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CJBS Database Guide: Academic Writing

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Brushing up

Writing an essay can be daunting especially if you have been out of academia for a while. You will be expected to read widely in your field which will help you grow accustomed to academic writing. In this section, you will find advice on how to critically engage with the required reading and structure your essays.

Desk with computer, notebook, and coffee.

This section was put together by the program teams for EMBAs, MSt in Entrepreneurship, and MSt in Social Innovation.

Other resources that are available:

It's time to write that essay

There are a number of elements that are considered in the evaluation of submitted work:

You are expected to show a clear understanding of the relevant concepts in the academic literature. In so doing, it is essential to appraise different viewpoints critically, and you should therefore rely on multiple sources to construct your arguments. The sources that you use may come from the suggested readings in the course material, but it is strongly recommended that you look beyond these and engage with a broader range of academic material. The Information and Library Services team will provide guidance on how to use the main academic databases during your first week in Cambridge, but you can also contact them for support at other times of the year.

Please note that it is not the quantity of references that matters, but rather the quality of the author’s engagement with them. Moreover, your essays should not be purely theoretical: the best essays address major theoretical issues in order to situate the core arguments, while at the same time drawing upon specific cases or examples to illustrate the theoretical points being made. These cases or examples could come from non-academic reading (e.g., articles written in practitioner publications, blogs, or web sites) or from your own experiences.

Successful essays are clearly structured and convey the chosen line of argument persuasively. You should think carefully about how best to structure your essay during the planning stage. While there is no single ‘best’ structure, it might be helpful as a general guide to think about your essay as comprising the following elements:

1. An introduction in which you: outline the issues that you will cover in the essay; explain your specific focus and line of argument; show how your argument links to the essay question; ‘hook’ the reader – i.e. grab his/her attention – by presenting an interesting or counter-intuitive theoretical puzzle or empirical example.

2. A main body in which you: develop a central line of argument or set of related arguments; tightly linked by a clear ‘thread’ that ties them together; with careful links between i) each paragraph and ii) each subsection so that the argument is easy for the reader to follow; supported by evidence from the academic literature; and illustrated by short examples.

3. A conclusion in which you: recap on the main ideas that you presented in the main body, linking them explicitly to the essay question; explain i) how these ideas are similar or different from what others have said, and ii) why they important, significant and interesting; and (if space permits) address some of the limitations of your arguments and/or suggestions for future lines of inquiry related to the topic.

As a rule of thumb, the introduction and conclusion sections should each account for about 10-15% of the essay and the main body should account for the remaining 70-80%.

Styles of writing and argumentation can vary depending on the author and the nature of the assignment. You may prefer to take an analytical approach in which you critique different ways of addressing the question in order to reveal its complexity; an argumentative approach in which you articulate and defend a particular line of reasoning; or some combination of both. Regardless of how you approach the topic, it is critical that you develop an argument that answers the essay question and that you support it with appropriate evidence.

Framing the essay question in a broader context and showing familiarity with relevant academic and non-academic debates is certainly a key element of writing a strong essay. However, a common problem in essay writing is a failure to consider carefully enough the meaning of the essay question itself. In order to avoid this pitfall, it can be very useful to invest time in thinking through the core concepts and ideas that the question contains, and more broadly reflecting upon what is being asked of you, before you start writing. If, after doing so, you remain unsure about the meaning of the question, you should approach a member of the course team for guidance.

Essays should demonstrate not only knowledge and understanding of the appropriate literature, but also clear evidence of independent thought and a critical approach to the subject matter. In other words, it is important that you do not simply regurgitate the assigned readings, but rather develop your own ideas about the topic. While these ideas should of course respond to the appropriate academic literature and be supported by evidence, the strongest essays will clearly demonstrate the author’s ability to think critically about the topic and existing literature, as well as originality and flair in how the arguments are presented. In other words, ‘your voice’ should be clear and strong in what you write.

Good essays pay careful attention to vocabulary, syntax and punctuation. You can divide your essay into sections and subheadings if you think it will help the structure and clarity of your arguments. Careful editing and proof reading prior to submission is strongly advised. Finally, please note that the Harvard referencing system should be used. References, together with appendices, are not included in the overall word count.

It is not possible for the course team to review or comment upon drafts prior to submission, but they can provide informal feedback on your ideas. The teaching team is available to offer guidance and feedback on your ideas at the planning stage of your essay.

Notes on academic writing (or what we would like to have seen more of in the past…)

  1. Successful academic writing uses theoretical insights (concepts, approaches, arguments) to shed light on empirical material (examples extracted from real cases).
  2. Established literature is not Gospel: it is possible to criticise scholars in the fields, juxtapose different viewpoints from one another, emphasise positive and negative aspects of several approaches, or come up with alternative arguments.
  3. However, relevant theories need to be understood in their complexity. It is generally a good idea to go back to the original sources rather than just use the summaries provided by other books.
  4. Applying theories to real life can be an exciting endeavour: it means interpreting facts through the lenses of insightful, sometimes provocative perspectives. Yet our essay questions often specifically ask you to apply one or more theoretical frameworks to very specific cases/areas. Never lose sight of what is required from you: not simply to discuss relevant theory, but to use it for specific purposes.
  5. Ideas and intuitions, however promising, need to be fully developed. Ideally, you want to announce your key arguments and points already in the introduction/first part of your essay and carefully unveil them throughout your writing. Also, make also sure you are preventing possible critiques and assessing problems in their multiple aspects.
  6. Sometimes, academic writing feels like a solitary enterprise. However, when writing, you are actually engaging with multiple people: the authors you are reading, those you agree and disagree with, and other important voices in the field. Bear this in mind and try to assess how different theorists may look at a question and follow up providing your own critical opinion.
  7. In all fields, there are at least a few seminal scholars. Again, this does not force you to agree with all their propositions. However, neglecting to mention them might cost you a couple of points in your final mark! At the same time, do not just deal with the classics: if all your references are relatively outdated you might need to complement them with insights from more contemporary approaches.
  8. Markers are looking for original contributions, which build on existing theories. Referencing correctly is essential, but you should also avoid very long quotes as well as simply paraphrasing others’ opinions.
  9. Balance between theory and empirical discussion (the examples you use to illustrate your points) is key. Make sure you bring in cases that are relevant, interesting and thoroughly analysed. Be careful, though: examples should be used to prove points and theories to make sense of real life outcomes. Neither makes sense on its own.
  10. Organisation and structure are important. A good essay should be as clear, coherent and readable as possible. Make sure you use appropriate language, but do not exceed in complexity. And always, always proofread before submitting.

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