ALMS Writing Guide
B. The writing process
C. Types of writing
D. Collaboration with others
E. References and useful web addresses
A. How to use this guide
This guide is intended to help you to think about yourself as a writer and to improve your skills in writing. It tells you a little about different writing styles and offers some basic guidelines. It suggests how you can manage the writing process and experiment with different ways writing, gives you some hints for avoiding pitfalls, and points you to where you can find further information. The main aim is to help you to help yourself.
B. The writing process
Writing, in fact, starts with reading. Improve your writing by doing more reading, and reading more actively. Analyse different texts and you may be able to detect differences in style, structure and vocabulary. Identify the skills you want to improve, and the areas in which you feel less comfortable. Let yourself be inspired by good writers and elegant (academic or creative) writing!
Before you start writing, think about your purpose. It might be helpful to ponder if your focus will or should be on the writing process rather than the product, that is, the text you are aiming to write. Process-oriented writing will help you to think about yourself as a writer; it means experimenting with language and ideas; it can be used for overcoming writer’s blocks; developing thinking and assisting learning; it can even be healing. When communication to others becomes your focus, you need a different approach: working with the product, the text, and thinking about the reader becomes important.
|Writing for reflection/thinking/learning/self-discovery
|Writing for communication
|Focus on the process
|Focus on the product
|Writing for myself: the text is not necessarily meant for communicating with potential readers, Self as reader
|Other readers must understand the text: content and form must be considered from their point-of-view
|The text as a partner in a dialogue, trying out ideas in the text, using the text to stimulate thinking, inexactness allowed: text-in-the making
|More or less final version after drafting, writing, revising and rewriting
|Formal criteria not important, playing with language and form allowed
|Organization, structural conventions and form are important, need to be shared knowledge
|Language used to suit the writer’s purposes: pictures, notes, mind-maps, diagrams, bilingual text
|Unexpected use of language problematic
|Writer-based, experiential, experimental
|E.g. diaries, journals, free-writing
|E.g. letters, emails, essays, thesis
[Inspired by Olga Dysthe’s Skriva för att lära (2011) and Det flerstämmiga klassrummet (1996)]
Guidelines for freewriting
Freewriting is a form of writing that helps you get going with writing. Practise it on a regular basis and you will start feeling more comfortable with your writing. Peter Elbow gives the following advice for how to do it:
- Set a time limit. At first, this might only be five or ten minutes. Later it may last longer.
- Never stop writing. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, or punctuation. If you can’t think of what to say, write “I don’t know what to say.” Write down whatever is in your head on the page.
- Don’t rush, but don’t go too slowly either. Write the words as they come to you without editing.
- Don’t think about editing, or correctness. Don’t even think about what the next word on the page should be – just write what comes to mind, even if it doesn’t relate immediately to what you were saying before. “It’s an unnecessary burden to try to think of words and also worry at the same time whether they’re the right words.”
[From Peter Elbow, Writing Without Teachers]
Drafting, writing, revising and rewriting
- Put all your ideas down on paper first, in any order. Use short, simple sentences and try not to be self-critical at this stage. You could also use freewriting to get you going.
- Start the revision process by looking beyond the sentence level. Do your ideas flow in a logical order? Is your message clear at the first reading? Are the sentences properly linked? Do you repeat yourself unnecessarily?
- You could then move to the sentence level. As a rule, good sentences begin with some background (when, where, who, what), or with ‘old’ information, and end with the newest or most significant information (end-focus). Related words and phrases belong as close together as possible. While short sentences can be effective, too many of them inhibit fluency. Sentences that are too long and complex are very difficult to follow.
- Within the sentence, use strong and specific verbs (discover, imply, suggest), and minimise the repetition. Linking words (however, thus, although) are like signposts guiding the reader.
- Check for ambiguity (two or more possible meanings) – put yourself in the shoes of the reader.
- Use the final revision stage to check on grammatical accuracy and spelling.
Writing starts with reading other texts but it also finishes with reading, that is, reading your own text very carefully and preferably out loud. This will help you with both the technical aspects of the text: you will spot missing commas, articles and verb forms gone wrong but you will also notice if the text does not make sense, you will ‘hear’ inconsistencies and difficult formulations.
C. Types of writing
There are different types of writing and they differ depending on your purpose and intended audience. One way of classifying writing is as follows.
- Practical writing: includes personal and business letters, memos and e-mails, your curriculum vitae, and filling in forms. Look for models to help you with business letters, CVs and forms: accuracy may make all the difference.
- Academic writing: includes bachelor/master’s theses, conference abstracts, essays, term papers, summaries, research reports, conference presentations and publications. When you are writing more extensively in English, you should think beyond the sentence level and consider the flow and cohesion of your text.
- Creative writing: includes fiction, poetry prose and drama. You have more freedom to play with the language if you write creatively, but you still need to get your message across to your intended audience!
- Reflective writing includes writing for learning, writing for thinking and autobiographical writing, diary/journal writing.
