Module 10 - Writing Skills

Writing Skills

Now that you have formed your research query, implemented your research strategies (including evaluating sources of data), and begun the research process, it is time to brush up on some writing skills. Writing is a fundamental aspect of the research process. From the beginning, you will need to make notes, record your ideas, summarise the literature, write your proposal and transcribe data, amongst other writing activities.

As you progress through your candidature, you will develop your ideas and communicate your findings through your writing. These will eventually become the texts that you develop for a wider audience, such as conference papers, manuscripts for submission to journals and, finally, your thesis. In this module, we will cover note taking skills, writing paragraphs, developing a logical information structure, abstraction and using verbs in academic writing, and how to write an abstract.

Learning outcomes

Upon completion of this module, you will be able to:

  1. Explore and select note making skills to summarise information as you search through the literature
  2. Identify the key components of introductory, body and concluding paragraphs
  3. Structure paragraphs using different patterns of development to facilitate a clear flow of ideas
  4. Identify the structure of an abstract

10.1 Developing skills around making summaries and notes

It is good practice to write summaries of the sources you have identified as you go. This not only assists in sorting and locating information, but also helps to develop your understanding of a concept, critique the information, and begin to find trends or gaps in the information.

Summarising the sources of literature can be done in many different formats, depending on your preferred style:

  • Literature mind map: provides a graphical representation of the state of knowledge in a particular field and is useful in that it allows you to show connections and relationships between different authors and the ideas that they communicate in their writing.
  • Annotated bibliography: check out the Academic Skills Office fact sheet on the annotated bibliography for guidance on how you might structure the summaries. Including an evaluative comment in each summary makes you consider the value of the work for the broader study.
  • Summary table: similar to the annotated bibliography, using a table to summarise the research/sources forces you to think about the points that are relevant to the study.

Table 10.1 Suggested structure for summaries in a table format. Table 10.1 Suggested structure for summaries in a table format.

If you are looking to create more in-depth notes, there are a variety of methods to choose from. You should identify early which method works best for you. See the ASO's note-making fact sheet detailing the four methods:

  • Skeleton method
  • Key word method
  • Cornell method
  • Mind maps

The following videos also explain the Cornell method:

10.2 Writing paragraphs

The paragraph is one of the basic structural units of a written text. It expresses one idea by:

  • Introducing the topic
  • Supporting the topic with evidence, including examples, explanation, description, and definition
  • Summing up the main point at the conclusion of the paragraph

See the ASO fact sheet on writing academic paragraphs.

Introduction paragraphs and concluding paragraphs also have particular structures.

10.2.1 Introduction paragraphs

When writing a literature review, introduction paragraphs should include:

  • The general topic or area of concern- What is your research about?
  • Overall trends in the published literature- What has already been found/established in your research area?
  • Significance of the present review- How is this review going to further knowledge/progress in your research area?
  • The writer’s purpose for reviewing the literature- Why have you reviewed the literature? What is its significance?
  • The scope and organisation of the review- What is your main focus for the literature review?, How have you structured the information in the literature review?

Recommended

The information sheet found here, highlights different components of an introductory paragraph in a literature review – you should familiarise yourself with these components and begin to identify them as you progress through your literature review.

10.2.2 Body paragraphs

Body paragraphs

These features allow you to direct the reader to important points in your argument, to highlight comparisons or contrasts, to underscore the importance of a point or to transition to a new point.

Notice the structure of the following paragraph:

Two hypotheses describe the extremes of possible relationships between biodiversity and agricultural intensity. The first assumes that biodiversity follows a negative exponential trend with intensification, so that even agriculture at low intensity results in dramatic decreases in biodiversity (ref). The alternative hypothesis states that biodiversity is relatively tolerant to low or moderate agricultural intensities, and only declines markedly under high agricultural intensity (ref). The nature of this relationship has not been determined for most agricultural landscapes (ref), or for most taxa, though greater understanding could improve our ability to manage landscapes for conservation.

(Adapted from Schultz, N. (2013). Contribution of native pastures and grassy woodlands to regional plant diversity in the NW slopes of NSW. PhD thesis, University of New England, p. 10)

Consider the topic sentence (the first sentence in the paragraph), which gives a preview on the content that will follow in the paragraph. Here, the topic sentence alludes to two hypotheses being explained in the context of biodiversity and agricultural intensity. The ideas in this paragraph are linked/signposted by "the first", which refers to the first hypothesis, and "the alternative hypothesis", which introduces the second hypothesis alluded to in the topic sentence. The use of these transitions and repetition of "hypothesis" ensures the paragraph is cohesive. The final sentence in the above paragraph identifies the gaps/limitations in the literature.

