Tips for students

How do I get a Distinction for my Dissertation?

This was the question a student asked me the other day.  And, to be honest, I couldn’t answer right away, or rather I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to provide a superficial, off the cuff response that left her with the impression that grading was somehow black and white, simple, fixed and incontestable. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Sue Bloxham (HE assessment specialist) at my former university and know from her research on accountability and reliability in grading that this is far from the truth.  Here, I’ve attempted to provide the fullest and most honest answer I could.  But, I would love to hear what others would have advised, so please leave a comment below to add further to this discussion.


Grading is Complicated

What Sue’s research has shown is that many tutors have this tacit understanding of what a ‘distinction’ is in their subject area (created by being a fully-fledged member of this subject area themselves and external examiners at other universities) and, so grade in a holistic way using their past knowledge, experiences, professional judgment and, indeed even by looking at how one dissertation compares against another (i.e. normative or comparative judgment).  Some tutors even have individualised, internalised standards and ‘triggers’ that impact on their grading either positively or negatively (e.g. citing/referencing or use of punctuation). 

It’s also likely that their judgment is influenced by cultural, institutional, departmental, peer-group norms and expectations.  Universities and departments have reputations to uphold and standards they want to keep and reinforce and so they may grade according to this and in a similar way to their direct competitors. Some universities mark lower (i.e. working down from a top grade of 70 or 75); other universities are encouraged to use the full range of marks, but even that means working down from a top grade of 80 or 85, especially in social sciences or humanities subjects because there’s no such thing as a perfect mark in these subjects, unlike in maths, say.

What I'm saying, then, is grading is rather woolly and dependent on cultural, institutional and departmental norms and your tutor's professional judgment.  But I'm sure this wasn't the answer you were looking for!  So, for something a bit more helpful, please read on!


Aiming for a Distinction: Six Top Tips

1. Become a researcher.  You need to take on and live this new identity for the next 3-4 months, and this new identity may require a different way of thinking and being. As a researcher you need to: be independent, taking the lead and driving forward your own project, making appointments and setting and meeting deadlines; be meticulous in everything you do, from your research design to your research questions to your data collection to your writing up; be methodical, thinking through pros and cons of every action you take/don’t take, reporting and reflecting on your decisions; be flexible, willing to re-formulate questions, re-evaluate methods, and re-visit theory/theoretical frameworks; be motivated for the long haul, maintaining your interest in the process and investing in the product right up to point of submission.  If you’re waiting for a tutor or supervisor to feed you ideas, to move your project forward, to check up on you … well, you’ll be waiting in vain, I’m afraid.

2. Take each and every opportunity allowed to consult your tutor, taking him/her sections of your dissertation and asking for specific feedback. After all, he/she is the one marking it, so he/she will be able to (hopefully!) articulate what he/she is looking for! You need to take the initiative here and drive these tutorials so that you get out of them what you need. Make a tutorial schedule, book your appointments in advance, make sure you’ve written sections before you go, take questions you want to ask and make sure you get answers.

3. Read past dissertations that have achieved a distinction and try to replicate them. By this I mean, notice: the overall structure, the style, the academic language, the way one section or one paragraph follows from and leads on to another, the citing/referencing, the way authors are introduced, the way the literature is compared/contrasted/critically evaluated (and the language for doing this), the explanation of the methodology and methods, the level of detail, the way the findings are presented, the way the literature is used in the discussion section to support the writer’s own ideas or to develop new ideas, etc…

4. Do the above (c) with journal articles. Read, read, read… this is one of the best ways to improve your writing. 

5. Assume that a distinction means (as it often does) that the work is publishable. So, I’d suggest you go through a similar process as academics do of making it publishable, i.e. take your work to a lunchtime research group (if you have one) or to your peers or to your tutor (as suggested above), in other words, get your work peer-reviewed. Make content revisions, make language revisions, make it as publishable as you can … and, yes, for many subjects in many universities, this will mean flawless English language and referencing.

6. Try to ensure that your small-scale piece of research makes some contribution to knowledge (this might be referred to as ‘knowledge creation’ in your grade descriptors).  Most tutors are not expecting ground-breaking work at Master’s level, but it is possible to make even a small contribution if you move the research/discussion on in some way, e.g. maybe your context is a different one or maybe you're adapting or mixing methods or maybe you are applying the theoretical framework in a slightly different way or maybe your tools of analysis are slightly different. Whatever it is, you’re aiming to shed some new light on the subject, to look at it from a slightly different perspective.  


Okay, I hope this helps.  If there are any academics reading this who would like to add further to this discussion, by all means please leave comments below. 


