Academic writing

Advice and resources to support you with effective academic writing.

Approaches to writing

Assignment writing is a process which involves planning, drafting and reviewing what you are going to say. You will find you need to review your initial plan and edit it as you go along. You should expect to have to redraft some sections of writing.

You should also check any guidance given to you as part of your course, as conventions vary between subject areas.

The basics

One of the hardest things can be to get started writing an assignment. Sometimes this is a question of taking the time to reflect on what you are being asked to do in the assignment brief. 

Getting started with an assignment

The handout Getting started suggests a way in which you can break down your task, think about aspects of it and commit some of your initial ideas to paper. It also suggests ways you can start to adapt this method to suit you. Alternatively you may prefer to use a prompt list to start to analyse your title.

Getting started (pdf)       Getting started (Word rtf)

Essay title prompts (pdf)       Essay title prompts (Word rtf)

You will want to respond to the assignments you have been set as well as you can. This means paying attention to key words in the question or assignment brief. These are sometimes known as command or directive words because they tell you what to do. The document Directive words provides definitions of some of the commonly used words.

Directive words (pdf)       Directive words (Word rtf)   Directive words – British Sign Language translation (Media Hopper video)

Getting your ideas in order

In any written assignment you will be expected to organise and structure information which is synthesised from a range of sources. You will need to make notes from your readings to help you consolidate and connect your research to your question. The Reading at university page has strategies to help you develop effective skills for making notes from reading.

Reading at university

Making notes means you end up with lots of bits of writing which you need to link together for your reader. Sometimes it can be hard to know what to select and how to identify relationships between ideas and concepts.

There are suggestions in the Getting your ideas in order handout of practical ways in which you might reorganise your material in response to the task set. Playing around with the order can help you arrive at a line reasoning that will convince the reader. Aim to experiment and find out what works for you.

Getting your ideas in order (pdf)           Getting your ideas in order (Word rtf)

Essay parts and paragraphs

If you have been asked to write an academic essay, and you haven't done this before, you may be unsure of what is expected. The Parts of an essay handout gives a brief introductory overview of the component parts of an essay.

Parts of an essay (pdf)           Parts of an essay (Word rtf)

Paragraphs are the building blocks of an essay and are a way of organising your thinking and making your meaning clear in your writing for your reader. The handout Developing writing in paragraphs encourages you to think about the way you shape your paragraphs and when to move on to a new one.

Developing writing in paragraphs (pdf)          Developing writing in paragraphs (Word rtf) 

Build an argument as you go

Identifying and writing about good evidence is not enough. You need to build an argument. An argument is:

Using reasons to support a point of view, so that known or unknown audiences may be persuaded to agree.

Cottrell, S. (2011)Critical thinking skills: developing effective analysis and argument. 2nd edn. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, p52.

You can develop your argument as you read and write by creating a working hypothesis or basic answer in response to the assignment brief.  

Building an argument as you go (pdf)            Building an argument as you go (Word rtf)

Go further

As you move through your studies lecturers will expect more from your written work. They will expect the accurate attribution of ideas from others (including academic and other authors, and the ideas of those who teach you). There is general advice and resources for referencing and citations (and avoiding plagiarism) on the Referencing and citations page.

Referencing and citations

Your marker(s) will expect written pieces to be logically structured with fluid expression of thought, and with deeper and more critical engagement with the subjects and ideas you are reading and learning about. 

Aim to become familiar with the level of writing required by reading good quality examples.  At an advanced level you are aiming to write to the style you read in academic journals. 

As your written tasks become longer and more complex it can be helpful to reflect on your own writing process.

Reflect on your writing process (pdf)            Reflect on your writing process (Word rtf)

Different types of academic writing

Academic writing is much more than just an essay. You might be asked to write a lab or business report, a policy brief, a blog post, a journal article or a reflection piece for example. These tend to be subject and task specific so you need to check the assignment brief and any criteria for details of their purpose, formatting, structure, things to include etc.

Reflective academic writing

In some subjects, assessment may be based on critical reflection. This can be a challenge as it is a very particular style and form of writing which you may not have come across before. As well as check your assignment brief for specifics, the University’s Employability Consultancy have created a Reflection Toolkit of resources, models and questions to help you develop your reflective writing skills.

The Reflection Toolkit

School-level support

Take advantage of any writing development sessions organised through or learning materials offered by your School, Deanery or course. These will help you develop the specific writing skills you need for your discipline or subject area.

Writing your own title

If you have to write your own title in response to the brief you have been set, you need to think about how to frame this.  The Formulating your own title handout suggests some aspects to consider.

Formulating your own title (pdf)          Formulating your own title (Word rtf)

Differences from non-academic writing

If you are studying during a career break, or part-time while still working, you need to be aware that academic writing is a very different skill from other forms of writing you may have done in the workplace. Academic writing tends to be more formal, requiring succinct prose rather than bullet points, and it is more about the argument than simply conveying, or describing, information. Writing for assessment requires you to think carefully about your assignment and criteria, your argument and content, use of your subject specific conventions (e.g. language, style etc.), and your audience.

Your written work needs to be grounded in and backed up by appropriate and informed opinion and sources, rather than solely by personal opinion and experience. Academic written work will also make fewer absolute statements. Language is often more tentative or cautious.

Academic Phrasebank is a collection of general phrases taken from academic sources created by John Morley at the University of Manchester. The phrases are sorted into writing and assignment themes such as being critical and writing conclusions.