The Cambridge system of supervisions will give students in most disciplines lots of opportunities to communicate their thoughts in writing. You may be writing from the first week, or it may be a skill 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. Your style will also be responsive to the task: an exam answer is very different to an essay. Your department will be able to advise you on specific expectations in your discipline but there are many general principles which be useful to all students, some of which we cover here.
The writing process is book-ended by two other key skills which we cover elsewhere:
This section focuses on essay writing in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. Scientific disciplines will provide guidance on specific writing styles for their subject area. For example, Biological Sciences provide a set of resources on the Cambridge Transkills webapges. Have a look at Transkills for other subject areas too such as Transkills for English, Theology, History, Law and MML.
Below you will find a series of videos that provide a survey of academic writing and a closer look at introductions, paragraphs and conclusions. While there may be a heavier emphasis on the writing done in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, the general concepts of strong academic writing presented will also apply to other disciplines.
These are not strict rules but guidelines. You will know best what is expected within your discipline. You still need to make judgements about meaning and phrasing. You need to express ideas in a way that reflects your 'voice'; markers don't want it to sound too stilted or as though it has been written by AI.
None of the below will cut all the words you need in one go. But they may help you spot sytlistic tendancies than mean your style is unnecessarily verbose.
As with all proofreading, reading aloud can help you spot awkward wording and clumsy phrasing. Eliminate problematic words or highlight phrases as you go, so that you can tighten them up later.
Once you have a rough draft, to reverse outline your document. This way you can make sure that your ideas and arguments develop logically. Write down what each section is about and if you spot anything extraneous, it is a candidate for deletion.
If you are still well above yoru word count, rank the points you use to sunstantiate your argument. That way, you can eliminate ones which aren't as important as others.
If you don't want to eliminate a point, take the topic sentence or main idea of several less important paragraphs and create combined paragraphs with less detail than the more important arguments.
Look through your work and seeif you find any adverbs, especially those that end 'ly'. These are often filler words that don't add anything beneficial. These might include actually, commonly, continually, correctly, finally, fully, greatly, perfectly, rigidly, sadly, totally, urgently. If they're not necessary, remove them!
In much the same way as advebs make their way into writing, multiple adjectives are used when one (or none) would suffice. Only use them if they add to the meaning of the sentence.
Writers sometimes clog up their prose with one or more extra words or phrases that seem to modify the meaning of a noun, but don't add meaning to the sentence e.g. kind of, sort of, basically, for all intents and purposes.
Watch out for phrases or longer passges that repeat earlier writing. If the words don't buils on the conent, they are rarely necessary.
Many words imply one another: 'finish' implies 'complete' and so 'completely finish' is redundant in most cases. There are many other phrases like this: past memories, future plan, terrible tragedy. each individual, end result, final outcome, unexpected surprise, sudden crisis.
There are also illogical expressions such as 'very unique'. Since unique means one-of-a-kind, it doesn't need a modifier of degree such as: very, so, especially, somewhat, or extremely. There are no gradations; either it is unique or not.
Many commonly used phrases can be replaced with a single word. We often feel that they make writing more 'formal' but they can detract, rather than add to, meaning. For example:
Expressing ideas in negative means you must use an extra word and and it makes it harder to figure out your meaning.
e.g. If you do not have more than five years of experience, do not call for an interview if you have not already emailed Human Resources.
can be revised as: Applicants with more than five years’ experience can call for an interview. Otherwise, email Human Resources.
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 than simply showing how much you know about a topic. Ask yourself the following three questions when you start a new task:
If you are not sure what the words mean in the question, have a look at this list of instruction words and their definitions.
Use Manchester University's Phrasebank. This aims to provide you with examples of some of the phraseological ‘nuts and bolts’ of writing organised according to the main sections of a research paper or dissertation. The items in the Academic Phrasebank are mostly content neutral and generic in nature; in using them, therefore, you are not stealing other people’s ideas and this does not constitute plagiarism. It gives you alternative ways of saying the same thing.
The top level sections are: