How to Write a Coursework in Criminal Law – a Full and Detailed Guide for College Students

Writing guide
Posted on July 23, 2019

Technically, a coursework is any practical work a student has to complete as a part of the course that counts towards his/her overall grade. It can take different forms: a long essay, a field project, a lab, etc. However, in the field of criminal law, it is usually an extended essay or a short research paper, and this is what we will discuss here.
The main purpose of such a coursework is to teach you how to carry out a research project on your own, with only limited guidance from your supervisor. You can ask him/her for advice concerning the topic choice and wording, methodology and other basic things, but mostly you are on your own.

How to Choose a Relevant and Workable Topic for Your Criminal Law Coursework

1. Define the General Area of Your Research

A coursework should be, by definition, related to the topic of the course you take. Ask your supervisor how else you are limited in the choice of topic. Are there subjects you should avoid? Are any areas obviously over- or understudied? Delineate a general area of knowledge that is worth looking into. For example, if the course covers cybercrime, you may want to focus on its particular types: cryptojacking, ransomware creation, identity theft, etc.

2. Pick a Topic You Are Comfortable With

Do not take the choice of topic lightly – you will have to delve deep into it, study a lot of information on it, probably even do some field work. Do not choose a topic you are uncomfortable with or uninterested in – you will spend most of your next term researching and writing it up.

If you have previously done any work related to the topic of your current course, you may leverage it. Look at your previous assignment and try to identify a problem connected to it that would be sufficient as a basis for independent research. For example, if you wrote a paper on identity theft, you may now cover effective methods of its prevention practiced in different countries.

4. Study the Existing Body of Research

Find all the sources you can on the general topic you have chosen. You can:

  • Ask your supervisor for recommendations;
  • Consult a librarian;
  • Apply keyword search on online academic databases and specialized search engines. NCJRS, LexisNexis and Westlaw are good specialized sources of information on legal matters, EBSCO, Google Scholar and JournalSeek are multidisciplinary resources that also can help you find something useful.

By studying the existing research, you will identify the main authorities on the subject, find suggestions where to look for further sources and probably single out a gap in the knowledge you can base your own research on.

5. Narrow Your Topic Down and Word Your Title

A research question should be relatively narrow so that you can study it in-depth and have enough material to write a full-size coursework. For example:

  • The International Criminal Court in Modern World: Its Application and Efficiency;
  • Connection of Drugs, Drug Abuse and Crime: How Legislature Affects This Connection;
  • Psychological Undercurrents of Crime: Are Certain People More Likely to Break the Law than Others;
  • Crime Classification in the United States and How It Compares to Other National Systems;
  • Cybercrime: New Types of Crimes Brought about by the Technological Advances of the 21st Century.

Do not try to polish the title of your coursework too much. For now, you need a working title – something that delineates your area of study and specifies the purpose of your research. However, usually you are not obliged to keep it – most professors give you an opportunity to reword your title before you submit the coursework so that it better reflects your findings and contents of your work.

Preliminary Stage of Writing a Criminal Law Coursework: Working with Sources

A coursework is primarily about research, and research is primarily about working with sources. You may be carrying out some fieldwork and data processing, but they will not bring you a good grade by themselves. To show that you truly engage with your topic, you should put your own findings in the context of the existing knowledge on the subject. To write a high-quality coursework you will have to spend about 60% of the time on gathering and analyzing the sources. Writing is what you do when most of the work is already done.

1. Pick Relevant Sources Only

You may be tempted to put as many sources you can find in your bibliography to impress the assessor with all the reading you have done. It is a mistake, especially if you have not actually read some of these books. Choose only the sources that support your point, provide new information and/or prompt interesting questions.

2. Verify Sources before You Use Them

In addition to the difference between primary and secondary sources, you have to remember that you cannot trust all sources equally, especially when they deal with as sensitive a subject as criminal law. Before you refer to a source in your coursework, consider the following:

  • Who is the author? What are his/her credentials? Is he/she a specialist on the subject in question? Is it his/her only publication on the subject? Is he/she an authority on it? Do other authorities refer to him/her?
  • Who published the text? Does the publishing organization has its own agenda?
  • Is the writing objective? Is there any emotionally charged language or words/expressions with evaluative connotation? Do other publications by the author or publisher suggest they may be biased?
  • What is the publication’s goal? Is it to inform or persuade the reader?
  • Can you verify the information?
  • Is the information current?

3. Use as Many Primary References as Possible

Primary sources provide direct or first-hand accounts of events, persons or facts. Secondary sources analyze, interpret, discuss the information received from primary sources. Although you cannot do without them, make sure your work is more than a rehash of other secondary sources.

4. Read What You Have Found

It may sound obvious, but you will be amazed how many students try to go along the line of least resistance and simply copy the quotes they find in their sources to boost their bibliography, implicating that they actually read all these books. 9 times out of 10, this trick is painfully obvious – your supervisor has seen it done many times and will immediately discover you.