Getting the right research questions right

If you’re a full-time, one-year MA student in the UK, no doubt your thoughts will be occupied with the dissertation you need to complete over the coming summer months. You may have already narrowed down your topic and some of you may have even nailed your research questions. If so, great! If, however, your topic is a bit fuzzy at this stage and your research questions are proving harder to formulate than you anticipated, don’t panic. We’ve all been there! Formulating the right research questions requires time and skill


Forming good research questions takes time

Most of your time will be spent reading and thinking about your topic. You’ll be accessing the literature, trying to understand key theories, but you’ll also be finding and reading journal articles, looking for previous studies that interest you in terms of their methodology and their methods.  

After having done this background work, you’ll probably end up with a good feel as to what you want to do/don’t want to do, or, indeed, what you can/can’t do given your context, time, resources and other practicalities. You’ll then formulate, evaluate and refine your question or questions (usually between 1 to 3 questions depending on the level and scope of your study), possibly multiple times. Be warned, research questions do change over time; this too is normal.


Getting them just right takes skill

The skill part involves making sure your research questions are:

  • Doable, i.e. you have time, sufficient expertise, access and ethical clearance 
  • Sufficient in depth, e.g. not too broad and not too narrow (bear in mind your word count), but also researchable over time, i.e. not something you know already or can find out easily via one web search or one question to one person
  • Contributing, even if only in a small way, to the existing body of knowledge (e.g. maybe your study is similar to a previous one but you are situating yours in a different context or using a different data collection tool or method of analysis)
  • Free from preconceived ideas and bias
  • Answerable using your methodological approach and methods
  • Unambiguous, e.g. the language should be clear, vocabulary should be precise, and terms should be defined
  • Accurate in terms of English grammar and punctuation, i.e. formulated as questions

This last bullet point seems fairly obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times students have presented research questions to me that aren’t questions at all in terms of English grammar. If you’re struggling with question-forming, here are some sites to help you:

In case you’re wondering why so much effort needs to go into research questions, the answer to that is they really do help to focus your research. They point you in the right direction in terms of your reading and your methods, and more generally, they provide an overall purpose for your study. Remember, your job as a researcher is to answer these questions via the data you collect.

For more help with and examples of research questions, here are some useful sites:


Prepare to be flexible

My final piece of advice is talk them through with your peers and/or a research group and your tutor, get advice and don’t settle on the question/s until they meet the criteria above.  Even then, as previously mentioned, be prepared to refine them as you plough deeper into your research.  

The dissertation is a journey with many twists and turns and you’ll no doubt experience highs and lows. Try to embrace these, if you can, and view them as part and parcel of being a researcher, which is what you are now!


Taiwanese, Buddhist Nun, PhD student, educator, author, friend … the multiple identities of a truly inspirational woman

It’s not every day a Taiwanese Buddhist nun walks into your office and asks if she can study with you.  But this is exactly what happened to me six years ago.  Not only is she remarkable in every way, as you will read below, but she has this warm, calming quality about her that just makes you feel blessed to be in her presence.  I’ve chosen to feature her story on this blog to celebrate her and all the wonderful international students I’ve had the pleasure of teaching over the years. 

If you’ve ever been curious about mindfulness or about returning to education as a mature student or about studying in a second language or about doing a PhD, then read on.  This interview may just provide you with the inspiration you need to make a change in your life.


Returning to Education

What made you decide to return to education and pursue a Master’s degree in the UK?

Two reasons really. First, I really wanted to improve my English to a level that I can use the language really well across all four skills.  Secondly, I wanted to return to higher education to extend my knowledge and to see how it could help me increase my potential or create opportunities for me to impact positively on society and help me fulfill my dreams.


Did you have any initial concerns/worries returning as a mature student?

I had quite severe self-doubt and lack of confidence because it had been 10 years since I left school. 


And did any of these concerns materialize? If so, how did you overcome them?

Yes! I struggled so much with my first presentation. My lecturer encouraged us to talk instead of read from a script so I practised in front of the mirror over and over. But I remember very clearly that once I finished one slide and had to turn to another, my mind went completely blank. I couldn’t remember any content at all on the next slide. 

My essays were also difficult. I had no idea how to approach my first essay. And because the essay question was so open, that really made me feel like I didn’t know how to do it. I was used to a very specific and structured question and this openness made me feel intimidated.

But through tutor feedback, I gradually started to understand what was required and how knowledge was constructed and presented.

