Friday, 23 September 2011

Guide to writing an academic paper

Wow! It’s been more than a month since I wrote my last post! I’ve been so busy lately that I hardly noticed! Anyway, I’m back! I promised my students to write this short guide to academic writing ages ago. With the beginning of the new academic term I’ve regained forces so here it is!

The number of sections and amount of information that you are expected to include in a piece of writing depends of course on the kind of work you are doing, the degree you are working towards, the length expected and some other things, but the following is intended to help you with some general doubts you might have when you start your paper.

1.   Title page
Course title
Lecturer (s)
Essay title
Your name

2.   Table of contents
This is necessary if you’re writing a relatively long piece and/or if you have different chapters or sections.

3.   Introduction
This is a crucial part of your writing. Provide a brief description of the topic you are planning to address and an outline of how you plan to tackle it. Keep it reasonably short (one page tops). Do not include any discussions of the topic here, just state what you are going to do later.

4.   Literature review
Are there any research studies relevant to the topic? Describe and, if possible, evaluate them.

5.   Methodology
You will have to write this section if you are carrying out a study. Describe your hypotheses and discuss the methods, design and subjects of your study.

6.   Data analysis
Analyze your data. You may include graphs, tables and other visual aids here.

7.   Discussion
Discuss and summarize the results of your data analysis. If you haven’t carried out a study, this is where you discuss your topic, put forward arguments to back up your ideas, etc.

8.   Conclusion
Summarize what you have done in your essay and evaluate what could be answered and what could not. This can be suggested as necessary subsequent research. Although the conclusion is a fundamental part of your writing, keep it short. You are not supposed to discuss your results here, you did that already in the previous section.

9.   References
Include all the sources that you have cited or mentioned in your essay. Remember that failing to cite your sources is considered serious misconduct in any academic setting. You might find this post I wrote about citing useful.

10. Appendix
Include tables and graphs that you haven’t included in the running text here. You can also include questionnaires, texts and any other material that that you have used in your study.

Be to the point! Sometimes it’s hard to cross things out if you've spent a lot of time doing research and writing them up. However, if you somehow ended up with material that is irrelevant to your essay, you must let it go!
Be careful with plagiarism! Acknowledge both direct and rephrased quotes and always give credit to the sources or your ideas.
Write in a non-sexist way. Don’t use man as a false generic, adopt non-sexist terms for job titles (eg. sales agent instead of salesman), use the pronoun they instead of he, or otherwise provide both the feminine and masculine pronouns (eg. the student should be asked if he/she is comfortable with the test before it is carried out). However, be careful not to overdo it! Here you can find very interesting examples of people who are not so happy about political correct language.
Finally, proofread your paper! Always re-read everything when you finish and check for typos, grammar mistakes and possible inconsistencies in the organization of your headings, subheadings, examples, tables, etc.

Hope this helps! See you soon!

Politically correct language: yes or no?

I must say I’m not a big fan of politically correct language myself. I mean, I don’t think anyone after Foucault would doubt that language does create reality and that language is used to exert power and dominate those who happen to be in a weaker position. And of course I’m all in favour of respecting differences and the rights of the minorities (although, you see, I even dislike the term minority because I perceive it as discriminatory itself).

But I’m sure all of us can see that we can use language for power or discrimination without necessarily using politically incorrect language (so if I decide to “let someone go” I’m definitely using my power to cause someone a terrible problem, even if I choose not to say: “hey, you’re fired!” . And we can use political correct language and euphemisms to conceal politically incorrect actions (so “the rebels were neutralized” sounds better that “the rebels were executed/murdered/killed” and that might make someone feel more at ease with the idea that they were executed/murdered/killed, but it doesn’t change the fact that they were executed/murdered/killed).

Anyway, it’s a very serious subject and we could debate it for hours. Guides on how to use political correct language, especially in academic settings, are all over the place, but some people actually write against its use. Interesting links:

Guides on PC language:

Guide to non-sexist language University College Cork

Against PC:

About Spanish:

El cyberespanglish y el español neutro en la red