In your Masters programme, you will have to write assignments for most modules, as well as a dissertation of 15,000 words at the end. The type of writing that is required at Masters degree level in the Social Sciences may be different from the writing you have done either professionally, or in a previous degree course. These guidelines offer information on the characteristics of academic writing in the Social Sciences.
Here are the main features that distinguish academic writing from some other types of writing.
Academic writing requires a clear structure, an objective and relatively formal style, precise language, and the acknowledgement of all sources that you used. These features are discussed in sections 2, 3, and 4. You also have to stay within the set word limits for the various assignments and the dissertation (these are stated in the Programme Handbook).
In some types of writing, you can make claims on the basis of your personal opinions or assumptions. In academic writing, you must provide appropriate justification for your claims through arguments and evidence.
Evidence comes from research. In your assignments, the evidence for your claims will mainly come from the work of other scholars in the field. In your dissertation, it is likely that you will carry out empirical research yourself. Then, you will have two sets of claims and two evidence bases:
1) Claims by other authors that justify your research and position it in the field. These claims will be based on your careful review of the literature. The literature review will have provided evidence of what previous research has achieved, and which questions it has left unanswered.
2) Claims based on the evidence of your own research. These claims usually represent new knowledge in the field.
|Example: Need for evidence|
In everyday conversations, you are not normally expected to provide a detailed analysis of the topic. For instance, if someone asks you ‘What do you think of devolution?’ they want to know whether you are for or against, and they would be bored if you went into an analysis of the current debate. In academic writing, the priorities are reversed. The reader is not interested in your personal opinion, but wants to know what are (a) the main issues to be considered, and (b) the various lines of argument that can be developed. You must put the reader in the position to form his/her own judgement based on the evidence and arguments that you have presented. Your claims or conclusion are less important than how you arrived at them.
This feature of academic writing is further discussed in sections 4, 5, and 6.
At undergraduate level, some exams and assignments may be designed to test students’ knowledge of facts. At Masters level, you are expected to contribute to knowledge through your writing. It is not enough to report what others in the field have done and written. You are expected to critically analyse the literature and to take a stance, expressing your own voice by challenging existing claims, concepts and theories.
The assignment topic or question often indicates this expectation by asking you to ‘discuss’ or ‘evaluate’.
Assignments and dissertations need a clear structure with headings and sub-headings for the various chapters and sections. The sections need to be structured by paragraphs.
2.1. The main sections of assignments
Assignments usually have three main sections, the Introduction, the Main Text and the Conclusion, followed by the Reference List and, if appropriate, Appendices. The Main Text should be structured by headings that reflect your line of argument.
The Introduction sets the scene. It introduces the question/problem and explains the purpose and focus of the paper. It also provides some background information, for instance on previous work in the area, and on research gaps. If necessary, it provides definitions of the key term(s). Finally, the Introduction outlines in summary form how you are going to deal with the topic, and the various stages you will take before reaching the Conclusion. If appropriate, you also may state here why the topic is relevant to you, for instance in relation to your professional context.
For an example of an Introduction see the example for Signposting below.
The Main Text includes a critical review of the literature. Based on this review, you will develop your argument. The nature of the argument is specific to the assignment question/topic and can be any of the following: a) you argue for one position presented in the literature and explain why this is, on the basis of your critical analysis, more convincing than others; b) you argue that all current positions are not convincing and explain why; c) you argue that for your specific professional context, one position is more applicable than the others.
Depending on the question/topic, there might be other lines of argument. The important point is that you take a stance and make a critical evaluation of the literature instead of just reporting it.
The Conclusion should give the reader the clear impression that the purposes of the assignment have been achieved. It typically includes:
The Introduction and Conclusion must link together; at the end of your paper, you should look back at the goals you set out in the Introduction and discuss how you achieved them.
The dissertation is usually about your own research, not a given question/topic, and therefore the structure includes chapters such as ‘Research Methodology’, ‘Findings’, and ‘Discussion of Findings’. The structure of the dissertation is discussed in section 7.
Signposting is an important feature of academic writing which enables the reader to follow your development of the topic. You need to signal how the various sections of your writing link together, and what you are going to discuss next and why.
There are two aspects to signposting: 1) saying where you are; 2) saying where you are going.
Below is an example of signposting, where the signposting devices are highlighted in bold print.
Vocabulary is seen as an issue of primary importance nowadays in language teaching, and at the same time it is an issue that poses problems to learners. In this paper I am going to comment on what constitutes ease and difficulty in vocabulary acquisition focusing on how it is influenced by lexical correspondences between first and second language.
