Style Conventions

WritingReport practiceEssay practiceReading practiceFormattingGrammarVocabulary

Numbers and dates

Numbers below one hundred are usually written in full:

Ten students came to the lecture.

Numbers above one hundred may be presented by digits:

There are 400 databases available.

Dates are usually given in the conventional combinations of numbered day, named month and numbered year. Punctuation is not required:

The service was set up on 11 April 2012.

References to centuries are spelt out, without capitals:

During the twentieth century many communication technologies were developed.

Decades may be referred to by name or number. The numbered form is not followed by an apostrophe:

In the 1990s the term “Internet” became a media buzz word.

Capitals (using upper-case letters)

– Capital letters are used for:
– proper nouns: Hazel Hall, Professor, Edinburgh Napier University.
– names of civic holidays: Christmas Day
– geographical names: Central Belt
– public thoroughfares: Princes Street
– important events: Graduation Day
– trade names: Windows, Java
– journal titles: International Journal of Information Management
– the first letter (only) of book titles: Navigating business information sources: a practical guide for information managers

Usage of bold and italics

Print enhancements should be used sparingly. If you over-use them in an essay your work can end up looking like a ransom note. Bear in mind that you should follow the conventions of the referencing system that you are using if you quote book or journal titles in your work. For example, APA referencing requires you to denote book and journal titles by using italics.

Tone conventions

Write formally
A report or essay is a formal piece of work. The tone of your work should be formal, and not chatty. For example, rather than beginning sentences with the work “Also” or “Besides”, which gives the impression that what you are about to write is an after-thought, use an alternative such as “In addition”. Similarly the word “However” is more appropriate to start a sentence in a formal piece of work than the word “But”.

The use of brackets should be kept to a minimum. They are used to indicate a supplementary remark, an authorial aside, or a qualification of some sort. Use them too frequently and you end up with a choppy effect.

Square brackets are used to indicate additions or changes that the author has made to the text. For example, if you want to illustrate a point with a quotation it may be necessary to add a couple of words by way of explanation:

The new legislation means that they [software companies] may be liable for mistakes.

Avoid clichés
A cliché is an expression that has been so overused that it has lost its force of meaning. Phrases such as “at the touch of a button” and “at their fingertips” should not appear in your work. (To use a cliché, they should be “avoided like the plague”!) If you feel tempted to write with a cliché, you are probably about to state the obvious, which is not worthwhile given the word limits on your work.

Avoid “journalese”
Make sure that you have not written work in an exaggerated or sensational style: you are not a journalist! Your work should read as a measured set of rational arguments. If you say anything bold, this should be backed up with a reference from the literature you have consulted in preparing your work, or by an example that proves your point.

Avoid jargon
Use the jargon of your subject area with precision, accuracy and constraint. Take special care with terms that have specialised meanings in your subject area. For example the terms “tacit” and “explicit” have specific meanings in the context of knowledge management.

The impersonal writer
It is rare that you would be expected to write in the first person singular (using the word “I”) when preparing essays and reports in the subject area of Computing. Some people get round this by using the third person singular, but this can be very clumsy. You should aim to write impersonally. The idea is that you remove any personal bias from the argument when you write impersonally. Check the three sentences below to see how this is achieved:

1. I conducted a survey on the use of social media in schools. [First person singular]

2. The author conducted a survey on the use of social media in schools. [Third person singular]

3. A survey was conducted on the use of social media in schools. [Impersonal writing]

Note that some grammar checkers will question the use of the passive voice (i.e. how the verb is used in the last example given in the list above). It is argued that the use of the passive makes the text “heavy”. This can be the case, and in many cases it is appropriate to use the “active” voice, for example in writing out an instruction leaflet or creating an exciting narrative in a work of fiction. However, in academic work the use of the passive voice is wholly appropriate when the goal is to present a set of arguments in an unbiased way. It also permits the construction of short, neat sentences. Consider the examples below:

1. The researchers administered the questionnaires over a period of three days. [Active voice]

2. It took three days to administer the questionnaires. [Passive voice]

Forming arguments

Sensible use of paragraphs
Assignment specifications give you few words to write up your essay or report. You must make the most of them. As you structure your work ensure that each section offers a different (yet related within the context of the assignment specification) perspective of the issue under discussion, and that you present a logical development of a clear line of thought.

