“Having knowledge but lacking the power to express it clearly is no better than never having any ideas at all.” – Pericles

This section discusses some of the best practice that should be employed when putting together a written assignment. This includes the way in which substantial subsections of a report should be put together and how evidence should be referenced in academic writing.

Structure and Style

The process of putting together written work for a university assignment is very reliant upon the expected writing style to be used in your area of study. It is always important to carefully follow the instructions that are provided with your assignment.

Ultimately this means that you should maintain easy access to the instructions (and, where possible, marking rubrics) and refer to them often during the various stages of the writing process.

Together the introduction and the discussion/conclusion form two of the most critical parts of your assignment. The function of your introduction is to outline your topic and the core issues (and findings!) in such a way that it makes it easy for the reader to continue to read your report. After reading the introduction there should be no surprises waiting for the reader in the body of your report!

In an academic context the introduction provides you with an opportunity to immediately demonstrate to the assessor that you have understood the topic, have identified key issues related to the topic and have been able to provide evidence-based arguments that are supported by your key findings.

Introduction (things to include):
Your introduction, above all things, needs to get to the point quickly. You need to leave the reader in no doubt over your angle/stance on the topic at hand. This can be achieved by including a very direct statement that identifies your response. After this you should use the remainder of your introduction to explain this point of view and outline the argument that you will be making in the rest of the assignment that supports it. It is also the role of the introduction to outline the overall flow of your assignment. You should make sure that you raise topics and make statements in the same sequence that you will be following these in the body of your report. This method of “signposting” helps maintain a strong consistency between your introduction and your report and ensures that the reader knows what to expect.

In addition to laying the groundwork for your argument, it is very important that you use your introduction to demonstrate your understanding of the assessment’s context. This means that you need to identify how the assessment task fits into the broader academic discussions that have already taken place in regards to the topic at hand. This can best be done by discussing other studies/articles that have been published and referencing these in order to place your own work into the broader context.

Important Pro Tip: While it may be tempting to start immediately, only begin writing your introduction after you have completed the outline of your work. This will ensure that you are able to structure your introduction (and hence the rest of your report) in a meaningful way.

Discussion/Conclusion (things to include):
Your discussion is the second area of your report where demonstrating an understanding of the literature is critical to receiving a good score. The discussion should tie neatly to the introduction of your report and should provide the reader with closure in regards to the main points that were raised in the introduction. The primary difference between the introduction and the discussion is that your discussion should also demonstrate a direct link between the core findings of your research and the surrounding references and literature that you used to inform your work.

While, in many cases, a large part of your final analysis will be presented in your discussion it is important to remember that you are rarely expected to know everything about a given topic. Don’t be afraid to identify areas for further investigation that your research has not been able to cover. Depending on your study area there may also be aspects of an experiment or study that were ultimately flawed or weaker than intended; the discussion is a perfect place to suggest areas for further research that may address these weaknesses.

Depending on the requirements of your assignment you may find that the discussion and conclusion are required to be presented together or as separate sections. Regardless, you should endeavor to finish your conclusion with a strong final statement that clearly demonstrates your stance on the topic.

Important Pro Tip: Use the same basic structure/layout of information for the discussion as you used in your introduction. This will give the reader some familiarity with the sequence of your arguments and how you arrived at your conclusions.

All forms of writing exist in a series of sections. The most basic of these sections is referred to as a “paragraph”. Essentially your assignment will, in most cases, exist as a series of paragraphs each discussing a particular point or idea. Paragraphs typically consist of three main components.

Topic Sentence

The topic sentence provides the reader with a basic indication of what will be discussed in this particular paragraph. You should use your brainstorm to construct the overall structure of your report which will reveal to you the topic you should raise in the topic sentence of each paragraph.

Content Sentences

The content sentences of your paragraph need to contain explanations of the topic and evidence to support your statements. This evidence may come in the form of quotations, statistical analysis of data, information from witnesses (if appropriate) or the paraphrasing of primary sources. Take note that all evidence must be referenced according to the guidelines of your report.

Concluding Sentence

Your concluding sentence should restate the basic topic information used in your topic sentence (in different words) but you should also summarise the primary points you have made in the paragraph and provide linkage to the next paragraph.

When constructing your paragraph make sure you pay attention to the writing style you have been using in your report. Use appropriate terms to link together your ideas (such as: thus, however, consequently, therefore, etc.) and reinforce the purpose of each paragraph by reiterating how it relates to the paragraph’s topic as well as, where necessary, the overriding topic of the assignment.

