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» THE ESSAY - Guidelines in academic writing

THE ESSAY - Guidelines in academic writing

THE ESSAY - Guidelines in academic writing

When writing a short or medium-sized essay, the following fundamental principles are to be observed:

1) lexical and grammatical accuracy;

2) articulated internal organisation (in terms of structure, function and cohesion);

3) stylistic appropriateness.

1) In order to be lexically and grammatically accurate:

- check up in a dictionary the spelling and the meaning(s) of any word (collocation) which is

not quite familiar to you;

- avoid repetitions and/or stylistically inappropriate choice of words, idioms, etc - see also 3) - by carefully making use of synonyms or equivalent expressions, an ability which also presupposes a steady process of enriching your vocabulary (reading, lexical exercises, etc);

- verify your grammar, proofreading the written text, and, whenever necessary, consulting the literature on the morphological or syntactic aspect in question;

- it is also advisable to avoid very long complex sentences, and to pay a special attention to such issues as the use and sequence of tenses, irregular forms, agreement, asemantic (expletive) subjects, anaphors, etc, these being the areas of the highest risk of errors;

- check punctuation.

2) The general organisation of a piece of academic writing (an essay, a report, various other types of assignments) is grounded on the three basic elements of structure (the introduction, the development, the conclusion), which are mapped onto the units of content (sentences and paragraphs), in order to convey various descriptive, narrative, analytic, argumentative, etc functions -see further -, the overall cohesion being secured by logical and formal connectives.

- The introduction contains the initial (brief) formulation of the topic. This statement of the problem (and, possibly, the comments on the way it is to be treated) represent what is sometimes called "the thesis".

- The development is the main body of the presentation, analysis or discussion, in other words the detailed approach to the thesis. It consists of a logically ordered set of main ideas, each of which is variably detailed, but obligatorily accompanied by the minimally necessary illustrations and/or arguments, comments.

NOTE: Do not deal with more than one main idea within one and the same unit of content


- The conclusion is a summary of the points tackled in the development, in support of a final reiteration of the thesis.

        Each part of the writing employs particular language structures and uses, in accordance with the specific purpose of communication (or 'function'): describing, defining, exemplifying, classifying, analysing, comparing, arguing, etc.

        Each function is rendered as sentences and paragraphs, these material units of content being linked or joined together by connectives (or 'transitions'), viz. words or phrases that indicate a logical relationship, and thus support the cohesion of the writing. Connectives generally group within three basic types: a) 'the AND type'; b) 'the OR type'; c) 'the BUT type'.

a) The discussion, argument, or comment in the development of the topic may be a

straightforward one, in which case ideas sequentially accumulate, and the logical relationship

requires 'AND type' connectives.

These ones may indicate:

- listing (1. enumeration: first(ly), second(ly), first and foremost, last but not least, next, lastly,

finally, to begin with, and to conclude, etc; 2. addition: reinforcement - also, further,

moreover, in addition, etc - or equation - equally, likewise, similarly, etc -);

- transition (regarding, as for, as far as . is / are concerned, etc);

- summation (therefore, thus, to conclude, etc);

- apposition (i.e., in particular, in other words, etc);

- result (accordingly, hence, consequently, etc);

- inference (in that case, otherwise, etc).

b) Sometimes alternative solutions, views are also employed, there being a need for connectives of the 'OR type'. (After the alternative has been considered, the main line of argument is to be resumed.)

These connectives may signal:

- reformulation (better, rather, etc);

- replacement (alternatively, on the other hand, etc).

c) As usually required by the desideratum of an objective survey, the opposite position, arguments, etc are to be considered or referred to. This triggers the involvement of the 'BUT type' connectives. (Similarly, there has to be an ulterior return to the main thesis, for the sake

of consistency.)

This type indicates:

- contrast (conversely, on the contrary, instead, etc);

- concession (however, nevertheless, still, despite that, even if, etc).

        Summing up, the general organisation of the piece of writing will be as follows: introduction > [a] supporting information > [a] main development (also [b] alternatives, [c]

opposite arguments) > [a] conclusion.

3) Stylistic appropriateness resides in the correct choice (considering the type and topic of assignment, the targeted audience, etc) of the cluster of multi-levelled linguistic characteristics that corresponds to a certain stylistic register (or 'degree of formality'). Some authors list five such degrees ('styles'): frozen (used in print or declamation); formal (detaching the emittent from the receiver); consultative (background information is supplied, vocabulary is carefully chosen); casual (shared information is presupposed, relaxed speech); intimate (indicates a close relationship). Newmark (1988) distinguishes eight levels of formality. For illustrating them, we supply his example:

- Officialese level: The consumption of any nutrients whatsoever is categorically prohibited in

this establishment.

- Official: The consumption of nutrients is prohibited in this establishment.

- Formal: You are requested not to consume food in this establishment.

- Neutral: Eating is not allowed here.

- Informal: Please don't eat here.

- Colloquial: You can't feed your face here.

- Slang: Lay off the nosh!

- Taboo: Lay off the f---- nosh.

        A second scale refers to degrees of language simplicity versus complexity, and it has six

levels: simple, popular, neutral, educated, technical, opaque technical.

        The third scale captures emotional tone, and it has four levels: intense, warm, cool or factual, and cold understatement. Despite this variety of style classification and criteria, the central recommendation remains to avoid lower stylistic registers in writing, and in academic essays in particular. In terms of characterising features at various linguistic levels of analysis, this roughly means: carefully chosen vocabulary (more Latin etymons, specific terminology, less idiomatic expressions, etc), frequent unrestrictive use of Simple Present, explicit connectors, no contracted forms or elliptical constructions, passive, existential, and impersonal constructions, non-agentive inanimate / abstract subjects, more numerous and complex relationships of subordination, etc.

NOTE: Elevated vocabulary does not mean excessive use of (unnecessary) rare or highly

specialised words.

        According to a widely accepted general classification, the following main types of essays

are to be distinguished:

1) narrative;

2) descriptive;

3) discursive (analytic and argumentative), each type posing certain specific problems.

        Thus, narrative essays require a special attention in terms of point of view, temporal sequencing of events, and amount of comments (if any).

        As far as descriptive essays are concerned, the key aspects regard spatial displaying, and identification of perceptually (and/or emotionally) relevant / salient features / properties.

        In both cases, various mental associations and logical processes (parallelisms, analogies, comparisons, contrasts) can be also employed.

        Analytic and argumentative essays equally make extensive use of the basic discursive tools, viz. definition, exemplification, and classification.

        Definitions can be more or less accurate and/or expanded, depending upon (situational) context, amount of available information, purpose, degree of complexity / technicality of the concept to be defined, etc. In everyday usage, functional enough (though imperfect) definitions seem to be usually centred upon what is most salient in perceptual terms. For instance, a tree may be more often defined in terms of its branches and leaves, although these can be optional at different periods in the life of the tree, than in terms of trunk or root, in spite of the fact that a tree must have them in order to be a tree.

        It appears therefore that more or less rigorously vs. suitably chosen distinctive features play in all cases and situations an important role in the logical processes associated with defining.

        The principles according to which these features are organised and exploited in providing scientific or simply "tidy" definitions can be summed up under the form of two main requirements that any definition has to meet: the identification of the 1) genus proximus and the specification of 2) differentia specifica. These two practically constitute the minimally necessary parts of a definition. In semantic terms, this can be represented as the intersection between the vertical, hierarchical relation of hyponymy, and the horizontal, contrastive relation of incompatibility. This is to say that one has to determine the immediately superior (inclusive) category to which the concept to be defined belongs, and the opposing feature(s) securing its distinction from other items subordinated to the same dominating category.

e.g.: A laptop is a portable [2] computer [1].

It appears evident that defining is a process in close relationship with classifying.

        Definitions are also to be supported by exemplifications, i.e. the providing of actualisations of the concept, of its particular instantations.

e.g.: Being a portable computer, the laptop is an electronic device, which also incorporates some mechanical parts.

e.g.: Examples of cutlery, i.e. of tools for preparing and eating food, are: the spoon, the knife, etc. Frequent mistakes in defining consist in giving an example instead of a definition, omitting

either general class or distinctive characteristic, providing circular definitions.

e.g.: Means of transport are for instance cars, trains, etc.

A biologist studies plants and animals.

A biologist is a university graduate.

Syntax is (the science) about syntax.

        Mistakes in exemplification may consist in choosing an atypical representative, while errors in classification usually reside in making use of a higher than immediately dominant category.

e.g.: .games, as for instance skeet.

The spider is an animal.

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