MA Assignment Writing Tips


Avoid this, and worse, with this post! (Photo by pommesschranke on Flickr)

I was actually going to wait until I got back in the Classroom at the beginning of March to start blogging again for 2012, but then I caught this particularly timely post on Dave Dodgson’s blog. Reading his post, I realised I had a couple of useful tips to share, including a couple of nifty technological solutions for common problems, hence the below.


Dave rightly suggested that checking your references carefully, several times is essential in the process of writing an assignment, especially as they can get removed or added during editing, and not changed in the final bibliography. To keep track of my references (and save a lot of time) I use a rather wonderful piece of software called Citavi.

What it does is allow you to add anything that you read (books, journal articles, web documents etc.) to a central database. You can import the data from the Bibtex information on Google Scholar, or search by ISBN, or simply add the reference data yourself (Note: even if you’re importing, check the data carefully as it’s often abbreviated). Then, as you read the work, you can add direct and indirect quotations, plus your own comments on them, and your own independent ideas. Now, when it comes to actually writing the assignment, open the ‘Publication Assistant’, a small window which floats alongside your Word document, from which you can add the quotations (complete with author and page reference) or just a reference to the author. Citavi places a code in the document which it later uses to compile in-text references and a bibliography.

Once you have finished writing, you can run your document through the formatting program, and choose your desired format. The program will run through your document, convert all of the references, and make your bibliography for you, with nothing extraneous or omitted. For Harvard referencing, I’ve found the bibliography style to be not quite perfect for my university’s specifications, but with a little bit of tinkering it can be fixed easily. At the very least, it’s quicker than doing it from scratch, and worth it for the peace of mind.

It’s worth mentioning that Citavi also makes an excellent planning tool. You can organize all of your quotes and ideas into categories (usually your essay section headings), and then compile these into a planning document. It also has a task manager function, great for making reading lists when you find things you want to read in another source. It’s also free for projects with less than 100 references.

If there’s any interest in my doing a Citavi Screencast tutorial by the way, do let me know in the comments and I’ll put one together.

Headings and cross-referencing

I’ve just finished my first (well, 1 and a halfst) draft of a grammar assignment (8 days before deadline too). The topic was forms and functions of be in English and Korean, and so it reads more like a grammar reference book than an essay, with around 25 sections and sub-sections. There’s also a fair bit of need to refer readers to other sections, which again can cause problems when moving bits around during editing.

This is one I’ve learnt the hard way, and ended up having to do a lot of fiddling after the event. However, getting this set up beforehand might save you a lot of stress. When working with sections, it’s best to use the styles that Word gives you for the headings. This means that you can easily create a contents page which you can simply click to update if you change anything.

Where you need to refer to other sections, make sure you get your headings set up with automatic numbering (there’s a great tutorial here) before you start writing. Once you’ve done this, just use the cross-referencing function in Word and you will be able to keep track of references no matter where you move them.

Just sh*tting it out

Excuse the profanity, but we’ve all had those times at the keyboard where we just can’t say what we want. Cue an hour of teeth gnashing, hair pulling, pacing and occasional keyboard breaking. We’re always telling our students that writing is a craft, and a process of refining our ideas, so sometimes I think we need to train ourselves to write something we’re not happy with in the first place, and then come back to it the next day. I know I’m much happier coming back to edit something, than to a blank page and a broken keyboard.

Work rhythms

As I’ve got older, I’ve realised that I work best at certain times. Mid-late afternoon when I get home from work, is not one of these. Even with a cup of coffee or a hooky energy drink from the convenience store, my eyelids start to droop and my brain starts to fog. I’ve even woken up to a document that’s a seemingly endless string of a single character, after having fallen asleep pressing one of the keys. These days, I don’t even try to work straight after school. I go to the gym, cook dinner and by that time am usually suitably invigorated and depressurised (post-school) to get some work done. I guess the message here is figure out when works for you, and work at those times.


Two sets of eyes are of course better than one, so when you follow Dave’s advice and print a final copy, print an extra one for a friend. It doesn’t matter if they’re not an ELT person, in fact if they aren’t it may even be better, as they’ll be a better guage of how well you’ve explained yourself.

I hope you find these tips useful, and if you’re writing an assignment right now all the best. If you have any questions, give me a shout on Twitter or in the comments below.



5 responses to “MA Assignment Writing Tips

  1. Citavi looks like a nice mention. I’d never heard of it… will look into in more detail later… once I’ve read your paper 😉

    Other programs people may be interested in:
    – Bibus: open source cross platform and maybe best option for Linux. It’s basically a free version of EndNote.
    – Bookends (proprietary): seems to be preferred for Mac OS and not too expensive in reality.

    I’m a little more old-fashioned… I use a spreadsheet with all trends and themes listed and corresponding page numbers. Once upon a time I did it with paper and a pencil! Ironically, I trust myself more than a referencing program when it comes down to it…

  2. Hi Alex,

    Thanks for the mention and for sharing your suggestions here. Citavi sounds interesting and I shall check it out before starting my dissertation write-up.

    I also make use of the headings in Word. The assignment I just finished had three parts with tables, references and appendices for each so it was very handy to be able to automatically generate a contents page.

    As for sh*tting it out, good advice! 🙂 Better to have written something that can be improved than nothing, which obviously can’t be improved at all!

    As for work rythyms, I do work well after I come home but my son often doesn’t let me… After he goes to bed is when I get cracking but that is often a drag… but I get through it somehow. 🙂


    • Hi Dave,

      Thanks for your comments.

      I think the great thing with getting the automatic numbering on the headings is that it allows you to cross-reference and maintain them even when you shift sections around or delete them (a fairly common practice for me, as I usually end up writing about 150% of what I’m supposed to).

      Juggling an MA, a family and work seems a fairly daunting prospect, you’re clearly a brave man. Sounds like you don;t have too long left to go though. I still have another 18 months to go.

      I’m going to try to do some Citavi screencasts this week, if you’re interested.


  3. Pingback: Citavi Tutorial #1: Setting up and importing references | The Breathy Vowel

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