Writing for academic purposes
By: Tory Dockree
This week, we’re going to be thinking about how to communicate our ideas through writing. Regardless of your faculty, many classes have assignments that contain written components. Whether it be a lab report, an essay or a written assignment, writing is an extremely important skill, and this post is a great place to start building your confidence.
If you are thinking about what it will be like to write in university, you are not alone! Knowing that I was going into a program that required a lot of writing, I was definitely curious about my professors’ expectations. I remember the feelings of self-doubt that I had before I got to university, so I want to give you some of the information that I wish I knew back then.
I specifically want to discuss how to narrow your focus and decide on a topic. This was something that I struggled with, and I think that discussing it will be really helpful, regardless of what discipline you are writing about.
Writing is something that I found initially overwhelming during my first year at Mac. I distinctly remember reviewing my course syllabi on the first day of my first semester and being in awe at the length and number of assignments that I was going to have to submit throughout the term. I was particularly taken aback by the length of the essays that I was going to have to write — the 2500-word papers that they were asking for were a lot longer than the 1000–1500 word essays I wrote in high school. Additionally, the assignment topics and questions that I was given were a lot more research-based than anything that I had done before, and I had no idea where to begin. While these large assignments did seem overwhelming at first, I found that they were more similar to the types of assignments that I was used to than I thought.
One particular aspect of writing in university that was new to me was the research process. Most of the assignments that I had completed in high school required little-to-no research. This starkly contrasts my experience in university, where many of my assignments have required fairly extensive research.
One of the most important things to keep in mind is that the research phase is an extensive part of completing any research assignment. It is not something that should be taken lightly, but should instead be seen as vital part of creating a strong written assignment. Here are some things to keep in mind when conducting research for an assignment:
Assess your sources
When starting an assignment, be sure to clarify with the instructor and/or TAs what they consider to be appropriate sources for each assignment. Depending on the nature of the assignment and the course, different types of content may be considered appropriate. Ensuring that you are citing the right sources is extremely important because the information that you take from those sources is the foundation of your assignment. If you have questions concerning what makes a source appropriate, visit the McMaster library page for more information.
Read! Read! Read!
Always try to approach research with an open mind, and explore papers that present a wide range of perspectives. You should try to read as much information about your topic as possible. This is because sifting through the available information allows you to gain context and more effectively narrow down a specific topic or question. New information can very easily shift the direction of your assignment, so it is important that you have done an adequate amount of research before deciding on a topic.
Do not underestimate how long the research process can take. Sometimes all of your research may just fall together into perfect alignment; other times it may seem like you will never find a topic. Either way, you should always leave plenty of time to conduct your research. The information that you gather during the research process is the backbone of your assignment, and you should not forget its value. In fact, this process is so important that professors sometimes assign preliminary projects like literature reviews and essay proposals to ensure that students take the time to conduct an appropriate amount of research.
One aspect of research that is particularly frustrating is going down the wrong rabbit hole. Sometimes you will do everything right — you’ll read all of the appropriate papers, keep an open mind and react to new information, and you’ll still end up at a dead end. This could occur for a number of reasons: maybe there isn’t enough information on that topic, maybe there’s too much information or maybe there just isn’t an answer to the question that you’re trying to solve. In any case, this is OK! It happens to everyone. In this instance, just try to redirect and focus on developing a topic or question that doesn’t fall into the same problem.
Ultimately, if you find yourself struggling to conduct research or land on an appropriate topic, don’t hesitate to ask for help. There are tons of resources on campus, like the Writing Centre and the libraries, that can help you in these situations.
I hope that you found this helpful! I know that writing in university can be a source of worry. Try to remember that, if you pay close attention to your instructor’s guidelines and ensure that your work meets them, you are setting yourself up for success.
Don’t forget to check out our Webinar Wednesday and Feature Friday Webinar. Both go live at 5:30 p.m. (EST). Learn more about our webinars and contests by visiting the Academic Skills Prep Series page.
Don’t forget about our contest and grand prize! Write a 250–300-word response sharing what you found interesting and new in the Academic Skills Prep Series and how it may help you prepare you for your first year of university. Find more information on the contest by visiting the Academic Skills Prep Series page.
Tory is going into their fourth year of Arts & Science with a combination in Philosophy and currently works as a student staff in the Academic Skills area of the SSC.