Chapter 9 Skills Development
This is written on the assumption that you want to improve your abilities.
9.1 A Roadmap for Skills Development
The first term is designed to take someone who has not written a mid-length (2500 words) academic essay before, and enable them to write one to postgraduate level. Along the way you will produce a variety of research products, each of which are opportunities to develop core transferrable research skills. The second term enables students to build upon these core skills to produce a 5000 word research essay, to postgraduate level.
If your starting point is never having written an academic essay before, then this will be hard, but it is an achievable goal. You will lack the experience that many of your peers have with academic writing, and are likely to need to put in extra effort early on to catch up with this skill. On the other hand, if you’ve been accepted onto a KCL MA programme without an undergraduate degree, then it is almost certain that you have significant relevant professional experience. This is something that many of your fellow students will likely lack. Academic writing is a very specific form of communication, with its own standards and expectations that may seem confusing at first,36 but it is a skill that can be developed like any other skill. In other words, don’t be intimidated!
Likewise, if you are returning to university after a significant period of time away, then it is likely that you will need to refresh your skills at writing academic essays. One particular issue here can be overconfidence - you may have excelled at university, and excelled subsequently at a job requiring intensive research, but this does not prevent your academic writing skills from declining over that period of time. Take some time early on to approach the academic research and writing process from afresh.
If you have gone directly from undergraduate to postgraduate, or only taken a year or two gap between the two degrees, then the academic writing element of this module is likely to come easier to you. At the same time, this is a module designed for graduates. A first at undergraduate level does not automatically translate to a distinction at MA level.37 You will need to work to improve your academic writing skills to a postgraduate level. Equally important, you should consider the group project work as an opportunity to develop teamworking skills that will be required to translate your research skills into the professional world.
9.2 Track Your Progress
The most important step in developing skills is to identify, and reflect upon, your baseline knowledge and skills as you begin the course. This section of the handbook is primarily concerned with skills development, but we’ll combine both knowledge and skills in this exercise. Take 30 minutes out of your day and work through the following questions, writing 1-2 sentences down on a piece of paper for each:
- Tasks Checklist, have you ever:
- Read an academic article
- Read a research monograph38
- Performed a literature search39
- Written an article review, or book review
- Written a literature review
- Written a short academic essay40
- Written a mid-length academic essay41
- Written a dissertation42
- Researched and delivered a non-academic research product
- Produced a basic piece of collaborative research43
- Produced a substantial piece of collaborative research44
- Designed a substantial piece of collaborative research45
- What research skills are you seeking to improve as a priority?
- How would you rate your knowledge and understanding of the following concepts:46
- State terrorism
- What elements of the module interest you the most?
9.3 The Basic Structure of Academic Work
This is a guide to the basic structure of academic work, and the generic set of skills that transfer across pretty much everything you will do. It is designed to get you to think about your work process, research, analysis, and communication
The basic academic workflow is repetition. We do something, think “Hmmm” and then do it again.47 You may see a model like: Question -> Literature Search -> Analysis -> Write Up -> Submit. This is basically a lie, because it eliminates the repeated work at each and every interval. A more accurate workflow for a response to a set question is something like:
- Read the question
- Read a couple of things to get a basic understanding of what the question means
- Scan databases to work out who has written on that question
- Read a couple of major works
- Read the question again and figure out what you need to answer the question
- Do something like a literature search
- Read through the key articles/books/chapters in the search
- Begin analysing your research, and realise you need to cast the net a bit wider, or fill some gaps
- Go back and search for more articles/books/chapters
- Analyse your material and figure out an answer to the question
- Plan out your answer
- Begin writing up your answer, and start to spot holes
- Quick search to find more material, and integrate that
- Finish writing up your answer, realise that you now have a different take on the question
- Re-draft your answer, maybe even go and read more material
The point of this is to say that academic work is a creative process. Your ideas are likely to change throughout the process of creating an academic input. The second point is that you should begin this process early, as you may find yourself looping back to almost the start of the process quite a few times.
Many people skip step 15. My advice to you is to never submit something that has not been re-drafted at least once, but preferably two or more times. Looping steps 13-15 a couple of times will do your work the world of good. Furthermore, it’s in some senses the least stressful time to actually work on your argument, because if the deadline hits, then you at least have something good to go.