After a brief opening, I will look more closely at different dimensions of lexical correspondences between languages and explain how these can affect the acquisition of lexis. For the purpose of this essay, three groups of lexical correspondences will be adapted: true lexical correspondences, polysemic extensions and non-correspondences. Then I will present my own small-scale action research as a way of illustrating the issue in question. Finally, I will discuss some teaching implications of the subject matter.Extract from a student assignment
Note that the structure of the assignment is clearly signposted thought the discourse markers: after a brief opening (i.e. Introduction), then, finally (i.e. Conclusion).
It is important to divide your text into meaningful paragraphs. This makes it easier for you to develop your argument, and for the reader to follow it. Consider the following guidelines:
The following example shows the topic and topic development of two paragraphs.
The teaching of foreign languages within the UK educational system has given rise to a number of concerns over the years. These have been related to such issues as the most appropriate age for commencement of language learning (Burstall et al, 1974), the most appropriate teaching methodologies (Richards & Rogers, 1986), and the relative achievements of girls and boys (Graham & Rees, 1995; Clark & Trafford, 1996). However, the major concern has undoubtedly been the apparent reluctance of the British to learn a foreign language at all, and the declining level of achievement in this domain (Saunders, 1998). As we move into an era where our future will need to be based on multilingualism (Graddol, 1997), such a situation has serious consequences.
A recent report on behalf of the Nuffield Foundation (Moys, 1998) highlights a number of key questions regarding the current situation and the future of foreign language learning, as well as emphasising the deeply political underpinnings of a policy on language learning. The Nuffield Inquiry points firmly to the need for foreign languages in the twenty-first century from a European perspective, from a business stance, and because of the increasing necessity for international communication. As David Graddol warns in the report, ‘Speaking English alone will not be enough to ensure a full and productive participation in the 21st Century’ (1997, p.29).
From: Williams, M, Burden, R. and Lanvers, U. (2002) ‘French is the language of love and stuff’: student perception of issues related to motivation in learning a foreign language. British Educational Research Journal, 28, 4, 503 – 527.
Focusing on key aspect
Focusing on key aspect
It is sometimes more effective to use tables and figures than lengthy verbal explanations, particularly when you want to present numerical information. Tables can also be presented to summarise your argument. Make sure that all tables and figures in your paper have a number and a title. They also must be referred to in the text.
Example: Use of Tables
Another model of motivation was developed by Ritche and Martin (1999). The categories and some of the factors are listed in Table 1.
Table 1: Ritchie and Martin's motivational drivers
|Economic Rewards||Intrinsic satisfaction||Social Relationships|
Extract from a student assignment
Academic writing does not require a style or vocabulary that is radically different from other types of writing, e.g. writing you might have done professionally or for your first degree. Nor does it require an overuse of technical jargon. You are expected to express yourself in a clear, accurate, concise, objective and coherent manner.
It is a myth that academic writing requires a ‘sophisticated’ style with long sentences, complex expressions, and technical jargon. Avoid overlong sentences and cut out redundant words and phrases.
This is illustrated in the following example.
From a student assignment
Edited version (after cutting out redundent words and phrases):
Here are a few rules for achieving clarity and accuracy:
Coherence can also be achieved by pronouns, referring to previous statements (it, they, this, these, those…). The linking words and phrases are also called cohesive devices or discourse markers. They show the reader how you move from one point to another and develop your argument.
Here are examples of linking words and phrases:
The following example shows how pronouns and linking phrases create coherence in the text.
The teaching of foreign languages within the UK educational system has given rise to a number of concerns over the years. These  have been related to such issues as the most appropriate age for commencement of language learning (Burstall et al, 1974), the most appropriate teaching methodologies (Richards & Rogers, 1986), and the relative achievements of girls and boys (Graham & Rees, 1995; Clark & Trafford, 1996). However , the major concern has undoubtedly been the apparent reluctance of the British to learn a foreign language at all, and the declining level of achievement in this domain (Saunders, 1998). As we move into an era where our future will need to be based on multilingualism (Graddol, 1997), such a situation  has serious consequences.
From: Williams, M, Burden, R. and Lanvers, U. (2002) ‘French is the language of love and stuff’: student perception of issues related to motivation in learning a foreign language. British Educational Research Journal, 28,4, 503 – 527.
 Referring back to "concerns"
 Contrasting idea
 Referring to last point, link to next paragraph
As mentioned in Section 1.2., all claims in academic writing must be supported by evidence. Most evidence that you will provide in your papers will come from your reading of the work of other authors in the field, and some will come from other sources, for instance newspapers, websites, government reports. All your sources, including tables, charts or photos, must be acknowledged through references.
