This is targeted to university students, primarily at students in the BA/BSc and MA/MSc/MPA classes that I most frequently instruct, although the points are relevant beyond those levels and my specific classes. Most of the poor written-assessment outcomes I see appear to stem more from carelessness than a lack of intellect.
The prompt and assessment format
Most of the writing assignments in my department are in the 1-3,000 word range, but expectations and guidelines can vary widely, as instructors target different skills for development. Failing to engage with the aims of the assessment can lead to entirely preventable disappointing outcomes.
Quite often, we provide examples of high-quality work. Take the time to look at them and consider what they do well. Finally, be sure to address every aspect of the prompt and tailor your response to any guidelines given with the assignment.
Common forms of writing assignments
- Standard academic essay: Your goal here is to demonstrate mastery of the academic literature relating to a particular topic, typically while using it to support a logically consistent argument.
- The typical essay helps to develop critical reading and writing abilities.
- Policy brief: There is a lot of variation across policy briefs, particularly across the range of organizations that might be viewed as potential employers.
- Make note of whether you are called upon to analyze an existing policy, or to propose a policy reform of your own.
- Look at the assignment guidelines or examples for the format you should follow.
- This type of assignment, in addition to helping develop critical-thinking skills, provides transferable hands-on practice with a common writing form.
- Research design/Research proposal: This type of assignment will typically involve the identification of an empirical puzzle and a proposed hypothesis test.
- Some research proposals involve theory development, while others focus on research design. In both cases, you should be able to critically engage with the relevant academic literature and, at the very least, propose a hypothesis based on its insights. Where theory development is expected, you need to propose a contribution beyond the bounds of the existing literature.
- If there is a research component to your class, ensure that your essay incorporates lessons or methods introduced in class if they are appropriate.
Pay close attention to any specific instructions given within the written assignment guidelines or in class. Take clear notes if necessary.
- Sources: Are you expected to cite readings from the reading list? Sources from beyond the reading list?
- If identifying sources was discussed in class, have you checked to ensure that your sources are of high quality?
- Roadmap: What is your instructor’s position on structural/outline language, sometimes referred to as a roadmap?(1)
- Some of my colleagues like to see a roadmap; I hate it.(2) Include a roadmap if your instructor prefers it; if you’re in my class, definitely leave it out.
- Quoting/Paraphrasing: There is also the question of dealing with sources within your main text (and within university regulations). Some people like to see quotes, others do not. If the assignment guidelines are unclear on this, you may want to find out what the instructor prefers if you intend to quote sources.
Notes on style
- Never use the passive voice.
- Using ‘I’ is great, as in ‘I argue…’.
- Using the royal ‘we’ comes across as stilted, and may raise questions about collusion on solo assessments.
- Phrases like ‘this paper argues’ are awkward and are not widely used outside of (typically bad) academic writing. Your assessment is practice for post-university written communication, so it’s a good idea to adopt habits that will help you towards your career goals.
- In analytical writing, avoid using ‘I’ for phrases like ‘I think’, ‘I believe’, ‘I feel’. These substantially weaken the persuasiveness of your analysis. Especially when writing a policy- or research-oriented assignment, your job is to convince me that you are right; these phrases do not help.(3) For a reflective assessment, however, these can be quite important.
- Be careful with antecedents and their pronouns. Make sure that the antecedents of any pronouns are clear; a lack of clarity can only work against you.
- Along these lines, the appropriate pronoun for a country is ‘it’; feminine pronouns fell out of use at least a couple of decades ago.
- Avoid sentence fragments unless they are stylistically appropriate in a reflection setting.
- Watch out for commonly confused words. Some very common examples:
- Its vs. it’s
- Don’t assume that the five-paragraph essay format that you learned in secondary school will still be useful without adaptation.
- Five paragraphs across five pages (or roughly 2,000-2,500 words) leads to something that is extremely difficult to read.
- Instead of paragraphs, think of five sections as a starting point. Each section of your paper can (and in the middle sections, should) consist of multiple shorter paragraphs.
- We usually don’t care if you use American or British spellings, but you do need to be consistent. Don’t mix the two.
The writing process
- Carefully read the prompt and make note of any particular instructions that you might otherwise miss.
- Set out an outline for your essay (it doesn’t need to be particularly detailed). Note the sources you’ll use and any that you may need to add. Get feedback during office hours, especially if you are unsure of anything.
- Write up a first draft of your essay.
- Take a break and then read your draft. Is there anything you missed or didn’t adequately address from the prompt or guidelines?
- Do a Turnitin practice run if your department/university offers this facility.
- Make changes if necessary, then submit your paper.
1. This is a block of text, typically between a couple of sentences and a paragraph in length that says something like, ‘In the next section I describe the existing literature. In Section 3, I argue that the existing research is missing a big point. Section 4 presents some evidence, and Section 5 concludes.’ The amount of detail included is mostly irrelevant.
2. It’s generally a waste of your word count or page limit, especially when all papers are formatted in roughly the same manner. This also applies to BSc/MSc dissertations.
3. ‘Never tell policymakers how you feel. Lay out the evidence and provide your assessment.’ – Professor Bruce Bechtol (former US Marine and US Defense Intelligence Agency analyst)