You know, looking back, I realise that we should never underestimate people’s potential.  Just look how far I’ve come since that first presentation. Now, I’ve given so many talks and at prestigious conferences and my last one was to an audience of around 60-70 people and it was received really well and everybody was engaged.  I spoke very confidently and even went off-script for about 50% of it. So really, I’ve improved a lot.  Now, I’m much more able to talk freely.  I feel amazed.  My presentations have undergone such a dramatic change.  And now when I see my audience and they understand me and they are engaged and ask me questions, I feel a great sense of achievement.



What is your PhD topic?

I’m exploring how mindfulness is perceived and practised in my Buddhist tradition, which is Chinese Chan Buddhism.


What sort of impact do you hope your completed thesis will have in the fields of education or religion or philosophy?

I truly believe that a lot of concepts or practice in relation to mindfulness in my tradition can be widely inspiring for many people in different fields. No matter where you come from or what your job is, we all need to deal with our manners, our minds, we all have the space to improve how we react to events, how we deal with certain phenomena and how we calm ourselves down.  After a busy day, we need to know how to recalibrate. And I think, or at least I’m hoping, my research can add some new insights or add more layers to our current understanding of mindfulness practice.


I wonder if you think that mindfulness can be useful to teachers, lecturers and students in everyday classrooms? And, if so, how can we build mindfulness into our lessons?

 Of course! First of all, I think we need a very clear target of what it is we want our students to improve.  Mindfulness is all about the quality of the mind. We believe that if we improve the quality of our minds – the concentration, the tranquility, the calmness and the clarity - we can have a real positive impact on students’ learning. 

So the first thing to do is to make it clear what our aim is and then we can design small tasks to address these aims. For example, one aim might be to boost students’ concentration or another aim might be to have students focus on their breathing in order to detach from unnecessary noises in their minds. 

Currently, I run a seminar on campus and at the start of each seminar I get students to stand up and do some tai chi. By getting them to pay attention to their breathing and focus on different movements, this shifts their attention to another level and helps them understand themselves.

Our minds are always active; by stopping this activity and increasing our level of awareness and knowing what we are doing, this is the beginning of disconnecting ourselves, temporarily, from threads of thought that consume our energy and are not really meaningful or constructive.


The learning process

A PhD is a journey. There are ups and downs and periods of self-doubt and isolation.  I wonder what you’ve learned about yourself going on this kind of journey?

I really appreciate PhD study because it not only helps me enhance my analytical, cognitive and academic skills, but it also helps me understand my limitations and shortcomings and also my emotional patterns. You know, when you encounter difficulties, you start to see how you react. Do you react by solving problems constructively or do you self-pity or do you procrastinate? It’s like good practice, monitoring how you deal with issues.  I understand myself more through this journey. It’s a little bit like a meditation retreat in a way. You constantly try to challenge the boundaries in your mind, your limitations, and you try to push yourself beyond these things.


I know that you’ve also experienced some personal tragedy, sadly, on two occasions, whilst you’ve been studying here in the UK.  I wonder if you might be able to tell us how you managed to cope with these events and to re-focus on your studies?

I think it’s down to your perception. It’s interesting you call them ‘tragedies.’ I don’t perceive them as tragedies. I perceive them as phenomena and they are expected phenomena. Death is natural and everybody will encounter it. It’s also down to my training in the past. I know that it is something inescapable; it’s just a matter of time. It’s just a natural phenomenon. When you change your perception, you don’t define it as tragedy. It’s just an event you need to deal with. Then you need to ask yourself how you can learn most from this phenomenon and how you can do your best in helping yourself and in helping others experience this event in a beautiful way.


The reason I wanted to talk to you is because you’re probably the best learner I’ve ever encountered.  You take every opportunity to learn in every aspect of your life and you’re always looking for opportunities to better yourself.  Is that fair to say?

I feel like everything in your life is a reflection of yourself; it’s a mirror for you to learn more about yourself. I just try to see everything as an opportunity to understand who I am and how I can be a better person. For me everything has meaning and value.  I want to know who I am, the meaning of being here, how to be a better person and how to benefit others.


Advice for students and lecturers

What advice would you give other international students considering post-graduate study in the UK?

I think the best advice I would give is for everyone to recognize his or her own uniqueness.  Just because you come from a different cultural or linguistic background, it doesn’t mean you are inferior. Everyone has a valuable contribution to make.  Together we can bring together our knowledge and experiences, learn from each other and contribute to a body of knowledge or even create new knowledge, new strategies and new solutions.


And finally, what advice would you give to lecturers and supervisors re: teaching/supervising learners with diverse cultural, educational and linguistic backgrounds?