There are various conventions of referencing; for instance, in some disciplines references are provided in footnotes. In the Social Sciences, the Harvard System is used, in which a brief (partial) reference is included in the text, while the full bibliographical reference is presented at the end, in the ‘Reference List’.
Within the text, only the author’s name(s), publication date, and –in case of direct quotations- page numbers, are presented. Below, you see examples and explanations of the various forms of partial references.
Literacy is commonly regarded as autonomous (Street, 1984)
|Work of single author|
Public involvement in policy formation is increasingly encouraged through dialogue and debate (New Economics Foundation, 2003).
|Reported by an organisation; no specified author|
Explanation can be sought from the continuum of instrumental and integrative orientation, which is described as an antecedent that helps ‘to arouse motivation and direct it towards a set of goals’ (Dörnyei, 1998, p. 123).
|Page number is given for direct citation|
Another important factor influencing students’ chances of completion is whether they obtained their preferred choice of university and course (Ozga & Sukhandan, 1998).
|Work of two authors|
As Dewhurst (1992) argues, students are going to meet moral dilemmas before and after they leave school.
|"Integral" reference = author's name is part of the text|
As Boyle et al (2002) point out, students need to be confident in order to be successful in their studies.
|"Integral" reference/more than two authors|
Furthermore, there is evidence from academic research that generational values differ (e.g. Smola & Sutton 2002).
|The e.g. means that there is more literature on the topic and that this is only an example.|
In example 6, there are more than two authors. For space reasons, only the first author, Boyle, is named, the others are referred to with ‘et al’. Their names are listed in the Reference List.
In examples 5 and 6, the name(s) of the author was not in the bracket but integrated in the text. This way of citation gives more prominence to the author’s voice. Below, you find verbs/ phrases that can be used in integral references.
The Academic Phrasebank is a useful resource where you will find commonly used phrases for expressing yourself in the various parts of your paper.
According to Smith (2003), preventative medicine is far more cost effective, and therefore better adapted to the developing world.
|Smith (2003)||points out
|that||preventative medicine is far more cost effective, and therefore better adapted to the developing world.|
from the Academic Phrasebank, University of Manchester
The Reference List provides specific details of a publication you have cited which allow the reader to access that publication. The order is always: name of author(s), year of publication in brackets, title of publication, and further details such as location of the publication. The details differ between journal articles, books, chapters in edited books, reports, and websites, and these differences are explained below.
Journal article: (1) name of the author(s), (2) year of publication in brackets, (3) title of the paper, (4) name of the journal in italics, (5) volume and issue , (6) page numbers.
Example: Reference of a journal article
Adams, G., King, L. and King, D. (1996). Relationships of job and family involvement, family social support, and work-family conflict with job and life satisfaction.’ Journal of Applied Psychology, 8, 4, 411-420Adams, G., King, L. and King, D. (1996). Relationships of job and family involvement, family social support, and work-family conflict with job and life satisfaction.’ Journal of Applied Psychology, 8, 4, 411-420
Book: (1) name of the author(s), (2) year of publication in brackets, (3) title of the book in italics, (4) place of publishing company, (5) name of publishing company.
Example: Reference of book
Rousseau, D. (1995). Psychological contracts in organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Note that the main title is presented in italics. For a journal article, the main title is the journal; for a book, it is the book title.
Edited book: (1) name of editor(s), (2) ‘ed’ or ‘eds’ in brackets, to show this is an edited book, (3) year of publication in brackets, (4) title of the book in italics, (5) place of publishing company, (6) name of publishing company.
Example: Reference of edited book
Street, B. (ed.) (2005). Literacies across educational contexts: mediating, learning and teaching. Philadelphia : Caslon Press.
Report: Reports are often commissioned and do not specify the author(s). The order of reference is the same as in other publications, but instead of the author, the name of the organisation appears.
Example: Reference of report
Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) (2002). Full and Fulfilling Work. London: DTI.
Websites: Internet sources need to be treated with caution, as there is a lot of information that is not verified. Wikipedia, for instance, is not acknowledged as a source for academic enquiry, because everybody can contribute, and the contributions are not verified by academic peer review. If you use a website as your source, you will have to state in brackets when you last accessed this website – this is because sites may disappear fairly quickly from the web.
