Academic writing I: Lots of opinions no right answers or dealing with uncertainty

In a previous post I wrote about the concept of ‘rhetoric’ and the interplay between the audience, the writer and the context (Fig. 1).  This helps explain why there is no right or wrong way to set about a piece of academic writing or coursework.  Ultimately the audience is always right and is often fickle.


Figure 1: The use of rhetoric.

There are lots of reasons for this, different disciplines have their own way of doing things and everyone has their own personal ‘writing experience’.  Essentially they ‘do unto you, what was done (rightly or wrongly) unto them’.  Different bosses like things done in different ways and in truth most of your tutors at University will have different opinions.  These will depend on their academic history, how much they publish and where they publish.  As the phrase says ‘what is breed in the bone will out in the flesh’.

In the case of your boss you may be able to slowly challenge them and educate them into your (hopefully better) way of writing, but in most cases you will need to confirm to your audiences expectations.  Just because all your tutors are from the same faculty don’t assume that they all write in the same way or expect the same output.  Your audience will always have different perspectives, experiences and values.  Your tutors are all different and hurray for individuality!  In most cases therefore you are appealing to the likes and dislikes of your audience and to ‘like-minded’ readers, but it is always good to remember that if you always conform you cannot change minds and opinions.  Ultimately it is about the way you go about this.

The lack of certainty about what is required can be a nightmare for students.   You are not going to solve this however much you wish or demand conformity, so best to embrace it and work within the constraints that you do have.

balls and control2

Figure 2: Your tutors are individuals each with their own perspective of how things should be done.

Figure 2 tries to crystallise this.  The known constraints are the assignment brief, the style guide to which you are working and your aim is to land the assignment in the ball-park remembering that each ball (i.e. tutor) is different.  They are kept broadly (and I mean broadly) by external examiners and professional benchmarks.  A good illustration of this is the use of the first person.  When I was a student and a young lecture the first person was a big no, for some academics it remains a no, but in the last 30 years this has changed and many journals now encourage the use of the first person.  In my own writing practice I embrace it.  There are people in my own faculty, however, who still think it is a huge sin.  This is an example of the uncertainty around how to land an assignment.  Well in this example the simple answer is to ask the tutor for whom you are writing and/or check out what the style is in the journals specific to their subject area or in which they write.  A bit of simple audience research can really help.  If a tutor tells you to never use the first person, take it with a ‘pinch of salt.’

This level of uncertainty is not just specific to Universities; you will find a similar set of uncertainties in professional practice to (Fig. 3).  And academics work with uncertainty in the form of the opinions of peer reviewers and their audiences all the time (Fig. 4).

balls and controls3

Figure 3: Landing your report in the right space.

balls and controls2

Figure 4: Landing an academic paper (publication) in the right space. 

So the first thing to remember is to know your audience and write for them within the formal and informal constraints that are set.

Now don’t get me wrong I am not in favour of just writing any old rubbish to conform and flatter your audience.  Some messages are easier however:

  • ‘I found the same as them!’
  • ‘We are doing a wonderful job.’
  • ‘This evidence supports your case.’
  • ‘This evidence supports your site model.’

It is much harder to challenge:

  • ‘We have to change the way we are doing things, and now!’
  • ‘The evidence doesn’t support the Boss’s view.’
  • ‘Your prime suspect couldn’t have done it!’

Conforming to your audiences views does not mean ‘rolling over’ but you need to tread carefully and build a strong evidence case when challenging the status quo.  The so called ‘tempered radical’ usually wins the day, if slowly.  The second lesson is to always evidence your claim and build a reasoned argument which considers alternatives and provides context.  You can conform to audience expectations while also punching them in the face!  Gently!

Uncertainty can extend to definitions of different types of written work.  Take the humble essay for example much loved as an assessment.  Personally I think that the use of sub-heading is appropriate to help provide some structure, but others argue that there should be none at all.  The dictionary is of little help:

‘Short piece of writing on a particular subject’

‘A short literary composition on a particular theme or subject, usually in prose and generally analytic, speculative, or interpretative.’