I think one fundamental thing is not forgetting that ultimately we are teaching human beings.  Genuine interaction between human beings is what is important. Seeing students not as customers but as human beings with emotions, life experiences, families, dreams, etc.  Each person is dynamic and constantly evolving. It’s about seeing a person holistically. They are more than a grade or an English score.  If we can remember this and engage in genuine interaction -  one person to another person - then hopefully we can create a better quality of education.

Ya Chu Lee is a PhD candidate in Religious Studies at Lancaster University (

How to plan and deliver your first presentation

Oral presentations (given either individually or in groups) are a common form of assessment at British universities. If you're not used to them (and even if you are!), they can be a nerve-wracking experience.  Here is some simple yet effective advice to guide you through the process. Remember - the more you do the easier they become, so practise and repeat!


  • Plan the content of your talk carefully keeping in mind your audience (e.g. if your audience is not familiar with key/technical vocabulary you will need to explain it).
  • Think about the structure of your talk.  Make sure it has a clear introduction, a main body and a conclusion. Try to think of a way to grab the audience’s attention when you start and a way to keep them thinking about your content after you’ve finished (e.g. a rhetorical question or image to start and maybe a different question or piece of advice or warning to end).
  • Make your talk easy to understand and use visual aids effectively (i.e. use bullet points of main ideas only, or use simple diagrams, graphs, pictures to illustrate key points).
  • Make your talk interesting, e.g. use humour, anecdotes, metaphors, repetition, tripling, etc., as appropriate.
  • Don’t write down your talk word for word.  Use small cards with key words and phrases to help you remember.  Number the cards so that if you drop them you don’t ruin your talk.
  • Practise giving your talk in advance.  Stand in front of a mirror or video record yourself.  Notice your posture, facial expressions, gestures, pace, pausing, intonation etc.
  • Time your talk.



  • Don’t panic! If you’ve done your preparation well, you will know more about the topic than anyone else in the room.  This should give you confidence.
  • Stand tall, feet about shoulder width apart (or less), and where you can be seen by everyone. Try not to fidget.  Check you’re not blocking your visual aids.
  • Your talk should be SAID not READ. Talk around the bullet points on your visual aids, giving more details, examples and explanation.
  • Maintain eye contact with your audience. Naturally shift your gaze from one person to another around the room.
  • Try to avoid fillers (e.g. umm, ahhh, like, etc.) and overly long pauses (unless used purposely for dramatic effect).
  • Pitch your voice to the people at the back of the room and don’t talk too quickly. If you hear yourself speeding up, make a conscious effort to slow down.
  • Look as though you are enjoying what you’re doing.  Enjoyment is like measles; it’s infectious!
  • If you get nervous, a couple of deep breaths and a smile will help.  If you’ve brought a bottle of water, take a sip.
  • At the end of your presentation, ask if anyone has any questions.  Allow the audience a couple of minutes to think of some.


Fielding Questions

  • When answering questions, look at the questioner as s/he speaks, but address your response to the whole room.  Look at the questioner roughly 25% of the time; the other 75% look at the other audience members.
  • Don’t engage in a battle.  If one person tries to monopolise the questioning, give your view briefly, then thank the person and say: ‘That’s an interesting point. I wonder if anyone else would like to comment?’
  • If you’re not sure how to answer or if you’re running out of time, you can say, ‘I haven’t considered that fully. Maybe we can talk about that later, one-to-one.’


A comprehensive editing checklist

For those of you currently working on dissertations or theses, here's an editing checklist that you can use to in your final stages, before you send off your work to be proofread or printed.

Although it's comprehensive in nature, it's not tailor-made for you. In other words, you need to be self-aware and read your own work for the types of errors you tend to make.  

Remember also that if you're going to employ a proofreader, you need to do this in plenty of time, working back from the submission deadline and leaving enough time for the proofreader to read and for you to make the necessary changes.

Make sure you vet the proofreader properly, ideally getting a recommendation from your Department. A reputable proofreader will NOT rewrite your work for you; instead, they may do any or all of the following: ask you to clarify parts they don't understand; draw your attention to any redundancy, repetition and wordiness; suggest alternative methods of organisation or alternative vocabulary to improve structure and coherence; point out errors in grammar, spelling, punctuation, academic style or in use of academic conventions; and offer partial reformulations to improve sentence structure and coherence.  

Good proofreaders will use software like Track Changes in Word so that you can see clearly your original piece of work and the suggested changes.  When your work is returned to you, there will be a considerable amount of your own rewriting that you will have to do, so, again, make sure you plan for this and build it in to your own dissertation/thesis timeline.

