Academic writing all too often boils down to reading a few articles on the topic and either summarizing what you have read or reacting to it. It does not really matter whether you agree or disagree with what you read about the subject. Even when you contradict the viewpoints presented in the existing body of literature on the topic, your writing is derivative. Without studying the existing works, you would not have anything to agree or disagree with. This mode of work tends to stifle individual creativity and make students overly dependent on the opinions of other people.
Reflection papers are one of the ways to alleviate this problem. They give students an opportunity to explore their own thoughts and impressions about the subject matter rather than to rehash the words of experts, no matter how authoritative they are. They encourage individual thinking and improve analytical ability, as you have to present your entire line of reasoning and cannot depend on evidence found in other sources. It is especially valuable in an individuality-centric discipline like leadership studies, because you are forced to explore the origin of your ideas to their very foundation, which makes it obvious how much your thinking is shaped by the existing preconceptions and unfounded assumptions. However, this sort of paper may present serious difficulties, especially if you are not used to this mode of work. To make this task more manageable, we have compiled this guide – it will lead you through the entire process.
Reflection writing is not a homogenous genre – it has several recognizable subtypes. Before you proceed to write your paper, you have to determine whether you are expected to write a specific type of reflection or can choose whatever you like. Different classifications recognize different subtypes, but usually one can boil them down to:
Now that you have narrowed down the scope of your work, you can think about what specifically you want to or should write about. While your approach will be different depending on the reflection type, some principles are universal:
Eventually, you should end up with something like this:
After specifying the topic, you can start developing your ideas on the subject. The most natural way to do it is brainstorming: set aside an uninterrupted chunk of time and start writing down ideas. In the process, you should answer the following questions:
In a thesis statement, you present the primary idea of your paper. In terms of reflection paper, it will be your core belief about the subject, the result of your in-depth analysis of your thoughts. It is important to differentiate it from such terms as “topic” and “research question”. The topic is the general outline of what you cover. For example, if you write about how a boss can encourage his/her employees, the topic will be something like “Overview of Approaches to Employee Motivation in Small Business Environment”. Research question is the question you answer in your paper, e.g., “How can a small business owner motivate his/her employees most efficiently?” A thesis statement is your main idea, the answer to this question, which you prove in the rest of the paper, e.g., “Judging by my experience during a work placement, bonuses and higher salary were often less efficient sources of motivation than the sense of involvement and meaningfulness of work”.
In an outline, you plan the structure of your paper. This way, at every stage of writing you know where you are, what else and where you have to mention and how different parts of your paper are to be connected to each other. While you may believe writing an outline to be a waste of time, it will eventually save time and effort you would otherwise spend on rewrites and corrections. In addition, it makes sure you never forget to mention any crucial details.
The level of detail in an outline may differ depending on your preferences and knowledge of the subject, but usually it is a good idea to mention the following:
Although structurally a reflection paper is more or less the same as most other academic texts, keep in mind the following suggestions:
In reflective writing, you do not have to be afraid of subjectivity – on the contrary, as you explore your thoughts and ideas as well as their origins, you are expected to be subjective. You do not have to provide a 100 percent correct answer to a question complete with statistical proof – you have to present your thoughts and opinions to move the discussion forward.
Whatever reflection type you use, make sure you choose a specific point to pursue and follow it throughout your paper. You do not have to tell everything you think on a particular subject or provide a detailed description of all your experiences during your placement. Write only what is relevant and important.
Like in all other types of academic writing, you should use a formal style unless explicitly instructed otherwise. Do not use colloquial expressions or grammar structures, avoid emotional or manipulative language (e.g., characterizing something as “excellent” or “without peer” or using words like “obviously” to force your viewpoint on the reader). At the same time, you are free to use the first person singular, as you write about your personal thoughts and experiences.
If you reflect on a personal experience, e.g., a work or volunteer placement, you should respect anonymity and confidentiality of everyone concerned. Replace their real names with pseudonyms or other designations and obfuscate any identifying factors that remain after this.
To make your reflection more meaningful and give the reader better grounds for understanding you, show where you are coming from. In what context did your current views on the subject form? How did they develop? What other points of view did you share in the past but moved on from?
Do not be afraid of writing more than you are supposed to. You will have to shorten your paper anyway when you edit it, so it is always better to write a bit more than necessary. This way, you will be able to simply cut away the unnecessary parts.
Many writers swear by always scrapping their first draft and rewriting their entire papers from scratch. While it may be excessive, almost any paper can be improved by removing unnecessary words, sentences and even paragraphs. Reread your text and keep asking yourself if you really need everything it contains. If the absence of a word or fragment does not affect your clarity, remove it without pity. The more concise you are, the better.
Is your text stylistically, grammatically and logically consistent? Do you stick to the same style and the same person throughout your writing? Do your statements logically follow from one another? Are there meaningful transitions between paragraphs?
While some writing teachers suggest that you should stick to the sentences of a particular length (usually something around 25 to 35 words), it is not very good advice. If you mechanically shorten or lengthen all your sentences to a particular length with no regard to meaning and content, your writing will look weird and monotonous. The best advice is to simply make sure your sentence length is varied. Intersperse long and short sentences. Keep things simple when it is possible, but do not shy away from complexity when it is necessary.
You may use your word processor’s in-built spellcheck function or analyze your paper with one of many online grammar checkers, but do not put too much trust into them. They are just algorithms and can reliably recognize only the most basic mistakes. More complex sentence structures will stump them. In other words, either check your grammar yourself or find a professional proofreader – the latter may be a better option, as you get an outside perspective on your text.
Ideally, you should keep in mind the requirements of the formatting style you use while you write, but they are often cumbersome and complicated, and students often forget some details. Finish your proofreading by making sure you strictly follow these conventions – they may seem like an insignificant detail, but failure to comply with them can decrease your grade.
Feel free to use these tips the next time you have to write a reflection paper, and you will see for yourself that this task does not have to be difficult and time-consuming!