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This section of our site has the essential tips and advice that today's busy student can't do without!

1. How to Write Paragraphs

What is a paragraph? Basically, a paragraph makes a point – so, one paragraph, one point. It usually has three parts: 

  1. Stating the point. 
  2. Backing it up. 
  3. Concluding sentence and link to the next paragraph. 

So, a proper paragraph needs at least three sentences. On a page, aim for about three paragraphs. 

How do you write a paragraph? Decide what the main point of the paragraph is. Sum it up in a few words and write it as a sentence. Put the sentence at the start of the paragraph. This is called the “topic sentence”. Next, give back-up for the point: evidence, arguments, quotes, summaries, paraphrases, data. Finally, in a concluding sentence, you can sum up the point and/or give implications and/or link to the next paragraph.

At the beginning of the next paragraph, you can use words from the previous paragraph to make them flow together (a bit like I just did here by repeating "the next paragraph"!).

For lots more on paragraphs, see our Paragraphs page, our short Mini-module: Quick guide to writing Paragraphs, and our full-length Mini-Module on Paragraphs.

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2. How to Use Sources and Avoid Plagiarism

First of all, always remember to reference everything that’s not your original idea. Bearing that in mind, there are three basic ways to bring sources into your writing - quotes, paraphrases, and summaries:

  1. Quotes are the exact words from the source in inverted commas. 
  2. Paraphrases are a “translation” into your words of the source text, including most of the details. They’ll be about the same length as the original.
  3. Summaries are boiled-down versions of the source, so they just give the main idea and not much of the detail. They’ll be shorter than the original.

How do you decide which one to use? Well, avoid quotes unless they are really good! Why? They don’t show you’ve understood, so putting things in your own words is much better. Use paraphrases if you need to give the whole point with the details. Use a summary if you can sum up a point quickly and you don’t need to go into detail. 

For lots more on this topic, see our page on How to Write in your own Words.

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3. Writing at Masters Level

Writing at Masters Level

Want to get better at writing at Masters level? Here are some essential tips:

- Read critically. Ask questions, be sceptical. Imagine your reader is doing the same with your writing.

- When you read, learn how other writers do it, that is, notice how authors:

  • analyse, 
  • evaluate, 
  • build arguments, 
  • synthesise (i.e. bring together ideas to make new ones),
  • review literature.

- Be aware that your purpose for writing is to argue and persuade more than to report or describe. This means you have to have your own interpretation and argue for it using summaries and paraphrases of the work of others.

Masters level writing has higher word counts so that this can be done properly.

- Read your own writing with a critical eye.

- Get feedback.

For much more on this topic, go to our Writing at Masters Level page.

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4. Reflection

Reflection

Reflective writing is a part of many university courses because it makes you a better learner. Reflection also makes for better practitioners in work. 

  • Always follow the guidelines you are given, for example regarding word limits.
  • Make sure you put thought into choosing the examples that will illustrate your discussion best – you cannot write about everything.
  • Most of the marks will be for analysis and critical thinking (not for describing or reporting), so keep your descriptions brief and to the point.
  • Although you are writing about your own experiences, try to stand back and be objective.
  • Write in an academic style, so for example use references and proper paragraphs and avoid informal language.
  • In your reflective writing, show links between what you have experienced and what you have read – do they contradict (and why), does the literature help you understand what happened?
  • There are frameworks to help you structure your reflective writing. One example of a framework is by Gibbs (1988).

For more help and information about reflective writing, and more details about these tips, visit our Reflective Writing page.

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5. Exam Tips

Exams

Before the exam...

Overcoming stress is important for effective learning, so avoid things that cause stress:

  • Don’t procrastinate
  • Talk
  • Think positive
  • Routines – food, exercise, down time
  • Don’t be perfectionist

It is vital to keep your motivation high. Don’t study for too long without a break – attention and memory will go down so you will start to struggle. You will also get put off studying in the future.

Time is limited, so make sure you manage the time you have effectively:

  • Try to keep to a schedule, 
  • Be selective – you can’t revise everything,
  • Don’t leave it all to the last minute.