With all that in mind, we hope you find the editing checklist below useful to you. Remember, if you need any help with your work, do get in touch. If you are a postgraduate student, we offer a principled proofreading service, designed to support you in developing your academic writing skills.  If you are an academic, aiming to publish a journal article, we are experienced article writers ourselves and can offer editing, proofreading and advice on approaching/responding to peer review comments. 

The Editing Checklist


  • Is all information relevant to the essay title/question?
  • Has sufficient space (or words) been given to the most important points?
  • Is the main line of argument clear throughout the entire essay?


Structure and Organization

Overall Structure:

  • Is the structure of the essay appropriate for the title/question?
  • Does the essay address all parts of the title/question?


  • Does the introduction set the context and provide enough background information for the reader?
  • Does the introduction include a thesis statement (i.e. a statement that tells the reader the purpose of the essay and possibly your position)?
  • Does the introduction include a map of the paper (i.e. does it tell the reader what to expect in the rest of the paper, usually using language like: In this essay I will firstly/first of all describe/define/discuss/examine/analyse… and then …’ or ‘This essay will first of all… and then…)

Main Body:

  • Does each paragraph begin with a clear topic sentence, indicating the (one) main idea of the paragraph?
  • Are paragraphs well developed with enough support/evidence for the main idea? (note: paragraphs that are only 2 to 3 sentences in length are usually under-developed)
  • Are connections between ideas within the paragraph made explicit to the reader (i.e. are there cohesive devices like ‘also’, ‘for example’, ‘furthermore’, ‘whereas’, ‘first’, ‘finally’, etc?)


If support in the form of paraphrases and quotations is used:

  • Have they been chosen carefully and do they indeed support/illustrate the point you want to make?
  • Has the significance/implication of the paraphrase/quote to the main argument/thesis/topic been made explicit (usually using language like: ‘Thus it can be seen that…’ / ‘It is clear, therefore, that …’ )
  • Is it clear how each paragraph links to the one before and to the one that comes after and to the essay title/question?



  • Does the conclusion summarise the key points made in the paper?
  • Does it leave the reader with some food for thought (e.g. a warning, a recommendation, an indication that further research/investigation needs to be done, etc.)?


Quotations, Paraphrases and References

Direct quotations:

  • Are they referenced accurately (with author’s last name, year of publication and page number for the Harvard Referencing system e.g. (Jones, 2010, p. 33))?  For other referencing systems, please check your Departmental handbook.
  • Are quotation marks used (‘….’)?
  • Are they introduced appropriately (e.g. As Jones (2010, p. 33) states/writes/observes/claims/points out, … or According to Jones (2010, p. 33), …)
  • Are they used sparingly (ie. only when the point being made is done so brilliantly or poignantly by the original author and only when you couldn’t have said it better yourself)?


  • Are they referenced accurately (with the author’s last name + year of publication)?
  • Are they appropriate (i.e. not too close to the original but still capture the meaning of the original)?
  • Are they introduced appropriately (e.g. In Jones’s (2010) opinion, … / Jones (2010) reports that … / As Jones (2010) points out… )?

End-of-text References:

  • Are all sources cited in the body of the text listed here in alphabetical order?
  • Are they accurate (according to your Department’s guidelines)?


Style, Clarity, Grammar and Punctuation

Style and clarity:

  • Is the essay appropriately academic in terms of style (i.e. no informal language, slang, colloquialisms or contracted forms (e.g. don’t/isn’t)?
  • Are statements tentative rather than dogmatic (e.g. It would seem that …/ It may/could be that…/perhaps/possibly…/One possibility might be … etc)?
  • Are the words used your own (apart from quotations) and are your own ideas/opinions made clear to the reader?  In other words, does your own voice come through?
  • Are sentences of reasonable length (not too long; not too short) and not overly complicated?
  • Is the text repetitive? (it shouldn’t be!)
  • Can the essay be read aloud easily? (it should be!)

Grammar and punctuation:

Are the following accurate?:

  • Articles (e.g. the UK, the financial crisis)
  • Subject-verb agreement (e.g. The financial crisis has (not have wide-ranging repercussions.)
  • Verb forms (e.g. the government has been trying to … (not the government has been try to …); This could damage … (not this could to damage …)
  • Verb tense (e.g. In 2010, the government announced new measures…(not In 2010, the government have announced…)
  • Prepositions (e.g. Big banks were interested in … (not: big banks were interested at …)
  • Parts of speech (e.g. This was a destructive measure (not: this was a destruction measure)
  • Sentence connectors (e.g. The big banks acted irresponsibly. However, it was the average family that suffered. (not: The big banks acted irresponsibly, however, it was the average family that suffered.)
  • Full stops separating sentences = a subject + main verb (e.g. The full impact of the crisis has yet to be determined. We will be feeling the effects for years to come. (not: The full impact of the crisis has yet to be determined, we will be feeling the effects for years to come.)

