How to write for university | Susan RVK | Skillshare

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How to write for university

teacher avatar Susan RVK, PhD | Science Communicator

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
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Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

7 Lessons (27m)
    • 1. Introduction

    • 2. Academic Writing Basics

    • 3. Picking a Topic

    • 4. The Zombie Rule

    • 5. Writing clearly and persuasively - Point First Writing

    • 6. Using a reference manager

    • 7. Last step - Proofreading

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About This Class

The best academic papers are clear, persuasive and informative. Whether you are in first-year university or starting grad school this course will help you become better at writing for an academic audience. 

In this 30 minute course with researcher and science communicator Dr. Susan Rogers Van Katwyk you will learn how to:

  • pick a strong and focused research topic,
  • write a persuasive story (even in the sciences!),
  • manage your references and citations,
  • and much more.

Meet Your Teacher

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Susan RVK

PhD | Science Communicator


Hello everyone!

My name is Susan, I'm an epidemiologist and a science communicator. 

My Skillshare classes focus on helping you get through university and build skills to communicate better.

Please follow my Skillshare profile and feel free to send me a message if you've got ideas for classes that you'd find useful!

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1. Introduction: Hi everyone, my name is Susan and the skill share class is about how to write effectively for university. Whether you are just getting started in your first year of college or you are starting to write your PhD thesis. The tips and tricks that I've pulled together in this class should help you become a clearer and a more effective writer. I had my PhD and I've published a lot of my own research in scientific journals. But every day I worked with students who are just getting started in academics who are trying to figure out their undergraduate honors thesis or how to get there first research paper published in this course, I will walk you through a bunch of examples to show you how you can take your reading to the next level. In the first class, we'll walk through some basic principles of academic writing. In second, we'll talk about how to choose a research topic and how to organize your research. The third class is about the zombie rule and how you can tweak your writing to avoid the passive voice and vague sentences. In the fourth class, I'll show you how to use 0.1 writing to make your writing more persuasive and to make sure that your reader stays with you through the entire story that you're trying to tell. In the fifth class of show you how to use a reference manager software to keep track of all of your research and automatically generate your bibliography. And finally, I'll share my strategy for how to effectively proofread your paper, even if you wrote it the night before it was due. I'm looking forward to it. So let's get started. 2. Academic Writing Basics: Hey, and welcome back to my skill share class about writing effectively for university. In this first class session, I want to talk about some basic principles for academic writing. Starting with what academic writing is not good. Academic writing is not about big words and long sentences. Writing clearly about something that you really understand is what's gonna make you sound smart, not throwing in tons of jargon and terminology and writing really, really, really long sentences. Here's an example of bad writing that actually won the philosophy and literature bad writing contest in 1998. The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and re-articulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure and marked a shift from a form of illusory and theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the re-articulation of power. This sentence is bad for a few reasons. It's too long. It uses way too much jargon to be accessible. And it tries to shove more than one idea into a single sentence. It's also just really confusing and hard to read. Most professors do not have time to read your sentence four times over to figure out what you're trying to say. Now of course you're going to have to use some terminology from your discipline. If you are a physics student, you'll be using physics language. But there's still ways to do this clearly. First, you need to have one thought per sentence. Shorter sentences tend to be clearer. For example, a good starting point for Judith Butler in her aiding would have been to cut her sentence in half here. You should also have one topic per paragraph. A paragraph should be a unit of thought, not a unit of length. So make your paragraph as long or as short as it needs to be, just to cover off the one thing you're thinking about. And when you change topics, change to a new paragraph as well. Three, don't overgeneralize. If you start your paragraph with it is a truth universally acknowledged, then you're just asking people to contradict you. There are very, very few truths in the world that are universally acknowledged. And even if you're trying to illustrate how bad murderer is, you'll have to deal with everybody, the disagrees with you about whether murder is bad in every single situation at all times. Fourth, you wanna use quotations sparingly and citations extensively. Lots of students use big long blocks of quotations in their work in university because they're afraid of plagiarism. But this also makes your paper really, really hard to read. Instead, you should be able to