9.5 Building and Reducing an Argument
In the real world of academia,48 arguments are usually presented in abstracts of about 200 words. In the real world of business, arguments sometimes have to be compressed to an elevator pitch of 1-2 sentences. A key point is that if you can explain your answer in 1-2 sentences, then it is easy to build out that answer in a logical fashion to a book-length manuscript. A well written and structured book can be distilled into an extended review,49 short review,50 abstract,51 or sales pitch.52 For this reason, my suggested workflow for developing your argument/answer,53 is that you explain your answer in a paragraph54, which you then reduce to a 1-2 sentence answer, and then build back out into an essay.
- Your basic answer (250 words)
- Your distilled answer (1-2 sentences)
- An argument that substantiates your distilled answer (250 words)
- Your argument written out in 7-12 sentences
- Your argument written out in 7-12 sentences, with paragraphs to support each point
The 7-12 sentences is largely arbitrary, but is the appropriate scope for a 2500-3000 word essay. The point here is that this same framework can build out to longer research. For example, a 5000 word research essay will require your answer to be answered in a small number of sections,55, each of which contain their own argument, which can be written out in 7-12 sentences, supported by paragraph. A book can be built out by supporting the points with 5000-7000 word chapters, which each have their own argument that can be written out in a number of sentences, each supported by a section… etc.56
Okay, but how do you practice this? There are two key skills at work - the reduction of an argument, and building out an argument. These are related, but you can do two distinct tasks to practice each process independently of one another.
Reducing an argument: Find a journal article, read it,57, read the abstract, then try to reduce the abstract to 1-2 sentences. Re-read the article and see if this reduced argument matches with the text. If it does, try doing this on another article. If it doesn’t, try re-phrasing your distilled argument. As an extension activity, you can try reading articles, and writing your own 200 word abstracts for the articles, based upon the main text of the article.58
Building out an argument: Take the seminar questions for this course, and the ones that we discuss in the lecture sections as your basis. Try to write distilled arguments that express different answers to the same question. For each of these, build out to a 200 word answer, and then a 7-12 sentence answer.59
9.6 Supporting Your Argument
This section reflects my expectations about the use of footnotes and references for your work in this course. This can be quite a confusing area for some people. Depending upon your background, using footnotes to support an argument may appear to be obvious, or quite strange. Regardless of your opinion or intuition, you will need to support your argument in order to pass this course.
The best way to understand footnotes is to recognise the multiple roles that they can play in a single piece of work. A footnote is a formal structure that enables your reader to understand the origins of your argument in a space-efficient manner. Despite its formal structure, a footnote can point to a variety of resources. For example, a footnote might point to the source for a figure or quote. Equally, a footnote might direct the reader to a book about a particular type of research method, or it might highlight a particular author’s work that your own work is engaging with. The point of a footnote is that it saves you the need to explain fundamental elements of a disciplinary approach to a question from first principles, or the need to describe a source’s reliability in full if it is tangential to your argument.
But what do I need to footnote? In my opinion, you should reference everything that is necessary to build the fundamental skeleton of your essay and argument, even if a selection of this appears to be so obvious that it seems unnecessary. A useful metaphor is to think about how you’d go about climbing a cliff. You could free-climb the whole way, without any safety gear, and trust in your ability to get to the top without an accident. Alternately, you can do what most climbers do, which is use a safety rope and clip in along the way, so that if you fall, you don’t fall that far (although it might still hurt). In this sense, footnotes are the safety clips - in the event that you do make a mistake in your work, at least the person reading it can understand the origin of the mistake that you made.
A second way to think about footnotes is that they allow you to pass the buck to someone else. A research essay should require you to focus on a particular set of topics, which requires you to understand what is necessary scaffolding (research methods, where this question sits within a discipline or two), what is very important, and what is necessary to mention but otherwise ancilliary to your answer. You don’t want to spend 50% of your time re-stating first principles about quantitative or qualitative research methods, so you declare your research method and explain your choice, and then point the reader towards wider works that they can look to for a fuller explanation of your selected research method. Equally, if something requires mentioning, but is ancilliary to your argument, then you want to enable the reader to understand the concept, or idea, in a short space of time, and then point them elsewhere if they want to learn more. Both of these then permit you to maximise the time that you spend answering the important elements of the question.
