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Study Skills

Wolfson College Academic Skills: Academic writing

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typewriter with paper saying 'write something'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:

  • First, you will need to take effective notes that 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.
  • Finally, it is essential that you correctly credit the work and ideas of others that you have used in your writing. To learn more about this read our pages on Referencing and Avoiding Plagiarism.

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.

Top tips

  1. Read the assignment carefully and identify key words within the question. 
  2. Work backwards from the due date of the assignment. After you have the number of days you have available to write your assignment, divide the time into pre-writing activities such as reading, reviewing your notes and free writing, drafting activities such as organising your arguments and editing activities such as checking grammar, punctuation and references. 
  3. Spend some time planning and organising your essay before writing. Having a clear road map for your work can ensure your writing flows clearly and you do not drift away from addressing the question you set out to write. 
  4. Don't forget to schedule some down time while you are writing. Creating some distance from your work will help keep you refreshed and allow you time to see new perspectives and process further information.
  5. If you are experiencing writer's block, try freewriting for 10 minutes. During this time, do not worry about grammar or structure; the goal should be to get your thoughts out on a piece of paper or the screen. Free writing can help unlock some of the factors contributing to the block, and since you will have some words after the 10 minutes, it may kick start a new writing cycle for you.

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.

How to

scrabble tilesThese 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:

  • 'the reason for', 'owing to the fact that', 'in light of the fact that' 'given that', considering the fact that' could be replaced with because, since or why
  • 'in the event that' or 'under circumstance in which' could be replaced with if
  • 'it is necessary that' can be replaced with must or should
  • 'on the occasion of' or 'in a situation in which' could be replaced with when
  • 'in reference to', 'as regards', 'concerning the matter of' could be replaced with about
  • 'in anticipation of', 'at the same time as', 'following on from' could be replaced with before, when or after.

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.

Try it out

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:

  • What are you being asked about? Identify the topics that you need to focus on and take care to note that there may be multiple topics in any one task. Alternatively, 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 limit your answer to a few examples. Why have you selected them? Also, make clear that you understand the context in which these few examples sit.
  • What are you being asked to use? Identify sources, materials, theories and examples that you are expected to refer to. You may be told these in the question itself, the reading list, or need to identify them from the work you have already done on this topic.
  • What are you being asked to do? Identify the verb or question word in your task such as compare, describe, contrast, evaluation, explain, examine, summarise, or analyse. If you aren't sure what they mean, download this list of instruction words and their definitions. Try breaking the question down into sub-questions. This will focus your reading and help to formulate the structure of your essay.

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:

  • Being cautious
  • Being critical
  • Classifying and listing
  • Compare and contrast
  • Defining terms
  • Describing trends
  • Describing quantities
  • Explaining causality
  • Giving examples
  • Signalling transition
  • Writing about the past

Find out more

Wolfson and Cambridge University Support for Writing

  • If you need support in thinking through the structure of an essay, brainstorming ideas, considering flow and clarity, and other matters related to the mechanics of writing you can book an appointment with one of our Wolfson College Writing Consultants.
  • If you are thinking about writing for publication, Wolfson offers workshops as part of the regular WolfWorks programme during the Lent Term.
  • The college offers a proofreading service for dissertations and theses prior to submission. Please contact the Academic Skills Librarian for further information.
  • If you looking for some time to get some writing done, Wolfson runs Write Here, Write Now at Wolfson Sessions. These provide a space for students to come together to work silently for an hour, then take a collective break and discuss what they are writing on, and then carry on writing for an hour and then take a break and so on. These are very productive sessions, and the peer support works well.
  • As part of Academic Writing Month 2023 we asked members of the Wolfson Community to describe their writing process and provide a tip they would give to writers. We have collated the videos on our YouTube channel under Academic Writing Month 2023
  • If you need support with your style, The Royal Literary Fund Fellow provides writing support two days a week. Contact Vitali Vitaliev, the Royal Literary Fund Fellow for a 50-minute in-person appointment. He is based at Magdalene College but works with our students too. The Royal Literary Fund also produces an online essay writing guide.
  • There are a number of online writing resources provided by the University's Language Centre, but which are useful for all students.
  • Cambridge's MMLL has produced a very useful dissertation toolkit.

External Writing Support 

  • Very detailed academic writing support from Purdue University from establishing arguments to active and passive voice. Also sections on English as a second language and writing for job applications.
  • Manchester's Academic Phrasebank gives you a range of alternative ways of expressing your ideas. You can approach it by the part of the  Sections include being critical, giving examples, comparing and contrasting, writing conclusions and signalling transition between topics.
  • The Skills Hub at Sussex University has resources on report writing, as well as essay writing.
  • Leeds University has a series of pages to work through on academic writing.
  • Monash University has produced a practical online guide to Excel at Writing for both undergraduates and postgraduates.


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