Support for your writing

Writing as a collaborative activity

Writing is often regarded as a solitary activity, and to a certain extent this is true. Even on collaborative writing projects, most initial drafting of text tends to be done individually, before it is reviewed with peers. However, the fact that a large proportion of journal articles, particularly in the sciences, tend to be authored by two or more people illustrates that a lot of academic writing is reviewed and edited collaboratively, and that there is a social dimension to academic writing.

This applies to published academic writing, but the situation for students is very different. If you are writing work that is assessed, for example as part of coursework on a degree programme, you must take care to avoid plagiarism (as discussed in Week 4), but you must also avoid collusion, that is to say working with other people to produce an essay that you claim to be your own work.

Some students ask other people to check through their writing and correct language errors. This is generally acceptable, provided that they do not suggest changes to the content, which might be regarded as collusion. If you are studying at a UK university, you are strongly advised to check the University’s Academic Misconduct policy, to make sure that you are not breaking the rules.

Computer-based resources

Computer-based language resources can help improve the accuracy of your writing, but some are more useful than others.

Spell-check features, in word-processing software such as Word, are very helpful, but they do not identify all the spelling errors you make, and you will still have to check through your writing for accurate spelling.

Similarly, word-processing software usually includes a thesaurus which will help you find synonyms - words with similar meanings to the ones you are checking. A thesaurus can be useful, either for paraphrasing or just to avoid repeating the same words too often.

Grammar-check software is of very limited value, and is definitely not a substitute for developing your own understanding of English grammar. They may identify some basic errors, such as incorrect subject-verb agreement or incorrect word form, but they miss many errors. In some cases, they indicate that phrases or clauses are incorrect, when in fact they are fine.

Machine translation refers to translation of texts by computer software, using software like Google Translate.

In international business communication, machine translation can save a lot of time and money, although texts produced in this way will definitely need to be checked and edited by human translators. If English is not your first language, you may think of writing an academic essay in your first language and then translating it into English. However, this is extremely problematic, and you are advised against taking such an approach. The way in which information is structured in texts can vary considerably from one language to another, and in addition in academic contexts there appear to be different conventions from one culture to another.

Support for writing at university

If English is not your first language you may feel the need to improve your English before you start a degree programme, and many universities offer intensive English language and study skills programmes, often referred to as Pre-sessional programmes. Then when you are actually on a degree programme there are also In-sessional programmes, often giving targeted support for specific aspects of your studies.

The other obvious benefit of study at university is access to print and online resources available through the university’s library.

So, universities often provide a wide range of resources for those who want to improve their academic writing - it’s really up to you to find out what is available and make the most of it.

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This article is from the free online course:

An Intermediate Guide to Writing in English for University Study

University of Reading