Forms of address
- Degrees and qualifications are placed after the name: Peter Bond M.A., Dip. Tech.
- Medical doctors and doctors of philosophy may be referred to as Dr. XX, otherwise academic titles are not normally used.
- The job someone is doing is written after his or her name: Ellen Makin, lecturer in English.
- Begin formal letters with Dear Professor Jones, Dear Ms Makin (no first names). Use the name if you know it.
- Use a less formal style for e-mails and letters to friends – but some kind of greeting is needed: Frank! Hi there, Dolores! If you don’t know the recipient of your message, you still need a greeting, even in e-mails: Dear Joan, / Ms Nordlund.
- When replying to a letter, begin by referring to it: Thank you for your letter of May 15.
- If you are initiating the correspondence, start by introducing yourself (if you don’t know the recipient) or saying why you are writing: I am a student of Psychology at the University of Helsinki and am planning to write my Master’s thesis on stress in the workplace. / I am writing to you to ask if your company would be interested in supporting our research on stress in the workplace.
- Letters and messages usually end with some sort of complimentary close, such as: Yours sincerely. Other examples:
- Formal if you know the person’s name; Yours faithfully
- Formal if you don’t know the name: Best wishes, / With best regards,
- Informal: Cheers! Take care,
- If you are writing to ask for something, end the request on a positive (but polite) note: I am looking forward to hearing from you. / I hope you will consider my application favourably. / I hope to hear from you soon.
- The more formal the style, the more distance you need to take from your message.
Formal: I was wondering if you would be prepared to help us with our research.
Semi-formal: We are doing some research and hope that you will help us.
Informal: About that research project – will you help us?
- Note the use of would, could and should, even in informal language: would like to is usually better than want to. I would like to thank Professor Williams for her support.
- When you write e-mail messages, think of the reader. Reading long sentences on screen is not easy, so keep them short and simple (KISS). In many cases, you could write your e-mail message almost as if you were talking to the person.
- Letters of complaint and replies to complaints should (usually) be polite. Try to avoid using negative expressions, and blaming the recipient or others. There is obviously a misunderstanding sounds a lot better than You have not understood the problem.
A c.v. (curriculum vitae) is a factual account about you: your background, education and work experience. There are many formats to choose from, and conventions differ. If you are applying for a job in the business world, make your c.v. short and to the point (maximum two sides of A4). Expectations may be different in the academic world. It should be mistake-free, and easy for the recipient to read.
If you sending your English-language c.v. to an employer outside of Finland, always consider that the employer may not understand places, company and school names, etc. that would be self-evident to a Finn. Always try to put yourself in the shoes of your non-Finn employer and ask yourself, “If was this employer, would I be able to understand this?” Therefore, in some cases, you may have to include a brief explanation (for example, in parenthesis) to explain a Finnish term, agency/company name, etc.
You could include information under the following headings.
Your name and contact information.Education and qualifications
Your schooling (give English equivalents e.g., upper-secondary / senior high school for lukio): use official English names if they exist.
University and other studies after leaving school (e.g. at commercial college).
Include periods of study abroad.
Don’t forget to include your qualifications (e.g., matriculation examination / high-school diploma).
Mention your knowledge of languages (native language Finnish, fluent in Swedish and English, basic knowledge of Russian and German).Work history
Give the names of your employers, the dates of your employment and your job titles. Find English equivalents! You could add something about your duties, if it is relevant to the job.
List your holiday jobs, especially if you have not had much work experience yet.
Focus on aspects of the jobs that are relevant to your current application.Other information Your language skills. Any relevant IT skills.
Membership of clubs and societies, and positions of responsibility.
Enclose a short covering letter with your c.v.
Even if you do not write any academic papers in English, you may well be called upon to produce an English abstract of your work. The abstract must be easily readable, and give the maximum amount of information in the minimum number of words. It usually includes some background information, the study objectives or hypotheses, design and methods, results, conclusions and implications.
The abstract must stand alone (it may be the only thing that is read), and should include key information. Avoid vague endings (“The results are discussed.”), and straight repetition in the Introduction of the text proper. Always obey the instructions on length, and count all words.
It is common to use the present tense for the objectives, to move to the past until the conclusions (which may be either), and back to the present for the implications.
Achieving an effect
- Vary your sentence length. Short, powerful sentences are memorable.
- Make every word count: an unnecessary word does no work at all.
Texts that flow smoothly are easier to read and more memorable. The way in which parts of the text are linked affects the flow. The more you can help your reader to move from one of your ides to the next, the more fluent your text will read. One such signposting technique is end focus: each clause sentence will give the basic background information early (Who? Where? When? How? Why?), and end with the What?, which leads the reader into the next idea. In the following example, consider the link between the final word of the first sentence and the first idea of the second.
- Such behaviour is nowadays unacceptable. The police would arrest anyone who did this.
- Such behaviour is unacceptable nowadays. In 1700, however, cats suffered treatment we consider cruel.