Generally, a piece of writing that gives the author’s own argument — but the definition is vague, overlapping with those of a paper or an article.  Formal essays are characterized by “serious purpose, dignity, logical organization, length,” whereas the informal essay has a more personal element.   Nowhere is the any guidance about the use of subheadings!  Now an essay is not a report.  A report is a more factual and any argument is confined to the discussion or conclusion once the data/evidence has been presented.  Here are some definitions but they are mine, not necessarily everyone’s!

  • Essay – a continuous piece of prose which explores/evaluates one or more concepts and/or develops an argument (a thesis or claim). The word thesis is not to be confused with a PhD or Master Thesis, but refers to a central claim or idea which is then argued.  Generally an essay may have broad headings to act as a guide and has a clear logical development of ideas normally around a single thesis.  It can contain general illustrations but is usually free from data.
  • Report – a factual description of a set of results (field and/or laboratory) followed by analysis and discussion of those results. Usually sub-divided into sub-headings following AIMRaD structure (Fig. 5): aims, introduction, methods, results and discussion. It normally contains data, graphs and analysis
  • Dissertation/thesis – an extended piece of work based on original research and/or a systematic review of secondary sources/literature.
  • Literature review – a structured summary and synthesis of previous work on a subject. Note this may be a component of a report, essay or dissertation.
  • Paper – in academic circles this normally refers to a peer reviewed and published paper/article. In some countries especially the USA it is synonymous with ‘essay/report’.

Again the key to dealing with uncertainty is to find out what your audience expects and wants and to give it to them.

AAFS Study Skills_Session#14_15_16

Figure 5: The classic AIMRad structure.

One of the hardest things to do is to write, especially when you are working with uncertainty, but writing is part of the creative scientific process.  It provides a way of working through your arguments and making your case.  Unfortunately there is only one solution and that is to practice and to never forget your audience.

How to take measurements from a photograph

Digital photographs have become a key part of the scientist’s observational toolkit.  In a forensic context photographs provide a vital source of evidence.  Taking accurate digital measurements is an important skill.

“I have never used Photoshop, how can I get a good grade?”

“Can’t I just measure from the photo?””

“It’s beyond my comfort zone!”

“What happens if I did not include a scale bar?”

The study skills unit is about learning new skills about stretching your horizons and above all else investing time in your own professional development.  This is one of those skills or pieces of ‘know-how’ that is worth investing.

So invest the time to learn something new; it won’t be easy but it will make you a better professional given practice.  As with any task there are many different ways of approaching a task and one is not necessarily better than another.

Simple measurements

Open Photoshop and navigate to the photograph that you want to take measurements from.  The photograph must not be oblique; that is the line from the camera lens to the object (and surface its rests on) must be orthogonal (at right angles).  Compare Figures 1 and 2 one is good for taking measurements and one is not.  We now need to make sure the Rulers are visible in the window; go to View >> Rulers to turn them on.  By right clicking on the ruler you can change the units of measurements (Fig. 3).  Initially we want pixels so select this.  Now we need the measurement tool which looks like a cartoon version of a ruler and is hidden with a range of other tools including the eye dropper on the left hand pallet.  Any of the buttons on the left hand pallet that has a small triangle in the bottom corner has more than one tool hidden there; click and hold on the upper most icon and a pull out menu will appear allowing you to find the tool you want (Fig. 1).  If you use it a lot you can custom the tool bars.

fig1Figure 1: Image ready for measurement.  Note that it is orthogonal to the camera.  The scale bar is square in the picture.  Compare to Figure 2.

fig2Figure 2:  The same object in Figure 2 but from an oblique angle.  In this case any measurements made would not be true distances. 

Using the measurement tool measure accurately the distance on your scale bar between two point.  For example the distance between 0 and 15 cm which is the length of the scale bar (Fig. 4).  The number of pixels this corresponds to will appear in the top tool bar, circled in red in Figure 4.  Remember we set the units to pixels by right clicking on the rulers (Fig. 3).


