Academic writing

Most assignments require you to brainstorm, plan, draft, write and revise your work. Learn more about developing effective writing processes.

Most assignments, essays and reports ask you to look at the topic from all sides. You will often look at the reasons for and against an issue. You will compare and contrast different points of view. For example, you might discuss the advantages and disadvantages of a proposal. These two handouts are worth reading before you start writing your assignment:

Assignment writing has several steps.

Step 1: Analysing the assignment question

The first stage (even before you begin researching) is to make sure you know what you are being asked to do. Analysing the question helps you clarify what you're being asked to do in your assignment. Another handout, 'Instructional words', gives exact definitions for many of the words used in assignment questions. Try to discuss your assignment questions with classmates in order to ensure you're all really clear about the task. Being very clear about what to do will mean you can research efficiently.

Step 2: Reading and research

After you've established what your question is asking:

  • brainstorm all possible approaches to the topic
  • make a list of research questions (things to read about).

You will probably read a variety of material: books, journal articles, course readings and electronic sources. Remember when you are doing your reading that you will use some of this material to support your arguments in your assignment. Make sure you record all the bibliographic details for each reading so that you can reference correctly when you incorporate this material into your assignment. When you reference, you are:

  • acknowledging the creator of the knowledge
  • demonstrating your ideas pathway (how your thoughts progressed)
  • helping others find the same material
  • avoiding plagiarism.

Explore more reading and research skills.

Reports are structured differently to essays. We have written a handout to help you understand the requirements of a report.

In most of your assignments, you will need to support your arguments by citing support material from your reading. A citation can be either a paraphrase or a quote; however, you should paraphrase most of the time so that your marker knows you understand the material you are citing. Sometimes a paraphrase will be a summary of an author's idea or argument. Paraphrasing and summarising can be difficult skills to master. Read our handouts for help with these skills.

Step 4: Editing

Always leave yourself time between writing and editing (ideally 24 hours). This will help you see your work objectively. Editing means 'changing'. It is a different step to proofreading, which means 'checking'. When editing you should check that:

  • you have answered the question
  • your ideas are logically organised
  • your paragraphs are cohesive (relate to one topic)
  • you have good topic sentences in your paragraphs
  • you have paraphrased clearly and tied your paraphrases into your argument effectively.

For more advice on editing, refer to our handout.

Step 5: Proofreading

Leave your work another 24 hours between editing and proofreading. When you proofread, you should look for errors in:

  • spelling
  • punctuation
  • referencing
  • formatting
  • consistency.

Our handout on clear writing tips will tell you what pitfalls to look out for while you are proofreading. If you are worried that your English is not clear and correct, read the page on using clear English.

While proofreading, you should check that your citations (paraphrases and quotes) are correctly referenced throughout your assignment, and that your reference list at the end of your assignment is correctly formatted. To check these details, you should read your school's specific referencing requirements.

You can also read our handouts on referencing and APA. Also look at our handout 'Update on the APA Style' to see what is different between APA 5th edition and APA 6th edition. The Library also has information on citing and referencing.

This APA Referencing Handbook is from the University of Lincoln in the UK. It is a good guide to referencing a wide range of sources, including artwork, film, television and music.

Further help

To further improve your writing skills:

  • come to see a learning adviser for a one-to-one appointment
  • check out the Writing page from the Language Learning Centre
  • come to Student Learning workshops on academic writing.