When you are discussing the literature, it is important to integrate summary and critical analysis. Each paragraph should focus on one point.

For example, body paragraphs in the literature review should:

  • Describe or summarise the main point or outcome of a study
  • Follow the description or summary with some critique or evaluation of that study
  • Highlight the major contributions made by key authors and studies
  • Compare different studies
  • Examine similarities and differences in the major findings, claims, evidence and methods
  • Examine the strengths and limitations of key studies
  • Ask questions about the theoretical and methodological aspects of the studies

Recommended

The information sheet found here, highlights how the writers integrate summary and critical analysis in their review of the literature.

10.2.3 Concluding paragraphs

The conclusion section of a literature review summarises the major contributions to research in your field of study and highlights limitations, knowledge gaps, and research that is still required. It is at this point that links between the literature review and your intended research aims need to be made explicit to justify your study.

Recommended

The information sheet found here, highlights how writers may summarise the main research outcomes to date in their field of study, any limitations, and how their project will contribute to knowledge in the field.

10.3 Information structure

Your ideas in written text must have a logical pattern of development. This helps your reader follow your argument. There are a number of different possible patterns that can be used to structure a paragraph.

10.3.1 Constant or parallel pattern

Subjects or themes for each sentence in a paragraph create a constant or parallel pattern:

A growing humanitarian movement condemned frontier outrages. The humanitarians viewed Aboriginal people as men and women, as brothers and sisters before God. They gave voice to a liberalism which also became a part of Australia’s heritage from the frontier days. They knew what had happened was wrong, and said so. But their voices became fainter as one moved away from the metropolis.

(Adapted from Ferry, J. (1999). Colonial Armidale. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, p. 35)

You will notice that each sentence in this paragraph continues with the same or related topic or theme:

Figure 10.1 Parallel pattern of topic development Figure 10.1 Parallel pattern of topic development

10.3.2 Zig-zag pattern

Information in a paragraph may move from old information (what the writer has already referred to at the beginning of the sentence) to new information (the point the writer wants to make at the end of the sentence). The next sentence then begins with the new information from the previous sentence, now "old" information, and presents a new point at the end of that sentence. This forms a zig-zag pattern of information. For example, the following paragraph starts with information on neoliberal practices, "old information" likely introduced in the previous paragraph. The sentence ends with quite a complex noun group, beginning with the dismantling of existing institutional frameworks ... – the "new information". This "dismantling..." is picked up in the next sentence with this process. Notice how the following sentences have the same pattern – the new information at the end of one sentence is picked up at the beginning of the next sentence.

Figure 10.2 Zig-zag pattern of topic development

The expansion of neoliberal practices has involved the dismantling of existing institutional frameworks, social relations, ways of life and relations with nature in favour of capitalist accumulationThis process has been referred to as “creative destruction” (Harvey, 2007, p. 33). This term refers to the implementation of key neoliberal reforms such as privatisation that, in aiming to create an environment for increased market expansion and competition, have had a number of negative effects.

Figure 10.2 Zig-zag pattern of topic development (note: click image to download as PDF)

Following this pattern, what topic would you expect the writer to follow on with after the final sentence?

10.3.3. Subpoint or fan patternFigure 10.3 Fan pattern of topic development

subpoint or fan pattern occurs when multiple points are introduced at the end of the first sentence in a paragraph, and each of these points is taken up in the following sentences:

Malinowski proposed a three-way classification for folktales and distinguished between myth, legend and fairy storyThe first of these, he suggested, represents a statement of a higher and more important truth of a primeval reality. As such, it is regarded as sacred. Legends, on the other hand, are believed to be true historical accounts. Fairy stories, however, are simply entertainment. They have no special significance attached to them, and they are not believed to be true.

Figure 10.3 Fan pattern of topic development

Of course, not all paragraphs will follow just one of these patterns. You may find one or more patterns in a paragraph. The pattern will depend on the meaning that the writer wishes to convey. However, you can see the need for having a logical pattern in your paragraphs when you come across a poorly written paragraph.