Understanding is more important than memorising – if you understand something it is easier to remember it (and the information that comes with it):

  • Revise the gaps in your knowledge and understanding
  • Swap topics regularly to keep fresh
  • Prioritise to suit yourself – e.g. is it better to revise the easy topics first or the most difficult ones?
  • Condense your notes
  • Summarise
  • Use key words to trigger your memory
  • Talk to others – this will help you to understand and recall better

 

During the exam...

Give yourself the best chance by reducing the stress levels:

  • make sure you feel prepared, well-rested, and hydrated
  • come early
  • budget your time - don't forget time for planning and time for checking your answers 

Keep control:

  • read the questions carefully (key words, limiting words)
  • decide the best order for you to answer the questions
  • if you get stuck, try brainstorming or give yourself a couple of minutes to relax, or leave it and come back later
  • don't waffle
  • attempt to answer each part of a multi-part question 

For lots more information, resources and tips, see our Exams page and our Mini-module: Preparing for online exams

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6. Critical Thinking 

Critical thinking

"Critical thinking" is the attempt to be clear and rational in thought and in expression so as to avoid making mistakes in our own ideas and to make fair judgements of the ideas of others.

Critical thinking is less about describing or reporting - it is more about creating and evaluating ideas.

Thinking critically involves:

  • reflection and asking questions
  • avoiding bias and aiming for objectivity
  • drawing conclusions (evaluation)

Writing critically involves:

  • building an argument
  • having support for the points you make (e.g. references)
  • showing your own voice (rather than just collecting what other people have said)
  • being clear

Reading critically involves:

  • asking questions and seeing if the text can answer them
  • not assuming the text you are reading is correct and unbiased
  • not assuming that the view of the author you are reading is the only possible or correct view - it isn't.
  • being sceptical
  • thinking about whether the source you are reading has political / ideological / commercial  motives that might have introduced bias

For more examples, resources and activities to help you with critical thinking, go to our Critical Thinking page and do our Mini-modules:

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7. Report Writing

Reports

Top Tips for Report Writing are...

There are many differences between an essay and a report. For example:

  • Topic - Reports have more practical topics
  • Purpose - Reports aim to present, investigate and analyse information and may make recommendations based on these.
  • Outcome - Presents findings and makes recommendations.
  • Reader - Essays are almost always read by a lecturer whereas reports can also be aimed at a client or manager.
  • Format - Reports have sections with headings and often have charts, tables, etc., Essays may have sections, but they are usually not given headings.
  • Style - Reports are more impersonal and objective and can have bullet points. Essays can be more discursive and argumentative, and they need to be expressed in full paragraphs.

For much more detailed information, visit our Report Writing page.

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8. Essays

Essays

 

  • Always plan the essay. You need to know what your argument is before you start writing.
  • You really need to have a thesis statement. This is the basic argument or purpose of your essay. Use it to plan the essay, and put it as a sentence in your introduction. You will write the essay to try to persuade the reader that your thesis is correct.
  • Write in full paragraphs. You state the point of the paragraph at the beginning, back it up (e.g. with evidence, references, and discussion) and then conclude and/or link to the next paragraph. So that would be a minimum of three sentences. 
  • Have an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. Make sure it's clear to you and the reader where one ends and the next begins.
  • Check that you have answered the question.
  • Proofread

These are just a few basic tips, so go to our Essays page to get full information and examples.

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9. Academic Vocabulary

Academic vocabulary

Academic vocabulary is careful or cautious and often uses words that are different from everyday ones. Three reasons for this are:

  • things are complicated and we don't want to say more than we really can (or things that we don't really mean). 
  • we expect our readers to be somewhat sceptical and hard to persuade and we don't want to make it easy for them to refute what we say. 
  • we want to be taken seriously by other people in our academic field. Words and styles of writing vary between different academic fields, so we should probably try to show that we are really "insiders" so that readers will be more likely to think we know what we are talking about.  

Readers of academic texts are likely to study them closely and re-read them, but at the same time they could have mountains of books and papers to read. So, it is kind to the reader if you can keep your writing as short but as clear as possible. One technical term can replace two or more words from everyday English and be more accurate and clear.

When you read articles and books in your field, try to notice the words and expressions that are used.

For much more on academic vocabulary including lots of examples and essential resources, visit our Academic Vocabulary page.

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10. Literature Reviews

Literature reviews

There are different types of literature review – so make sure you know what task exactly your teacher is expecting from you, and read the instructions.