summarize other people's ideas in your own words and then reference them using a normal citation style like APA, MLA, or Vancouver to get the original author credit for their work. Using citations extensively shows that you've not only done your research, but you understand the ideas well enough to work with them. The norms for quotations vary between fields, but I can tell you that in my PhD dissertation, I used hundreds of citations and 0 quotations. Fit. Follow the instructions. Now I know this sounds dumb, but you would be amazed by how many students don't actually follow the directions they are given by their professor or by their examination committee for writing their paper. If your paper needs to be cited using a certain reference style, use it if it needs to be double-spaced. Do it if you're supposed to analyze and compare two texts, don't read only one at the end of the day, you can never do well on a university paper if you don't follow the guidelines that the professor has laid out for how they're gonna great that paper. 3. Picking a Topic: Hey, and welcome back to my skill share video about writing effectively for university. In this class, we're gonna talk about picking a research question and structuring a response to it. One of the biggest challenges that students have is with picking a research topic. Most students tend to choose a huge research topic that they could never possibly answer in the space that they have available. If you pick a research topic that's too broad, you're gonna end up with one of three things. Either you're going to have a paper that's way too long. You're going to have a paper that doesn't have nearly enough detail to get a good grade. Or you're going to end up having to narrow down at the last minute. And that's going to waste a whole bunch of the time researching that topic in the first place. For example, how to solve climate change is a terrible research question. Even if you had an entire doctoral thesis, hundreds of pages to work with, you still wouldn't be able to answer every single aspect of that paper. The podcast or John Hodgkin says that specificity is the soul of narrative. And this is true even for academic papers. You want to try and narrow in on a research topic that specifically addresses an area that you are interested in. Or at the very least specificly responds to what your professor has asked you to do for the assignment. Instead of asking about how to solve climate change, you could try asking instead, helping current wind turbine technology change. What legal mechanisms can be used to solve climate change? How do changes in international development funding impact climate change? And depending on your assignment, you may even need to be more narrow than that. You might have to pick a specific region, specific country. Or maybe you were only going to be able to look at individual level behavior or community level action that can solve climate change. Once you've picked a narrow topic, your next challenge is to structure the way you answer that research question in a logical way. You want your writing to be specific and you want your writing to tell a story. And that's true even if the story that you're trying to tell is the story of the lab experiment. You just ended up running. Start by thinking about what you want to say and how we want to describe it from beginning to end. An outline can help with this process, but it can be an outline just as simple as these are the topics that I'm going to talk about and this is the order that I want to talk about them in, and here's how they relate to each other. Think about whether you can structure your response into logical groups. For example, is the paper that you're writing, something that can be structured as small to big, like in our climate change example, you might talk about examples at the local level and the national level and then the global level. Or maybe the way that you're writing it makes sense to talk about old to new things that happen first and then all of the advancements that happen to today. There might also be a framework that you can use to structure your paper. For example, in marketing, they often talk about smart, specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely. Does it make sense for your paper to have one paragraph on each of those categories or on each category of a different framework that you know of. If you're writing for a science discipline, this might be really easy. Science papers tend to have a very specific structure, background, methods, results, discussion limitations. If you're reading a really long paper, you can use your structure to create sections instead. So each section might have several paragraphs that each talk about a single thought all nested under the topic that you're covering in that section. In your introduction, you want to introduce each of these sections and describe what you're gonna do from beginning to end so that your reader knows what's coming next in your paper. Now that you have a specific research topic and a plan for how you're going to write the paper. The next video in this series is going to talk about the zombie rule and how to write clearly all the way through your paper. 