Figure 3: Changing the units by right clicking on the ruler.


Figure 4: Measuring the length of the scale bar in pixels

In my case the distance is 2596 pixels, so if we divide this by 15 we get the number of pixels per centimetres which is 173.06.  Write this number down.  Now we can give this information to Photoshop so that it is correctly calibrated for this photograph.  Go to Image >> Image Size (Fig. 5).  Now adjust the drop down so that it shows pixels/centimetre and write in the figure of 173.06.  Uncheck the resample and constrain check boxes (Fig. 5) and press OK.


Figure 5: Calibrating the image for measurements.

The image is now correctly calibrated.  If we wanted to permanently set the image to 1:1 then we could leave the ‘Resample Image’ checked and it would re-sample and adjust the image permanently.  If you wanted to print the image at 1:1 then this is what you would do.  However in our case we don’t want to unnecessarily and perhaps detrimentally adjust the image resolution so leave it unchecked.  If you now go back to the rulers and right click you can change the units back to something useful like millimetres or centimetres. So next we much check the accuracy of our calibration.  There are two ways of doing this.  Firstly if you measure between 0 and 15 cm on the scale bar the figure of 15 cm should appear in the measurement value (Fig. 6).  Secondly, you can drag two guides to one corner of your scale bar and then drag the origin of the ruler to that point.  You do this by left clicking on the origin (point where the vertical and horizontal rulers meet).  The measurements on the rulers should now correspond to those of the scale bar.  You can now proceed to take as many measurements as you wish (Fig. 6).  If the calibration is not quite right then you need to repeat the steps above.  You have calibrated your first photograph for measurement; congratulations!

fig6Figure 6: Calibration checks assuming the checks are good you are now ready to measure your artefact.

You can also measure angles.  Use the measuring tool in the normal way but then depress and hold down the Alt key when you have drawn the line this will allow you drag out a new line.  The angle between the two lines is recorded in the toolbar (Fig. 7).

fig7Figure 7 Measuring angles in Photoshop.  Drag a measurement line 1-2 then depress and hold the Alt key down to drag out a third line 3.  The angle between the two lines is shown in the main toolbar.

Multiple measurements

If you have multiple measurements to make on a single image there is a facility in Photoshop to create a measurement log and to export this as a Text-file.  This can be very useful.  Go to Windows >> Measurement Log a horizontal window will appear along the bottom of the screen.  You now need to set the measurement scale (Fig. 8).  Essentially you are being asked to add in the same information as before; how many pixels equals your unit of measurement (Fig. 9).  You can now continue to makes a series of measurements; after each one you need to press ‘record measurement’.  Once you have completed your measurements you can export the log by clicking on the ruler icon with an arrow embedded.  This is located in the top right hand side of the measurement log window (Fig. 10).  It is important to realise that the system only records the measurements so you need to keep a written note or sketch in your notebook of what each measurement corresponds to.  Files are exported as Text-files.

fig8Figure 8: Measurement log.  Click the stack of lines on the right hand edge of the upper part of the window to bring up the ‘Set Measurement Scale’.  Select Custom to bring up the dialogue box in Figure 9.

fig9Figure 9: Setting the measurement scale.  You need to type in the number of pixels that corresponds to a cm.

fig10Figure 10: Measurement log in action.  You will find the export function circled.

Correcting oblique images

If you did not take your images orthogonal to the plane then it is not ideal.  Sometimes this can be difficult to achieve such as in the case of buildings, where they will always appear foreshortened unless you can get far enough away from them.  There are several ways of correcting for this within Photoshop and some excellent perspective tools.  The way I am going to show here is just one solution that I find useful provided that there is a square object in the frame.