In most cases writing an assignment requires that you find evidence to support claims or interpretations that you make over the course of your research. This evidence is necessary because it demonstrates both your ability to find relevant information to support your interpretation of a topic as well as the fact that it shows the examiner that you have conducted a sufficient amount of research to inform yourself of the issues at hand. Additionally, in academic writing there is a need to compare and contrast your views with those established in the literature.

Critical Remember: Depending on the discipline area of study some types of information, such as personal opinion, may or may not be acceptable. Take particular care to only make use of evidence sources that are appropriate for your area of study. Additionally, even when an evidence type is valid it may not be equally as valuable as another type of evidence. For example, a reference from a text book may not be as robust a source of evidence as finding a similar reference from a peer-reviewed journal article.

Your ability to provide adequate references to support your work is a key part of successful academic writing. This is because while it is, of course, necessary to write in your own words you need to demonstrate to your instructor that you have furthered your understanding of the topic via reputable sources.

Furthermore, referencing your work accurately demonstrates honesty in your approach to your work (as your instructor should be able to compare your written work to that of your references). This means that referencing is a key part of your displaying adherence to the conventions of academic writing and your ability to demonstrate robust academic integrity in your work.

Another aspect of referencing centres on the fact that research, in all its forms, is never a solitary accomplishment. It is a vast team effort that spans years, decades and even centuries. With such a concerted team effort it is important that credit for discoveries is given where it is due. As such you need to use your references to indicate to your instructor where you have obtained the information that you use to support your arguments.

Critical Remember: Whenever you make a direct statement of fact, or offer a qualified statement (one which expresses some level of uncertainty) you must provide a reference to support it!

Important Pro Tip: In order to simplify the referencing process, consider using key references for your work during your early planning stages. This will not only simplify your search for references when you write your paper but may also help guide you during the planning stages of your work!

Referencing guidelines come in many different styles and must be followed accurately in order for you to score well in your written work. Your assessment guides will always specify which referencing standard you should use for your work. If you are unsure about how to implement the standard a quick Google search can get you the information that you need. Alternatively, you may consider investing in a reference manager of some kind to assist you in maintaining and importing references into your document. Reference managers are particularly useful for extensive written work such as thesis projects. There are many different reference managers available such as Zotero (free) or Endnote (licensed). Be sure to try them out and see which one you like!

Important Pro Tip: Some universities provide free/discounted licenses to their students so be sure to check with your university’s library!

Being able to write clearly and concisely is a highly valued trait in academic writing. It is important to be able to get to the point of your writing as quickly as possible and avoid extraneous information.

Being concise:

There are a number of things to consider when trying to be concise in your writing style. Use the following pointers to help guide you in checking your work.

  1. Focus on the purpose of each paragraph and the sentences that make up that paragraph. Does each sentence contribute meaningfully to the point that you are trying to make?
  2. Read through each paragraph carefully before submitting your final work. Look for any words or phrases that don’t directly contribute to the meaning of your sentences. Don’t be afraid to remove these “filler” words that serve no purpose!
  3. Avoid long, convoluted sentences. If you see a sentence with multiple commas or semicolons it is a good sign that the sentence needs to be split or extraneous words need to be removed.
  4. While assembling your draft watch out for any sentences (or even paragraphs!) that re-state things that you have already mentioned. Don’t be afraid to remove anything that doesn’t contribute anything new to your story!

Make a cohesive story:

One of the biggest pitfalls encountered by students who are learning to write academically is submitting an assignment that contains all the necessary information but that information does not “flow” into a consistent narrative. Typically this mistake is a result of students writing their work as a “stream of consciousness” rather than following a specific structure when planning their assignment. While a paper written this way may contain all of the necessary data and analysis requested in the assessment outline, a dysfunctional layout may result in the desired message becoming muddled an the paper potentially receiving a lower grade.

Using “signposts”:

Generally, the reader of your report will need some guidance on what to expect from each statement that you make. The use of signposting words is able to guide your reader on what to expect from each sentence or paragraph and to point them towards important claims that you are trying to make. Furthermore, these words are useful in building an expectation of your stance on a particular topic.

Signposting makes use of particular phrases or linking words in order to connect your ideas together and to build a clear flow in the expression of your thoughts. If you are struggling to find appropriate linking words (or keep using the same ones!) consider looking at the table below for inspiration:



Comparing similar things.