4. The Zombie Rule: Hey everyone, welcome back to my skill share course on writing effectively for university. This session is going to be about the zombie rule or how to write clues more clearly through your entire paper. There's a common misconception that academic writing should use the passive voice. Lots of students think that the passive voice will somehow make them sound either smarter or more objective. The truth is that your university papers are gonna be clearer and they're gonna read better by using the active voice instead, the passive voice can actually get you into trouble in University Writing because you end up with sentences that are a lot less clear and alone, vague. And since a lot of academic writing is about the difference between your ideas and somebody else's ideas. That vagueness can make it seem like you don't actually know what you're talking about. So what's the difference between active and passive writing? In active writing, the person or thing responsible for the action comes first in the sentence. In passive writing, the person or thing being acted upon comes first and then the actor is added at the end, or even sometimes left out completely. Here's an example that shows why the active voice is so much better than the passive voice. The active sentences, I love you. The passive sentence is The much less fun. You are loved by me. Here's another example that looks a bit more like what you might actually write in a research paper. The active sentence is, research shows that high stress can cause heart attacks. The passive sentence is, it was previously demonstrated that heart attacks can be caused by high stress. In the second sentence, it isn't really clear who has demonstrated that heart attacks can be caused by stress was at researchers 50 years ago, or is that something that you just proved two paragraphs to go in your paper to spawn passive sentences. Look for a form of the verb to be where the actor is either missing or comes late in the sentence preceded by the word by. That's what zombie rule comes in. The zombie rule says that if you can insert the words by zombies after the verb in your sentence, you have a passive sentence. Here's an example. In the passive sentence, I can add by zombies onto the end and it still makes sense the telling was attacked by zombies. But in the active sentence, zombies attack to the town. I can't add zombies onto the end again or it won't make any sense. The zombies don't have to get added to the end of a sentence either. They just have to slot in after the verb. So for example, the possibility of travel to Mars has been examined by zombies for many years. The active sentence, scientists have examined the possibility of travel to Mars doesn't work with zombies added anywhere. Here's an example of a passive sentence that you might write a history paper that would cause confusion. Women and people of color were discriminated against. The problem with this sentence is that it doesn't tell you who was doing the discriminating. And as a result, your reader doesn't know whether or not you know about the systems and conditions that created this discrimination. Because you haven't been clear, you also haven't ruled out the zombies aren't the reason for discrimination. There's a common misconception that anything written in the first-person is also written in active voice by default. That's not true. It's actually very easy to find examples of the passive voice with the first-person. For example, I was hit by the Frisbee is passive voice. There are a few times that you can use the passive voice. You can use the passive voice when it doesn't really matter who the actor is. For example, if you wrote, a new water purification system will be built. And you don't particularly care about who is doing the building than the passive form of the sentence is fun. You can also use the passive form when you want to be purposely vague about who is doing the acting. So it's very common to hear governments say mistakes were made without ever specifying who the mistakes were made by. Finally, you can use passive writing if you're describing a process or the results of a study, or some similar material that actually is objective. Although if you're describing any action that's being taken, you should use the active voice instead. Here's an example from one of my research papers. It starts out with the passive voice to describe a process. Seven databases were searched, but then it switches to the active voice to describe the actions that we actually took to complete the research. It's important to know that you can actually use the first-person in academic writing, assuming your professor is okay with it. You don't want to use the first person to start your paper with. In this paper, I will describe XYZ. Top scientific journals actually do prefer that you use the first-person in cases where it makes sense too. For example, the active form of the sentence, we found 69 unique evaluations of government policy is a much better sentence then the passive version, 69, unique evaluations of government policy were found by zombies. Well, there are a few cases where the passive voice is useful in general in your academic writing, you are going to want to stick to the active voice. And if you're looking for some more examples of passive and active voice writing, check out the link in the notes to the resources from the University of Toronto website. Up next, we'll be talking about 0.1 writing, which is the writing technique that makes lawyers so persuasive. 