Further Information

Click here to see a comparison of paragraphs, one with no logical development, then rewritten with a logical thematic development.

For more information on writing paragraphs, see the Academic Skills Office fact sheets:

10.4 Abstraction in academic writing  

Academic writing can be quite abstract as writers often need to discuss and critique theoretical concepts rather than describe concrete facts. Nouns can be used in complex noun groups to enable more abstract and conceptual meanings in your writing. Let's compare the sentences below. As you read, notice the words in bold in each example – the subjects of the sentences or clausesa:

  1. If mice live in small groups, they are less likely to be aggressive than if they live in large groups. When mice live in large groups, they become more aggressive. Mice are more likely to eat the young mice when they live in large groups. They are also more likely to take part in aberrant sex acts.
  2. When mice are kept at high population densities, their behaviour changes in a number of ways. For example, aggressive activity within populations of mice rises as density increases. Cannibalism of young also occurs more frequently, as does aberrant sexual activity.

Notice how the subjects of the sentences or clausesa – that is, the noun or noun group before the verb – in example 1 refer to concrete things – mice in this case. The sentences are descriptive and do not deal with concepts. In the second example, there is one reference to mice to introduce the topic, but then the subjects of subsequent clauses are more conceptual and abstract rather than physical or concrete things. Whole sentences from example 1, such as "When mice live in large groups, they become more aggressive" are converted into more complex noun groups or nominalisationsb, such as "aggressive activity within populations of mice". Converting the subject of the sentence into an idea rather than a thing allows the writer to comment on those ideas, making the writing more conceptual and abstract rather than descriptive.

a For definitions of grammar terms, see the Academic Skills Office fact sheet Grammar: Common terms.

b See the Academic Skills Office fact sheet on Sentences: Active/passive voice and nominalisation.

10.5 Using verbs in academic writing

Verbs help to encode actions, meanings, and relationships between things. In academic writing, skillful use of verbs can help you express your ideas for the reader. In this section, we will look at how to report the ideas of others and how you might choose the tense of the verb.

10.5.1 Reporting verbs

Reporting verbs are used in academic writing to connect the authors to their ideas or words. Reporting verbs can be used strategically to indicate your stance on an issue or particular source. For example, notice the subtle changes of meaning in the sentences below:

“As Johns (2008) admits, essay is difficult to define as a genre, because it is used as an umbrella term for various types of discipline-specific writing…”

“As Johns (2008) acknowledges, essay is difficult to define as a genre, because it is used as an umbrella term for various types of discipline-specific writing…”

“As Johns (2008) argues, essay is difficult to define as a genre, because it is used as an umbrella term for various types of discipline-specific writing…”

Figure 10.5 Reporting verbs Figure 10.5 Reporting verbs

Further Information

Further information on the use of reporting verbs, can be viewed at:

  1. Academic Skills Office, UNE, Paragraphs: Reporting verbs for introducing authors
  2. University of Adelaide. (2014). Verbs for reporting
10.5.2 Verb tense choices

You will use a range of verb tenses in your writing depending on whether you intend to make general statements or report on specific studies or findings. Swales & Feak (2012) have identified the following verb patterns in academic writing:

Pattern 1: Simple past tense

Use the simple past tense to refer to a single study

Smith (2010) investigated the cause of …

Pattern 2: Present perfect tense

Use the present perfect tense to refer to areas of inquiry

Several researchers (Brown, 2019; Jones, 2018; Smith, 2010) have studied the causes of …

Pattern 3: Present tense

Use the present tense when making general statements with no specific reference to researcher activity

The causes of …are complex (Brown, 2019).

If the reporting verb refers to what a researcher wrote or thought, different tense options are possible. The differences (past - present) indicate the distance or closeness of the research to the writer’s own position or to the current state of knowledge.

Smith (2010) concluded that the failure may be related to …

Smith (2010) has concluded that the failure may be related to …

Smith (2010) concludes that the failure may be related to …

(See Swales, J.M. & Feak, C.B. (2012). Academic writing for graduate students (3rd ed.). University of Michigan Press.)

Further Information

Check out the fact sheet on verb tense from the Academic Skills Office.

See some examples of verb use in paragraphs from two different disciplines here.

