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The following brief essay covers four sections that undergraduate students often have difficulty with when writing essays or assessments with long answers: how to tackle an assessment (Tactics), what to keep in mind when creating an essay plan (Key Concepts), how to support your argument (Referencing), and what to remember before submitting (Finishing Touches). The most important aspects of each of these sections are then listed, in point form. Though this was written with nursing and midwifery students in mind, as indicated by some examples, much of this advice is transferable to other disciplines that include essay and long answer forms of assessment.

As soon as you can after receiving the assessment, read through it. You’re looking for several things: what kind of work is needed (a 1,000-word essay, or eight responses of around 200 words each?), what the parameters or conditions are (anything the subject coordinator brings to your attention, like not including subject headings, or requiring an introduction and conclusion), and the general scope of the project (will you be exploring a particular disease, creating and supporting a diagnostic hypothesis, or crafting an individualised plan or care?).

When you’re ready to start work on the assessment, read through the directions carefully, identifying the key requirements – this is what the marks will be allocated on, so you want to make sure what you submit addresses them. It may be helpful to summarise your requirement/s to refer to throughout the writing and reviewing process, to make sure everything you’ve written addresses the requirements of the task.

Key concepts
Whatever the content of your writing, at its heart you are creating an argument: why to administer drug X instead of drug Y; why diagnosis A fits better with the case study that diagnosis B; or how guideline S can be applied to this situation T to achieve desired outcomes U and V. When writing an academic piece, every statement and fact should be either building, illustrating, or supporting the argument you’re making – if it doesn’t do that, then it is irrelevant, and a waste of time and word count. Make sure each sentence is clear, strong, and logically leads on from and to the next, with each paragraph containing a new but related idea.

It is essential that you clearly and explicitly connect theory, or information from sources, to the requirements for your paper. This means writing things like:

Culturally safe care has been shown to increase Indigenous patients’ trust in health care institutions (reference); Bloggs’ (2017) examples of culturally-safe practices include X, Y, and Z, while staff education addressed at reflection and awareness of how our cultures affect our perspectives (reference) also contributes to health care facilities that are more welcoming to Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people. Incorporating these changes will therefore facilitate greater participation in western health care by these marginalised Australians, improving their health outcomes.

Write for a reader who is educated, but don’t assume they have any underlying knowledge of your topic. This means defining or explaining every relevant term, and ensuring that your work doesn’t contain gaps. A gap is anything that leads your reader to ask a question, and good academic writing should address potential questions before they arise. For example, the reader shouldn’t be let wondering ‘But how does implementing that intervention lead to that outcome?’ or ‘If a CT scan and an MRI can both confirm this diagnosis, are both needed? If so, why; if not, why has the writer mentioned both?’ or ‘Did I miss something in the case study about low vitamin C in the patient’s diet?’

Pay attention to any feedback you’ve received from markers, particularly for the same subject as the current assessment. Even relatively small errors (like forgetting to capitalise ‘Aboriginal’) can make a difference, yet many of my students repeated this error in a second assessment, despite being told about this in class, on line, on the assessment instructions, and in the first assessment. You can prevent this by using Spellcheck in Word, and by utilising the find/replace function at the end of your writing, to confirm that a stray ‘indigenous’ or ‘Paracetamol’ (generic, so not capitalised) hasn’t snuck into your work.

While it can seem like an afterthought, both accurate acknowledgement of sources and correct formatting are essential components of academic writing; this significance is reflected in the allocation of marks, both within assessment rubrics and (on occasion) as a separate category, for referencing. This is because everywhere that you state a fact that comes from outside your own experience should be supported by a reference (in which case you need to make that clear, while ensuring that it’s both relevant and written in an objective way). Remember from Tactics: you are presenting an argument, and the literature you cite supports that argument or position.

Referencing well is a skill that comes with practice. Your university’s style guidelines are a start, but you may also find these examples useful:

  • If you are providing several references for one or related facts, list them in the same bracket e.g.: there are three kinds of mammals: marsupial, monotreme, and placental (Farrago et al., 2017; Hepplewhite 2018).
  • If you are listing several related facts that come from a number of references, indicate the source of each one e.g.: examples of placental mammals include cats (Bornstein, Parker, and Kenan, 2012; Pederson and Geller, 2012), dogs (Pederson and Geller, 2012; O’Sullivan et al. 2014; Aaronson 2016), elephants (Singh 2011), and dolphins (Singh, 2011; Pederson and Geller, 2012; O’Sullivan et al., 2014).
  • If you are citing multiple facts from the same source, make it clear that the author/s said all the things you’re attributing to them e.g.: Pederson and Geller (2012) hypothesise that placental mammals achieved dominance over marsupial and monotreme mammals because the longer gestational period a placenta allows gives an evolutionary advantage. They add that this means young are better able to survive the death of the mother, adding that placental mammals are ambulant at birth, while monotreme and marsupial young are still essentially foetal. Of course, humans are the exception to this independence-from-birth advantage (Singh 2011), due to “a necessary compromise between foetal head/maternal pelvic circumference on one hand, and longer dependent rearing on the other” (Singh 2011).

An easy way to ensure your references are appropriately formatted is to download EndNote (or another referencing software program); it should be available to you for free, and though it requires a little set up at first, once you’ve put in the information for each reference (including directly importing them from online sources), it will insert in-text and listed references, with every one in the required format.

Finally, make sure your reference list is alphabetised. You can do this by highlighting the entire list, then hitting the A-Z↓ icon, which is about half way along the control bar when Word is in home mode; this will automatically alphabetise your list, provided you have a new line between each entry.

Finishing touches
When you’ve completed your work, and if you have time, put it aside for a few hours, to give yourself some distance from what you’ve written. Then read it aloud, slowly, or ask someone who doesn’t know the subject matter as well as you do, to do it for you, as they’ll pick up problems you may overlook because you know what you meant to write.

You’re listening for grammatical errors (e.g. ‘is’ where you should have written ‘are’), spelling mistakes (e.g. ‘separate’ instead of ‘separate’) and typos (e.g. ‘on’ instead of ‘in’), and signals for punctuation (a small pause indicates a comma, a longer pause a full stop, and a change of topic often means a new paragraph). Most importantly, you’re also checking for gaps in your work (see Key Concepts) and making sure that your writing is consistently academic in tone.

Take home points

    • Start preliminary thinking about the assessment as soon as you receive it
    • Identify the assessment requirements, and write to them
    • Remember that you’re making an argument: everything you include must support or advance your case
    • Make sure your formatting and referencing meet the instructions given and your department’s requirements
    • Everything that comes from anywhere but your own experience must be referenced
    • Take the time to review your work before submission

This short essay has outlines strategies that, if followed, will allow students to both achieve higher marks on their submission, and develop a stronger relationship with the subject material they’re working with. The key areas covered were tactics, key concepts, the importance of referencing, and finishing touches; these were then summarised in a list of take-home points. As this is not an academic work, there is no reference list, and not all references, formatting, or language are consistent with tertiary-level expectations for academic writing.