Example: Reference of website
Pincas, A. (2000) Features of online discourse for education. Learning Technology, 2 (1). Available online at: http://lttf.ieee.org/learn_tech/issues/january2000/index.html (accessed 21 March 2009)
The Harvard system only requires that the references are listed in alphabetical order. There is no single standard which defines the style or appearance of the references. Different publishers may print the same reference with different formatting or with different
Examples of different reference requirements by Applied Linguistics journals
Cortazzi, M. and L. Jin. 1996. ‘English teaching and learning in China’. Language Teaching 29/1: 61-80. [as it would be cited in ELT Journal]
CORTAZZI, M .& JIN, L. (1996). English teaching and learning in China. Language Teaching, 29, 1, 61—80. [as it would be cited in Language Teaching]
Cortazzi, M., & Jin, L. (1996). English teaching and learning in China. Language Teaching 29, 61—80 [as it would be cited in TESOL Quarterly]
Cortazzi, M., & Jin, L. (1996). English teaching and learning in China. Language Teaching, 29, 61-80. [as it would be cited in The Modern Language Journal]
Cortazzi, M. & L. Jin. (1996) English teaching and learning in China. Language Teaching 29: 61—80. [as it would be cited in International Journal of Applied Linguistics]
Cortazzi, M. and L. Jin. 1996. ‘English teaching and learning in China.’ Language Teaching, 29/1, 61-80. [as it would be cited in Applied Linguistics]
You can use any of these Harvard reference styles, but you must be consistent and use the same style throughout your assignment or dissertation.
When you are referring to the work of other authors, you will usually paraphrase (summarise and express in your own words) what they have said. In this case, the reference will only provide the author’s name and the year of publication, for instance: (Miller, 2009). You should only use direct citations (i.e. using the author’s words), when the author presents a specific or unique concept or an expression that cannot easily be paraphrased, or when the author, as in the example below, is a well-known authority whose summary of a report should be given in his/her own words. If the citation is a short one, it is not necessary to indent it and you should put it in single inverted commas. In addition to the author’s name and year of publication, the page number is given, for example:
Example of direct short citation
As David Graddol warns in the report, ‘Speaking English alone will not be enough to ensure a full and productive participation in the 21st Century’ (1997, p. 29).
From: Williams, M, Burden, R. and Lanvers, U. (2002) ‘French is the language of love and stuff’: student perception of issues related to motivation in learning a foreign language. British Educational Research Journal, 28,4, 503 – 527.
Citations of more than 20 words are formatted differently from the rest of the text. They are indented and single spaced. Quotation marks are not needed in this format, as the example shows:
Example of direct long citation
Our starting point was therefore a recognition that the dominant vocabulary in reading pedagogy is ideological – that is, it is an example of
an implicit philosophy in the practical activities of social life, backgrounded and taken for granted, that connects it to common sense.
|From: Street, B & Lefstein, A. (2007). Literacy: an advanced resource book. London, New York: Routledge|
Academic study is always based on the thorough analysis of previous work in the discipline, and your argument in your assignment/dissertation will build on what other authors have previously written. As a student, you will often feel that other experts in the discipline have expressed their ideas in a way that you cannot match. You need to decide whether to paraphrase or to quote these authors directly (see 4.4.). In any case, you must make it absolutely clear through referencing where the ideas come from. You will have to sign a Cover Sheet with a plagiarism statement for your assignments/dissertation to make sure that all your sources are acknowledged.
It is important to learn how to use library facilities and internet search engines efficiently. You must always make notes of where you found information and always acknowledge your sources properly.
It was emphasised earlier that you must not just report what you have read in the literature, but take a critical approach towards the claims made by the authors you cite. This critical stance means that you need to carefully examine the arguments and evidence with which authors support their claims. Next, you need to bring together, compare and evaluate the –often contradictory- claims of various authors.
The first step in your reading is to identify relevant sources and evaluate their suitability for your topic.
You will find relevant sources through:
In your assignment/dissertation, you will have to provide the following information in your Literature Review:
Which sources are valuable for providing that information?
Textbooks provide summaries of research without giving you the details of the original research studies. The textbook author has already interpreted the research in a way that you might not agree with. Also, the textbook author might have emphasised aspects that are not relevant for your topic. For your assignments and dissertation, it is important that you read beyond textbooks and try to get up-to-date knowledge of recent research in your research area.
According to Wallace & Wray (2006), ‘front-line’ literature consists mainly of journal articles, books, and reports that provide theoretical work, reports of original research, accounts of current practice and policy statements. These sources provide direct information for your research.
For the value of various sources (textbooks, readers and handbooks, reports, policy statements, websites, see Wallace & Wray, 2006, pp. 17 – 25).
