‘Deliberately formal, purposefully obtuse, and decidedly difficult’: what essays should not be (Part 2)

AO author photo bwGuest post by Alex Osmond, author of “Academic Writing and Grammar for Students”

In this three part series, Alex Osmond, author of Academic Writing and Grammar for Students, discusses three common issues faced by students in academic writing. Providing helpful tips and advice on how you can help your students overcome the common pitfalls in academic writing, this series is not to be missed!

In this second post, Osmond discusses the challenges students face when referencing academic research within the field. Keep your eyes on SAGE Connection for the last post in this series which will look at expletive constructions.

Issue #2: ‘It has been said that…’

This issue is similar to the one I discussed in my previous post[d1] . They both involve writing becoming vague, unclear and un-academic. In both cases this happens because the writer is either not in control of, or not confident in, where certain ideas have come from. They can’t be clear and open with their readers about this.

Phrases like ‘it has been said that’, ‘it has been suggested that’, and ‘evidence suggests that’ often appear in essays. When supported, this is no problem. When they are not supported, however, there is a huge problem. (An unsupported ‘evidence suggests that…’ in a sentence making no effort to identify said ‘evidence’ would be particularly bold!)

Several possible causes exist. The writer might not remember who suggested something. They might think something is so widely accepted that they don’t need to provide evidence (this might be true – in which case using these phrases is misleading). Perhaps they haven’t read a particular argument or point anywhere, but conclude that someone, somewhere at some point must, surely, have suggested it.

Whatever the case, in their written work, students need to be clear about where ideas have come from.

I also see a link to the insecurity I mentioned in the previous post: the essay-writer wants to make a point. They feel uncomfortable making that point themselves (that is, without referencing) and so attach one of these ‘academic-sounding’ phrases. If they’ve made a point and it is clear how they’ve reached that idea, they don’t need to surround it with extraneous phrases – whether ‘it has been said that’ or ‘I believe’. If the point comes from an opinion they have held for years, it doesn’t belong in an essay.

The student needs to accept that, if they are going to attribute an idea to someone else, they must use referencing to clearly specify that attribution. If they can’t attribute a particular idea to someone else, they mustn’t pretend to. They can include that idea in their work if it is clear that they have reached it based on the points in the essay that they have attributed to others.

Alternatively, they can research their topic to see if a particular argument has been made, so they can attribute the idea to someone else.

If the above options have been exhausted, the point can’t appear in the essay.

Catch up – (Part 1) Issue #1: ‘I think’, ‘I feel’ & ‘I believe’


The final part of this three part series will be published on SAGE Connection in May so keep your eyes peeled!

The above post not enough? Then head to Alex’s Facebook page for more great writing tips and resources! Get your students to like the book’s site and Alex can provide personalised one-to-one advice on their essays!

Want to know more? Then click here to watch a series of videos where Alex talks about his new book, common mistakes found in student essays and how students can keep their writing concise and clear.

About Alex Osmond

Alex Osmond still can’t believe
his first book has been published by SAGE. He has taught academic and writing skills at Cardiff Metropolitan University and Brunel University. Alex just spent two years managing Brunel’s VLE upgrade and is now developing a programme that enhances the attributes of the University’s graduates. Alex can’t stand run-on sentences and won’t get a good night’s sleep until they have been eradicated (we managed to get rid of smallpox, after all…).

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