Writing Your Student Essays and Dissertations: Some Tips on How to Do It Well

It’s that time of year when students are starting to enrol in higher education courses at universities and colleges. Every year, when marking essays and dissertations, I encounter numerous errors in students’ writing.

What are these errors, and how can you avoid them to make your dissertation more readable? Here are my top 10 tips for improving your academic writing:

1. Plan Your Outline

Most importantly, spend time planning the outline of your essay or dissertation. For dissertations, this means thinking about chapter headings and subsections for each chapter. Decide on the key tables, figures, and graphs you need to include to complement the main text. These visual elements should add value; they shouldn’t merely repeat what’s already said but should provide a different perspective or clearer illustration of your points.

2. Avoid Complexity

Many students assume that longer words are “more scientific” and thus preferable to shorter ones. For example, they might use “perspiration” instead of “sweat” or “haemorrhage” instead of “bleed.” Imagine if Winston Churchill had written his speeches in this “more scientific” manner.

3. Use Short Sentences

Shorter sentences are easier to read and help to ensure the examiner doesn’t miss the key points you’re trying to make. The same applies to paragraphs—don’t make them too long and look for natural breaks to start a new paragraph.

4. Choose Active Voice

Use active voice rather than passive voice in your text. For example, say, “I reviewed the literature,” rather than, “The literature was reviewed by me.” Active voice is easier to read, more direct, and makes it clear that you carried out the work.

5. Eliminate Superfluous Words

For instance, “based on” is better than “on the basis of,” and “even though” is preferable to “despite the fact that.” Eliminating unnecessary words gives you more room to present your work and helps you stay within the word count.

6. Use Clear Language

Use clear and professional language, and avoid clichés and colloquial expressions. These are seldom used in scientific writing and can be difficult for some examiners, especially non-native English speakers, to understand.

7. Master the Basics Early

When writing your dissertation, it’s not the time to be learning spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Most educational institutions offer writing assistance. Take these courses early in your program and invest in a good grammar and writing style guide.

8. Practice Scientific Writing

Many journals offer the opportunity to respond online to their articles. Use this opportunity to improve your critical thinking and argumentation skills. Working in a writing group can also be beneficial, as peer feedback can help you refine your work. There are also many guides available to help you improve your writing.

9. Study Good Examples

Read examples of excellent scientific writing to inspire your own work. For instance, consider reading “From Creation to Chaos: Classic Writings in Science” by Bernard Dixon.

10. Proofread Thoroughly

Before final submission of your work to the examiners, thoroughly check your spelling, punctuation, and grammar. You will be surprised how many errors can be easily caught with the spell and grammar check functions in word processing software.

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