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UG CamGuides: What skills will I develop as an undergraduate?

Generic academic skills useful to all students

person writing at a desk with legs crossedAt Cambridge, students in all disciplines have the opportunity to communicate their thoughts in writing, from preparing essays to writing technical reports. For some, you will be writing from the first week, for others, this will be a skill which you will develop over a longer time frame.

Your writing style will have no doubt changed significantly over the last few years and will still be developing. It is personal; there is no definitive way to produce 'good' academic writing. Your style will also be responsive to the task: an exam answer is very different to an essay or a lab report. Your department will be able to advise you on the conventions in your discipline. Here we include some general principles, which many students may find useful, as well as some pointers on essay writing.

Take a look at the subject-specific advice that is available online for some disciplines, under the Pathways section. Other subjects will provide you with information when you arrive.

The writing process is book-ended by two other key skills which we cover elsewhere:

First you will need to take effective notes so that you can refer to them during writing. If they are well-formed, they will act as the basis of your written work. Learn more under the Note making section of this guide.

At the end of the writing process, most disciplines require you to correctly credit the work and ideas of others that you have used in your writing. To learn more about this read our section on Referencing and Avoiding Plagiarism.

 

With thanks to:

Eloise (English)

Vamsi (Economics)

Anna (Human, Social, and Political Sciences)

Breaking down the question

It is important to understand what you are being asked to do before you begin writing. Regardless of the task, you will be marked more highly for answering the question rather than simply showing how much you know about a topic. To make sure that your answer is relevant, ask yourself the following three questions when you start a new task:

Identify the topics that you need to focus on and take care to note that there may be multiple topics in any one task.
  • If you are writing up an experiment, ensure you are clear on all the sections you need to cover before you start.
  • Alternatively, if you write essays, it may be an open-ended task and you need to define the parameters.
  • If this is the case, make sure that you explain why you have limited your answer in this way.
  • For example, you may choose to focus on a few examples. Why have you selected them? Also make clear that you understand the context in which these few examples sit.
  • A writing task is often set to test your understanding of particular sources, processes, materials, theories or examples.
      Make sure you know what you are expected to refer to in your answer. It may be explicit in the wording of the question, implied in the contents of the reading list, or you may need to identify it from the work you have already done on this topic.
    Identify the verb or question word in your task such as compare, describe, contrast, evaluate, explain, examine, summarise, or analyse.
  • If you aren't sure what they mean, download the list of instruction words and their definitions via the link below. These are verbs which are frequently used in essay questions but it may be that your discipline uses other, very specific, terms which require a precise response.
  • Also try breaking the question down into sub-questions. This will help to formulate the structure of your essay.
  • Reading

    Different types of writing task require a different approach. If your subject requires you to write essays, you will also be required to read around your topic to fill the gaps in your knowledge and answer the (sub)questions you've identified. This can be a daunting prospect, so you might want to have a look at our page on Critical reading.

    Planning

    lightbulb on a post itWhen have identified what you are required to do and, in some cases, read around the subject, you are ready to start planning your written work.

    As you go through this process it is possible that you will need to leave out some of your research, especially in essay based subjects. Markers will be looking for your ability to select the most relevant points and reading, not simply demonstrate how much preparation you have done.

    Click on the stages of planning to find out what they involve:

    You first need to identify your overall argument and have a clear idea of what you are trying to say in answer to the task you have been set.
  • A good way of checking if you have an argument is to distil your thoughts into one sentence. This is the conclusion you have reached after all your reading.
  • In essay-based subjects, you now need to convince the reader of this argument, so if any of your ideas don't agree with it you need to decide whether to change your argument or not use them.
  • This will depend on the sort of question you have been asked. Evaluative and comparative questions are asking for balanced arguments weighing up two examples or sides of an argument. Descriptive questions are looking for detail in a sensible order which might be led by a process or chronology. Your discipline may not require you to write in such a systematic way but you will still find it useful to know what you are going to write before you start.

    The structure is similar to an overview. You do not need details at this point but to think about how you will connect your ideas by looking for commonalities and links. In an exam you could draft paragraph headings and then put them into an order that will help the reader understand your argument. For a longer essay, you would need only to identify sections at this point; several paragraphs might make up a section.

    An outline is more detailed than the structure. Now you can start thinking about the flow of the text, not just the argument. Start to make bullet points under the paragraph headings for what you might include in the body of the text. Prioritise your own ideas at this stage.

    If the paragraph headings get too full, identify which ideas follow on from others and if there isn't room to combine them, consider giving them their own space.

    For each section think about why you want to include the bullet points. How do they help you answer the question? What made you think that they were particularly relevant? Why do you think so; do you have the evidence to support the argument?

    If you have been reading for an essay, you can start to write it into your plan. This might be key examples, case-studies, texts, authors, or data. Be ruthless when considering whether something is relevant enough to be included.

    Academic writing varies enormously between disciplines. If your subject requires you to build a clear and understandable argument, have a look at this checklist for one way of structuring your essay.