My preferred solution is to use the Perspective Crop tool.  You will find this hiding below the crop button; it looks like a mesh (Fig.11).  Use this tool to draw out a grid approximately near the square object (Fig. 12).  Now take the corners and place them on the corners of the scale bar.  Having done this place the cursor on the side walls of the grid and pull them out to extend it in all dimensions over the key parts of the image (Fig. 13).  Now clip crop.  The plane is corrected and you can proceed to make measurements as before (Fig. 14).  It is not ideal and there are several opportunities for error so avoid using this if possible.

fig11Figure 11: Deploying the perspective crop tool.

fig12Figure 12: Drag the corners with the cursor so they are on the object of something you know to be square, in this case the scale bar.

fig13Figure 13: Extending the sides of the crop tool beyond the initial square.

fig14Figure 14: The final cropped and corrected image ready for measurements

How to find instructions and tutorials on the web

If in doubt Google it! It is a good motto to have provided you have an internet connection.  Doesn’t have to be Google but the principle holds.   I am often faced with new tasks or worse i knew once but have forgotten.  I keep a notebook of web links and pasted information under a heading of ‘how to’, but I often need to seek further guidance.   Stretching your skill-set is a way of investing in yourself.  I do it all the time, so should you!

So let’s say you have do something in Adobe Photoshop which is unfamiliar or worse you did a few months ago and have forgotten!  It could be true of any software and many other skills.  Using a ‘how to . . .’ search in Google will surface most answers.  You simply need to select the best ones and compare a few posts.  The first answer you read is not always the best.  Here is some guidance on using Google, or any other search engine to its best.

Boolean Searches

Boolean searches allow you to combine words and phrases using the words AND, OR, NOT and NEAR (otherwise known as Boolean operators) to limit, widen, or define your search.  George Boole was an English mathematician in the 19th century who developed “Boolean Logic” in order to combine certain concepts and exclude certain concepts when searching databases. Most search engines use Boolean Logic.  Using Boolean Search terms you have two choices: you can use the standard Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT, or NEAR), or you can use their mathematical equivalents.

  • The Boolean search operator AND is equal to the “+” symbol.
  • The Boolean search operator NOT is equal to the “-” symbol.
  • The Boolean search operator OR is the default setting of any search engine; meaning, all search engines will return all the words you type in, automatically.
  • The Boolean search operator NEAR is equal to putting a search query in quotes (i.e., “blood splatter analysis”). You’re essentially telling the search engine that you want all of these words, in this specific order or this specific phrase.

In summary, therefore, using AND narrows a search by combining terms; it will retrieve documents that use both the search terms you specify.  Using OR broadens a search to include results that contain either of the words you type in.  And finally using NOT will narrow a search by excluding certain search terms.


So you what to create a plate of photographs to go in your coursework.  You have read the guidance and attended the lectures but you are still struggling?  Then ask Google.  If you don’t quite get what you are looking for the first time, re-phrase the question and also think laterally – ‘this is not quite right but I could use this technique and may be that one . . . to solve my problem’.

Once you have found something that is useful and quite informative it is a good idea to keep hold of it for future reference.  Now copying the URL to a notebook, especially an electronic one is a good idea.  Don’t just rely on bookmarks because they are browser and computer specific.  I also paraphrase some of the information to make my own crib-sheet especially if its something I am likely to use a lot.

 “There is so much information out there on the web!”

“Use it discerningly!”

“Also remember in software there is often more than one way of doing the same thing; one way is not necessarily any better than another so don’t stress.”

Making an argument

In a subject like geology or physical geography  there is no absolute answer, you can’t simply look up the solution in the back of the book.  You have to find and balance the evidence and make an argument from it.  Just as a barrister makes an argument in a court room geographers have to do the same.  They need to evaluate the evidence, marshal their ideas and present them coherently so that they win the day.  That is what a scientist does when writing an academic paper.  They  collect some data or conduct an experiment,  propose an explanation or hypothesis on the back of this and the marshal their own and others’ evidence (from the literature) to make the case.  Science can be quite gladiatorial with one scientist proposing an idea that another may oppose and attack.  This critical debate lies at the heart of our discipline and helps us winnow good ideas from bad.  In other areas debate is also essential.  For example if you are advising a decision-maker you need to articulate the evidence fairly and appropriately separating areas of fact from interpretation.  In doing so you need to make a balanced argument that is fair to all the evidence and stakeholders.  A geographer brings their unique spatial-analytical skills to bear in this way and makes an argument with words, diagrams and maps.  Whether expressed orally or in writing learning to make an argument is a critical skill and has to be learnt the hard way through practice. 

