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Study Skills

Wolfson College Academic Skills: Academic writing

Help with finding, managing and using information from the Wolfson Library Team.

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. 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 EnglishTheologyHistoryLaw and MML.

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

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.

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 system 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.
  • 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 Graduate Research and Writing


Unless otherwise stated, this work is licenced under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence by Wolfson College Cambridge.

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