On a deeper level, being rigorous with footnoting is also a way of forcing yourself to pare down your argument to its essentials, and to avoid expansive, ambiguous, or hyperbolic statements. If you absolutely cannot avoid making an over-the-top statement (eg “9/11 was the darkest day in American history” or “The 2003 invasion of Iraq was the biggest strategic error of the 21st century so far”), a footnote pointing to someone else who makes it is a pretty good way to let them take the bullet for you, should your reader disagree with what you are writing.
If you come to academia from a professional background, you may be forgiven for wondering why this is all so important. Obviously, there are different standards of plagiarism tolerance in academia to the professional world. But in the professional world it is not always necessary to show your working to the degree that academics do as a matter of routine. The best explanation I can offer for this (in the space alloted here) is that underlying all academic disciplines is the question of how knowledge is formed, and why. In some disciplines, these questions are relatively settled, but in others (IR is a good example of this) there is considerable contestation about what constitutes knowledge, how it can be attained, and why that matters. Your referencing offers a glimpse of your own world view, whether you like it or not, and people can, and will, judge you by it. So it’s not only a question of what the answer to a question is, but how you arrived at it, and why you chose the path that you took. References give the reader a gist of all of these, and that is why they are so necessary.
9.7 Academic Writing
Both of the assessments for this course are types of essay. Essay writing is a creative activity. It is an art, not a science. That said, art involves craft and conventions. Wherever you see creative activity, there is likely craft at work, and essay writing is no different. This applies to academic work across disciplines, but different disciplines and fields have different conventions. Understanding these conventions is important, and can be done by sight in many cases. The Department of War Studies generally draws its conventions from history, international relations, and the social sciences. Each course will have its own specific requirements (notably for reference styles) so pay attention to what your lecturers ask for. That said, there are three elements that transcend this: the technical elements of an essay, structuring your essay, and writing your essay.
Essays have technical elements. These are, in general, non-negotiable. The absence of technical elements is a signal to a reader that something is wrong. If your essay does not have a title page, the essay title at the top, consistent citations, and a bibliography, then the reader is likely to get the impression that you are unable to produce these basic elements of academic writing. These are not finishing touches, they are foundations. An essay without a title is akin to a front page news story without a headline. Inconsistent citations indicates that you are either unaware of the importance of citations, or unable — on a technical level — to use them. Essays lacking bibliographies indicate that you are either unable to produce one, or that your work on the essay is sloppy enough to forget to include one. Either looks bad.60
With that in mind: Please read your essay for technical mistakes before submitting it.
I advise reading your essay backwards, and from the bottom up (if using footnotes). Keep a copy of your bibliography separate and cross out an item each time you encounter a reference to it (and if it’s not there when you find a reference, make sure to add to the bibliography). Check for consistency at all points, particularly with citation formatting, spelling and grammar. I am not allergic to American English, but make sure not to mix British and American English in a single piece of work. Remember that quoted material should be quoted as-is, so don’t Americanise British authors, or vice-versa.
On a structural level of an essay, boring is good. Every essay that you write will contain an introduction, your argument, and a conclusion. For 2500 word essays, I advise 5-7 paragraphs. For essays of 5000 words in length, I advise that you make your argument over at 12+ paragraphs. Try to keep paragraph length consistent. Each paragraph should consist of a point requried to make your argument, and a critical engagement with the evidence, theory, etc that supports that point.
Your introduction should be a maximum of 500 words or so. That’s the maximum. The best way to think about this limit is that every word in your introduction is one that can’t be used to make your argument. That said, there’s a good reason introductions exist. Your introduction should inform the reader of your line of argument (more on that later), how you are going to explain your argument, and where you are drawing your terms and definitions from.
A second way to think about your introduction is that it serves as one big car park for every contentious issue that relates to your answer, but is unnecessary to discuss in depth for the purposes of answering the question. You don’t have the space to explain and explore every single theoretical argument that is relevant or important to your answer, but the introduction is where you park every theoretical argument that doesn’t need further exploration. You will be able to read advanced forms of this kind of activity in peer-reviewed articles, and the first chapter of most academic books published by university presses. Even though you might not be in a position to comprehend the range of issues that an academic parks by the end of their introduction, or first chapter, the process is similar to what is required of you in an academic essay, even at undergraduate level.
