‘Deliberately formal, purposefully obtuse, and decidedly difficult’: what essays should not be (Part 1)

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 first post, Osmond discusses the challenges students face when asserting their academic voice. Keep your eyes on SAGE Connection for the following two posts on clarity and expletive constructions.

In my experience, students are willing – eager, even – to devote time to activities that will improve their writing skills. They read and buy books, download resources, visit webpages, and attend the skills sessions available where they’re studying. I’d be interested to learn if anyone has had different experiences.

Students must, of course, find the activities useful. It might sound obvious, but think about how a 300-page book on academic skills stands on the shelf next to four other 300-page books which will be discussed during next Thursday’s seminar.

What we offer them must be useful and usable.

Even bearing in mind the changing landscape of Higher Education, the fact is that students are often eager to develop their skills when provided with resources that genuinely do help them. This puts us academics, professionals, librarians, authors, tutors, teachers, and teaching assistants in quite a comfortable position.

We just need to provide the resources.

To do that, we have excellent tools: our own experiences teaching and reading essays and academic texts; and, from these, an understanding of what it means to write academically.

Students need to learn that academic writing is not about being deliberately formal, or purposefully obtuse, or decidedly difficult. (I’m sure many of you know of the delicious Calvin & Hobbes cartoon that perfectly parodies this idea.) Complexity is like a ‘side-effect’ of the powerful ideas that students – and the academics that teach them – write about.

Throughout my book, I try to stay true to what my experiences suggest are the real issues frequently affecting essays; and to the idea that writing should be clear and simple.

I’ve chosen three particular issues, discussed in my book, to highlight in this 3 part series.

Issue #1: ‘I think’, ‘I feel’ & ‘I believe’

Many students understand that in almost all cases, they should not use the first person in their essays. (Incidentally, I think that use of the second person is a common problem too – and one that is easier to deal with: ‘Never use it!’ Consider this my first digression.)

However, even these students – who understand the problems of subjectivity and informality associated with the first person – often struggle with a reasonable question. I have heard it asked explicitly:

“How can I put my own views into an essay, when I’m reading what all these experts have said, and it’s going to be marked by someone who knows so much about the topic?”

This question has various answers. Some are long, complex, and thought-provoking. Another is simpler:

“You can because your tutors have asked you to. Make it clear that your views have been carefully considered and influenced by the experts you’ve read – which they should have been.”

The insecurity in this legitimate question (which developing our writing is all about overcoming) often manifests itself in phrases like ‘I believe’, ‘I think’, ‘in my opinion’ and so on.

Students should remember that we have a system to clarify which ideas have come from elsewhere – referencing. If they reference correctly, then an unreferenced phrase or sentence must ‘belong’ to them. It does not need labelling like this. What’s more, students should feel confident in the ideas that they express, precisely because they need to be expressed: an essay of well-chosen direct quotations, glued together from other sources, is not getting an ‘A’.

These phrases are easily found: use a word processor’s ‘find’ tool to look for ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘my’. They can almost always be simply removed, leaving the sentence itself. Write a paragraph to test this – try it. There are examples in my book to illustrate this for students.

Changing the state of mind that leads to this problem might take time. Helping your students fix the problem on the page, which is quick, is a good start.

The second 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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