Monday, 30 January 2012

MA Reflections - Writing Assignments

I did the course. I read the articles. I chose a topic to focus on. I discussed it with the tutor. I read around the subject. I kept notes of useful references. I swapped ideas with my course mates. I planned in detail. And still I spent an estimated 20+ hours just writing the damn thing!!

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Focus on your education! Image by cityyear

Writing an assignment is hard work, no doubt about it. It can be very rewarding or it can be punishing and torturous - extended moments spend starting at the flicking cursor on the screen, rewriting a sentence several times until it sounds vaguely academic, your shoulders and neck aching from being sat at the computer too long…. and still 2,000 words to go!

So how can we avoid the above and make it more rewarding? My experience over the last couple of years has taught me the following (again, some of which I have done, some of which I learned the hard way that I should have done):

  • Set yourself a deadline before the deadline

Julian Edge, the now retired and very much missed tutor on my first course, offered a sage piece of advice as my course mates and I approached that first assignment date: “Don’t work to the submission deadline - tell yourself it is 2 weeks earlier and work to that deadline.” Two weeks might be a bit much but I believe it is important to aim to be finished with a few days to spare. That gives you time to check things in a much more relaxed manner and means those “I wish I had written that” moments instead become “ooh - I can still write that” moments. Besides, you never know what’s going to happen - some unexpected event (like suddenly being told you have to write report cards for each of your 180 students) may rob you of precious time right before the deadline. Better to be done or nearly done before that happens.

  • Read and re-read as you go

One eye-opener from doing a course like this after a decade of teaching is how the things I advise my students to do when writing absolutely do not come naturally to me! One thing I had to train myself to do, despite the fact that I always go on at my students about it, was to read what I had written and think about how it sounded and whether it could be improved or reworded. Doing this as you go (after each section or few paragraphs for example) can really help with clarifying things that perhaps came out in a muddle. I find it my constant self-editing usually helps keep me within the word limit as well.

  • Space your writing time out

Writing can actually take a lot longer than you expect. Many times, after more than an hour at the keyboard, I have looked back at what I’ve written and discovered that it amounts to just two or three hundred words. I find it’s better to plan for a ‘little and often’ approach - better to write 500 words per session over the course of a week than attempt 3,500 words in one weekend! Typing for an extended period of time is hard - it can give you headaches, a stiff neck and an ever-growing sense of despair. Writing a few hundred words each day, even if you have to force yourself to do it after a long and tiring day at work with another to come the next day, will ultimately cause you less stress than doing it all in one go.

  • Check your references carefully

One thing to be very careful about when editing - you may add a reference to an article that was not in your original list or you may delete one that was originally there. Make sure you check your references list at the end of the assignment several times - you may end up forgetting to list an article you referred very briefly or leaving in an article reference that you ended up deleting from the assignment otherwise! I also find it useful to do the reference list while writing the assignment - it can be a time-consuming task to rush through at the end if you are not careful!

  • Back everything up!

Keep your assignment Word file on a flash disk or external hard drive and maybe even online via a service like Dropbox. Do the same with any pdf articles and course notes you will or even might need as well. Back them up daily. Don’t let a virus, a malfunctioning hard drive, a wayward cup of coffee or a curious two-year old make your nightmares come true! If anything, just do it for peace of mind.

  • Leave a little time to relax

You need time to write an assignment but it should be quality time. Better to spend an hour working in a relaxed state than 3 or 4 hours when you feel tired, stressed and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. So, by all means make you assignment your priority but make a little time each day to do something for yourself as well - read a book, watch a favourite TV show, exercise, bake a cake (for me Winking smile) - if you make sure you don’t leave everything to the last minute, it should be easy.

  • Print it out and read it one last time

You’ve typed the concluding sentence of the concluding paragraph, checked the word count, ran the spell-checker and completed the reference list - ah, the relief! After weeks or worrying about it and hour upon hour sat at the computer typing, you’re all done, right?

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Image by Gerard Stolk

What do you always tell your students? Read the whole thing again and check that it all makes sense! The best way to do this (or so I have found) is to print the whole thing out and read it away from the screen. Somehow, certain errors that the spell/grammar checker may not pick up or certain awkwardly phrased sentences stand out more when I read them from paper. It’s good to have enough time to wait a day or two before finishing and doing this final check as well - leave some space….

Of course, the next time I deal with any of the above, I’ll be doing it on a much larger dissertation scale. I’ll let you know how that goes but in the meantime please share your tips for tackling MA assignments and extended essays. I for one would love to get some different pointers!

20 comments:

  1. Good ideas Dave. I used to go over and over and over mine, cutting, changing, rephrasing. I think I spent a week on a 500 word poster just changing and improving it because it had to be concise. The dissertation drove me bonkers. After the 5th redraft I lost interest.If I'd have had time I would have given it to someone to proof but I didn't. It took me a long time to even be able to read it.Definite overkill.I still think it would have been better by submitting a plan, writing it then giving the first draft to my tutor. They preferred DELTA style of submitting each section as I went. Made it very hard to be continuous as I had to keep going back and one changed things changed everything. Good luck!

    Phil W

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    1. Hi Phil,

      I am also concerned about going a bit bonkers when it somes to writing the dissertation. I'm not entirely sure what the approach is yet but I'm hoping I am not asked to turn it in section-by-section as you describe. That must have an effect on continuity!

