Tips and Tricks: How to write your first academic paper?

Photo: stock.xchng So, you are expected to write your first academic paper? What does that even mean? This small list of tips is primarily created for the students taking the Hedda Master Programme in Higher Education who might be facing their very first written academic paper. So – these are just some very basic tips. It should be emphasized that you should always check the specific guidelines of the assignment – these do vary!

Specific paper guidelines

As with all exams, be sure to read carefully the guidelines for that specific assignment – this is probably the most important thing to keep in mind. Are there any limitations to the topic you can choose? Any specific guidelines on the sources you are expected to use? What is the scope of the paper (pages, word count)? Does it suffice with writing a review of existing literature or are you expected to find data yourself, and if so, what kind? Are there expectations in terms of the paper structure and outline?

Remember that writing a good paper for a course is not just about writing “a good paper“, you have to write a paper that also fits the formal criteria and expectations of that particular assignment. If you are not sure whether you understood he criteria correctly, clarify this before starting to write.

Topics, titles and research questions

In many cases you are given a topic for the paper, and not a specific title. Again, here it is useful to check with the paper guidelines regarding how narrow or wide you are expected to be in your specification of the assigned topic.

Using a specific title for your paper will help you narrow down the topic and also focus the reader of the paper. Using for instance “Paper for the course on higher education governance, taking a national case study as a starting point” as a title for your paper is much less useful than writing “Changes in higher education governance in Norway in the period 2000-2010”. The latter gives the reader a much more clear understanding what the paper is about.

Titles should be informative and give the reader an indication of what the paper will focus on. While there might be some appeal to be witty in writing titles and use word play and various metaphors, this should only be done if it helps to understand the content of the paper better and the title remains informative at the same time. Do not use titles that confuse the reader.

The title is also closely linked to the specific question or problem in your paper. This is where you focus the paper with respect to the broad topic you have given. What is the core focus of the paper? What are the key concepts you will use to write about this? Beware of formulations that include a bias. Instead, be open minded and prepared that your preconceptions might not fit what you will find out.

Organizing your argument

A well written paper also has a clear structure that the reader can easily follow. In most broad terms, a basic academic paper would require an introduction, a body text and a clear conclusion. (In case you do some new empirical analysis you would most likely need a section for methodology as well and in many cases structure the paper in a somewhat different manner).

In the introduction, you introduce your questions or problems that you focus on in this paper. This is also where you can place your paper in a wider academic debate: is the phenomenon you are discussing something typical across the world, something unique to your country, or perhaps a rather new phenomenon? Academic paper is not a mystery novel where you build up tension by giving least possible information in the beginning – always guide the reader. This means that in the end of the introduction you can also provide a few sentences that describe the outline of the paper.

The body of your paper should focus on the specific theme(s) in a structured manner. Structure your text clearly into various sections. You can structure this part in different ways – either by first presenting the context, then literature and main concepts that are of relevance, and finally providing a discussion with relevance to your case. Alternatively you can discuss various themes one by one in the light of your case.

While there are various ways of structuring your text, in all cases you should be clear and explicit in what you are discussing. Furthermore, you should pay attention both to the concepts that are relevant and the specific case in focus. Remember, there is no such thing as too much clarity.

How much information do you need on the context? Try to find a balance – this means that you need to include all the necessary elements but not overload the paper with unnecessary detail that takes up space that you should use to write up your main argument.

Always keep in mind relevance. Why do you need to introduce this piece of knowledge into your paper? How does this contribute to your argument? Why and how is this relevant? Be explicit about this as it is not always easy for the reader to know what you are thinking.

In the conclusion, you should briefly summarize the key points from your paper in the light of the question/problem you introduced in your introduction. What was the key message of this paper? In the end, read introduction and conclusion together – do they match?

Backing up your claims

Be critical and analytic. This is also related to challenging your pre-conceptions and assumptions. Try to present the case in a manner where you discuss the various aspects of that particular problem. When you make a claim, always think: on what basis can I argue that this is the case? For instance, if you argue that funding for higher education is insufficient and that quality is low, how do you know this? If the evidence or empirical data is lacking or poor, you can also comment on this.

One consideration is the balance between depth vs breadth. The much quoted principle is: “Keep it simple”. Do not focus on more than you can cover and make sure that the themes you raise are discussed in sufficient depth. It is important that the kind of claims you make are backed up with sources – either by literature or empirical data. You can use articles from course reading lists, but most likely you will also need to find additional literature.

Using literature

Use academic literature in your writing as much as possible. Citing Wikipedia, random internet sites or blog posts is not enough – they are not trustworthy as sources for writing academic papers. Use articles in academic journals and books that you can find in databases for academic literature (do not just use Google, check out Google Scholar instead!). If you are unsure how to find literature, check out the library for help.

Always keep a critical mind – not everything that is published is of equally good quality. Sometimes you might contradictory explanations of the same phenomenon – in this case you can also discuss this in your paper.

Sometimes you might not find relevant sources regarding a particular topic and your country. This does not mean that there is no literature. You might find relevant concepts and descriptions for other cases/countries and you can make arguments why these are also relevant for your country/case. Your range of possible source literature does not only include what is written about your particular country on this particular narrow topic.

Be sure to distinguish between academic literature and other kind of sources. For instance, OECD and World Bank can produce useful data, but their policy documents might not be the best source for more analytical claims. Also be conscious how you use documents for instance produced by the ministry or a quality assurance agency.

Referencing

Remember that failing to reference material that has been used is considered plagiarism, and it will mean that students who are caught with this can lose their study rights. Plagiarism software that is used to check student papers is rather advanced, so this is definitely not a risk you want to take, neither on purpose nor by accident.

Rule of thumb – anything that is not common knowledge should be referenced. This means that you do not need to reference that Oslo is the capital of Norway. However, in cases of more specific knowledge it is always better to reference one time too many, than one time too little.

You can use direct quotes, but remember that these should then be marked with quotation marks and again properly referenced with page numbers. However, always think whether you actually need the whole direct quote – these take a lot of space in a paper and space is often limited.

There are various referencing styles around, so double check which one you are expected to use. Common ones in higher education research would either be the one from the “Higher Education” journal, APA, or others. It might also be useful to use a referencing software that makes it easier to keep track – check the University of Oslo library for courses!

Style

There are specific aspects of academic writing you should take into account. Academic writing is somewhat more “stiff” than you would find in a blog or in a newspaper. This means that you should avoid informal language – for instance write “can not” instead of “can’t”. However, it is also not useful to overload the paper with irrelevant academic jargon, you should understand the concepts you use and they should be relevant to your discussion.

In general, avoid big words and grand claims (unless you can back this up with data). For instance, if you write about funding cuts – were the funding cuts “massive” and “severe”? If this is what you argue, this should be backed up with some evidence. Is a particular aspect really “extremely” important? Is something really a “primary objective”?

In general, try to be neutral in your language, this means also avoiding excessive use of first person (“I think.. ” “I would say..”). Instead, you can use third person when possible and base your argument on academic knowledge about the topic (“Clark’s research indicates that…”).

One good way to learn about style of writing is to read a lot of academic literature, another important thing is to practice writing. If English is not your first language, it is completely normal that it feels a bit difficult to start with – but with practice things will get better!

How to go about

People have different preferences of writing a paper – some prefer to read and make notes first, others start with bullet points for the arguments. This is where you should find out what works for you. However, the most important thing is to get started. Good luck!

 

Any tips you would like to share?

Anything that worked really well for you? Anything you would recommend avoiding?

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