11. Writing hints

I have never gone much on things many call 'marking schedules'. An essay is more than the sum of its parts, and awarding marks to particular perecentages for particular items, and then adding them up to get a final mark doesn't strike me as always sensible. For example, you will have noted that, since this is a 300 level course, you are expected to do some research for your assignments. Now, if this were a course in Physics being taught 100 years ago, and young Einstein submitted an assignment demonstrating that E=mc2, he wouldn't do very well on his research section, since there wasn't anything much relevant to his work in the literature, and it would have been silly to have marked him down for this, wouldn't it? Obviously, this is a rather extreme case, but you get my drift, I hope.

Below, then, are points you can expect feedback on, along with an overall judgement as to what grade I have given to your assignment. My aim is to use your assessed work to reach an overall grade for the course which I can justify to myself as an assessment of your academic standing on the basis of the work I have seen from you. It is, in my view, quite possible for a student to submit some quite flawed work that warrants a low mark in itself, and yet at the same time demonstrate a high quality of mind. At which point I ask myself, 'Am I marking the assignment or the student?' And sometimes students 'cheat', and submit excellent work that isn't their's at all. You may not agree with my approach, but it is rooted in a view that University is about much more than getting good grades as a result of sticking to the application of assessment formulae. And while I'm bucking the modern trend here, I'll continue to hang out for it and apply myself with all the integrity I can muster. The following are the criteria that will contribute to the mark you get for a piece of work, and the feedback I will send you.

  1. Presentation
  2. Structure
  3. Research

There are some more notes to help flush these out below.

Presentation and Structure:

Sentences and paragraphs should be short.
We are all prone to writing rambling sentences. I am, and you'll find some disgraceful examples of mine throughout the course lecture notes. I'm working on it, though, because short sentences tend to be clearer vehicles for expressing one's points than long ones.

Hints on writing

The following list of hints for good sentence structure was put together by George L. Trigg, and published in Phys.Rev.Lett., 42, (12), 748 (1979). If it's good enough for physicists, then it's good enough for us:

  • 1 Make sure each pronoun agrees with their antecedent.
  • 2 Just between you and I, the case of pronouns is important.
  • 3 Watch out for irregular verbs which have crope into English.
  • 4 Verbs has to agree in number with their subjects.
  • 5 Don't use no double negatives.
  • 6 Being bad grammar, a writer should not use dangling modifiers.
  • 7 Join clauses good like a conjunction should.
  • 8 A writer must not shift your point of view.
  • 9 About sentence fragments.
  • 10 Don't use run-on sentences you got to punctuate them.
  • 11 In letters essays and reports use commas to separate items in series.
  • 12 Don't use commas, which are not necessary.
  • 13 Parenthetical words however should be enclosed in commas.
  • 14 Its important to use apostrophes right in everybodys writing.
  • 15 Don't abbrev.
  • 16 Check to see if you any words out.
  • 17 In the case of a report, check to see that jargonwise, it's A-OK.
  • 18 As far as incomplete constructions, they are wrong.
  • 19 About repetition, the repetition of a word might be real effective repetition - take, for instance the repetition of Abraham Lincoln.
  • 20 In my opinion, I think that an author when he [or she] is writing should definitely not get into the habit of making use of too many unnecessary words that he [or she] does not really need in order to put his [or her] message across.
  • 21 Use parallel construction not only to be concise but also clarify.
  • 22 It behooves us all to avoid archaic expressions.
  • 23 Mixed metaphors are a pain in the neck and ought to be weeded out.
  • 24 Consult the dictionery to avoid mispelings.
  • 25 To ignorantly split an infinitive is a practice to religiously avoid.
  • 26 Last but not least, lay off cliches.

Back up what you say.

If you make a claim, justify it. There are two tactics you should observe:

  • 1. If you think someone's claim is wrong, don't just baldly state the fact, but add your reasons. Not: 'This conclusion is unlikely'. But 'This conclusion is unlikely because...'.
  • 2. If your justification refers to evidence of a concrete nature, then cite your source , and list it in your references.

    Typed, handwritten or etched in stone?

    Typewritten work is a blessing from this end, because it is easily readable. Some people's handwriting is such that by the time you've deciphered the last word in a sentence you have no recollection of what they started off going on about and have to try it from the beginning again, which is really frustrating, especially if they write in long sentences too. But, on the other hand, some people are that bad at typing that they can also drive you crazy. So, adopt whatever medium you are happy with. But whichever you do adopt: only 'write' on one side of the paper, and write on every other line, or double space it if you are typing it. It may use more trees, but it ain't trees that are marking it.


    Headings and sub-headings are good!

    You don't need to work to a rigid format as if your writing were an empirical report. However, as a minimum, the following are useful:

  • Introduction: which outlines what the problem is. It is not always useful to include an outline of where the essay will go in the introduction. But it often can be. However, so many people say things like 'I will first look at x, and then at y, and finally at z', and then don't, that this kind of introduction is best avoided. You could use a 'Summary' instead, so long as you remember to write it after you've finished the essay, so it does summarize what you actually said, rather than what you hoped you might say.

  • The essay material itself

  • Conclusion: golden rules: don't include new material in the conclusion; don't end with conclusions that are unwarranted - 'In this essay I have shown that...' - when you haven't; never end by saying 'Clearly, further work is needed to ...'. This drives me around the bend. Never use the word 'clearly', either: things rarely are 'clear', and its sloppy arguing to use 'clearly' or 'obviously' as justifiers (see above about justifying your claims). If you catch me doing it in the lecture notes, then this is clearly a case of the pot calling the kettle black, and obviously you should then get annoyed with me.

  • References: Include what you have referred to, and attempt to follow a standard format. This Department can get pretty strict on using the APA format when you get to 300 level, so it is worth getting into good habits here. However, I will not penalise you in this course for not following these formatting requirements exactly, though I will point it out to you. My reasoning here is this: a psychology student only ever needs a grasp of referencing formats when they write a Masters' or Doctoral thesis. After that, good psychologists can forget these things, and leave them to secretaries, copy editors and the like!

    Don't include what you haven't referred to. Check that the date of a reference in the text agrees with the one in the references (and do the same for authors - oh, and try and do them the courtesy of spelling their names correctly: Rene and Des Cart contributed little to our understanding of the mind-body problem; Chompsky is not a linguist; and Jean Piggott wasn't Swiss).

    Structure your argument

    This is the hard bit. You could try the following as a tactic: what I call the 'if, then, but, so' technique (or variants on it such as 'if, if & if, then...' (sassy), or 'if, if & only if, then ... (advanced) or even 'if, but, so, then' (interesting)). Exactly how this technique applies varies in each particular case. But one example is: If, as so-and-so found in such-and-such a case ...(expand), then, we would expect that .... but this doesn't seem to be the case ... (because), so, we can conclude that ....'. It takes a bit of getting used to, and if it doesn't work for you in approaching an essay, then try it instead of charades at the next Xmas Party you go to.
  • Length

    A perennial question, and a difficult one. Some very short essays are brilliant. Some very short ones could do with being longer. Some long essays are overly long. And some are too short. As a guide, you should be able to produce a good 1st assignment for this course in around 6-9 sides of double-spaced type, and 12 or so for the second (conventional) assignment. If you think you've done a good job in less, and I agree with you, then great: don't pad it out to make it longer. If you need to go beyond this, then look at what you've got to see if it's all necessary, or if some of it's padding.

    Drafts, proofing, and the final product

    Unless you are keeping a personal diary, or writing shopping lists, then practically everything you write is for an audience. We all have different reactions to the 'public' nature of what is often a solitary act of writing something. One of mine is that I hate it if I'm writing on a computer and somebody is looking over my shoulder. I just can't 'go on' in that circumstance. But other people are really important assets in this writing business:

    • It's really easy to get so hung up in what you've written that you can't see it doesn't always make sense.
    • It's really easy to get so attached to what you've written that you can't bear to change it.
    • It's really easy to get so involved in what you've written that you lose sight of the fact that you are rambling without sight of the overall argument.
    • It's really easy to do a bad job if you leave all the criticism to your own eye.

    So, here are some recommendations:

    • A first draft is what you've got when you first get to the end of what you are writing.
    • First drafts are usually in need of checking and revision.
    • If you've written it on a computer, spell check it.
    • If you've written it on a computer, try the grammatical checker of your word-processing package. These things are a mixed blessing, but they can provide some useful feedback.
    • After doing the above, give the draft to someone whom you are not emotionally involved with. I say this from personal experience: do not attempt to move heavy furniture; hang wallpaper (especially on a ceiling); or have a draft read by or with anyone you really like.
    • When you give it to them, tell them they can write anything they feel about what you've written in the margins; correct your English; etc. Tell them they don't have to be nice, just honest.
    • Take a deep breath when you get your draft back. Read what they've said on your own. Don't say anything publically on what they've told you within an hour of reading their comments. You will know your reader has done a good job if (1) you feel elated by their response, or conversely, (2) if you feel crushed, defeated, and totally brainless.
    • Either way, sleep on it.
    • Then have a go at taking what they've said on board, and get to doing your revisions.
    • Sorry, you're not done yet! Now check your reference list. Have you got all the references in the text in your list? Do the names and dates match? Is your referencing consistent between items?
    • Now pat yourself on the back and call it a day.

