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Comp496/901: Writing Assessment

1 Overview

One of the aims of this unit is to ensure that you achieve a reasonable degree of competence in writing about your research. There are two pieces of writing you have to submit for the unit:

The first of these is used as a diagnostic to determine the aspects of your writing that require most attention. This piece of work is not formally assessed, but is used to provide feedback that you can make use of when you write your three-page project description. You are assessed on the three-page document.

This page provides some pointers on what your three-page document should be like, and how it is assessed.

2 Your Intended Audience

The aim of this exercise is to help you develop skills in the kind of writing that is appropriate when writing about research. There are many different contexts in which you might write about your research: for example, papers you submit to conferences; funding proposals; magazine articles intended for a broader audience; and of course your thesis. All of these have different audiences, and require different approaches; as you start on your first attempt at any of these categories of writing, you should seek advice and help from your supervisor.

The aim of the writing exercise here is to provide you with practice that should be useful for all of the above categories of writing. To this end, your intended audience is me. Since I may not understand the technical details of your project, it is imperative that you explain your work in a way that is accessible to someone who has general technical knowledge but is not an expert in the area. This is not easy to do, but it is an extremely valuable skill to learn.

Because you are writing for a non-expert, your three-page description isn't a true test of writing for your thesis, but it's a compromise between populism and detail that will exercise skills you will find useful in many contexts. The structure proposed below for your three-page document is intended to help you achieve this.

You should think about your document as being something that you might aim to publish in the magazine of a professional association; thinking about it in this way should encourage an appropriately professional and mature flair, rather than it being like an undergraduate essay whose primary reader is a teacher.

3 Assessment

Your three-page project description is marked out of 10. A mark of five corresponds to a pass. Writing well about your research is not easy: it imposes different requirements from those you would meet when writing technical documentation, for example. Unless you have some reasonable experuence of writing about research prior to taking this unit, you are unlikely to achieve a pass mark on the basis of your first submission of this assignment. That's okay: you are allowed to submit several revised versions until you achieve at least a pass mark.

Here's the rationale underlying the marking scheme used in this assignment:

Although you may feel satisfied with a pass mark here, you are strongly encouraged to keep revising until you achieve a mark of 7.5 out of 10, since this is the threshold mark at which I consider your writing to be of a standard that is appropriate for being made publicly available.

4 What Makes a Good Three-Page Project Description?

The aim here is to provide a more detailed specification of what is required than we have time to provide in class. You are advised to use this as something of a check list to make sure that what you submit meets the specification.

4.1 Structure

You are strongly encouraged to approach the planning of your project description in top-down fashion; documents written in a bottom-up `stream of consciousness' fashion are less likely to read coherently. To that end, you should plan out your document in line with the sections described here. You should choose section titles that mean something in the context of your project.

  1. An introductory section: This should start out by saying what you aim to do, and what problem you are addressing. It should make clear to the general reader what the key issues are, and what you are going to do to address these. It should end by summarizing the content and structure of the rest of the document.

    This section could be anywhere between half a page and three quarters of a page in length. The important point is that it should be possible for someone to read this and have a good idea of what you are doing without reading any further. This is probably the most important section in your document.

    How do I determine if you've achieved this? If I have a clear idea of what you aim to do by the end of this section. If I don't, then you haven't met the specification.

  2. A background section where you explain the problem in more detail, provide an explanation of key terminology that makes a deeper understanding of the problem possible for the reader, and explain what has been done so far, what remains to be done, and what you are going to contribute. This material should still be accessible to a general reader (i.e., me). This section should be around a half page in length.

    How do I determine if you've achieved this? If I feel I understand more about the nature of the problem than I did before; I should learn something new here. But if you have sunk into technical detail that is only accessible to someone who alraedy works in the area, then you have missed the mark.

  3. A section that describes in more detail the approach you will take. This is where you get to talk to a more expert audience, and it's ok if I don't fully understand the details here; but I should be able to understand the structure: what the steps are, how they fit together, what the outcomes are, and so on. You can achieve that multi-level understanding either by having an introductory subsection that sketches the story, followed by more detailed subsections I may not understand; or you can introduce each subsection with a higher level description (likely set off in a separate paragraph) then follow this by the more detailed stuff. This section could be up to 1.5 pages in length.

    How do I determine if you've achieved the goal here? If I can understand what the structure of your approach is, and if the details, to the extent that I can understand them, look like they make sense.

  4. A concluding section where you summarise the work and revisit the intended outcomes, making clear what will be achieved. This will usually repeat the essential content from earlier -- there shouldn't be anything new or surprising in this section -- but it provides you with a way of ensuring that the reader can see what the overall picture is, having just emerged from all the detail in the previous section. The section should be up to half a page in length, and should be written in terms that might not have been appropriate at the beginning of your paper, but are appropriate in the context of the material you have provided.

  5. A complete and correctly-formatted references section. Note that this is not included in your three-page limit. You should provide as lengthy a references section as you are able.

4.2 Mechanics

Some of this should be self-evident, but just to be sure:

  1. Your document should clearly indicate its title and authorship.

  2. Aim for three pages not including your references, but it's ok if you go a bit over. To provide enough text for this to be worthwhile, you don't want margins any greater than 2.5 centimetres; you should use single line spacing; and a point size of 11 is probably about right.

  3. Make sure you carefully check your spelling and grammar.

  4. Make sure your document has page numbers; that your sections, figures and tables are numbered; and that any internal cross-referencing makes use of these numbers.

  5. Care about the appearance and professionalism of your document.

Sloppiness in any of the above guarantees a low mark.

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Last Modified: 27th July 2008