uky.edu/OtherOrgs/kaae/files/Guidelines.pdf)

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘Guidelines and Policies for Entry Content’, (http://plato.stanford.edu/guidelines.html)

 

Encyclopaedias consulted

Buchanan, Ian (ed.), A Dictionary of Critical Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)

Coyle, Martin, et. al. (eds.), Encyclopedia of Literature and Criticism (London: Routledge, 1991)

Ryan, Michael (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory (Oxford: Blackwell, 2011)

Taylor, Victor E., et. al. (eds.), Encyclopedia of Postmodernism (London: Routledge, 2001)

 

Introduction versus Lit Review

I have seen a few students recently who are struggling with the difference between a literature review and either a research proposal or an introduction.

In the psychology dept. the masters students were given guidance on this at the start of the year. However, it has come to my attention that many other students (including many who have not had the undergraduate experience of writing a dissertation, whether they be international students or joint honors students) are unclear on both what sets the projects apart and also the requirements for each.

I have adapted the advice that I was given and have created a document for the U Drive (U:) that should be more generic, with additional links to further support – please feel free to amend further if necessary.

The links provided within the document are shown below, they may be of use to those reading from a wider audience:

http://guides.library.vcu.edu/lit-review – Online PDF

http://www.lib.ncsu.edu/tutorials/lit-review/ – Online video tutorial

What Kind of Learner are You?

Every student has their own individual methods and techniques for learning new information or revising for exams. Honey and Mumford (1992) proposed that there are four definitive “learning styles” that most students can associate with. It is important to be aware of, and understand, your own learning style. This understanding makes it easier to create essay plans or work schedules, and may help you to find the best method of revision and exam preparation for you.

The proposed learning styles are as follows:

The Activist

You like to learn by doing things. You are happier with project work, and all kinds of active learning. You are less happy reading long papers, analysing data and sitting in lectures.

The Reflector

You are more cautious and like to weigh up all the issues before acting. When you make a decision, it is thought through. You are probably happy to work on a project, if you are given time to digest all the facts before making a decision. You dislike having work dumped on you and get worried by tight deadlines.

The Pragmatist

You like taking theories and putting them into practise and you need to see the benefit and relevance of what you are doing. If you are learning something you feel has no practical value, you lose interest. You may want to ask your tutor ‘why are we learning this?’ If you are a student who says ‘I don’t like this course as it is all theory’ then your learning preference is probably ‘pragmatist’ or ‘activist’.

The Theorist

You like to understand what is behind certain actions and enjoy working through issues theoretically in a well-structured way and whether you apply it or not doesn’t interest you as much. You may be the one to ask questions as to why and how something occurs. You dislike unstructured sessions and dislike it when you are asked to reflect on some activity or say what you felt about it.

The style you prefer can help you make choices about the way that you work. For example, when revising, a theorist may  read over pages and pages of notes and journals to make sure they understand all of the information. An activist, on the other hand, may benefit from making bright and creative revision posters, or creating interesting and enjoyable games to learn important information.

You may definitively fall in to one single category. You may fall into two categories, or even find that you overlap between several. Whichever learning style(s) you think describes the way you learn can be very helpful with university education, and even outside academia.

Something to keep in mind when studying!

References

Honey, P. and Mumford, A., 1992. The manual of learning styles.

Writing an abstract for proposed research…

An abstract is used to present either proposed research or completed research to be published. Information on the latter is readily taught and readily available. However, in sessions recently I have noticed that abstract guidance for literature reviews or proposals is quite scarce. Also, it is around this time of year that students may be submitting such proposals, abstract included. Furthermore, writing an abstract for a proposal is an extremely important skill for the future as it may be required to obtain research funding (Black, 2014).

As opposed to a research dissertation abstract, writing a summary for a literature review or project proposal requires slightly different questions to be answered.

For a research proposal abstract the following elements are important (UNLV, 2013):

  1. A rationale for the choice of topic indicating its importance within the field or discipline for which you are writing.
  2. A brief summary of your review of the existing published work
  3. An outline of the intended approach or methodology
  4. Expected finding/s
  5. Implications of such finding/s

When writing an abstract for a literature review, the first two points above may be considered and described in more detail.

The word count of a proposal abstract can vary depending on the purpose of the summary. Within the university setting, for assignments, the guideline is usually around the 150-200 mark. However, for submissions to funding agencies students should be aware that the length of these abstracts depends on the requirements of the funding body and may be up to a page/500 words in length required. When affiliated with a company or presenting proposed research from a research group a WHO, WHAT, WHERE, HOW, WHEN and WHY approach is suggested as a way of covering all of the essentials about the work you intend to carry out (Biscoe, n.d.).

 

Web links to sources:

Black, C. (2014). Retrieved from: http://orsp.umich.edu/research-proposals-abstract-or-summary

Biscoe, B. (n.d.). Retrieved from: http://www.mc3edsupport.org/community/knowledgebases/proposal-abstract-sample-567.html

UNLV writing centre. (2013). Retrieved from: http://writingcenter.unlv.edu/writing/abstract.html