Beyond the essay
There’s more to it than writing essays
The majority of this guide is devoted to writing essays but essays aren’t the only sort of writing that undergraduates have to do. Here is a selection of non-essay writing that students asked for help with during my two years as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow:
- Letters to schools or organisations asking for help with research projects
- Supporting statements on application forms for postgraduate degrees
- Feature articles [Journalism students]
- Designing research questionnaires [Psychology and Sports Science students]
- Transcribing and editing research interviews [Sports Science and Nutrition students]
- Seminar presentations [all subjects]
- Seminar Reports [Psychology and Sociology students]
- Lesson plans and classroom reports [Education students]
Each of these different types of writing have a distinct format and a distinct purpose. There is a way of planning and writing each one of them so that it has maximum effect on your intended audience or readership.
For many of these types of writing – feature articles or lesson plans or research questionnaires – you can get expert help so I’m not going to discuss those. However, I am going to give you useful hints about some of the others.
These are increasingly common in the social sciences but students are often unclear about the difference between a report and an essay – particularly when they are asked to write a report that’s 1200 – 2000 words long. For example, psychology students may be asked to write a seminar report on a particular topic that not only reports what was said in the seminar on, say, the scientific paradigm in psychology, but also fleshes it out.
As usual, let’s start with the dictionary. Here are some of the meanings of the noun ‘report’ which will help you to think about what’s required:
something that gives information e.g. a weather report;
a record of speeches and remarks.
Here are some of the meanings of the verb ‘to report’ which will also help you:
to give an account of;
to announce or relate as the result of a special search, examination or investigation.
The emphasis in these definitions is on the conveying and presenting of information. A report does not require you to mount a balanced evaluative discussion of different points of view. It requires you to present facts, say what happened next etc. To return to our example of a report on the scientific paradigm in psychology, you would need to say that once upon a time logical positivism was the dominant school of thought in psychology and other social sciences but that now there is another school of thought called heuristic. You would need to say who first conceived these different ideas and when and what influence they have had. Unlike an essay, you would not need to support or challenge various claims with evidence.
The emphasis in a report should therefore be more on the clear presentation of factual information and less on the evaluation of different positions or points of view.