This post has been written for my students at University College, Oxford, but the books and ideas discussed will be useful for any undergraduate (or graduate) student.
The Univ library has a whole section of study skills books on the ground floor of the library (shelfmark UW). Here are a few recommendations for students wanting to improve their essays and for second/third year students embarking upon their dissertations. This is by no means a definitive list, do browse the shelves for yourself or ask Elizabeth, our librarian, for further help!
Guides for Improving Essays
1. Brilliant Writing Tips for Students
This little book has lots of top tips for those little problems that are likely to have your tutor reaching for the red pen when marking! Tips on punctuation (the difference between its/it’s!), sentence structure, building paragraphs (using topic sentences), and writing clearly and succinctly.
2. Students Must Write: A Guide to Better Writing in Coursework and Examinations
Chapters 5 and 6 of this book discuss vocabulary and how to write clearly. Very helpful for students with a tendency to over-complicate their sentences and to use a fancy word when a simple one will do! Chapter 4 explores answering questions in coursework and how to plan an essay. (A new edition of this book is now available in the library)
For more advice on writing, try the following:
The New Oxford Guide to Writing by Thomas S Kane; Writing an Essay: Simple Techniques to Transform your Coursework and Examinations, by Brendan Hennessy; How to Write Better Essays, by Bryan Greetham.
Greetham’s book includes sections on interpreting the question, research, planning, and writing. (A new edition of Greetham is now available in the library.)
Guides for Writing Dissertations and Extended Essays
3. The Student’s Guide to Preparing Dissertations and Theses
This book has excellent advice on ‘capturing your research’ (chapter 9): that is, being organised and keeping good records as you begin your project, so that you avoid wasting time later having to check page numbers for footnotes! It also suggests that you should record your own ideas as you read. Researching a thesis is an active process: as you read, your own ideas on a topic will be stimulated- you should make a note of these thoughts as they will come in handy later!
Chapter 10 discusses the writing process, including how to confront your own ‘writing avoidance strategies’ and the importance of writing as soon as you can. It is always easier to edit than to confront a blank page, so start writing straightaway, even if it is just informal or free writing in which you think aloud about the topic you are working on (more on this below).
4. How to Write Essays, Dissertations, and Theses in Literary Studies
Chapter 5 on writing your essay or dissertation is extremely useful. It contains advice on writing introductions and conclusions, and how to plan your paragraphs. For example, it suggests that your first paragraph or introduction will tell your reader what your essay will be about (the main focus of the essay, how you will answer the question, etc) but that this paragraph is also your opportunity to start working on that very issue actively. You might want to use a small passage of close reading to achieve this focus, for example. This will draw your reader in and avoid your introduction being too general because it is already situated in the text itself.
(A new edition of this book is now in the Univ library with a revised title: ‘How to write Essays and Dissertations: A Guide for English Literature Students’)
The Univ library also contains books that are aimed at PhD/DPhil students but they also contain useful tips for undergraduates and MA/MSt students working on dissertations. For example, Rowena Murray’s book on How to Write a Thesis has tips on ‘free writing’ which can help you to start thinking about your topic without feeling under pressure to produce work that will go into the final thesis. Free writing is where you write about your topic for five or ten minutes without stopping and without thinking critically about your style or structure. It helps to get you thinking and to draw out the main ideas that you have about your topic. It’s an excellent cure for writer’s block!
Concentration and Productivity
If you are struggling with your writing or your productivity, and finding yourself getting distracted, you might like to try something known as the ‘pomodoro technique’ (pomodoro [tomato] refers to the timer that was used by the developer of this technique). I have used this in my own research and found it very useful.
The idea is that you set yourself a timer of 25 minutes and for that 25 minutes you concentrate on your work without allowing yourself to be distracted by emails/facebook/twitter etc! After the 25mins is up, you are allowed a five minute break, and then you set another 25 minute timer. After four sets of 25mins you have a longer break of around 15-30mins. This method helps with concentration (you can check your emails in the five min break!) and productivity, and it helps to break down large tasks that seem unmanageable into approachable chunks. It’s amazing what you can get done in 25mins if you really concentrate! It also shows that even if you only have a small amount of time, you can still make progress on a larger piece of work- the 25mins before you go off to a lecture or for dinner can still be extremely productive for your dissertation! Don’t automatically think that you need three clear hours ahead of you to write an essay.