- Nowadays no one accepts such behaviour. Tormenting animals is, in adults at least, a symptom of a psychiatric problem.
- Unacceptable behaviour nowadays includes mistreatment of animals. Foxhunting, for example, has recently been outlawed by the British Parliament.
- Does your title show the topic and the purpose?
- Does your introduction tell the reader that you have something worthwhile to say?
- If you are describing methods, are they clear?
- Do you refer in your discussion to the results of your study in terms of the stated aims?
- Are your references complete and consistent?
- Have you checked your spelling (especially of names and special terms)?
- Have you checked the grammatical structures?
- Have you checked the overall organization of your text (in terms of chapters and sections)? (O’Connor, 1991)
|Sample abstract from the 2000 European Science Editors’ Conference
Background. Previous research has shown that structured abstracts (i.e. those that contain sub-headings such as this one) are of a higher quality, contain more information, and are easier to search than are abstracts produced in the traditional manner.
|amount / number
|Number (and fewer) goes with countable nouns (bridges), and amount with uncountable nouns (sugar).
|economic / economical
|Economic is to do with the economy: people who used money sparingly, and cars that consume less petrol, are said to be economical.
|effect / affect
|Effect is usually a noun (This has an effect on the results), and affect is usually a verb (This affects the results).
|interested / interesting
|You are interested in a subject because it is interesting.
|it’s / its
|It’s, meaning it is, is a contracted form.
The genitive its has no apostrophe, e.g., “This machine has a mind of its own”.
|This word is always preceded by a genitive (his/her/our/Jane’s own car).
|who’s / whose
|Again, who’s is a contracted form of who is: who’s going to buy the milk? Whose is the genitive: whose turn is it?
|The decimal separator
|This is denoted by a point (.) in English: 1.3 million, 0.2 percent).
|The thousands separator
|This is denoted by a comma (,): 4,100.
|The percentage sign
|There is no space between the figure and the percentage sign: 23.8%
|use the recognized abbreviations, placed before the figures: GBP 1.9 million, EUR 65,000.
A few tips
- Also very rarely begins a sentence in English, and belongs as close as possible to the verb it is associated with (It was also shown that students of social science were more politically aware).
- Try not to overuse words and expressions like for example, however, even, just, important, central, in addition to. Check where they should appear in the sentence!
- Avoid unnecessary words, as in pre-set (in advance) and alongside (with).
- Before you write e.g., consider whether it serves any purpose: it is greatly overused.
- According to some experts, etc. has no place in academic writing: if what it implies is so important, it is worth mentioning specifically.
- Hyphens link words that belong together, often when several adjectival expressions are used: He lived in a one-roomed first-floor flat. The absence of a hyphen may cause confusion: six year-old boys and six-year-old boys mean different things.
- Make sure the subject of your sentence goes with the verb. Going home on the bus it started to rain is not cohesive: it is the subject of the verb, but not the subject of going home. When I was going home on the bus it started to rain.
- Check the prepositions you use with phrasal verbs (and whether you need a preposition at all): resemble something, discuss something, inform somebody about something, concentrate on something, apologise to someone for (not doing) something, to translate from Finnish into English.
D. Collaboration with others
Sharing and peer critiquing
Sharing writing experiences, your worries, concerns and joys with your peers is very important. Talking with others about the difficulties during the writing and how you solved the problems will broaden your horizons.
Peer critiquing means taking a critical look at the work your fellow students or colleagues have done, and in turn they take a look at your work. You can also be your own critic. The idea is to produce better texts by focusing on the generation, clarification and development of ideas, and the clarity of the message. It also includes linguistic elements such as grammar and punctuation, but not in the early stages.
Use the following questions to guide you:
|What do you like best about the piece?
How do you feel about the content?
How could it be made more interesting/entertaining?
Does the author give it a personal touch? If so, how?
Who is talking? What is the author’s position or background?
Who was the piece written for?
What style of language is used, and is it consistent?
Look for examples of figurative and idiomatic language.
How easy is it to follow the train of thought?How are the ideas linked together? How smoothly are they developed?
Does the author say what is going to happen?
How clear is the ending? Were you waiting for something else?
Are all the ideas clear? If not, why not?
Are all the sentences clear? If not, why not?
How appropriate and varied is the vocabulary?
E. References and useful web addresses
Norris, Carol 2004: Academic Writing in English Helsinki University Language Services
https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/ (University of Purdue, USA)
http://ilang.cle.ust.hk/writing-advice-sheets/ (Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Lang. Ctr)
http://writing.colostate.edu/index.cfm (Colorado State Univ, USA) – You will need to create an account
And don’t forget the Writing links on the English via the Net section of the ALMS homepage! http://www.helsinki.fi/kksc/alms/language.html
Created by: Leena Karlsson, Felecity Kjisik, Joan Nordlund. 2004 with many thanks to Carol Norris for her permission to use her ideas and examples.
Updated by: Leena Karlsson and Kenneth Kidd in August 2017; by Gráinne Hiney and SvB on 18 August 2022