While it may seem obvious to say that academic writing must stay focused, and that all information included in an essay/thesis should be relevant to the question/topic, this is sometimes easier said than done.
In this week’s blog, we discuss some strategies for keeping your writing focused and avoiding irrelevancies, both during researching and during writing.
Analysing the task
The first step in any academic writing process should be an analysis of the task. For what purpose will you be writing? For example, is it to compare two arguments, to analyse a problem and propose a solution, or to describe the design and findings of an experiment. What should the scope of your response be? That is, how much depth/detail do you need to provide, and to what extent will the word count of the task restrict what you can include in your response? Often, excellent academic writing requires a balancing of depth and breadth in response. This needs to be decided on as early as possible (and should be reviewed and revised if necessary during the researching phase).
Planning the task
Perhaps your lecturer has provided you with a required structure for your response to the task (e.g., abstract, literature review, findings, etc.), or perhaps you have devised your own based on your analysis of the task. An important step in avoiding irrelevancies from the outset is to consider how much weight each section of your response should have in terms of how important that section is in conveying your thesis statement (or equivalent, depending on the style of writing you are undertaking). You might find it useful to think of this in terms of word count, or lines on a page.
A common mistake made by many novice researchers is that they spend the majority of their research time collecting background information (such as for in a literature review). However, any such information should only act to support the thesis statement and supporting points. Background should never be included for background’s sake. By understand that other sections carry more weight than the background section, for example, time can be allocated efficiently to each section, reducing overall research time, and limiting time spent collecting information that is only to be discarded.
Keeping your purpose firmly in mind while writing
Throughout your writing process you should continuously be asking yourself the following question: Does this point support my thesis statement? If the answer is a clear NO, you must be ruthless. Delete the point/section (or copy and paste into a separate document, just in case). If you are not sure, ask yourself: How does this point support my thesis statement? If you cannot answer this question, delete. However, if you can determine an answer, it might be worth your while making some mention of how the point relates to the thesis statement in your text, so a strong sense of purpose is maintained (obviously, this should be done judiciously).
Some complementary questions worth asking are: ‘Have I adequately integrated this point into my text? Is it clear what I mean by including this point? Have I included the necessary supporting evidence for my point, or is it too vague/general to be meaningful? Am I relying on the reader to have certain background information, and is it fair to assume they have that background?’
By establishing a clear sense of purpose for writing from the outset, and being sensible about what should and should not be included in your response, not only will your researching and writing process be streamlined, but your writing will reflect your clear focus.