Going up a level from high school to college is daunting in many ways, including the need to master new ways of writing. From freshman year through graduate school, the skills most valued tend to stand out in discussion posts, exam essays and literature reviews. The most rewarding challenge and impressive accomplishment in college writing is the well-crafted literature review.
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- Discussion posts need to walk a fine line between informal and formal.
- Exam essays have a unique structure that is easy on the student and the professor.
- The literature review is the highest form of college writing, and the most difficult.
College professors across the disciplinary spectrum have long-held beliefs when it comes to how their students should write. While not every class demands the same level of attention to mechanics, structure, or even basic grammar, there are some standards that pervade. The obvious goal is to clearly articulate what is meant, but different situations challenge us to adapt.
With the increasing popularity of online courses, the ubiquitous “discussion post” has become a key currency of academic success. A discussion post is almost always a response to a prompt form the professor. A good prompt provides the rules of the road and a map, including how long the post should be and what content needs to be addressed.
Observing the appropriate word count and conveying the required elements is simple enough, but there can be some uncertainty about how formal or informal a post should sound. Everything from opinions and impressions to specific facts and concepts are potentially on the table, so it is critical to make a thorough assessment of the prompt before crafting your post. When in doubt, err on the side of formality. As the semester progresses, you will learn more about the professor’s expectations and adapt accordingly.
In the old days we used “Blue Books” and wrote out our exam essays in cursive. Now, of course, the keyboard is the universal tool of choice, but the format has not changed. Essays still need an introduction, a body of at least three paragraphs, and a conclusion. A good essay question, like a good discussion prompt, tells you all you need to know to get the job done. Unlike a discussion post, though, the voice for an essay is never informal.
Professors want you to know what to put in your essay and how to convey your knowledge. Use the essay question to structure your essay by addressing the required elements in a logical sequence. Organize your essay in some way that makes sense in the context of the prompt, usually by way of a chronology or by addressing the relevant concepts one-by-one. In other words, lean into the essay question by letting it dictate to you the structure of your essay.
By far the most daunting writing task is the literature review, which requires a rigidly formal voice. The skill set required can stagger the imagination. Due to the complexity involved, dozens of book-length comprehensive guides to compiling a literature review are available. Style guides like APA, MLA and Chicago are standard references addressing the innumerable situations that arise when citing literature for a term paper or research project. But as forbidding as this terrain may be, there are some reliable rules of thumb to guide the process.
A distant relative, or perhaps ancestor, of the literature review is the annotated bibliography, which lists relevant works in some order, maybe chronological or alphabetical by author, and summarizes each one separately. When writing a literature review, the annotated bibliography can be the first step. Begin by using the library website to assemble relevant articles and studies from academic journals. Search for articles by topic and prioritize the more recently published ones. Search article titles and abstracts using key terms that express your topic. If available, use a database of articles specific to your discipline.
Once you have completed the annotated bibliography, you have already done a lot of writing, but next you must take it up a notch. Going from the bibliography to the literature review requires your writing to embrace more of a story-telling purpose. Rather than listing articles and writing about them separately, you must weave a story that describes the evolution of knowledge that has been progressing from the findings of previous studies. The main purpose is to explain what is currently known while describing the methods that have been used to obtain that knowledge.
There are several ways to structure a literature review. They are usually organized either chronologically or by topic, depending on the discipline. A good literature review contributes to and continues a conversation among scholars, like you, and discusses the relevant previous studies with respect to the topic they share. Some studies are important for your specific topic, but others are more timelessly important to the discipline generally, with both kinds being appropriate for your literature review.
The literature review establishes your credibility as a scholar. Producing a competent review of the relevant literature reflects your skills and abilities as a researcher and a writer. It shows that you can break a complex task down to its basic elements and organize your thinking. Your completed literature review speaks to your capacity for critical thinking because it embodies the decisions you made regarding what to include and exclude from the scholarly conversation, and how to characterize where that conversation stands. It shows that you can identify and describe gaps in the body of knowledge that need to be addressed. Ultimately, it validates your subject-matter expertise.
Students who want to succeed know how important it is to improve their writing skills. Part of becoming a better writer is learning how to write in different situations and for different purposes. With practice and experience, something astonishing happens when we learn the subtleties of bringing forward the right voice for the situation. As you gain confidence in your ability to find a fitting voice, your academic writing becomes second nature.
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