Something a lot of people worry about when they start academic writing, is the question of originality. 'How can I have anything new to say about my subject?' Students also worry about criticising published academics' views 'How can I criticise other people’s ideas when I'm only just working out my own?'. It’s important to consider what's meant by 'originality' and 'criticism', here.
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Robin Banerjee - Show originality in your essay
OK, my final guideline for writing an essay concerns originality. You'll probably see in most of the assessment criteria for essays in different subjects across the university that originality is one of the markers of first class essays. Can you show originality and flair in the way that you write your essay? Well, a lot of students often ask, 'What do I do to show originality in an essay? Do I just say what my opinion is about the subject matter?' Well, partly -- but it's not just a matter of expressing your personal opinion without justification or rationale. Originality in an academic essay is all about the way that you interrogate the material in front of you and the way that you put the material together. So, regarding the first of those points, if you are dealing with evidence, examples, theories, other people's writing - question it, adopt a critical standpoint, evaluate it, don't just accept it at face value. Regarding the second point -- about how you put ideas together and how you put your points and evidence together in your essay -- that's a really important opportunity to show your originality. It's not so much about waiting until you get to the end of the essay and then coming up with - 'well I think ... blah blah blah..' But it's about how you put the argument together. That's where you can really show your originality. Have you taken these theories, these different bits of evidence, the different readings that you've done, have you put them together in an interesting and innovative way to answer the question? That's how a student shows originality in an essay!
Criticising other people's ideas/evidence means you're evaluating these ideas/evidence, assessing the basis of an argument and how well it is reasoned and backed up. You may be considering the ideas on a stand alone basis or in relation to experimental findings, a particular issue or context. A lot of the time your argument will emerge from comparing different authors' ideas and findings. (Have a look at the section on Critical Thinking for more on this.)
Originality may be specified as a prerequisite for higher grades in assessment criteria. Yet you only have to think about how much has been written on almost any topic, to know that it's no easy thing to find entirely new things to say.
What you can be sure of, however, is that no-one else will weigh things up in exactly the way you do. The responses to what you read, the ideas and findings from your research, the selection, evidencing and organisation of the ideas already out there and the conclusions you reach, are yours - even if other students use many of the same sources and come to similar conclusions. So, in this important sense, your argument can be original and communicate your 'voice'.
If on top of this you are lucky enough to come up with an effective argument no-one else has ever thought of - that's great! But don't expect it as a general rule.
Ask your tutor what makes for original writing in your subject area. Perhaps your school has examples of effective original writing.
"What is important is that you are able to make your own use of your sources when you re-form them for your own purposes for writing."
(Crème, P., Lea, M. (2003) 2nd ed 'Writing at University: a guide for students' p98 Maidenhead, OUP)