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3 The purpose of writing

Let's take a step back and think about why you are writing assignments. As with most tasks, if you have an understanding of why you are doing something and how it fits into the bigger picture, it is easier to define what is required of you and therefore to do a good job.

So, what do you see as the reasons for writing assignments? Here are some suggestions:

  • to meet the assessment requirements of my course;

  • to demonstrate my under
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2.2 Developing writing styles

If any of the statements on the previous page rings true, let us reassure you: many other students are feeling the same as you. Writing skills can be learned. We want to emphasise straightaway that this is a process that can be continually developed.

There is no single ‘correct’ way of writing: different academic disciplines demand different styles. This can be confusing if you feel that you've mastered what is required for one course, only to find that something different is
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2.1 Your feelings about writing

Think for a moment about your reasons for studying this unit. Is it perhaps because you don't understand what is expected of you in your assignments, or that you aren't clear about how to improve? What are your feelings about your writing skills? What previous experience have you had (if any) of essay or report writing?

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1 Good practice in writing

This unit is a general guide and will introduce you to the principles of good practice that can be applied to all writing. If you work on developing these, you will have strong basic (or ‘core’) skills to apply in any writing situation. For assistance with specific aspects of any course you are to study, always refer to any guidance notes or handbooks that have been provided.

This unit won't solve all your difficulties immediately; developing your writing skills is an ongoing proces
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Learning outcomes

After studying this unit you should be able to:

  • understand what writing an assignment involves;

  • identify their strength and weaknesses;

  • consider the functions of essays and reports;

  • develop writing skills, whatever the stage they have reached.


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Introduction

Most academic courses will require you to write assignments or reports, and this unit is designed to help you to develop the skills you need to write effectively for academic purposes. It contains clear instruction and a range of activities to help you to understand what is required, and to plan, structure and write your assignments or reports. You will also find out how to use feedback to develop your skills.


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Acknowledgements

Except for third party materials and otherwise stated (see terms and conditions), this content is made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Licence

Grateful acknowledgement is made to the following sources for permission to reproduce material in this unit:

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8.6 Research skills

This kind of work teaches some very valuable skills:

  • how to set about an enquiry

  • how and where to find source material and information

  • how to make your own investigations

  • strategic planning

  • time management

  • cutting corners and being pragmatic

  • analysing and interpreting primary and secondary source material

  • forming your own conclusions<
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8.5 Writing a project report

Finally, you write up your project report. It is important to recognise that this will go through several drafts. You can't just sit down and write a report on this sort of scale quickly or easily. You will have gathered far too much material for that. And it may take you a little while really to get into the writing. Towards the end of the research phase, as you face up to writing proper, you may reach a kind of plateau where nothing much seems to be going on. The excitement of the pl
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8.4 Carrying out research

During this stage you get down to the business of analysing and interpreting the meanings of all your primary and secondary source material (documents, reports, newspaper accounts, books and articles), in the ways outlined in the previous sections of this unit. As you do so you will be making notes towards your project report. In this connection, it is very important to write down full references for all the material you use as you read each item. Then you can easily find partic
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8.3 Planning your enquiry

I am grateful to Tony Coulson, Liaison Librarian (Arts) at The Open University, for his help with this section; also to Magnus John, Information Services Manager, International Centre for Distance Learning.

At this stage, you will be deciding what methods of enquiry to use and the scale of investigation to attempt. Will examining company papers, government reports and newspapers provide enough of the right kind of information? Or, since independent broadcasting comp
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7 Beliefs and theories

‘Authorities’ – critics, historians, philosophers and so forth – of course argue from their interpretations of what a work of art, an event or an idea means. And their judgements are based on certain beliefs – about the nature of the objects they study and about what they themselves do as readers and interpreters of them. From our discussion of ‘Meeting at Night’ you have seen what my beliefs are: that people can reach some understanding of a text through the proce
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6.2.4 Evidence ‘from authority’

When you present evidence for your judgements in an essay, you don't only draw that evidence from the text. You also often call on the ‘authority’ of other writers on the subject (critics, academics), drawing on their judgements. You can ‘make sense’ of other people's ideas in books, articles, TV programmes, and so on; and how to weigh up these ideas and use them to help you form your own. As regards your writing, you have to learn how to use this kind of ‘evidence from autho
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6.2.3 Precise reference to ‘linear’ texts

You may find it more difficult to provide evidence from texts in which sounds, words or images follow on from one another over time (such as music and videos, plays and novels). Music is perhaps particularly hard to pin down. Sounds weave in and out of each other so that at first you may experience the music as seamless. But there are different ‘movements’ or ‘passages’ in music; moments at which a ‘melody’ is first introduced and later passages when it is repeated, for example. Y
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6.2.2 Representing visual and symbolic texts

We saw that when you discuss your judgements of a visual text such as the landscape painting or The Madonna and Child, you talk about its ‘composition’: the way the ‘picture space’ is organised; the relationships between ‘foreground’ and ‘background’, and between ‘figures’. You discuss the way ‘perspective’ is used in the painting to show ‘depth’; the painting's tonal range’, and its uses of ‘colour’, ‘shape’, ‘line’; ‘light’ and ‘shade
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6.1 Making a convincing case

If you were talking to a friend about a picture hanging on your living-room wall, you might say: ‘I really like that portrait because the man looks so lifelike’. That is, you'd make some kind of judgement about the painting. (I've never heard anyone say ‘I really like that portrait because of that little white brush stroke in the top right-hand corner’.) So, in effect, you turn the process we have just been through on its head. When you are communicating your ideas to other peo
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5.3 A ‘circle’ of understanding

It may seem as if analysing, interpreting and evaluating a text are ‘stages’ we go through, one after the other. But it's nothing like as mechanical as that. You do not analyse a text into separate parts, then ‘add up’ those parts to produce some interpretation of the whole, and then evaluate it. Rather, analysis–interpretation–evaluation are overlapping processes. They are different kinds of activity, as we have seen by looking at them separately. But when you try t
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5.1 The values represented by the text

As we have seen, you are fully immersed in the text while you try to discover how it works and what it is about. But in order to make some judgements of it you have to shift your stance a bit. You have to ‘stand back’, as it were, and ask yourself: What do I think about these things I have discovered?

Basically, you need to ask two kinds of question about the text's ‘value’:

  1. What values are represented in the
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4.3 Analysis and interpretation

We have got to the point of recognising that this is a lyric poem, and of thinking that it is probably about a lovers’ meeting. But you cannot reach firmer conclusions about a text's meanings until you have looked at as many aspects of it as you can. I think we need to go back again to the detail of the poem, because the analysis is not full enough yet.

For one thing, there is something odd about the poem's syntax. If you look at the verbs in the first verse you'll see that they are a
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4.2 Meaning and ‘form’

The question remains, what is this poem ‘about’? Or, rather, we should ask, ‘what kind of poem is it?’ Poems (paintings, ideas, music, buildings, historical documents) are not all ‘one kind of thing’. As we become familiar with poetry we learn to distinguish between different kinds of poem, or between different poetic forms.

Epic poems, for example, are extremely long stories about the doings of a noble warrior, voyager, or similar ‘hero’. Other char
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