**Finally, check for spelling mistakes and typos.










Essay Essentials: Part 3

Language and Academic Style

This is our last post in a series of the essentials of essay writing and here we focus on language and academic style.  If you're new to producing academic essays in English, then it's a very good idea to ask your Department to let you read some former students' essays, and, of course, you'll want to read journal articles as well so that you can get a good feel for the structure and the language used.  We've dealt with the structure and academic conventions (like citing, paraphrasing and referencing) in our last posts, but now we'd like to turn our attention to the language used.  It's likely that you've noticed that the language used in academic writing is very different from the language you see and hear around you every day.  That's because the academic essay is characterised by a number of stylistic and linguistic features that set it apart as a specific genre.  It's safe to say that academic writing should:


1. Be formal

This means that, generally speaking, you should: avoid contracted forms (e.g. instead of can't use cannot; instead of don't use do not); avoid slang and colloquialisms (e.g. instead of kids use children; instead of lots use a lot or many); avoid abbreviations (e.g. instead of e.g. use for example); write in complete sentences (e.g. bullet points and note form are not normally used and neither is anything else that gives the impression of an incomplete thought, e.g  putting etc at the end of your sentence.); write full forms the first time followed by acronym in brackets and then acronym alone thereafter (e.g. the United Nations (UN) and then the UN throughout thereafter); and avoid overusing the pronoun 'I' (make sure to ask your Department about using the first person in your academic essays; they may have strong views one way or the other). 


2. Be tentative rather than dogmatic

Tentative statements are ones that show your reader you know nothing is 100% certain. Knowledge is fluid and contestable and your statements should reflect this.  So, instead of writing something like 'all international students have difficulty paraphrasing', you might write 'depending on the linguistic and educational backgrounds of international students, some may experience difficulty with paraphrasing.' Other useful phrases are: It would seem that.../It may/could be that.../perhaps/possibly .../One possibility might be.../The evidence suggests that ... 


3. Be evidence-based

Academic writing draws on and evaluates other sources of information and evidence.  You'll know this if you've seen the long list of references at the end of an essay or journal article.  Most writers read widely and use their reading to support the ideas they want to develop in their writing.  If you make a claim, you'll need to justify it (say why you believe this to be the case) and then provide the evidence to convince your writer of the validity of your claim.  Overly personal and/or emotive accounts are not normally valued in academic writing. 


4. Be explicit

In English, the onus is on the writer to give reasons and/or explanations and/or examples for ideas presented and to show clearly, through the language used, how ideas relate and connect to each other. The reader should never have to read between the lines or infer your meaning.  You can use language like: One/Another reason for this is.../As a result/thus/therefore ... /In other words .../In addition/Moreover .../ For example...


5. Be sufficiently (not overly!) complex in terms of argument and language

Academic writing is characterised by a degree of complexity, both in terms of the arguments presented and the language used.  With regard to arguments, generally speaking you'll need to show your reader that you've considered the other side (the counter-argument) and convince your reader why your argument is just as good or better. With regard to language, you'll need to vary your sentence structure (use simple, compound and complex sentences), use a wide range of vocabulary and probably use more noun forms than verb forms (e.g. The major effects of the globalisation of the economy are ...).


6. Be accurate

Accuracy is important not just in terms of the language you use, but also in terms of representing and reporting other people's ideas/work.  First, with regard to language, it's important to edit and proofread your work.  If you are aware of the types of mistakes you make in writing, read your work specifically for these mistakes and ask a friend to do the same.  One useful technique for proofreading (so that content doesn't interfere) is to start at the end of your essay and read back to the beginning sentence by sentence.  Reading your essay aloud can also alert you to mistakes you didn't pick up when reading silently.  Second, with regard to reporting other's ideas/work, you need to make sure you not only do this accurately (e.g. correct citations and references and accurate representations of others' ideas), but also faithfully (e.g. always acknowledge where your information/ideas come from). 


7. Be gender neutral

All sexist language, stereotypes and cliches should be avoided.  Referring specifically to authors is done via surnames only and referring to 3rd person should be via she/he or he/she or s/he or they.  