5. Writing clearly and persuasively - Point First Writing: Hey everyone, welcome back to my skill share class about writing effectively for university. This video is going to be about 0.1 writing or how to write more clearly through your entire research paper. Lots of people are taught to write paragraphs that start with lots of facts and then tell you the conclusion at the end. That's why it's called the conclusion, right? Instead, with 0.1 writing, you give your reader of the context upfront, and then you give them all the facts and then you retell them the conclusion at the end. And that will help your reader figure out the so what and the why do I care about this of your paper much faster, 0.1 writing is actually something that's hard to students in law school so that they can make their arguments short and impactful, which is exactly the same thing that you want to do for most of your university writing as well. Here's an example of the unclear way. Drug resistance is a naturally occurring phenomenon whereby microbes evolved to become resistant to the antimicrobial drugs that we depend on to treat infections, human actions, particularly the overuse, misuse and abuse of antimicrobials in humans, animals and agriculture have accelerated this process. Actors at all levels, consumers, prescribers, countries and international agencies need to move quickly because antimicrobial resistance poses an urgent threat to global public health and development. In this example, you get some facts that seem important, but it's unclear what the argument is or what the call to action is until the very end. Here's the same argument rewritten as a 0.1 paragraph. Antimicrobial resistance poses an urgent threat to global public health and development. Drug resistance is a naturally occurring phenomenon whereby microbes evolved to become resistant to the antimicrobial drugs that we depend on to treat infections, human actions, particularly the overuse, misuse and abuse of antimicrobials in humans, animals and agriculture have accelerated this process. Actors at all levels, consumers, prescribers, countries and international agencies need to move quickly to address the threat posed by antimicrobial resistance. This is much clearer because you know up front that antimicrobial resistance is a threat. And then I tell you why it's a threat. And I tell you who needs to do something about it. 0.1 writing is also really good at signposting your paper, which means telling your reader what they're going to hear next in the paper, for example, presumably, my next paragraphs are going to talk about what consumers, prescribers, countries an international agencies can all do about antimicrobial resistance. So how you write a paragraph 0.1? The first sentence should be your opening statement. Tell the reader upfront what the takeaway message is. The middle sentences should give all the facts and details and then your last sentence should be your summary or your conclusion. You'll probably need to do a lot of editing when you get started with 0.1 writing, once you've written your paper, go back and read just the first sentences of each paragraph. If you've gotten the 0.1 format right, then all the main arguments of your paper should be pretty clear just for reading the first sentences. If not, try going back and revising until they do. First rating is also really good at making sure that you have only one idea per paragraph. All the sentences in your paragraph should support the argument from your very first sentence. If they don't think about whether you should be splitting up into two paragraphs. It'll take some time to get used to writing 0.1, but you will get better at it over time for the assignment for this course, send me your best example of 0.1 writing that makes an argument about something that's really, really important to you. Up next, we're gonna talk about organizing your references using a reference manager software. 6. Using a reference manager: Hey everyone, welcome back to my skill share course about writing effectively for university. We're almost at the end. All that's left is tidying up our citations and proofreading the paper. So in this class, I'm going to tell you about using a reference manager software. As soon as you start having to write research papers regularly, you should find a reference manager to start keeping track of all of the research that you use, not only for this paper, but for all the papers that you write. A reference manager is a piece of software that stores all of the citation information for all of the research that you've done. So for every paper or book that you've read, the reference manager will keep track of when it was published, what the title was, who the authors were, what journal it was published in, and anything else that is important for putting together the citation. And you load all of this information into the Reference Manager while you're doing your research. And then it links with your Microsoft Word document while you're writing so that you can automatically insert the citation information while you're writing up your paper. And this will save you huge amounts of effort by not having to go back and figure out where you found all of the information that's contained within every sentence that you've written in your paper. There are lots of these reference softwares available. Taro and Mendeley or both free to download. And your school might have a subscription that lets you use one of the other softwares like RefWorks or end note. One of the best ways to learn about these programs is by talking to a librarian at your school. They can help you walk through it. And they might even have free workshops to show you how to use the software in depth. Here's my Zotero library. On this side you can see all of the papers that are in my library. If I click on one of them, you can see all of the details about that paper in the sidebar where it was published, which volume, issue, pages, year, what language it was published in. And the other information that's important, let's say I want to add a new reference to my library. I can come over here and click on the green plus button. And it gives me the option to add a book, a book section, document, that journal article or whatever else I might want to add. If I click on journal article, it gives me a blank page to fill in all of the information about the article that I've been reading. But there's also an easier way to add articles. If I go over here to the Lancet, to the page for this particular article about health sector spending that I want to add to my database. And