Literature reviews are basically critical evaluation of texts (articles, chapters, books). They present the content (e.g. summaries), analyse it, look at the similarities and differences between texts, and evaluate.

Stages in doing a literature review – It depends on the task (see above), but basically:

  • Find models of the type of literature review you need to do
  • Read easier articles first – get an overview, get familiarity, start forming your own opinions, then…
  • Be a sceptical reader:

-   Ask questions about the content and see if the answers come up in the text.
-   Notice any doubts or suspicions you have, be open to any questions in the back of your mind
- Is there possible bias?
- Are counterexamples considered?
- Does the evidence really prove the writer’s argument?
- Evaluate: compare, contrast, find possible problems/limitations

Elements to include in your review [follow any guidelines you are given by your tutor / department.]:

  • Introduce: background/context/overview
  • Focus: narrow it down
  • Organise your review appropriately (e.g. theme, chronology)
  • Describe the texts
  • Compare and evaluate
  • Discuss implications

For much more, have a look at our Literature Reviews page.

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11. Notetaking

Notetaking

  • Don't just copy - be prepared in advance with questions you want to be answered. Listen  / read for the answers.
  • Make your own decisions - actively choose what you think should be noted and what can be left out.
  • Make important things stand out - use capitals, bold, colours, underlining etc.
  • Don't switch off when you are given a handout - use the handout to add your own comments and questions.
  • Write down your own reactions and comments - engage with the content and you will understand, and so remember, it better.
  • Compare your notes with other students - get another point of view and discuss / think about it.
  • Work through your notes - revise and rework them periodically making them shorter by using just the keywords. Keep them fresh in your mind.

For lots of useful information, including videos and a HowTo Guide, see our Notetaking page.

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12. Presentations

Presentations

  • There are three parts to a presentation: Introduction, Body and Conclusion
  • Catch your audience's attention quickly - stress the importance of your topic and its relevance to them and / or get them to do something (such as answer a question or discuss something with the person next to them).
  • Slides are a visual aid to help your audience follow your message - not an essay
  • Don't crowd your slides with text and data.
  • Don't forget handouts - you don't need to put all the information on your slides
  • Use the slides for pictures, graphics and key words - not sentences
  • The rule of 6. Maximum of six bullet points on a slide and no more than six words in a line.
  • Don't read a script. Use notes or use the slides themselves to remind you what to say.
  • Look up at the audience, not down.
  • Arrive early to get set up and deal with any computer problems.

 

For a full page of useful information, activities, guides and videos about how to make effective presentations, see our  Presentations page.

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13. Essay Introductions

Introductions

A good introduction is like a foundation to build the essay on.

As a general rule, the length of the introduction should be about 10% of the total word count. 

The introduction goes from the general to the specific (so, start with some background to your topic). 

A good introduction:

 

  • Introduces the topic / Gives background information
  • Says why the topic of the essay is important
  • States the limits or focus of the essay
  • Gives your definitions of any ambiguous or unclear key words (if necessary)
  • States your Thesis (i.e. the main point or argument of your essay)
  • Outlines the structure of the essay.

 

Click to download our HowTo Guide on  Introductions 

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14. Essay Conclusions

Conclusions

Some of the following should be in your conclusion, but you probably won’t need all of them:

 

  • Return to your thesis (your aim for the essay which you gave in the introduction – See Introductions)
  • Summary of the main points 
  • Deductions / Recommendations / Solutions based on the body of the essay
  • Your opinion on what has been discussed 
  • Limitations of the essay 
  • Implications or predictions (for the future or the wider world)
  • Any future research that seems to be needed

 

Tips for Writing Effective Conclusions

 

  • Use the right grammatical tenses. for example "This essay has aimed to show that...",  "The first section presented the arguments of Smith...").
  • Don’t bring in any new information – all the information and analysis should be in the body of the essay not in the conclusion.
  • Summarise the essay by pulling together your thesis and the points you made to argue for it to show how it all fits together. 
  • Don’t wait until the conclusion before giving your thesis statement – put it in the introduction. That way, the readers (and you) know the focus of the essay from the start.
  • Don’t make the conclusion too personal or emotional. Its tone should match the body of the essay, which means it should be academic in style (no rhetoric or calls to action).

 

Click to download our HowTo Guide on  Conclusions   .

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