Writing at university may seem different to other writing experiences you’ve had; however, it is important to realise that it is a process which you develop over time (and not overnight). Your tutors understand this, and you are not expected to be a fully competent academic writer at the start of your course. The information and resources below will help you to develop and enhance your own style of writing, whatever your subject or level of study.
Planning & Structure
Planning should be a crucial part of your overall approach to academic writing. By planning your assignments thoroughly, you ensure that your work has a consistent, balanced structure and your arguments follow a logical flow with respect to the assignment question. Make sure you are familiar with what each section of an assignment should look like; our Essay Plan Guide explains what should be included within the introduction, main body and conclusion of an assignment.
Unpacking the assignment question
Where to start? Understanding clearly what the assignment question is asking you to do is a good place to begin. Take time to read it thoroughly, perhaps several times, and check you know what you are required to do. If you have any questions or do not understand the assignment, speak to your tutor for clarification. Assignment questions use key direction words, which help to explain what you need to do to answer the question. These words may seem similar, but do have a distinct meaning, you can find out more about direction words by reading our Unpacking the Assignment Question Guide.
You should remember that to answer the assignment question fully, you need to ensure you meet the learning outcomes too. Writing a plan is a good way of ensuring you have thought about the learning outcomes and factored them into your plan – a detailed plan will help you stay focused and meet the learning outcomes within your writing. You can watch this video to understand more about learning outcomes.
There are many ways to write a plan, ranging from a mind-map to a simple bullet point list, the important thing it to choose and consistently use a format that suits you. You can find out more about different types of essay plans by working through our Planning Your Assignment toolkit. Assistive Technology can also be used to help create a plan, MindView 7 allows you to create a plan online which can be easily edited.
Critical Reading & Thinking
You will be expected to do a lot of reading during your time at university and this reading will benefit your studies in several ways. You may be asked to complete some reading before a lecture or seminar, this type of reading will help you understand more about a topic you are studying, and you will be able to contribute to class discussions. Reading is an essential part of your research and will usually account for the biggest chunk of your study time – and that’s okay.
The biggest tip for reading at university is to plan reading time into your study schedule and read with a purpose. Be selective about what you read and check which resources your tutor has suggested as essential reading. It is impossible to read everything. Take time to check the suitability of titles, abstracts, content lists, chapter headings, etc. Ask yourself if they link to what you will be writing about? You can then either place them in a pile to be read thoroughly or a pile to disregard. Doing this will save time in the long run, as you will have already selected those that will be useful.
Read purposefully and critically, keeping your assignment question in mind. How does the text you are reading support what you are trying to find out? Ask questions of what you’re reading, be doubtful and sceptical, examine other people’s ideas and critique your own ideas too. Wider reading supports the development of critical thinking, as you start to make links and develop a deeper argument. It is therefore important to give yourself as much time as possible to carry out your research. You can find more support in the Critical Thinking toolkit.
Whilst most of your academic assignments will be written in the third person, reflective writing may call for a mix of first and third person. When reflecting on your own personal experiences you may write in the first person, and when referring to key literature to help support your main argument you may write in the third person.
You may be asked to use a model of reflection within your writing, for example Gibbs’ (1998) Reflective Model. Information on how you can use models of reflection can be found in the Reflective Writing toolkit.
Whilst direct quotations have their place if you need to give an exact definition, paraphrasing demonstrates greater depth in that it shows you understand what you have read. If you are struggling to paraphrase, it may suggest you don’t fully understand the material, it is therefore not unusual to have to reread information a few times before you can paraphrase effectively.
Being able to paraphrase effectively within your academic writing is a key skill to develop. Not only does it show your tutor you understand the material you have read and are able to put it across in your own voice, it also helps avoid plagiarism and aids you to bring together different sources in your discussion.
Quoting, Paraphrasing & Referencing
It is not enough to use synonyms and change a few words, you also need to change the sentence structure and order of ideas. As such, paraphrasing is a skill which improves with practice, but there are things you can do to help develop this skill. When writing notes, try and put things in your own words, rather than copying text directly. Or, summarise the points after you have finished reading, rather than highlighting / writing as you go along. You could also try explaining the theory / concept to a friend in your own words.