It's a good idea to check your own work against the list above.  If you have any questions or concerns or would like us to look at your work, then do please get in touch.  Our next post brings together all our Essay Essentials advice in a comprehensive editing checklist, so make sure to look out for this useful tool. 

Essay essentials: Part 2

In Part 2 of this 3-part blog, we’ll look at quotations, paraphrases and citations, references and conclusions. 

Again, this is a simple and fairly prescriptive overview, which we hope will help any student new to writing essays in English. We know that there is no magic formula for writing essays. But, we do believe that some elements are, to a certain extent, formulaic. In other words, if you follow the advice below, you shouldn’t be breaking any UK academic norms or conventions. Once you’ve written several essays and understand the ‘rules of the game’, so to speak, then by all means feel free to bend them and exercise to the full your academic literacies. 

1.  Quotations, paraphrases and citations

We said in our last post that every topic sentence (main idea) of every paragraph needs to be developed and supported fully within the paragraph.  The way we support our ideas is through use of explanation, examples, experience, facts/figures/statistics and reference to authority (i.e. reporting other people’s words, ideas and evidence).  Reference to authority can come in the form of direct quotations or paraphrases.

Direct quotations

These are the author’s exact words (unchanged by you).  Whenever you include a quotation you MUST use quotation marks (normally single in the UK, as per example below) and provide a citation. A citation is an acknowledgement of the origin of the quotation. In other words, you are telling your reader that you borrowed these words from someone else. Citations are done slightly differently according to different referencing systems (e.g. Harvard, APA, MLA) and you will need to check with your own Department which system they use and then follow their guidelines. Below is an example using the Harvard system.


These involve rephrasing an extract from another author in your own words and are more common in academic writing than using direct quotations. Paraphrasing ideas in your own words shows your reader that you’ve read the information, processed it, and can reproduce it in a way that makes sense for you, i.e. your own words. Writing a paraphrase is challenging for L1 and L2 speakers alike.  So here are some tips:

  • Read, re-read and understand the original

  • Make brief notes using symbols, abbreviations etc.

  • Put the original (and your pen) to one side and try to express the meaning orally in your own words (even record yourself if you want)

  • Now write your paraphrase from memory or from the recording

  • Check against the original text. Make sure you’ve got the main idea but that you haven’t used too much of the original’s phrasing

  • Make sure you’ve acknowledged the source by including a citation

What you CAN change: vocabulary (e.g. use synonyms); sentence structure (e.g. change active voice to passive voice or vice versa); grammar (e.g. change verbs to nouns).

What you CAN’T change: the meaning!

Compare the original on the left with the paraphrase on the right and note down what was changed.  Also notice the citation. With the Harvard referencing system, you do not need to include a page number for paraphrases, just the author’s last name and year of publication.  Again, please check with your own Department and follow their guidelines. 

2.  References 

At the end of your essay list, in alphabetical order according to authors’ last names, all the sources you have referred to in your essay and provide full bibliographical details for each.

Note: a list of References is different from a Bibliography. The latter includes everything you’ve read and that which has informed your thinking for your essay.  Therefore, you may have more bibliography entries than sources cited in your essay.  A Reference List, however, has the exact same number of entries as the number of sources cited in your essay.

Make sure you consult your Department’s guidelines about whether to include a list of References or a Bibliography at the end of your essay and make sure you know and adhere strictly to the guidelines for the referencing system in use.

Here is a short example of a Reference List according to the Harvard Referencing System. Note: the first entry is a book; the second is a website; and the third is a journal article.


Allsop, J. (2002) Test Your Verbs.  Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd.

British Council (2017) English for University Students. Available from: [Accessed 23 May 2017].

Hu, X., Ackermann, H., Martin, J.A., Erb, M., Winkler, S. & Reiterer, S.M. (2013) ‘Language aptitude for pronunciation in advanced second language (L2) learners: Behaviour predictors and neural substrates.’ Brain and Language, Vol. 127, pp. 366-376.


3.   Conclusions

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We hope this has helped you with your own writing. Our next post will cover academic language and style. If you have any questions about any of the information above or would like advice on your own essay, then please do get in touch.  We can help you gain confidence in your academic writing. 



Essay essentials: Part 1

In this 3-part blog, we focus on the essentials of essay writing in English.  In Part 1, we look at the essay structure, the introduction and paragraphing.  In Part 2, we look at quotations, citations, paraphrases, references and conclusions.  In Part 3, we look at language, including academic style and grammar.

