As PhD students you might be involved in teaching undergraduates, whether in seminars, workshops, dissertation support or so on. In these roles you are often faced with the difficult challenge of helping students to improve their sociological skills, including their writing.
In our book, The Craft of Writing in Sociology: Developing the Argument in Undergraduate Essays and Dissertations, we outline the essential and more advanced skills that UG sociology students need to construct a substantive answer to an essay question, developing from a critical engagement with academic literature, but resulting in an independent argument and conclusion.
At the heart of a good essay, of course, is a clear sociological argument. There are some rules to building an argument and writing clearly, but mostly they are rules of thumb; they are the techniques and tools that will help students to develop their skills and begin to build an independent voice. In the book we draw on examples from our own student’s work, show what they do well, and how they can be improved. The book is aimed at undergraduate and masters students, though we have found the odd section has proved helpful to some PhD students, too.
To help show how the book can be useful to you in guiding your own students, we asked three senior lecturers in Sociology at the University of Manchester to come up with their top three ‘pet peeves’ in student’s essays. Here are some of their comments, and some of our top tips to help students to improve their work, along with some advice to you, the PhD students trying to support them.
“A main peeve of mine in student writing is poor introductions. Three common errors regularly stand out: throat clearing sentences (e.g. ‘globalisation is an important topic’, ‘Marx was an important writer’); dictionary definitions for core sociological concepts; and introductions that merely restate the question. What I really want to see from an introduction is a brief account of how the student is approaching the question at hand, what key questions the essay will address, and what answer the student will come to at the end of the essay.” Senior Lecturer in Sociology
This was a point on which our three colleagues agreed: students often waste the introduction. To help students to grasp the importance of an introduction we devote a whole chapter of The Craft of Writing to ‘beginnings’, which outlines the ways in which they can use the opening paragraphs of their essay to begin building an argument. Here is a tip you can give them, to help them improve their work:
- Give the reader a guide to the argument. Much as you would give someone directions in how to get to where they’re going, tell your reader what steps you will take, what the key turning points will be, why it is important to take this route and, ultimately, where you will end up. In other words, tell your reader exactly what you will conclude and why, right at the beginning.
In supporting your students in tutorials, workshops and lectures, you will be faced with a mix of students, in terms of abilities and possibly also disciplines. Some students will benefit from this tip immediately, as they might not know how to start an essay or might be falling into the trap of restating the question or giving encyclopaedia style biographies. Others might already be doing good work in their introductions. For these more advanced students you can encourage them to be creative, to draw the reader in and show why it is that this topic is of significance, whilst still ensuring that their first paragraphs serve this important introductory function of guiding the reader through the argument to come. Try to remember that students from different disciplines might be expected to do something quite different with an opening paragraph. Helping them to see the value of focusing on the argument in sociological writing will be of use to them in your class and in years to come.
Another point on which our colleagues agreed was that sociological essays can be imprecise and are sometimes written in a style which is meant to sound intellectual or engaging, but which is more confusing than it is enlightening. As one senior lecturer put it:
“A pet peeve of mine is imprecise language, for example peppering an essay with terms like ‘however’, ‘therefore’ and ‘consequently’, but without attending to the logical relationship between sentences that those words are supposed to signal. If the logical connector is wrong then the argument fails. This kind of error is often motivated, I think, by students wanting their essays to ‘sound academic’, when often they would have been more convincing by using simpler language more precisely.” Senior Lecturer in Sociology
Part Three of The Craft of Writing explores grammar and style. We take time to explain how to construct sentences and paragraphs, and what students should prioritise when editing their work. We show why it is worth planning the time needed to rework essays because a good argument can be let down by poor presentation. Here is top tip number two:
- Your written work should prioritise clarity and concision over entertainment and erudition when making an argument. Students often write in a style which they think makes their points sound important, but get lost in the meaning of what they are saying by doing so. It might be that you have quite a command of English and want to show off your knowledge of polysyllabic or unusual words, or it might be that you wish to imitate the sociological writers whom you admire. Whatever additional reasons you have for writing, there is none more important in a sociological essay than making your argument clear. Words such as ‘however’ and ‘moreover’ should be used to indicate how your ideas are linked together, not to start a sentence with a good word. Be sure that when you edit your work, you edit for the argument, prioritising the word choices which best help to make your point. Such decisions will reflect maturity and consideration in your written work, and it is these which will truly impress a reader.
PhD students sometimes face similar challenges in their own writing, since you are closer to producing publishable material, it can be tempting to write like Foucault or Derrida, rhetorically pushing your position to its limits through metaphor and simile. But, in the end, clarity is most important. This is a very helpful lesson to pass on to your students, for although they might begrudge being told to attend to every word and its meaning, rather than let loose with their artistic flair, they will benefit from this emphasis of substance in the long-term.
A final element which our three colleagues all listed in their top pet peeves was poor structure.
“I am often frustrated by the poor structuring of an essay. In other words, with the order in which ideas are presented, either at the level of the whole essay or at paragraph level. Essays that ping-pong from one idea to another, and then back to the original idea, indicate that the student has not really thought their argument through. A trickier thing to get right is the structuring of paragraphs, and some students seem keen to cram in as many (often unconnected) points into one paragraph as possible.” Senior Lecturer in Sociology
Structure forms a key part of our book. We explore the common structures which students might use (including ‘compare and contrast’, or ‘build and refine’, for example) and get down into the detail of constructing paragraphs and sentences. Again, the key message is to help students to make active choices in how they structure their writing to best present the main turns of the argument so as to reach a natural conclusion. Here is top tip number three to pass on to students looking to improve their essays:
- Redraft your work for your argument, before you edit and proof-read it. Students often write to tight deadlines and do not plan enough time for a good second draft of their work. Instead, they write a first draft and then edit it as they proof-read it. When writing the first draft of an essay you will still be working out what the argument is. This is because writing helps you to think, so as you write your full first draft you will be meandering around a little, finding the best route as you go. Instead of merely editing this and checking the grammar, you should seriously re-draft the essay in light of the argument you now know you wish to make. This will help you to write a good introduction, since you can now say clearly from the outset what you will go on to argue, and a good conclusion, for you will now be able to say exactly what you have argued and why. Re-drafting for the argument means taking out material, adding in material and ensuring that each paragraph has a main point to contribute to its development. It is an essential step in producing a good essay, which must be undertaken prior to editing for sense and proof-reading for typographical mistakes. Try to think of writing more like watercolour painting. It is better to start again, once you know the image you wish to paint, than to try to rework the splashes and washes into the final product.
Each of these tips should help you point students towards the most important part of learning to write good sociological essays: bringing everything they do into the service of producing an argument which responds to the question and provides a satisfying answer. We hope that these few tips are helpful to you in supporting your students, but of course the book contains significantly more information and advice. We guide students through the steps in developing a good argument which is clearly articulated from beginning to end, and which will help to avoid the many more common errors which students make in learning the craft of writing. If you find it proves useful in your teaching, we would love to hear from you. Or if you have ideas of how we could help students further, we are open to suggestions.
Andrew Balmer is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Manchester and member of the Morgan Centre for Research into Everyday Lives.
Anne Murcott is Honorary Professor at the University of Nottingham and Honorary Professorial Research Associate at SOAS, University of London.