At this point you may be (rightly) wondering how you are meant to do in 500 words what your tutors do in at least a thousand words, if not many multiples for that figure. If you read academic articles, the introduction serves multiple purposes. A good one will usually identify a gap in existing literature of a given subject, an important research puzzle associated with that gap, and propose a way of investigating that puzzle. That’s a lot of heavy lifting that you don’t necessarily need to do. Your title is, in essence, a research problem served to you on a plate. You’ll have to identify why it’s important, and the parameters for answering the question, but longer introductions are unnecessary. For a 5000 word essay, you should follow your introduction with your discussion of your theoretical frame, etc.
You will present your argument in paragraphs. I use the imperative here, because if you don’t present your argument in paragraphs, then you are going to have a very bad time. The first sentence of your paragraph should identify the argument that the paragraph will make, with reference to your overall line of argument, and the last sentence should connect the paragraph to the one that follows it. Everything in between those two sentences should be evidence about the point that the paragraph is making.
The line of argument in an essay is yours. It’s your answer. I can’t tell you what you’ll be writing about, but I can tell you that it’s usually expected to be logical and coherent, even if engaging with the worst excesses of post-modernist philosophy. Your line of argument is your answer to the question, and therefore the opening line of many of your paragraphs are likely to address the essay title itself. A good way of testing your line of argument is to read your introduction, and then the first and last sentence in each paragraph, and then the conclusion. If the result doesn’t sound vague or gibberish (twin demons of academic work), and the conclusion is convincing based upon what precedes it, then the chances are that you have a decent line of argument.
While the introduction of an essay differs a fair bit from academic articles, the point about a line of argument doesn’t differ as much. Try reading 3–4 articles in this way, and you’ll get a feeling for what I’m talking about. It’s particularly important to read case studies this way, before you include them in essays. You will need to be using evidence in an essay, not describing it. There is a world of difference between the two, and the easiest way to understand that difference is to read an article using case studies in International Security or Security Studies, and compare that to a descriptive account of events that you might find in a general history of the topic.
Your reader (me) will also need to know the limits of your argument. Set your argument up, then knock it down — what remains it likely to be its most defensible form. Above all, don’t think that ignoring major objections to your argument is in any way persuasive. The best way to avoid major issues is by framing your argument in the introduction (see above), however contentious points need to be addressed. How you address them, and the evidence that you use to do so, is what will get you higher grades. Remember: you’re being marked on your ability to provide a reasoned argument with evidence that displays your underlying knowledge of the subject matter, it’s not an election or similar rhetoric-heavy exercise.
Your conclusion ties everything together. Think Star Wars not The Sixth Sense. You should remind your reader of your answer to the question, why your answer to the question makes sense and is supported by the available evidence, and maybe you can add a few lines of “Where next?” — e.g. why your answer is important or where it could be continued. Don’t throw curveballs, twists, a ton of new evidence, or a lot of material that contradicts what you have just spent 2,800 words arguing (keep your conclusion short, 250 words tops). Think of the nice warm fuzzy feeling you get while watching John McClane hug Holly McClane at the end of Die Hard 2, rather than the bleak “What happens next?” of The Thing and The Italian Job. Leave your reader thinking “What a good essay” and not “What the hell?” Also, never, ever, watch re-makes and re-boots. They suck. If you ask me, Netflix should be forced to buy more classic films, but not musicals (except The Blues Brothers). If you’re thinking “Where the hell did all this advice about movies come from?”, well, that’s what the person marking your essay will be thinking if you start going off on a tangent at word 4830 of a 5000 word essay.
One last point:
- Don’t write essays in bullet points.
- Because they don’t connect.
- And they make for a bad argument.