This is a simple and fairly prescriptive overview, which we hope will help any student new to writing essays in English. We know that there is no magic formula for writing essays. But, we do believe that some elements are, to a certain extent, formulaic.  In other words, if you follow the advice below, you shouldn’t be breaking any UK academic norms or conventions. Once you’ve written several essays and understand the ‘rules of the game’, so to speak, then by all means feel free to bend them and exercise to the full your academic literacies. 


1.      Essay structure

Essays normally contain the following sections (unmarked by headings/sub-headings within the essay):

  • Introduction
  • Body
  • Conclusion


2.      The introduction

Ways of introducing the essay structure:

In this essay I will firstly … and then …

This essay will first of all … and then …

In the first section of this essay I will …


Here is an example introduction from a student with the key features above colour-coded:

3. Paragraphing the main body

A paragraph should have

  • Unity (one main idea)
  • Coherence (ideas follow logically and are understandable to your reader)

Here is an example paragraph from a student with the key features above colour-coded:


Between paragraphs

Within the context of an essay, the topic sentences and concluding sentences will have to perform additional tasks:

  • show how paragraphs are related to each other (using transition signals, e.g. ‘In addition’ / ‘A further example of … is…’ / ‘Furthermore’ / ‘However’ / ‘On the other hand’ /’While this may be true…’
  • show how a new topic is related to the essay title.  This is often done through quoting key words from the essay title.  E.g. ‘In terms of the  benefits of studying abroad…’ / ‘With reference to developing real English …’
  • sum up how the content has contributed to your argument.  E.g. ‘Thus, it is clear that…’ / ‘Thus, it can be seen that…’ / ‘Therefore,…’ / ‘Clearly, then…’


If you have any questions about any of the above or if you'd like us to look at your work and give you feedback, then do get in touch with us.  

8 Golden rules for note-making

I’d like to think that the skill of making notes (actually putting pen to paper) hasn’t died with the development of new technology.  But, I may be rather naïve.  The last time I was in the classroom, 23 adult students took out their Smartphones to take a photo of the homework tasks that I had written on the board.  Not one actually wrote anything in their books or put a note in their calendar (not even their iCal!).  Taking and making notes in English is an important academic skill that, like any other, needs to be developed through practice.  Clarifying your purpose, selecting important information, identifying main and supporting points, representing ideas in your own words, questioning/evaluating ideas and relating these to your own and others', using short forms, abbreviations and symbols, and finding and citing bibliographical information are all part and parcel of interacting with reading texts, which is a fundamental precursor to any essay you’ll have to produce.  Not only that, but making notes is a good way to help consolidate information in your memory. With all this in mind, here are some top tips for making notes from your reading.

Golden Rule 1:  Clarify your purpose

Before you begin, ask yourself:

  • Why am I making notes?
  • Do I need to make notes on the whole text, e.g. on what I already know, or just part of the text?

Golden Rule 2:  Write all your notes on the same sized paper

  • Any size of paper or even cue cards – just make sure they are all the same size so they’re easier to store and retrieve
  • If your notes are neat, you will be more likely to use them later

Golden Rule 3:  Record your sources

Make a full record of the original source at the top of the first page.  You will need:

  • Name of author
  • Date of publication
  • Title
  • Name of publisher / place published (volume, issue, pages if journal article)
  • Page numbers
  • URL address (if website)
  • Date you accessed the site

Golden Rule 4: Divide your page

  • Do not write in the left-hand margin (or create a left-hand margin with a ruler)
  • Use this space to record page numbers or if an edited book, chapter title, author and page numbers
  • Number your pages at the bottom in case they get mixed up

Golden Rule 5: Use your own words

  • Identify and summarise main ideas in your own words
  • A good idea is to put your pen down while you read and only summarise information when you get to the end of a section
  • Another idea is to summarise the information orally first before you make your notes

Golden Rule 6: Identify clearly which ideas are yours and which are not

  • Use a different coloured pen to indicate a quotation or write a big ‘Q’ beside quotations and use quotation marks
  • Note down quotations exactly as they are written, along with the page number
  • Use a different coloured pen to indicate your own ideas or write ‘ME’ beside your own ideas

Golden Rule 7:  Make connections and draw comparisons

  • Whenever you read a new source, think about how it relates to your own knowledge and to what you’ve read before
  • Cross-reference information from different sources (e.g. ‘Similar to X’, ‘Opposed to X’)
  • Note down your own agreement ✓, disagreement ✗ and questions ?

Golden Rule 8:  Store all of your notes from one source together

  • Staple your notes from the same source together or file in a folder together.  This way you are less likely to misplace pages.

Now you should be ready to use your notes to write your essay.  Essay writing will be the subject of our next blog post, so if you need help with producing an academic essay in English, watch this space!