Of course, depending on the amount of time you have, the size of your coursework and the number of sources you have gathered, you may or may not be physically able to read all the publications immediately related to your subject. However, you should be at least generally acquainted with every book on your list and use your own quotes that support your writing, not gather easily findable quotes and cram them into your text.

5. Make Notes as You Read

Don’t trust yourself to remember the interesting and valuable passages or their location. As you read your sources, make notes: specify the gist of a quotation, in relation to what you want to mention it, the book and page where it is located.

6. Quote Sparingly

Some students see quoting as an easy way of boosting their word count. The problem is, your assessor also knows this. Use too many quotes, and it will relegate your own speech to connective tissue keeping together thoughts of other people. The assessor wants to see your original thinking grounded in the existing research – so try and maintain balance. There is usually no hard limit to how many sources you can use (although it is imposed sometimes), so listen to your common sense or ask your supervisor.

Writing Your Coursework on Criminal Law: The Proper Structure

The exact structure of your coursework may differ depending on your assignment, but typically, it takes the form of an extended essay, consisting of:

  • Title;
  • Introduction;
  • Thesis statement;
  • Body paragraphs;
  • Conclusion.

1. Title

We have already covered how to choose a working title. Here are some tips on how you can polish it before you submit the coursework:

  • Indicate the area and scope of your research;
  • Don’t use abbreviations;
  • Limit it to 15-17 substantive words;
  • Do not use constructions like “research of”, “study of” etc.;
  • Use capitalization properly. Ask your supervisor which capitalization type you should use.

2. Thesis Statement

It is the most important part of your coursework – the primary idea you want to prove, e.g., ‘Mass media can have significant positive influence on the outcome of criminal investigation’. A thesis statement should:

  • Reflect your opinion. Do not just state the facts, tell what you think about them;
  • Be focused. Ideally, it should have a single point you can express in one sentence. If you find it necessary to elaborate further, the thesis statement is probably too vague;
  • Be unambiguous. There should not be any questions left about your stance.

3. Body Paragraphs

You may start writing with introduction, but you will almost certainly have to revise and alter it after you finish the rest of the paper. Therefore, better put it off until you know for certain what your findings are.

As for body paragraphs, the rule of the thumb is to structure them according to this formula:

  • Topic sentence – introduce the main idea you cover in the paragraph;
  • Explanation – provide some details about it;
  • Supporting arguments – introduce 2-3 facts, statistics, references, etc. to support this point;
  • Comment – specify how your arguments support your point. Consider weak points in your argument and think about potential counter-arguments. Address them;
  • Connection – sum up the point of the paragraph, point out how it supports your thesis statement and why it is important. Lead up to the next body paragraph.

You may change this structure if necessary, but first you should master it and start using it automatically.

4. Introduction and Conclusion

There are no specific methods of writing an introduction. It should attract and grasp the reader’s attention, and whatever does the job is fine. You may start with:

  • A shocking statement;
  • A little-known fact;
  • A relevant quote;
  • An intriguing question;
  • Or something else entirely.

Be wary of guides that give you clear-cut instructions on how to write an introduction – the cookie cutter approach does not work with this section.
The conclusion is usually a restate your thesis statement. Tell if you have achieved the goal of your research, if your findings correspond to your initial viewpoint and what requires further investigation.

What You Should Do after You Finish Your Criminal Law Coursework: Revision

1. Structure Check

Check if all sections of the coursework work as intended individually and in conjunction with each other. Do they flow smoothly from one to another? Does the introduction hook the reader and lead up naturally to the thesis statement? Do you limit every paragraph of the body to a single point? Do you summarize everything in the conclusion?

2. Content Check

Check if all the content of your coursework is relevant. Do you contradict yourself in different parts of the text (it is possible if you write your paper in short instalments over a long period)? Do you leave gaps in your argumentation? Are there any leaps of logic? Do you treat the evidence objectively? Are you biased?

3. Style Check

Use the following checklist:

  • Avoid jargon and unnecessarily complicated terms related to criminal law. It does not make you look more serious and scientific – the skill of discussing complex subjects in simple language is valued more;
  • Divide or cut overly long sentences, but do not try to bring all sentences to the same length. Better alternate 3-4 shorter sentences with a long one;
  • Use active voice whenever possible and natural;
  • Be specific, avoid vagueness;
  • Cut everything that is not necessary: excess words, sentences and even paragraphs.

4. Grammar, Syntax and Orthography Check

Finally, check your paper for grammar, syntax and spelling mistakes. Even if you firmly believe in your skills, do a double-check using an online tool like Grammarly and ask somebody with good English to read the paper for you – you may have missed some errors simply because you are too familiar with the text.
Follow this guide, and you will never again have problems with your criminal law coursework!

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