Tips for the writing process
As soon as you have formed an idea of your topic, you can start outlining a detailed structure of what you plan to write. Start with the main sections and fill in what needs to be included in each section, experimenting with various sequences. Such a structural outline provides an opportunity to establish your argument in an abbreviated form first, to see whether it has a good flow or obvious gaps, and then fill in with notes wherever suitable.
When you start working on the text proper, such a structure can function as headings for each section. These headings should be brief and clearly state the gist of the section (such as ‘Gender differences in wage levels do not disappear when controlling for education’). This will make it easier to see what should go where. You can also move phrases that look good, but back up another argument, to a more appropriate place. You may also start writing a section in the middle of the text without having finished the others, because you already know more or less what the as yet unwritten sections will say. Many of these headings can be deleted before you submit the text, or they will be embedded in the body text as the first sentence in each section.
You should never have the ambition to write an assignment from beginning to end without rewriting, deleting, adding or moving parts of the content. The text is a construction, and it does not emerge in a finished state; parts must be moved, exchanged or deleted, and sentences need to be fine-tuned, to ensure that they are grammatically correct as well as easy to read.
If you notice that your discussion lacks impact without more definitions or references to previous studies, you need to consider whether these should be added to the background section. You should never just throw such material into the place where you happen to be writing at the moment when it occurs to you. (This obviously does not mean that you should avoid referencing in your discussion).
You should therefore invariably set aside a lot of time to writing, which means that you need to start early and structure your time. It is advisable to spend most of the day writing and defer other matters to the evenings, rather than the other way round. Remember to take breaks and stop working on the text if you sense that you are so tired that you are mangling it.
In the case of home assignments, this means that if you have an overview of the reading list before you are handed the assignment, you will have more time for writing, because you will need to spend less time reading.
Unless they might play a special role in the assignment, it pays to avoid words and phrases that are typically used in daily speech, such as ‘having a hard time’, busy days’, ‘he acted tough’, ‘she chickened out’ and similar. This applies especially with regard to phenomena for which sociologists have developed specific terms. For example, we often say that it ‘confers status’ to do or possess something, but people in general rarely have a refined theory about status. Sociologists do, however, and saying that something ‘confers status’ may not be meaningful in terms of these theories. Similarly, people will often refer to ‘socializing’ or ‘meeting people’ as reasons for engaging in various activities, but these are not explanations of a kind that sociologists will deem immediately satisfactory.
Some terms may also appear to be academic and to the point, but academics have abandoned them for several reasons. For example, alcohol researchers no longer speak of ‘alcoholics’, but of various forms of ‘abuse’ and ‘addiction’. In other words, focus is placed on the activities, not on the person. You should also avoid phrases and words such as ‘verily’, ‘the actuality that’, or ‘contemporaneous’, which may cause a text to appear superficially more ‘scholarly’. Examiners will not be deceived by this. To complicate matters even further, there are some terms that are frequently used in daily speech, but stem from academic concepts, such as ‘being in the zone’, coined by Csíkszentmihályi, or Freud’s concept of ‘the subconscious’. Even if you do not agree with the original meaning, reference should be made to a source and some form of definition provided, not only relying on readers to know these concepts from daily speech. In sociology, this is especially essential for concepts such as gender, class, institutions, capital, culture etc.
Some students attempt make their texts more academic by avoiding the pronoun ‘I’, but this is often a misconstrued notion. Some sentences will appear extremely odd if you leave out yourself as a subject in the text. Compare, for example, ‘against the background of existing research it will be argued that men earn more than women’ with ‘against the background of existing research I will argue that men earn more than women.’ The former phrase is not more objective than the latter, only more pompous and hard to read. If you perform an action in the text – analyse, argue or assert – you do not need to hide the fact that you are the person doing it. If a text is overly subjective, this will not be because the author has used terms such as ‘I’ or ‘me’ too frequently, but because the assertions are unfounded and the arguments fail to hold water – and this will of course be reflected in the grade. If you focus on arguing convincingly for your answer to the research question, you will automatically refer to yourself less.
The instructions regarding the formatting of the assignment – font size, font type, margins etc. – should be closely followed. There is no reason to be creative in this regard, and the reason is that everybody must be assessed on an equal footing. In other words, this is not because the person responsible for the course has any special preferences, it is to make the assignments easily comparable. When a standard format is used, the examiner has no need to pay attention to the layout of the assignments, because they all look the same. Any act on your part that makes it seem as though you have written more or less than what you actually have, will therefore leave a negative first impression and may raise the examiner’s suspicions. This includes anything from changing the margins, having a large number of headings, varying the font type, decreasing or increasing the font size etc. You should therefore stick to the format as instructed, so that the examiner can concentrate on assessing the content of your assignment.
Unless stated otherwise, the most common format is this:
Font: Times New Roman, throughout the document
Font size: 12 pt throughout the document
Margins: 2.5 cm, all four margins (top and bottom, right and left)
Line spacing: 1.5
Headings: Title (bold type), Level 1 (e.g. ‘Introduction’, ‘Previous research’, also bold type), Level 2 (bold and italicized type), Level 3 (italicized type)
- Remember to insert page numbers.