The nights are drawing in. It’s getting chilly outside. The leaves on the trees are dying and littering the ground. Yup, the holidays are gone and it’s time for a change of season. Make the most of the summer vestiges and breathe in that crisp autumn air, because you’ll be back in school before you know it. This means you’ll probably be getting cozy with those lengthy writing assignments once more. Hopefully the summer holidays didn’t quite turn your brain to mush, but it’s always difficult to get back into the swing of things, so here are some helpful tips for your new semester writing and research projects.
Let’s start with the basic tools you’ll need to begin. First of all – software. If you’re a student then Microsoft has some deep discounts on brand new versions of Microsoft Office, and upgrades from older versions. Head towards the Microsoft Store to see what you qualify for. If you’re counting the pennies or are a bit of an open source junkie, OpenOffice has a range of free alternatives to the entire Office suite. OpenOffice will handle almost every common filetype from the get-go (.doc, .xml and so on), but for those trickier cases you can use docvert to convert files into native formats for OpenOffice.
You’ll also want to keep a dictionary and a thesaurus handy. Don’t go inserting big words you don’t understand at random though. It’s really easy to tell when someone has done that, and it won’t be looked upon favorably. On a similar note, avoid flowery language to pad your wordcount. George Orwell’s much referenced “Politics and the English Language” contained the following two rules:
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Orwell was a pretty smart guy, so you should probably take his words to heart.
One last thing, this reverse dictionary is pretty useful too. Just like the name suggests, you enter a definition and it tries to work out what word you’re thinking of. Very handy when you get struck with tip-of-the-tongue syndrome.
Now you’ve got all the tools you need, so let’s get cracking with the content. I used to start all my assignments with several hours of staring out of a window wondering what the first words should be. This is bad! If you’re similarly afflicted with chronic procrastination, the best tip I can give is to just start. It doesn’t matter what you write, just start writing something, even if you know that it’s terrible and it’s going to have to be rewritten. When you start writing the ideas will start flowing, all of a sudden the task won’t seem so daunting, and half an hour will have gone by and your page will be full of great (albeit half baked and poorly worded) ideas. But that’s OK! You’ve developed a framework you can build on and improve. If you’re still really struggling, you can use this prompt generator and start writing about literally anything at all, it doesn’t matter what. Think of it as a warm-up for your brain and fingers to get you into the writing mood and soon you’ll start coming up with ideas for your real task.
Now, what’s your major? Law? Ancient History? Maybe a spot of Vitiology? Whatever you’re studying, TermWiki has you covered for all your terminology needs. The world’s greatest social learning network has expert definitions of terminology from 1,500 categories translated into 80 languages. Any kind of technical definition you need, TermWiki will have it. What’s more, if you have any questions about grammar or terminology, you can ask on the forums or the questions & answers section – AnswerBea. Hundreds of technical translators who are experts in their fields browse these sections every day and are happy to help out. If you happen to be bilingual and looking for work, TermWiki is also a great way to market yourself. Contributions to the site are stamped with the translators username forever, with the top translators managing to net themselves regular jobs from the exposure they’ve generated for themselves. It’s free to use and contribute to, so if your resume is looking a bit thin this can be a brilliant way to bulk it up a bit.
You’re probably aware of Wikipedia. Like TermWiki, it’s a crowd sourced encyclopedia full of great information. Do remember though that most professors won’t want you to cite wikipedia directly – it has a bit of a stigma for being unreliable. Luckily, any good article on wikipedia will have plenty of references of its own. You can check those sources directly for key bits of information then include them as references in your own assignment.
You’ll want to get a solid grasp on the major academic search engines out there. They’re all incredibly powerful but you need to know all the ins and outs for how to use them effectively. The big ones are the likes of LexisNexis, Westlaw or Mintel, but depending on what you’re studying there could be hundreds of them out there! They all require subscriptions to access, but your college should be able to provide you with a login, and your librarians should be able to give you a crash course in using them effectively as long as you ask nicely.
Another way to get a quick human answer about some confusing grammar is to ask the friendly people over at EnglishForums.com. They have thousands of English experts, including many teachers who deal with these kinds of problems every day, so you can be sure that you’re in safe hands. Using English has some similar forums which are mainly geared towards people learning English as a second language, but they will be more than willing to answer any of your questions.
If you’re writing something factual, then you’re going to need to learn how to reference. You’ve no doubt been to wikipedia at some point – references are those little numbers that show up all through the article and they link to other websites / books / reports etc. that verify the facts. References in academic work have to be done slightly differently, but it still follows the same basic principles. So how do you do it? Well, that depends…
It’s a complicated minefield, so let Concordia University Libraries guide you through it safely. It has comprehensive guides for most of the major citation styles presented in logical and easy to understand layouts. Your school / department website should have further information about referencing that you should read carefully, but if not, you can just ask your tutors for some advice.
So after all that, you’ve finally finished! Congratulations! Well, actually, you haven’t quite got there. Now you need to give your writing to someone else to read – a friend or family member, maybe a professor or colleague. They’re going to go over it with a big red pen, and they’re most likely going to find a whole bunch of errors. Don’t take it personally, they’re doing you a big favor. Nobody is perfect and there’s a good chance you’ll have made errors that neither you nor your spellchecker will have been able to pick up. Getting new eyes on your writing will root those out before you hand your writing in and it becomes too late. Thanks to your friend’s efforts, your piece will look and sound a whole lot better. Buy them a coffee to say thanks.
If you want to improve your writing skills long term, there’s plenty you can do to improve. The greatest helper will be reading – read as much as you can and make sure that you read good material. Less of the celeb autobiographies, more of the quality newspapers. It’s fun, I promise, and the benefits are massive. According to language experts Haskins Laboratories, it’ll improve your grammar, your memory, and reading before bed can even dramatically improve your sleep!
If you want to improve your vocabulary, I can also recommend the excellent A Way With Words podcast over at waywordradio.org for some lighthearted learning. Every week they put out another hour of high quality radio banter discussing interesting words and phrases people have come across and new slang from all over the world.
Good luck with all your studies!