Much literature is now available online (e-journals, access to print journals electronically – see 5.1.). There are powerful search engines (i.e. Google Scholar) that direct you to downloadable files. For internet sources such as Wikipedia or any other sites to which individuals can contribute without peer review see 4.2.
Reading is done most effectively if you have its purpose in mind. Your reading should always be guided by two main questions:
Your reading will be most effective if you take the following two steps:
Step 1: Organising reading
Step 2: Recording reading
Reading critically means first that you approach your sources with clear questions in mind, i.e. that you are constantly questioning the relevance of the text to your own topic (see 5.3.). Secondly, it means that you critically analyse the authors’ arguments. Wallace and Wray (2006) explain what distinguishes an argument from an opinion.
Argument: Conclusion (claim) + Warrant (reason for the conclusion; e.g. evidence from the author’s research or professional experienceOpinion: Unwarranted conclusion – no explanation is given for claim
(Wallace & Wray, 2006: 27)
Evaluating an argument means that you have to assess whether the warrant is convincing. If you make counter-claims, you must have sufficient warrant to support them.
The term ‘argument’ is referred to in different ways in academic writing. On the one hand, it means a claim that is based on a warrant (see 5.4.), rather than an opinion that is not supported by any evidence. In an academic paper, on the other hand, it means the way in which you explain and develop your topic. In this sense, ‘argument’ encompasses: (1) a logical structure of your paper in which –sometimes- contradictory claims are discussed, and which enables the reader to follow, through signposting and headings, how you deal with the topic, (2) your critical analysis of existing literature from the viewpoint of your own experience and/or research, and (3) the development of your own stance, based on your literature review and your own experience/research. Considering the range of possible topics, there is no template for developing an argument, but the following steps may help.
Essential steps for developing an argument:
If your dissertation includes your own empirical research, the structure usually consists of five chapters:
This structure can vary, for instance Chapter 4 can be split into two chapters: 4. Findings, and 5. Discussion. When the research is based on quantitative data, it may be more appropriate to present the numerical results in the ‘Findings’ chapter, followed by a ‘Discussion’ chapter. In qualitative research, it is more to common to present findings and discussion in one chapter.
The following section gives a short outline of what should be included in the chapters of a dissertation. Each chapter should end with a short summary and a linking paragraph to the next. When you summarise your research in the last chapter, the Conclusion, check that you are being consistent with the short summary at the end of each chapter.
The Abstract is a summary of the dissertation which briefly informs the reader about the background, aims and objectives of the research, the main methods used, main findings and conclusions.
This chapter presents the (1) background and (2) the aim and objectives of your study, i.e. the relevance of topic; the reasons for your interest in it, and (briefly, because this will be dealt with in more detail in the Literature Review) the current knowledge of the topic. You may ‘frame’ your own research here, stating that is a need for doing that research to fill knowledge gaps (for instance, teaching learning strategies may have been well researched in other contexts, but not in yours). At this point, you may want to point out what your research is going to contribute to existing knowledge in your field.
Leading on from (1) and (2), you may state your (3) Research questions. However, it may be better to state the research questions at the end of Chapter 2, the Literature Review, after you have considered the current research findings and discussion of the topic.
Next, provide an (4) Outline of your dissertation with a brief overview of the following chapters.
Make sure that you focus on the literature that is relevant to your topic and point out where the literature leaves knowledge gaps for your context. Again, this chapter offers you the opportunity to show that you are making a contribution to knowledge in your context. Do not just summarise your sources, rather select and discuss the themes that are relevant to your topic and the current discussion of the topic.
In this chapter, you need to justify why you chose certain methods of enquiry, and why your methods are capable of answering your research questions. For this justification you may have to link back to the Literature Review (for instance by saying that previous quantitative research did not find in-depth explanations, and therefore you are choosing different methods, such as interviews).
In addition to the choice of methods, you have to discuss the following issues in this chapter:
In this chapter you answer your research questions through presenting and discussing your results. Your discussion should link to the Literature Review and the Methodology chapter, as you are relating your own findings to the results of previous research, and to the way it was conducted.
In addition to a summary of your research, the following points need to be addressed in this chapter:
Examples from your data, for instance the questionnaire you used or extracts from interview transcripts can be presented in Appendices.
Fairbairn, G. & Fairbairn, S. (2001) Reading at university. Buckingham: Open University Press
Fairbairn, G. & Winch, C. (1996) Reading, writing and reasoning. Buckingham: Open University Press
Wallace, M. & Wray, A. (2006) Critical reading and writing for postgraduates. London: Sage.
© Ursula Wingate Department of Education and Professional Studies King’s College London 2009