10.6 Reporting and evaluating: What's the difference? 

Your discussion of the literature needs to move away from description to evaluation and critical analysis of the literature. In your writing, you can achieve this through use of evaluative language. Note the differences between the two examples below.

Reporting:

Green (1995) discovered …. In 1998, Black conducted experiments and found that …. Brown (2000) described this in ……In a recent study, White (2006) tested …and found that …

The writer here is only summarising studies of various researchers without comment. Your writing should move beyond this descriptive type of writing to integrate summary and critical analysis. Notice how the writer does this in the next example through the use of evaluative words such as "limitations" and "value" and through the use of conjunctions such as "but" to indicate opposition or "despite" to indicate a concession.

Evaluating:

There seems to be general agreement on x (for example, White, 2006; Brown, 2000; Black, 1998; Green, 1995), but Green (1995) sees x as a consequence of y, while Black (1998) identifies x and y as …. Despite the limitations of Green's work in that it does not …., its main value lies in … In a recent experiment, White (2006) found an unexpected effect of y on x in terms of …

Further Information

The Academic Phrasebank at Manchester University offers a free resource consisting of a comprehensive collection of common phrases used in academic writing. These are organised according to the different sections in a research paper and also according to various communicative functions of academic writing, including being critical. Explore this site to determine whether it will be helpful in writing your thesis or research papers.

10.7 Writing an abstract

Abstract art cartoon

Figure 10.7 Abstract Cartoon by Hilda Bastian; licensed CC BY-NC-ND

An abstract is a summary statement of a piece of writing (e.g., journal article, book chapter, book, conference paper) - it provides a snapshot of the output. Unlike abstract art, a written abstract is not abstract at all, but is very specific.

Basic structure of an abstract:

  • Background
  • Purpose/aim
  • Problem
  • Methodology
  • Methods
  • Results
  • Conclusion

Be aware that there will be disciplinary differences and also different requirements for different journals.

The structure of the abstract moves from a broad topic to specific/basic details of the paper and then out to the broader significance of the study, much like this hourglass figure:

Image 10.7 Abstract as hourglass structure (note: click on image to download PDF)

Further Information Recommended

See the Academic Skills Office fact sheet on Writing an abstract.

Check out the examples of abstracts here, with the main components of the structure highlighted.

10.8 Summary

The task of writing is daunting to start with, but there are many resources and supports available to assist you with this process:

  1. Supervisors – many do not have time to sit down and go through the basics with their students, but they can provide you with examples of well written academic pieces in your field and direct you to people who can further assist you, if required.
  2. Academic Skills Office – has many tutorials and factsheets available to assist in the development of your academic writing and structuring your chapters. Workshops and webinars are run frequently, so stay up to date with what's on offer.
  3. Online resources – the internet is full of useful information, so how do you sort the good from the great? Try to limit your search to Australian institutions, as most universities have similar guidelines when it comes to writing. Some great sources include: 
    • 'Starter Phrases' by RMIT provides a list of ways to start a paragraphs in different parts of a thesis (i.e. introduction, methodology etc.)
    • 'The Thesis Whisperer' is a research writing blog by Associate Professor Inger Mewburn from the Australian National University. A/Prof Mewburn's articles offer tips, insights and empathy to the plight of the academic writer.
    • The Academic Phrasebank from Manchester University is a handy resource to get you started with your writing. Common phrases are organized according to the different sections in a research paper and also according to specific language functions found in academic writing.
  4. Professional help – there are a number of writing coaches and online workshops available (for a fee). If you think this may be needed, start talking to your supervisor about how you can fit this into your research budget. A couple of reputable Australian workshops and coaches are: 
    • 'ThinkWell' - has a range of books, workshops and online coaching options, including 'Turbocharge your writing'.  You can also keep up to date via Twitter @ithinkwellHugh
    • 'MD Writing & Editing' - focuses on helping busy academics to get their research published, the same principle applies to  busy PhD students! Dr Malini Devadas visited UNE in 2019, facilitating a half day writing workshop for Early and Mid-Career researchers and often has free webinars available. You can keep up to date via her website or follow Dr Devadas via Twitter @MaliniDevadas
    • There are also a number of professional proofreaders available through UNE. Speak to your supervisor or the Academic Skills Office staff for contacts.

Workbook Activity

You are now ready to complete Module 10 activities in your workbook.

Progress to Module 11- Writing Your Literature Review.