Remember you still need to reference a paraphrase, just as you would if you were quoting text directly. Whilst you have used your own words, it is not your idea you are discussing and should therefore cite the author. Visit our Referencing pages for further information on the difference between citing a quotation and paraphrasing.
When you’ve spent a long time writing your assignment we understand the last thing you want to do is spend even more time looking at it, but valuable marks can be retained through development of your proofreading skills.
We all make mistakes, and your brain can easily trick you into missing obvious errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar when you’ve become accustomed to your writing. Therefore, it is important to set aside time at the end of the writing and editing process to have a break…then come back to your work with fresh eyes to complete your proofreading.
Once you get in the swing of proofreading you will become familiar with the mistakes you make, and a good way to recognise and record these for your next assignment is to use a proofreading checklist. When using the checklist, it is easier to read and check your assignment for one thing at a time, rather than rushing to check for everything in one read through. Plan in enough time to check your writing thoroughly, several times.
Top Tools for Proofreading
- Use Word Spelling & Grammar check
- Use a Dictionary / Thesaurus
- Use English grammar book or websites
- Use a fresh pair of eyes: ask friends / family who are unfamiliar with your subject to give your writing a once over. They don’t have to fully understand the content, just look for errors you may have missed!
- Use a printer, pen, highlighter, post it notes – whatever works for you!
- Use a Proofreading Checklist and add to it each time you receive feedback
Top Techniques for Proofreading
- Give yourself time, factor proofreading time into your assignment planning and make sure you’re in the right mindset
- Print your assignment out – increase line space to 1.5 or 2 for easy reading
- Read out loud (or use software)
- Read S L O W L Y
- Read in sections from the bottom up – we don’t mean reading backwards (!) read your final paragraph first, then the second to last and then the third to last…
- Once you’ve made all your changes in the document zoom out to check layout across the whole document
You can find more tips in the Proofreading toolkit.
Grammar / Punctuation
It is important to develop a formal academic style in your written assignments, take a look at our Academic Writing: Using Formal Language guide for more tips. We also have some useful guides below with some top tips for grammar and punctuation, to help you avoid some of the common mistakes made – don’t forget punctuation errors can cost you marks!
- Capital Letters
- Full Stops
- Hyphens, Dashes and Brackets
- Question Marks, Colons and Semi-Colons
You can also access the Punctuation toolkit for more support with using punctuation correctly.
Online Submission (TurnItIn)
We know that when a deadline is approaching, submitting your final piece of work can be stressful enough without unexpected hitches, so try not to leave your submission till the last minute. Remember to give yourself space to breathe by preparing in advance.
Plan in some time prior to your deadline, to watch the Turnitin toolkit. It will help you to become familiar with the submission process, and if followed correctly, will ensure that the final moments before you click ‘Submit’ will be as worry-free as possible.
Useful Guides & Toolkits
- What is academic writing?
- Essay Planning
- Top 10 Tips for Achieving Assignment Success
- Unpacking the Assignment Question
- Critical Analysis Explained
- Essay Analysis – a self-help checklist
- Proofreading Tips
- Academic Writing: Using Formal Language
- Read our ‘Top Tips’ punctuation guides: Apostrophes | Capital Letters | Commas | Full Stops | Hyphens, Dashes and Brackets | Question Marks, Colons and Semi-Colons
- Launch our online interactive learning package for Planning Your Assignment
- Understanding your Learning Outcomes video
- Launch our online interactive learning package for Critical Thinking
- Launch our online interactive learning package for Proofreading
- Launch our online interactive learning package for Reflective Writing
- Launch our online interactive learning package for Punctuation
- Launch our online interactive learning package for Turnitin
- Launch our online interactive learning package for Blackboard Assignment
- Academic Phrasebank, developed by the University of Manchester, is a good resource to support your academic writing
- The Royal Literary Fund provide some useful advice and guidance around essay writing
- Access full, free, unlimited access to thousands of high quality online courses and video tutorials written by industry experts at LinkedIn Learning