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Often, past students will contact me to ask for the clip notes of a “sermon” concerning writing I used to deliver to all of my new cohorts. So here, abbreviated from that presented to my undergraduates (and my own daughter too), is the “Director's Address on Writing Assignments”:
- Start early – don't wait until the night before your submission is due and then panic to get something submitted on time. Whilst it is not always true that“anything is better than nothing”, it is always true that preparation is key to success.
- Don't start by simply skimming the question, but rather analyse it. What do you need to address? Consider the exact phrasing of the question and design your answer plan so that it is framed to that phrasing. Part of this planning (or mapping) process is to determine a set of sub-questions that will help you build a complete and clear answer to the parent question. As a fundamental and basic example, the first strut of your scaffold could be to decide whether you need to explain, describe, or compare/contrast.
- Find legitimate sources of information (use text books, course notes, peer-reviewed published articles, etc). Seek out both general and specific domains of information, and keep records of where you gathered it. But, try to avoid falling into the all-too-common reliance upon Wikipedia – although this source has its uses for those who do not otherwise know where to start, it should not become one's starting point, pathway and finish line.
- Take HANDWRITTEN bullet notes from these sources – highlighted to address the points you wish to raise in answering the question (and all of the sub-questions you developed in your first analysis).
- Close all original references (and computer files/windows – other than the processing programme you will use to type your answer), and begin to put together your assignment based upon your handwritten notes and memory alone.
- Double check this first draft against your notes, then against the original sources; and, for your next draft, correct any errors and fill in any gaps you feel remain – repeating this process until you have addressed the full question and, again, each of the sub-questions.
- Polish your final draft. For example: check spelling and grammar, double-check for copied phrases (or minimally rephrased passages).
- Don't be tempted to pad your answer in the hopes of gaining scattergun hits/points. Be bold enough to cut superfluous material that does not benefit the answer. If it clouds the issue or adds little to the reader's understanding of the specific points you need to address, or if it is simply filling space to show-off extraneous knowledge, delete it. Ensure that you have provided all relevant references/citations, and that any quotes are indicated as such – but do keep quotations to a minimum (use them as a delicate seasoning, not to form the dish itself).
- Give yourself a day away from the assignment to “breathe” and refresh yourself, and then read the question again. Next, re-read your assignment. Does this “presubmission” accurately, clearly and completely address the question? Is it framed appropriately, and written in your own words? Have you utilised up-to-date sources of information – and justified and verified them? Does it read well? If you can honestly answer “yes” to each of these QC checkpoints, you are ready to submit.
By following these simple rules and advisories, two things will happen:
- “Accidental plagiarism” (cut and paste, “eye-to-hand-bypassing-brain” type stuff) is prevented. So, the risks of failing the assignment and/or being called in to a disciplinary hearing are also reduced;
- The information you gather passes through your brain several times, via several memory loops (writing things out by hand is said to improve retention by up to 80%, for example) and will not only, thereby, improve your performance in the specific assignment, but in subsequent assignments too – as well as in your exams!
If you are uncertain of your work, go back through all of the above, and seek further guidance from your tutors. Generally, however, do not ask for help on a specific assignment from your peers – unless, of course, it is group work. Other than for such a group assignment, involving a classmate in your submission risks both of you being caught in that “accidental plagiarism” problem again. This is because, having seen your effort, your friend might inadvertently use some of it in their own submission, or they might yield up some of their own words in an attempt to aid your understanding. In either case, the lecturer will not be able to differentiate the copier from the copied, and it won't matter that it was unintentional.
In the end, and above all else, remember these three things:
- There is no such thing as a stupid question. So, don't be afraid to ask your teacher/lecturer for help.
- Never become disillusioned – not even the most published author is perfect every time!
- Like any new type of exercise regime, this process will seem a little arduous and perhaps even painful at the start. Certainly, it will require consistent and sustained effort to ingrain. But, it will all pay dividends, and the practice will soon become as simple and spontaneous as habit.
Bolster yourself with the knowledge that learning is a lifelong journey, and the ride is best when your skills are tested – as only then are you rewarded with a surge of pride in what you have achieved.
Andrew P. Lucy obtained his PhD in molecular biology at the John Innes Centre (University of East Anglia) in the UK and has supplementary qualifications in natural medicines and psychotherapy. Dr Lucy has published peer-reviewed articles and opinion pieces across a number of disciplines – from communications and change to education and career management to biological sciences, and even the odd bit of poetry. His experience spans bench research, laboratory and business partnership and development, education and professional coaching.