9.8 Acting Upon Feedback
The standard college feedback loop is 28 days. That is, you will receive feedback for your work within 28 days of submitting it. This is a long time, but it’s necessary for me to mark your work properly and return it to you. Furthermore, although I aim to return feedback sooner, this is not always possible. The problem this poses is that by the time you get feedback, you are likely concerned with the next deadline, or maybe immersed drafting already. You might even have forgotten parts of what you wrote because mentally you have already moved on from the task. Nonetheless, you will markedly improve if you set aside a chunk of time from your schedule61 and work on your feedback.
The feedback that you get from me is likely to reflect the standard of your work. As a rule of thumb:
- If your work is below 50%, your feedback is going to state what is needed for a passing mark, and explicit standards required to achieve 60% for this kind of assessment
- If your work is between 50% and 70%, your feedback is going to explain what would be needed for the next grade boundary, and for marks of 70% and above.
- If your work is between 70-75%, I’m likely to be providing you with comments about elements that are holding your work back, and commentary on drawing out thoughtful/original points in your essay.
- If your work is above 75%, I’m likely to give you comments on how to explore or reconfigure your answer to develop the areas of particular excellence.
Please note that in the British system, 70% is the equivalent of an A grade.62
A second element of the feedback that I give you is a defined set of areas to work on, for the above reasons. I strongly suggest that you take the time to examine these areas, and undertake tasks as noted. The reason for this is that acting upon feedback in this way is an additional mechanism of learning from that same task. The tasks that I suggest in feedback are all designed to be performed in half an hour or so, as a time-efficient way of building upon your existing work to improve your overall skillset.
9.9 Tracking Your Skills Development
Finally, one of the most important things that you can do is to track your progress over time. A very good sports coach once said to me: “Everybody makes mistakes, professionals can recover.” Postgraduate study is hard. There will be ups and downs. You are highly likely to fall short of your own standards at some point. The important thing is that every high and low presents an opportunity to learn and improve.
A good example of this is the attention paid to plagiarism in academia. In the business world, plagiarism is a normal and everyday activity. In academia, plagiarism is a serious misconduct issue.↩︎
From experience, the people who excel at MA level are those who put the effort in, independent of whether or not they have a prior degree or what classification that degree was↩︎
AKA an academic book, but we like our fancy names. Monographs are usually written very differently to books for public consumption↩︎
A focused trawl through available academic literature and data to identify relevant material↩︎
Upto 3000 words↩︎
10,000 - 15,000 words of academic writing↩︎
Something equivalent to a 10 minute powerpoint presentation on a set topic/question↩︎
As above, yet more work involved↩︎
As above, except you were involved in selecting the research question/topic↩︎
1-2 lines for each↩︎
Hopefully we think more than “Hmmm” but you get the drift↩︎
We do live in the real world, but those of us who study metaphysics sometimes reject the basic assumptions of this statement↩︎
The kind you get in the New York Review of Books↩︎
The kind you will get in the book reviews section of journals↩︎
Often the publisher’s description of the book↩︎
Alternately, the review you get from colleagues - “Have you read Professor Doe’s latest book? It’s about…”↩︎
You’ll want an argument that answers the question. An answer without an argument usually lacks coherence, an argument that doesn’t answer the question is missing the point. A piece of writing that contains neither is the shortcut to a failing grade.↩︎
I’m not saying this approach makes for well-written books, only that it makes for coherent ones. The jump from coherence to good writing is, however, one way. There are a great many beautifully written non-fiction books in the world that lack a coherent argument and are, for academic purposes, the equivalent of popcorn (Fun to eat, but devoid of nutritional value).↩︎
You don’t have to take notes, and feel free to skim↩︎
This is a much more time intensive activity, so try the fast version first. It’s better to get in a high number of repetitions, until you cease to improve between repetitions↩︎
This exercise is really good for understanding how a different answer/line of argument can lead to radically different structures for essays↩︎
Technical sloppiness is best compared to an unforced error. Time pressures aside, there is no real explanation for it in an academic setting, and, from experience, it is the shortest path towards a case of unwitting plagiarism, which is not where you want to find yourself at any point.↩︎
1-2 hours per assessment↩︎
From experience, this can cause heart attacks for students who completed their undergraduate studies in America. This is prime example of transatlantic mistranslation, because a British lecturer will say “Congratulations, that was excellent work” by giving a student the worst percentage grade that they’ve had since high school.↩︎