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Taught postgraduates

Expert guidance from Study Advice at the University of Reading

Writing at Masters level means being able to explain more complex ideas at a greater length and depth. This doesn't mean sounding 'more academic' and using more complicated sentences to impress your readers. It does mean being able to communicate more developed ideas in a clear way, and one of the best methods of ensuring this is by getting the basics of good academic writing right; good planning, structuring, and meticulous referencing will all help sustain your writing over a longer word count. Another element of clear writing is selecting relevant evidence, knowing why you are using it, and putting it to full use by interpreting and analysing it. Clear and accurate writing comes from a clear understanding, so if you are being vague or including a quotation because it seems roughly related to your topic, take a step back and give yourself more time to make sure you fully understand what you are writing about.

The guidance on this page shows some of the key features of writing at Masters level.  

Knowing where you are going

Good planning and structuring are vital when writing longer assignments, both for you as a writer, and for your reader. They give your ideas a logical shape and guide you and your reader clearly to the conclusions you want to make.

When writing your assignments or dissertation, you are leading your reader through a research 'journey' - showing them what topic you decided to explore and why; who has explored it before and what they found out; how you explored it and what you found out; what did your discoveries tell you about your topic?; and what did that lead you to conclude?

The shape of the journey that you write about in your assignment will probably look quite different to the journey you personally took when you researched the topic. Research journeys tend to have many detours into interesting areas that are not directly relevant, but which help build understanding and context and give an original angle to your arguments.

The final journey you write up in your assignment should be a lot more direct and clear. You need to digest and sift through your reading and research, and be selective. You will need to write a first draft to get the general shape of your journey on paper. This will help you identify what you really want to say and give you a clearer idea of where you are headed in your journey. Then you need to redraft to make sure everything is relevant and contributes to getting you to your destination. 

"Get started on your assignments early - you need to plan and redraft a few times, and you can't do that on an ad hoc basis. Don't underestimate the time you will need." (Masters student, English)

A focused approach to your evidence

Not only are your assignments longer, but you are also expected to refer to a wider range of reading; it takes practice to integrate more sources and refer to them skilfully in your writing. You may find that even with a higher word count it is difficult to fit all you want to say in. It's important to make every source work for you in backing up your points, and not waste words in describing unnecessary parts of the source.

You don't have to refer to each piece of evidence in the same depth. Sometimes you need to show that you understand the wider context of the issue, and a short summary of the key issue and key researchers is all that is needed.

For example:

Many studies have investigated household accidents caused by cheese. These studies disagree about the most significant reasons for cheese-based injury with some arguing that choking on cheese poses the highest risk (Muffet, 2008; Moon; 2009; Rennet, 2011). Other studies claim that burns from melted cheese are more hazardous (Rechaud, 1989; Rarebit, 2009), whilst a minority of recent studies have identified slipping on cheese as a growing danger (Skepper, 2011).

A significant amount of reading and in-depth understanding of the field is demonstrated in those sentences above. The summary maps out the state of current research and the positions taken by the key researchers.

Sometimes you need to go into greater depth and refer to some sources in more detail in order to interrogate the methods and stand points expressed by these researchers. For example:

Skepper's recent study introduces a new model for assessing the relative dangers of cheese related-injuries (2011). He identifies the overall total damage done as more important than the frequency of injuries (Skepper, 2011). However, this model does not adequately take into account Archer's theory of 'Under-reporting' (2009) which states that people are less likely to report frequently occurring small accidents until a critical mass of injuries are reached.

 Even in this more analytical piece of writing, only the relevant points of the study and the theory are mentioned briefly - but you need a confident and thorough understanding to refer to them so concisely.

Accuracy and awareness of complexity

Accurate and appropriate use of language in your writing is one way of demonstrating academic rigour. You will need to be more thoughtful about the way you use the English language, and refine your writing to meet the new demands of your studies. Immerse yourself in good quality English writing: read broadsheet newspapers and academic articles - but remember that the best writing style is clear and accurate, not unnecessarily complicated. Practice your critical thinking and analysis on non-academic sources like newspaper articles, adverts, and TV shows.

If English is not your first language, there is more specialised support and advice available: See the International Study and Language Institute website for more details (link below).

At Masters level you can't get away with writing about something that you only vaguely understand, or squeezing in a theory in the hope it will gain extra marks - your markers will be able to tell, and this does not demonstrate the accuracy or professionalism of a researcher.

Imagine you write the sentence: "Freudian psychoanalysis demonstrates how our personalities are developed from our childhood experiences."

At Masters level, the word 'demonstrates' becomes very loaded and potentially inaccurate. This is because at Masters level you are expected to interrogate the assumptions, boundaries, and way in which knowledge is constructed in your subject. With this in mind, the sentence above raises a lot of contextual questions: To what extent could Freud's theory of psychoanalysis really be said to 'demonstrate' the origins of our personalities? What part of Freud's many theories are you referring to when you write 'psychoanalysis'? What about the developments in psychoanalysis that have happened since Freud, and the many arguments against his theories? Your writing needs to take these questions into account, and at least be aware of them, even if you don't address all of them.

Don't just stop at discussing the pros and cons of a debate; academics rarely agree on interpretations of theories or ideas, so academic knowledge is more like a complex network of views than two clear sides.