A paragraph deals with just one topic or major point of an argument relevant to the essay or report. That topic or argument should normally be announced in the opening sentence. This is sometimes called the topic sentence. The sentences which immediately follow the topic sentence should expand and develop the statement, explaining its significance to the question in general. This opening statement and amplification should then be followed by evidence to support the argument being made. You should provide illustrative examples which are discussed as an explanation of the central idea. Alternatively you can quote a source that supports your argument. The last sentence of a paragraph should round off the consideration of the topic in some way. It may also contain some statement which links it to the one which follows.

Paragraphs should normally be between 50 words minimum and 200 words maximum in length. However, they might be longer if you were explaining a topic in considerable detail in an extended essay. Paragraphs should be long enough to develop a point, not just state it.

Consecutive paragraphs may be linked with terms such as “However” so as to provide a sense of continuity in your argument. However, if you are in any doubt, let them stand separately and speak for themselves.

The recommended organisation of a typical paragraph is:

1. opening topic sentence, i.e. main point given

2. explanation of topic sentence

3. supporting sentences that explain its significance

4. discussion of examples or evidence (citing authorities; drawing on empirical evidence, i.e. research carried out by others or, in the case of a dissertation, you; drawing on your own experience, for example from placement)

5. concluding sentence

Sometimes, even though you have a set of arguments crafted into good paragraphs, it is difficult to work out how to order them in the written up version of the report or essay. It is possible to play around with the structure by:

1. writing the main point of each paragraph on to separate pieces of card

2. experimenting with ordering the cards so that eventually associated cards end up next to each other in a logical sequence

3. writing on a separate sheet of paper the order of topics

4. numbering the topics on the sheet of paper to show a hierarchy which reflects the logic of the new order of paragraphs

You now have the order of the components of your assignment. You then have to consider how to link from one paragraph to the next in the text so that there is adequate signposting and guidance for the reader. You can check that the links work by:

1. underlining linking words and phrases

2. asking someone else to read through your work and asking that person to explain how the paragraphs relate to one another

A well-structured assignment typically has the following format:

– It begins with an introduction which provides the reader with the indication of the direction the report or essay will take before conclusions can be drawn

– Paragraph 1 that makes claims relevant to the question set and central to the overall argument of the work, presents evidence to back up claims made and ends with a linking statement to paragraph 2

– Paragraph 2, that makes claims relevant to the question set and central to the overall argument of the work, presents evidence to back up claims made and ends with a linking statement to paragraph 3

– Paragraph 3, that makes claims relevant to the question set and central to the overall argument of the work, presents evidence to back up claims made and ends with a linking statement to paragraph 4 and so on until all the main points are made

– It ends with a conclusion which relates back to the introduction where what the report set out to do was been noted. It concludes on the evidence presented in the main text of the report itself. It adds value to the work presented by making sense of the report’s/essay’s main points, showing the implications of the arguments made. No new material appears in a conclusion. It is a genuine conclusion and not a simple summary of the rest of the work.

Throughout the work the sequence of the argument is well sign-posted. This is achieved through sensible use of language (for example, “As the next example shows…”, “It can therefore be concluded that…”), conciseness, reminders to the reader, as appropriate, of what the main arguments are, how this is amplified through the work and where they are heading. If your work requires you to use the report format you can sign-post your work through the use of clear headings with section numbering. It is much easier to do this if you compose your work at a keyboard, rather than hand-write your work and then type it up. It is also useful to be able to print work out regularly to get an overview of how the work is developing.

Answer and analyse

No matter how well presented your work is, to pass your assignments you must answer the questions set. The work that you present should be relevant to the discussion.

There is always some description in essays or reports for assignments, but it is the degree of analysis of what is described that is valued by those marking the work:

  • You will gain marks for linking ideas together to draw conclusions, or discussing the implications of what you have described.
  • You will gain marks for questioning the material that you have researched for preparing your assignment.
  • You will not achieve a high score for simply listing everything that you have discovered on a topic.