      I guess there is such a thing as over-doing it as well. Sometimes it's best just to say "that's all I can do for now" and leave it. :)

      Dave

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  2. Thanks Dave, just the tonic I need right now as I'm in the middle of writing up my masters research project! Sage advice indeed, and like you I've given the same advice to students, but tend not to heed it myself. I've written a lot, but it's still nowhere near coming together as a coherent whole.

    My problem has always been having read too much and having too much to say and exceeding the word limit - by a lot! So my advice would be to: plan, plan, plan; always keep it under control; keep the key points in mind at all times; avoid going off on great tangents; and be ruthless in editing. Again, more advice that I am very good at ignoring myself :-)

    Good luck with it all.
    Lesley

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    1. Hi Lesley,

      Thanks for sharing your experiences. :)

      Avoiding tangents and being ruthless when editing are two self-discipline skills that are tough to master! The time that's lost as a result can be frustrating too.

      Good luck with the rest of your research project!

      Dave

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  3. Hi Dave,

    Thanks for sharing your brilliant ideas, every MA student must read this post! I totally know the feeling and I'll follow your insightful advice.

    Best of luck with your thesis,

    Isil

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    1. Thanks Işıl,

      Glad you found it useful - I'll be sure to share some thesis tips later on as well :)

      Dave

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  4. Sage words, Dave. Even though the majority of this is common sense, I'll wager that many of us fail to implement it in practice, even when we're all at an age to know better! Best advice is the chop it up into manageable chunks, page by page.
    (Come on! Liberal use of /eɪdʒ/ throughout!) :)

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    1. Hi Bren,

      As you say, common sense but that doesn't mean we always put it into practice!

      Dave

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  5. Hi Dave,

    Being an MA student myself, I totally relate to what you are writing here, and yes I need to take on some of your suggestions, particularly liked the one about aiming to finish 2 weeks earlier. I seem to always read, and re-read and always feel I should check it again until the very last second :) Big frustration!

    Good luck with your thesis,
    Sandra

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    1. Hi Sandra,

      As I said in the intro, some of these things I do but others I should do. :)

      Good luck with the rest of your studies!

      Dave

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  6. Hi Dave,

    Thanks for sharing this. It's certainly good advice and useful reminders. I fully agree about setting false deadlines. I've often found that coming back to an assignment after a short break allows me the mental clarity to see things that I'd missed. I'm currently writing a 3,000 word assignment which is due in two weeks. I've done most of the preparatory reading and have planned an outline. To plan I used the mindmapping software Freemind (http://freemind.sourceforge.net/wiki/index.php/Main_Page) and to write I'm using FocusWriter (http://gottcode.org/focuswriter/). I've separated the writing into daily goals: My aim is to write 500 words over six days to achieve the word limit then use the final week to edit and check. Spending time carefully crafting sentences is desirable; however, I think there runs the risk of diminishing returns.

    Dayle

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    1. Hi Dayle,

      Thanks for the comment and the links. I shall check them out in due course.

      I think the idea of 'a short break' is a very good one. If possible, I like to leave the document untouched for a day or two and then come back to it with 'fresher eyes'. It's amazing how something that made sense at the time can often seem like utter drivel when re-read!!

      Good luck with finishing your assignment. :)

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  7. I can hear myself saying (writing) this exact post (and the one before it too), Dave. It's so nice to know one of my chums is experiencing the same thing, even at the same school with the same advisors. Although we don't chat about our MAs much, just knowing people in the same boat is reassuring.

    In the end, I'm going to do some of these things this semester. ;)

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    1. Hi Tyson,

      How did you find the first assignment experience? I found the worst part was the waiting between submission and getting my grades back because I honestly had no idea how it would be received!

      Anytime you want to chat about the MA, let me know. I'd be happy to exchange a few emails or a Skype call. :) (As long as I'm not studying of course ;))

      Dave

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    2. Honestly, working on the assignment was the period I learnt the most during the course. It taught me more about myself and my study habits as well as forcing me to investigate one topic deeply. I think having gone through it, I'm more prepared for course work this semester. That's a good thing for sure.

      And you're right: I'm in the period of waiting for feedback and am completely inept at predicting which way it'll go.

      I'll take you up on the Skype sometime. ;)

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  8. Hi Dave,

    A thoroughly enjoyable and useful post. I was going to share my own tips here, but realised I had enough for a whole blog post.

    To help with your referencing, there's a really useful program called Citavi which essentially manages everything for you. It's been an enormous help to me on my course.

    Anyway, if you have a moment, take a look here:

    http://breathyvowel.wordpress.com/2012/02/03/ma-assignment-writing-tips/

    and let me know what you think :)

    Alex

    PS I couldn't post a comment from my Wordpress account, it just takes me back to the comment form when I hit publish. Any idea what's up?

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    1. Hi Alex,

      Thanks for suggesting Citavi. I've never heard of it before but I'll be sure to check it out.

      No idea why you couldn't comment from your Wordpress account. The comments are open to all users so it must be a glitch to do with Blogger.

      Dave

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  9. The 'back everything up!'(!!!!) is one of the things I learned the hard way after 3 of my final seminars I wrote for almost a year!! were deleted when my computer died, only a month before due. I though I was going to lose my mind! Thank god when of my friends is a computer genius and he managed to extract my papers, but since that day I promised I'm going to back every piece of info on an external hard disk. Maybe it a bit annoying transferring everything to the external drive, and yes, it's a "waste" of 3 seconds, but it's so much better than THE OTHER option..

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  10. This is the post that is now linked to the MA module, Dave. FYI. :)

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