Thursday, 31 January 2013

Effective Academic Writing

Many of the Royal Holloway MBA programme, actually most candidates, have not studied under the UK university system before starting their studies.  One source of anxiety is always around meeting the expected academic writing style. 

Edited below are a few bits of advice I share with students. 

Harvard Referencing

It is often called the (Author, Year) method, where the author's last name is used in text and page number only if a quotation is used.  After the first instance it is acceptable to use the Latin 'et al' after the first author's name in text for succinctness. Every new idea is expected to be referenced to its original source.  Students are encourage to read academic journals to experience this writing style.

Bibliographies (at the back of a paper) should not include bullet points or number lists, and be sorted by Author's last name from A to Z.    You list only the sources you have read yourself and use 'op cite' if it pertains to older work in a newer text.  Note: class lectures are not usually recognised as published sources.   Full guidance is provided in the student handbook, but it is surprisingly often forgotten about in the pressure of an assignment deadline. 

Attention to detail

Think about walking into an interview - what impression does your first glance make - do you leave toothpaste on the side of your mouth and a bit of toast hanging off your beard ? Presentation is very important, more so in the early pages when key impressions are being formed.   A good UK spell checker helps ensure that words are accurately spelt - but it is important to proof read all assessed work, spell checker does not pick up wrong words and poor sentence structure. 

Too much description detail and a lack of analysis

New and returning students have a tendency to be overly descriptive and miss out on critical analysis.  Many students like to start with a general 'background' paragraph, which eats word count and generally does not earn marks.   At MBA level, descriptive content (re-working of ideas already presented) carries little or no credit (however well written). Critical analysis is expected.

A great starting paragraph explains the SET question and provides clear sign posting on the structure of the paper that follows. This can be concise. Students get poor marks sometimes because they do not really refer to the question at all, others decide to re-write the question into something different. There are zero marks for beautifully answering a different question.

Points for top enders

Fully understanding how to reference effectively, craft powerful arguments using published expert opinions and weigh opinions effectively using an academic tone is the academic writing challenge.      The very best way to develop a strong writing style is to read (you read for a degree !) widely across a variety of academic sources (text books and e-journals - accessed via EBSCO, Emerald and Science Direct).   Students can access our impressive range of e-resources on their own computers from listerally anywhere in the world (with an internet connection).  For the past couple of years Royal Holloway MBA candidates have benefited from a personal Economist subscription, which is also a great source of analytical writing, even if it does have a strong, right leaning political agenda.

Note from the Editor

Extra care was taken in seeking to minimise spelling errors and ensuring the text reads well, given the nature of the post !  As a touch typer with a can do agenda, spelling and grammatical conventions have never been a personal strength and I always took great care in proof reading all of my own University assignments.