Words are how people think. When you misuse words, you diminish your ability to think clearly and truthfully.

When you use words loosely, without care and consideration, you erode trust in yourself and in what you’re saying. When you squander words, you diminish your power.

For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, debate.
Margaret Heffernan

Geographers make critical arguments using a range of different types of spatial data.  In the real-world this may be to influence a decision- or policy-maker, justify a position taken or a proposed course of action in the face of a problem.  Ensuring that your interpretation is valid and prevails is a vital skill for all geographers to learn.  It is important to note that there are often no absolute answers, no one perfect position or solution, simply a well-argued and convincing solution.

The Physical Geography Coursework 2018/19 is designed to make you think about geographical data and to then advance an argument using that data and concisely.

So what is an argument?

An argument is a clearly expressed, balanced, point of view supported by evidence.  Essentially it consists of a ‘claim’ that is evidenced with due consideration of possible ‘counter-claims’ or alternative interpretations and points of view.

Most geographical ideas are debated by someone, somewhere, at some time. Even when the material you read, hear or watch is presented as ‘fact’ it is in truth more likely to be one person’s interpretation of that information.  In the context of your course work it provides: (1) proof that you understand the material; and (2) demonstrates your ability to use or apply that material or understanding.  The latter point is important and can be done in several ways: you can critique the information, apply it to something else, or explain it well.  It helps however to have a particular point or position on the material; this constitutes a ‘claim’.

Clarity and structure is the key to success in writing.  The human form is supported by a skeleton (its structure), remove that skeleton and we are in the words of Spock ‘just bags of water’.  The structure you adopt depends on the aim of the piece, but the following are worth bearing in mind:

  • Your argument needs to be well-structured. You should start with a strong opening statement, an introduction if you like, in which the aim and ‘claim’ are clearly stated with some basic ‘signpost’ statements as to what is to follow.  This should be followed with the three/four key supporting reasons each with evidence or examples.  You should then introduce alternative or ‘counter-claims’ before returning in the conclusion to you ‘claim’.
  • You need to stay focused to the stated aim and to the structure. There is no scope to wander off and you should always keep the point.  No bonus points are given for digressions however erudite they may be.  If you stray you will weaken your argument and end up with a ramble or simply a dump of information.
  • In a coherent argument, all the parts relate to one another clearly flow one after the next in a logical order.
  • In terms of writing, development means stating a point of view (claim) and then supporting it with well-chosen reasons and evidence or examples. A good argument takes the reader by the hand along the path of the argument without allowing the reader to digress or get lost.

Different types of argument will require slightly different approaches or tacks.  It is often good to shake things up and to vary the approach.  However as a guide the following can be used for a 500-1000 word argument:

  • One or two sentences that state the problem, its importance and your perspective or point.
  • Before you start to write list the points in support of your claim.  Now rank them in order of importance.  Ask yourself how you can evidence each one; note this evidence under each one.  You are now ready to write.  Take the first three or four points.  Write about each providing the supporting evidence.
  • Counter-points. Be balanced are there alternative perspectives on the data?  List the counter-points and associated evidence and rank them in order of strength.  You are now ready to write.  Take the first two or three alternatives and present them fairly, then point out in a polite and moderate way how they fail to explain the evidence.
  • Return to you claim or central point restating briefly why it is the most valid perspective in your view.  Explore any implications that follow from your conclusion.

A good argument should contain references that are pertinent to the points being made and to evidence the contribution of other people’s work to your argument.  It should also be illustrated as appropriate.



Useful web-links include:

Details on the BU referencing guide can be found at: