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Academic Writing

Taking notes

In April, 2016, NPR reported that a study had discovered that students who take notes in handwriting, rather than using digital devices, retain and understand the material better.

Written work

As students will be told again and again, accurate and professional presentation of formal written work is crucial, and failure to polish the work (reading for sense and to make sure the argument holds up, as well as editing, spell-checking and proofreading) may well lower the mark awarded.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reported last year that 16-24 year-olds in England rank 22 (out of 24 nations) for literacy. (The full report(PDF Document) is over 400 pages, so reading The Guardian's summary may make the point more pithily.) University students are expected to be able to write grammatically, and also to recognize and use the correct terminology when discussing grammatical aspects of language.

Students who have studied other languages (and at least some for whom English is not their first language) often have a better grasp of grammar and the terminology of grammar than those who have not; but there are many textbooks available to those who need to learn, or brush up, their English grammar to improve both their writing skills and their understanding of the language and its usage. The library has a large range of books on English grammar, and offers access to various online texts too. (Start here.) Take some time to find the right textbook to match your level of understanding and preferred learning methods. (If there were a single clear and simple way to explain grammar, there would only need to be one book. As it is…) Set some time to look leisurely through several texts, to seek one whose explanations and examples are clear to you.

As for checking written submissions before handing them in, all those amusing auto-correction errors floating round the internet should be taken as a warning that the writer, not any spelling or grammar software, needs to be in change of presentation. This video makes an important point about the dangers of not checking one's work: Taylor Mali, 'The the impotence of proofreading'.


Style guides

Each discipline and department has its preferred style guide(s). English prescribes:

A. Modern Humanities Research Association (MHRA) style. In addition to being used by several departments in Humanities, this is based on UK-spelling and punctuation practice, and is available in full from the MHRA as a free download (PDF Document). Printed copies can be obtained from the library:

MHRA Style Guide: A Handbook for Authors, Editors, and Writers of Theses. 3rd edn (London: MHRA, 2013). WUL: Z253.M2 E-text: MHRA (PDF Document)

B. Modern Language Association (MLA) style. Strictly speaking, this must be purchased, as the various online guides available are not 'pure' MLA, but particular universities' or departments' interpretations or adaptations of the style, and may well extract only the material relating to citation of sources, which is only a part of the guide's stylistic focus. Library copies are sparse and some copies of the latest editions have short loan periods. The association is based in North America, so some of the instructions and examples advocated use spellings, punctuation and grammatical practices unfamiliar to writers of UK-English (and not really correct if used by those writers). On the other hand, the MLA guides are very thorough. Two texts are published by the association:

MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. 7th edn (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2009). WUL: PN 146.M6

(The MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing (3rd edn (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2008). WUL: Z 253.M6) is also an option, but the text contains much that is relevant only to established scholars preparing works for publication, while the Handbook includes a range of more basic information, such as useful sections on grammar, punctuation, and so on.)

Either of the styles is acceptable, but students must use the selected style consistently: the choice is between MHRA and MLA, and these styles must not be mixed.

The guides explain referencing and citation practice, but also cover other useful aspects of style, such as the layout of a script, when to italicize non-English terms, and how to present a text whose author is unknown. Since students are required to present their written submissions according to one of the prescribed styles, and since penalties may await those who fail to adhere to the chosen style, obtaining a copy of the guide, and studying it, is recommended.


Essay-writing classes and help

Most students find undergraduate essays quite a step forward from A-level essays. All students should attend any lectures, classes and workshops made available to them: no-one has nothing left to learn. In Term 1, the Warwick Writing Programme (WWP) runs sessions, aimed at first year-students, on various aspects of writing. The schedule can be found here.

Some students find aspects of university-level essays especially difficult and might benefit from focused discussions of a particular piece of work. The Royal Literary Fund (RLF) operates a Fellowship scheme that provides an opportunity for one-to-one sessions with a Fellow. Details of the scheme and how to book an appointment with the RLF fellow can be found here.