Writing at university

On your course, you’ll be expected to produce written responses to different assignments. These assignments will vary considerably depending on the discipline in which you’re studying. Students of science subjects might have to write a laboratory report, those studying business or management studies might have to write a case study, and if you’re studying in the arts you might have to write an essay.

Each of these types of assignment may differ in the way writing is organised, in the language used and the way in which your attitudes and opinions are revealed. Your module tutor should be able to advise you on what’s expected, but in addition your university may have a centralised Study Advice (or Study Support) service, and also an in-sessional language support programme for international students.

Whatever kind of academic writing you’re doing, here are some key, interrelated issues to bear in mind.

Planning

Most academic assignments are complex tasks, with many stages before you arrive at the final product. For this reason, it’s essential to have a plan before you start writing a draft of your assignment.

Your planning should include a number of activities including analysis of the task, reading and note-taking and reflecting, before you write your plan. You don’t have to stick to the plan as you write - you may find a better way of organising your ideas as they occur - but you must have a plan. The more detailed your plan is, the easier it will be to write your essay.

Focus

For most university assignments you’re given a question (or more often a set of questions) or a task, and what you write must be relevant - it must answer the question. It’s very easy when you’re writing to move off topic, which can lead to developing your ideas in an interesting, but not directly relevant, way. So make sure, firstly, that you really understand the question(s) or task - check with other students or your tutor, if necessary. Secondly go back to the question(s) or task at regular intervals during the writing process and ask yourself;

“Am I answering the question? Is what I have just written really relevant?”

Another important factor to consider is that you must answer all parts of the question. Many questions ask you to “describe/explain/compare”, which most students find relatively easy, but also ask you to “analyse” or “critically evaluate”, which students find more demanding. If you only answer these parts of the question, you’ll get a lower grade than if you also answer the more demanding parts. The UEfAP website provides a useful explanation of how these different terms are used in academic writing.

Evidence

In many types of academic writing, you’re expected to show your understanding of theory and research in your field, by referring to authoritative sources, often books or journal articles written by academics, or reports or webpages produced by professional organisations. In a sense you’re showing how your writing fits in with the body of knowledge around an issue or set of issues.

You need to make absolutely clear in your writing what are your own ideas and what ideas come from other sources, by using direct quotations or paraphrasing, as well as in-text citations. In addition, you need to provide a list of references or bibliography at the end of your assignment.

There are many different referencing styles (eg Harvard, APA, Oxford), so you need to make sure that you know which referencing style is used on your academic programme. You should find clear guidance on this in your course or programme handbook.

Structure

You need to organise your writing so that points are clearly and logically related to one another. You may need to develop ideas over several sentences, and give examples or statistical evidence to support your points. Separating your writing into paragraphs and using linking expressions, such as “Furthermore”, “In addition” and “As a result”, will help you show the relationships between ideas.

Language

Using grammar and vocabulary accurately and appropriately is essential to expressing your ideas with clarity and precision. In addition, it’s often said that the language used in academic writing tends to be formal in style. In the next Steps you’ll be provided with guidance on writing in a suitable academic style.


  • What kind of academic writing have you done?

  • If you have followed an IELTS preparation course, how is writing an IELTS essay different to the academic writing described here?

Add your responses in the comment area below.

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