Once upon a time, there was a nurse…
This was how I might as well have started my initial attempts at academic writing. In my undergraduate teaching and nursing days, I had no idea on what the lecturers meant by their feedback that addressed my lack of sentence and paragraph structure, my lack of focus, and my lack of answering the assigned essay question.
Unlike the advice in my last post, I didn’t ask any questions, not because I lacked the confidence to do so, but because I genuinely thought I had this assignment business under control. It wasn’t until I received low passes (and some very low passes), that I questioned the amount of research and effort I was putting into this work, versus my low return (low marks). Didn’t they realise that I was working hard on this essay, from the day that it was set? My peers, who pulled something together the last couple of days before it was due, were gaining Credits and Distinctions.
Something was not right here. I sat down with one lecturer, going through all that I had not addressed and finally breaking down when I didn’t understand what he was talking about. No one had ever mentioned topic sentences, stuff about my argument or my ‘voice’, before. What was this all about? I can’t have slept through every English class! In fact, I know I didn’t, as I had always achieved A’s and been commended for my creativity and expression.
Thankfully, this happened early in my academic career. The lecturer above handed me a tissue and on the corner of my paper gave me a little tutorial about essay structure, which helped to take me from barely passing to doing very well. Honestly! I carried that torn off piece of paper with me, in my pencil case (this was last century, remember), got it out for every assignment, and never looked back.
Well, to be really honest, I probably missed the mark on occasions, but at least I missed it with style and with great topic sentences, a clear argument and my own voice!
Today, there is so much information to make this a much less painful experience for you. Thousands of experts, websites, blog posts and YouTube videos, are out there to make sure you get this all right from the beginning. So why are so many still struggling?
Well, part of the reason is that there are many like me, who have returned to study in a new century and found that what we were once rewarded for – for example, creativity and expression – was no longer enough. If you are starting University study, be prepared to start learning all over again.
Thankfully though, there are these resources available, and it is only a matter of finding the one that resonates with you best so that you too can turn those grades around so that they match the passion and effort you are putting into those papers.
I have three tips.
The first tip is that you have to want to learn how to do it in the first place. After some years spent helping others, I have realised that not every student has the time, or inclination to put into learning what it takes to produce a good paper. Not every paper will get the mark that you think it deserves, but taking the time to learn some of the basics, will make those grades more achievable, and achievable more often.
The next tip is to learn what is required. Probably the most straightforward way to start, if you struggle with the basics of essay writing, is to have a guide next to you when you start thinking about having to start this paper. Widely acknowledged as being a great student resource is the Purdue Online Writing Lab (Purdue OWL) available at https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/section/1/2/.
One of my favourite resources that I work through with students, and send students to, is the Macquarie University Guide, available at https://www.students.mq.edu.au/public/download.jsp?id=201003.
These guides will take you by the hand and lead you through the main elements that will allow you to learn what is needed to produce a paper that 1) you can be proud of, and 2) that will satisfy your lecturers. While there is still no guarantee of success, at least you will be much closer to gaining those higher marks than you were without it.
The final tip is to find an academic paper that you enjoyed reading (maybe ‘enjoyed’ is rather strong, but one that you almost enjoyed will do). Hopefully, this paper is from an area close to your study area, but it doesn’t matter if it isn’t. It must be a paper which you can read and understand. This is important. You must be able to understand the message/story the writer is trying to get across. You need to enjoy reading it. If you can’t, put it aside and find another one.
If it is in your broad study area (it really can be on absolutely any topic at all), and you find it easy to read and enjoy reading it – this is your treasured friend and your new mentor. For the next few essays, you write, have this paper next to you every time you sit down. I want you to write your paper, using the same format as your treasured friend. Remember it can be on any topic at all. My treasured friend was a nursing paper on Cardiogenic Shock. I never had a paper on this topic, but I used the same format that this paper used, for all my subsequent nursing papers and together with following an essay structure template, I changed the way I wrote. I had topic sentences – because the editor ensured that my treasured friend had great topic sentences. I found my voice – because I utilised the same approach they had. I learnt to incorporate my references – I finally understood that I needed to support my points. I (mostly) stayed on topic – because my treasured friend stayed on topic. I was focused – because my treasured friend stayed focussed. I started receiving high marks – because I was following the structure of a published paper. I had uncovered the holy grail of academic papers. It was hard work (and still is), but together with encouragement from my greatest cheerleader (my husband), I finally understood this assignment and academic writing business.
If you have any specific questions, I am only too willing to help. I’m not an expert, but I am willing to help and guide you. Although every lecturer and university may require slightly different things, mastering the basics will help you. Remember that I said, anyone can learn these skills. This includes you. So take some time to find one or two suitable resources and then a bit more time to write your next paper with these next to you. Good luck.
Cheers for now,