I copy the DOI, which is a string of numbers and letters that specifically identify this article. I can click on the magic wand in Zotero, paste in the DOI. And it grabs the entire reference for me, the title, the authors, the publication details and everything just automatically get imported into the software. At the end, your reference manager will automatically generate a bibliography for you, which will just need a quick proof read to make sure it has all of the information right before a turn in. To start writing a paper using Zotero, I used a little Zotero plug-in in Word. So here I've got a couple of sentences written to start off my paper and I want to add a reference here. I click Add Edit, citation. And this little Zotero bar pops up where I can search for my reference. This is the one I want. Hit enter, and it automatically adds the reference into my document. Now I need to add a bibliography for this document. So I am going to click on add edit bibliography. And it's going to automatically generate the bibliography for me. In document preferences, I can pick the citation style right now I'm using Vancouver, but if I wanted to switch to APA and just would have to do that. And it would automatically switch my citations to this format and switched my bibliography to look like this instead, a reference managers also great. If you're reordering your paper, we're changing the order of things in the proofreading phase. Let's say I decide I want to reorder the sentences in my paper. I'm going to take this sentence that was second, and I'm gonna make it first now. To get Zotero to update, all I have to do is hit Refresh. And this citation, which was number two, is now number one. And this citation that was number one is now number two. I hope this class has helped you get started with using a reference manager. We've got one session left in this class of writing effectively, where we're gonna talk about my secrets to proofreading, especially if you're proofreading the night before your papers due. 7. Last step - Proofreading: Hey everyone, welcome back to my skill share class about writing effectively for university. In this last session of the course, we're gonna talk about proofreading. I know it's everybody's favorite thing. Honestly though, most people are really bad at proofreading their own work after spending hours or days or even months working on a research paper, years. In the case of writing up your PhD, you are the worst place to find the spelling mistakes or the sentences that don't make sense, or the little errors that were introduced all the way along. Now, ideally, you could find a friend who would proofread your paper for you. And not only will they be able to find those spelling mistakes, but they can usually point out the things that are unclear or the paragraphs, little bit of work. But in the real world, lots of us finished writing right up until the deadline. So how do you proofread a paper under those circumstances? Inside Microsoft office, there is a function called read aloud, where the computer will read your Word document out loud to you. The last thing that you should do before submitting your paper is to have Microsoft in its little computer voice, read the entire thing out loud by listening to your paper, instead of trying to skim through it, you'll start to hear all of the mistakes that were made along the way. And anything that sounds wrong to your ear is probably something you should fix before hitting the Submit button. In addition to simple spelling mistakes, what should you be looking for when you're proofreading? You should definitely be on the lookout for auto correct mistakes. This is really common lately where I'll start to type one word and autocorrect, we'll turn it into a slightly different word. When you're skimming your paper, it's really hard to see that confusing has been turned into confusion. But if you listen allowed, you should be able to spot this mistake straight off. You should also be on the lookout for incorrect plurals. Places where you might be missing an S or where you meant to use the plural version of Word, but use the singular version instead. You should also be on the lookout for repeated words. Like many soldiers died during the Revolution. It's hard to catch these on paper. The pretty easy to catch them when you're listening to it allowed when you're rushing to finish a paper, it's pretty common to find repeated ideas, places where you started writing the sentence one way and then change your mind partway through. When you're proofreading, you should be able to rewrite these sentences to streamline your ideas. You should also be on the lookout for sentences that don't end. One time during my undergrad, I was in such a hurry to finish a paper that I completely stopped writing the conclusion mid paragraph. It just ended in the middle of a sentence. My professor had a pretty good laugh at me and I never made that mistake again. You should also be wary of sentences that go on too long or run-on sentences. A good tip is that if you don't remember where the sentence started, you should go back and break it up into smaller chunks. As we talked about in a previous class, you should also be on the lookout for passive sentences to make your writing clearer as a whole. Finally, you should be on the lookout for missing citations. If you hear a couple of sentences that state facts or make assertions without citing a source, you should go back and add the source of the information you're citing. That's it for my skill sure, course on reading effectively for university comeback. As often as you need to review these concepts and feel free to ask any questions in the comments below, or just to tell me that you've totally Christian next academic paper. Good luck everyone.