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Study Skills

Wolfson College Academic Skills: Academic writing

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The writing process

person writing in a notebook by a windowThe Cambridge system of supervisions will gives 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 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. 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 sections 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.

Breaking down the question

It is important to understanding 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 you answer in this way. For example you may choose to limit your answer to a few examples. Why have you you selected them? Also make clear that you understand the context in which these few examples sit.
  • What are you being asked to use? Identity sources, materials, theories and examples that you are expected to refer to. You may be told these in the questions 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 subquestions. This will focus you 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 defintitions.

Planning

Once you have identified what your task is, you should be ready to start reading to fill the gaps in your knowledge and answer the (sub)questions you've identified.

After reading in a structured way you are ready to start planning your written work. As you go through this process remember that you will need to leave out some of your research. Markers will be looking for you ability to select the most relevant points and reading, not simply demonstrate how much preparation you have done. 

You now need to identify your overall argument.  How do the ideas connect? Do they have details or data in common? What are you 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 (a thesis statement). This is the conclusion you have reached after all your reading. 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. 

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. 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 that the structure. Now you can start thinking about the flow of the text. Start to make bullet points under the paragraph headings for what you might include in the body of the text. 

At this stage, if your discipline requires this, introduce concepts, identifying which ideas follow on from this, can they be combined or do they require their own space? How will you build connections between your ideas or those of others?

For each section think about why you want to include the bullet points. How do they help you answer the question? Why do you think so, do you have the evidence to support the argument?

You will have read a lot for your piece of writing and will not be able to include it all. Be ruthless when considering whether something is relevant enough to be included.

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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.

Referencing

It is essential that you correctly credit the work and ideas of others that you use in your writing. Make sure that you have all these details before your start writing as it can add a lot of time on at the end, time that you may not have at that stage int the process. To learn more about this, read our section on Referencing and Avoiding Plagiarism.

Essay writing

Writing is the process of communicating all that you have read and thought about relating to a specific question. As you read 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. Your Director of Studies and supervisors will be able to advise you on these. If you make friends in college in the year above you, you could ask to look at one of their essays from last year to show you what writing looks like in your discipline.  However, most written work will contain the following features and these key sections should contain specific information:

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.

This is 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. Equally you can focus in on an idea introduced in the previous paragraph. 

 

The conclusion is your opportunity to make final statements, not just to restate everything you have just written. It can be forward-looking and encourage the reader to see the direction in which a more in depth piece of work would go.

It will still need to confirm the overall argument but can refer to any outstanding issues which you have not had the chance to cover or which could be remedied by further research. 

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Proofreading

The 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 it written and not what you think is written. If you have been writing on a screen, it may help to print out your essay; 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.

magnifying glass on the keyboard of a laptopThen 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 support 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?

Refelction

It is difficult to put all of the above into practice until you are creating a new piece of written work. However, using a previous piece of writing is a good way to reflect on your writing style and identify areas you might want to focus on improving when the time comes in your course.

Open up the checklist below and see how whether you can tick off every point in relation to a piece of past work. 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 your Director Studies or supervisor about writing styles in your discipline.