Developing a coherent argument and position in academic writing is often done in the stages before and after you start writing. Planning helps prevent your ideas from wandering, and redrafting can help identify and sharpen up your argument, so it is good to allow enough time for these stages in longer pieces of work.
If you are finding it difficult to work out what you think in the midst of all the views of other people, try asking yourself questions about the validity of the evidence that others are basing their views upon: Do you agree or disagree with their standpoint and, importantly, what is making you agree or disagree? A questioning attitude is the basis of critical thinking…and critical thinking is not just something we do when writing academically. Watch this short video showing how being a critical student is a skill you have developed from other areas of your life:
See also the following Critical analysis guide produced by the University's Study Advice Team which gives tips on critical thinking, reading and writing:
Good planning starts with ideas generation and identifying what you know and what you want to find out.
This is a really valuable stage which many people miss out, but it makes your reading and planning much easier. Before rushing into your reading, note down your initial thoughts about the question/topic - an essay plan, spider diagram or mind map are all good techniques for this.
The kinds of things to note briefly are:
This helps you start formulating your argument and direction for answering the question. It also helps you focus your reading, as you can pinpoint what you need to find out and go straight to the parts of books, chapters, articles that will be most relevant.
After your reading, it is often good to summarise all your findings on a page – again, a spider diagram or mind map can help with this.
Bringing together the key points from your reading helps clarify what you have found out, and helps you find a pathway through all the ideas and issues you have encountered. If you include brief details of authors and page nos. for key information, it can act as a quick at-a-glance guide for finding the evidence you need to support your points later.
It also helps you see how your initial response to the question might have changed or become more sophisticated in light of the reading you've done. It leads into planning your essay structure which can be done in any way that suits you best: A bullet point list, spider diagram, short summary. It does not matter as long as you have a ‘road map’ to keep you on track when writing.
You can think of the argument running through a piece of academic writing like a river.
Sometimes it is only possible to identify your argument clearly once you have written your first draft, as the act of writing helps clarify your thoughts. We often do not know what our position is on an issue until we have expressed what we think. The redrafting stage is a good time to identify that argument and draw it out fully. You can do this by making sure that there is a consistent message (or river) running from your introduction to your conclusion, and that every paragraph has a role to play in advancing this message
Skip to 45 seconds in on this short video for an explanation of the idea of an argument as a river, or feel free to watch the whole video for more on Structuring your Essay.
Try this writing strategy
What's my argument?
Can you summarise your overall answer to your assignment question in a paragraph? Try writing a short summary of your argument and refer to it to help ensure you are bringing this out clearly throughout your writing.
For more writing strategies to help develop your academic writing see the ‘Writing strategies’ page in this guide.
If you are finding it hard to get started, or there are certain aspects of your academic writing you’d like to develop, try some of these quick writing strategies:
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Get over the initial blank page
Stop deleting or over-editing
Get the ideas in your head down on paper
Set a timer for a short amount of time (say 5 or 10 mins) then start writing. The aim is to write continuously for that time without deleting, searching for references or saying it is rubbish. If you don’t know something write ‘I don’t know’ and carry on.
Identify your own argument
Keep a coherent thread throughout the assignment
Develop your own voiceSee the bigger picture
What’s my argument?:Can you summarise your overall answer to your assignment question in a paragraph? Try writing a short summary of your argument and refer to it to help ensure you are bringing this out clearly throughout your writing
Identify your key points
Write a lot in one goWrite an assignment from start to finish
Bite the bullet!
If you are used to writing in bullet points, use this to help develop your structuring. Make a bullet point list of your main points for the assignment, then treat these as sub-headings (you can always remove them later if your marker doesn’t like headings). Then start to write the detail and fill in each section more fully under each bullet point.
Ensure your argument is clear
Form well-structured paragraphsStop your paragraphs from wandering
First and last lines:
Use a highlighter and go through your first draft highlighting the first and last lines of each paragraph. Do they all link to your main argument? Does the first line act as the introduction to the paragraph and the last line act as the conclusion? Is the paragraph long enough – are there more than just two lines? Does the paragraph deal with one main point or does it wander about?
Stay relevant to the question
Ensure you are analysing critically
Ensure there is a good balance to each paragraph
Relevant evidence:Use a highlighter and highlight the pieces of evidence you use in your first draft – check that each piece of evidence is relevant and supports your point (not just loosely based on the same topic). Check that you have enough evidence and that you are analysing it, not just presenting it.