    I am not going to do the above for you when I mark your work. If what you send in is scrappy, disorganised, badly written, etc., then I am not going to give you detailed criticism. I'll say things like 'Your reference list is a mess'; 'This was badly written', and so on. My primary aim is to teach you to think about things psychological, not the techniques of how to write clearly. Other people and courses can help you with those, if your pride will allow it. However, if what you write is unclear, I will tell you that it is.


    By 'research' here I mean 'researching the literature', and not, for the purposes of this course, doing empirical data gathering. Asking this of extramural students used to be a logistical nightmare. Nowadays, however, more and more information is becoming available on-line in an electronic form, and this material is increasingly accessible through Massey's library.

    The library's home page is your first port of call, so as you can see what is available. Alternatively, you can go directly to their guide to psychology resources, where you can quickly locate what is specifically available of direct relevance to psychology, particularly the specialized databases that increasingly allow you access to full-text journal articles. To access these you need to 'log in' through the library. You can, just like anyone else on the web, go directly to the home pages of many journals, but unless you pay a fee to access their contents, you won't be allowed in. One of the advantages of being a bona fide Massey student is that you benefit from the University's subscriptions to these services and journals, provided you use your 'username' and 'password' when prompted via the library's pages to do so. If you are unsure what I'm on about here, check the help pages for assistance. If you are still stuck, there are contact links on all the above pages that will elicit the information you need to get you going (ie, don't contact me: systems and procedures have a habit of changing in this electronic medium faster than I can keep up with them, and you are best served going to the experts).

    Similarly, you may at first find the databases themselves a bit daunting. Fortunately, each of them has its own built in 'help' material, and time spent there is well worthwhile. (I know, no-one likes reading manuals or help files since it often seems like you need a manual or help file for each, just to make sense of them. These are not that bad, however.)

    You can also use web search engines to track information down. However, it takes a while to get savvy at sorting out what is useful and what is just plain cranky. Databases do give you access to peer-reviewed literature which has at least a provisional scientific or academic respectability. The web gives you all sorts. How to sort the wheat from the chaff? Here are a few basic hints:

    1. domain names: Universities run their own web sites. While this doesn't guarantee that what you find in University web-pages is reliable stuff (there's lots of student work available on this course web site, for example), knowing it is a University site is useful. Universities can be identified by one of two codes in their web addresses. UK and New Zealand Universities, amongst others, have .ac in their address (which stands for 'academic community'). Most American and Australian Universities fall under .edu, the educational domain of the web. Government information is recognizable as .gov, which relates to the official governmental organizations of a country, rather than specific political parties. Some of these governments are, as you know, more reliable than others in the information they officially provide.
    2. specific web sites: check the course 'links page'. I don't claim responsibility for anything specific you find in this selection, but by-and-large they contain respectable and useful information.
    3. multiple and specific searches: the biggest collection of web material is available from Google. However, they have gone off a bit recently, by virtue of their 'marketing' decisions. First, everytime you access Google, they keep records on you, and use these to bias what they tell you in subsequent searches, because they think they know something about your interests from your previous activity (well that's what they publically subscribe to: other interpretations of their actions vary from legitimate 'Big Brother/invasion of privacy' concerns through to way-beyond 'X-Files' conspiracy worries as to what is going on). Second, they have also recently tailored their sites to geographical areas, so that whereas a year ago logging into 'www.google.com' did just that, that address nowadays sends you to 'www.google.co.nz', where you will get your search results prioritized back to you on the basis of what it is deemed the average kiwi wants to know. There are two ways around this.

    1. Look out for the domains that identify other countries. For example, .ca identifies Canada, and with a bit of fiddling about you can find Google's Canadian server (in this case http://www.google.ca), and if you search from there, they'll think you are Canadian rather than a Kiwi, and they then give you that they think Canadians want, but the stuff that is common to both searches is a) what you really want, and b) is unbiased by your previous searches, since when was the last time you searched as a Canadian?
    2. Use the option in Google of searching for exact phrases by enclosing your search terms in inverted commas. This can get you much more relevant material.

    Beware though, the web can suck you in, and occupy you unproductively for hours. Always set a time limit for yourself when you start a search, and try and stick to it. In addition, when my 7 year-old was looking for information on 'Bambi' (you know, Disney, baby deer, etc.) she got back stuff neither of us expected.... Caveat emptor.

    Good luck.

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