    Writing

    Writing is the process of communicating all that you have read, put into practice and/or thought about in relation to a specific question. As you read academic books and journal articles you will begin to spot what makes a strong and clear writing style. Try to emulate the way that these authors structure their work. If you struggle to understand academic texts, ask yourself if it is the language that is confusing or is the argument poorly structured. Being a reflective reader will improve your own writing style.

    There will be conventions for writing in your own subject. Some subjects won't write essays at all but will focus on reports and make use of diagrams to explain a point concisely. Other subjects may not follow a strict structure but allow you to express ideas freely. Your Director of Studies and supervisors will be able to advise you on what style is best suited to your subject. If you make friends in college in the year above, you could ask to look at one of their essays from last year to show you what writing looks like in your discipline. 

    For now, you may find it helpful to think about the sort of information you wish to include in different sections of your written work. For essays, these may contain some or all of the following features:

    This should outline the shape of your answer. It should explicitly address the question and tell the reader what to expect, in what order. You may wish to draw out your key argument and the topics that you will use to support it.

    As with all academic writing, the style of an introduction varies hugely between subjects. If you are not sure about how to approach it ask your supervisor or DoS.

    For example, if your subject takes a structured approach to essay writing, your introduction can present an opportunity to summarise the topic you are writing about. If relevant, you should define terminology, theories, and details pertaining to key figures. It is also a place to introduce other research which directly relates to the overall question. Some background information will demonstrate your understanding of the topic and ensure that your reader understands the context in which your wider argument sits. Be specific about the themes and ideas that you will include, though you don't want to repeat yourself too much later in the essay. It is a good place to introduce the examples that you have selected to answer the question. The rest of the essay can explain why you have chosen them.

    At the end of the introduction, you could use that one-sentence summary of your argument that you came up with in planning. If you still aren't sure you can do this, you may need to revisit the planning stage again.

    A paragraph is a precise tool for conveying a single piece of your argument. It should be concise, containing just one idea, making it easier for the reader to digest. The words that surround that idea are solely there to help the reader understand why it is relevant to answering the question. You can still be selective at this stage and exclude words and ideas that don't perform that function. Likewise if you don't have the evidence to support an idea, then you need to read further or delete the idea. 

    It is essential that your argument is coherent and so it is not just what is in the paragraphs that is important, but how also how they connect. You can do this by building on an idea and looking at another example which proves the same point or by moving your argument to an alternative or opposing position.

    In general you are looking for clarity to help the reader understand why you are writing this paragraph. A concise, relevant and critical style will keep you and your reader focused.

    Again, this will vary between disciplines, but in general the conclusion is your opportunity to make final statements, not to summarise everything you have just written. It will still be helpful for your reader if you confirm the overall argument and continue to keep it relevant to the question, but you could also refer to any outstanding issues which you have not had the chance to cover or which could be remedied by further research.

    Referencing

    In all disciplines it is essential that you correctly credit the work and ideas of others that you have used in your writing. While some subjects don't require you to do this in you first term/year, it is important that you are familiar with the idea. To learn more about this read our section on Referencing and Avoiding Plagiarism.

    Proofreading

    magnifying glass on the keyboard of a laptopThe writing process is not finished when you add the final full stop. Checking your work is an equally important stage to make sure that you are communicating as clearly as possible.

    It is best to leave some time between writing and re-reading so that you see what is written and not what you think is written.

    If you have been writing on a screen, it may help to print out your work; it is often easier to read for flow when looking at a hard-copy.

    If you are not in an exam, then speaking it aloud is another good way of checking exactly what is on the screen or paper.

    The first stage is checking for accuracy. Spotting spelling and grammar mistakes is the most straightforward type of proofreading. As soon as you go back through a sentence or paragraph, you will spot errors. This can be done as you go along or, if you are in the flow of writing, do it at the end.

    Then you need to check for sense. On individual points, ask yourself those same questions:

    • why are you including this?
    • is there sufficient evidence and does it support your claim?
    • is it clear how it relates to the question? 

    Then look at the argument as a whole:

    • does the structure of paragraphs and the connections between them flow?
    • is there ambiguity in the argument? Do you contradict yourself at any point?
    lightbulb icon

    Reflecting on your current style

    It is difficult to put the above into practice until you are creating a new piece of written work and you are familiar with the writing style in your subject area. However, before you start at university is a good time to reflect on your writing style, whether for an essay or report, and identify areas you might want to focus on improving when the time comes in your course.

    Choose a piece of written work from school or college. Open up the checklist below and see whether you can tick off every point. If you can't, they may not be relevant to your subject area. But if you're unsure, make a note to remind yourself to ask others about writing style when you are in Cambridge.

    If you have more time and this is an area that you are particularly interested in, have a look at the Alex Essay Writing Toolkit. Developed by the Royal Literary Fund, it takes you through all the stages of essay writing.

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