Similar to




Just like

Just as


Contrasting different things.

In contrast



On the contrary

On the other hand

In spite of




Showing the cause of something.

Because of

On account of


Owing to

The reason for

Due to

Showing the effect of something.

As a result





For that reason

In view of this


Ordering or sequencing information.

Firstly, secondly, etc.

After that


In addition




Adding more information.

In addition

As well as






In the same way

Further to this

Building an idea or providing further examples or explanations.

For example

More to the point

To illustrate

For instance

Such as

In such cases

In other words

In should be noted






Summarising or concluding.

In conclusion

In summary

In brief

In short


Evaluating or reflecting.

On balance


On reflection

Taking into account

You may also wish to use some broader statements as signposts to individual sections in your written work. For example you may lead the introduction of the aim of your project with: “The aim of this study was to…”. Just as you may begin your conclusion with “In conclusion…”.

Topic sentences:

Topic sentences maintain flow in your writing by improving the clarity of your individual paragraphs by identifying (and thereby limiting) the information that will be contained in each paragraph. The provision of this information allows the reader to quickly recognise the content of each segment of your writing and thus guides their progression through your assignment’s narrative.

Pronoun referencing:

When discussing an individual topic in a paragraph it can be very tempting to repeatedly name the topic being discussed. The issue with this is that it breaks down the cohesion of your work by making your written work sound awkward. Pronoun referencing uses pronouns (e.g. he, she, it, they, those, these, which) in order to replace the noun that you are discussing. By reducing the continuous repetition of this well-established topic you will improve the flow of information and the cohesion of your written work.

Reporting verbs:

Reporting verbs are often used in academic writing in order to identify how specific thoughts have been expressed by the writer. Usually these are used as a tool to demonstrate how ideas have been expressed in work that you are drawing information from and how this aligns (or in some cases opposes!) your own perspectives. For example, you may write:

“Smith et al. (1998) demonstrated that the migration pattern of red finches was directly influenced by the arrival of spring.”

Using sources:

Regardless of the discipline area you are writing for it is generally expected that you support your work with information gathered from external sources. This may be done via paraphrasing or quotation depending on the context. In order to avoid breaking the cohesiveness of your work it is critical that such sources serve a specific purpose in you work. They should either contribute to your argument by supporting your claims or may refute your findings and be offered to the reader as a basis for comparison. Remember, it is usually your job to be impartial in your statement and analysis of factual information. Naturally, this incorporation of external information into your work demands that you also reference it correctly.

Important Pro Tip: Many of the problems associated with developing cohesion in academic writing can be avoided by adequate planning during the early stages of your work and adherence to conventions in the construction of paragraphs.

Writing academically is a skill that requires practice in order to master. Contrary to common belief, this is not something that is necessarily easier for native speakers of English. While aspects of the language, such as grammar, are important – academic writing is a separate skill set that even native speakers need to practice extensively in order to be successful at. A big part of the problem is that many of us are instructed to be “creative” and “elaborate” in our use of language during school when academic writing typically employs very different conventions.

Some aspects of academic writing that are important to keep practicing include:


Always make sure that you are using the appropriate terminology. Part of demonstrating academic capability is acquiring the necessary professional vocabulary. This simple use of technical/professional terminology is part of demonstrating to your lecturer (and your future employers!) your expertise in your area of study.


Always try to communicate the maximum amount of information with the minimum number of words. While eloquent writing has its place, it is all too often confused with writing long, convoluted sentences. Here, again, using the correct terminology will help you reduce the number of words needed to describe complex themes.


Academic writing, by its very nature, requires you to be impersonal in you writing style. This means that you must, almost exclusively, avoid personal or overly opinionated language. This particularly applies to the use of personal pronouns which refer to either the writer (“I’, “my”, “me” or “us”) or the reader (“you” or “your”). While it may sometimes seem to be necessary to use such pronouns, there is almost always a way to avoid them. For example, take the sentence:

“After 5 minutes we observed a colour change in the sample from yellow to blue.”

This sentence can easily be rephrased to avoid the use of the pronoun “we”.

“It was observed that the sample changed colour from yellow to blue after 5 minutes.”

The use of pronouns varies from somewhat between writing styles and it is important that you understand which are appropriate in your particular assessment. If you are unsure always make sure to ask your instructor!

Important Pro Tip: In instances where it is unavoidable it is always preferable to use the plural pronoun “we” rather than the singular “I”. This prevents you from focusing on yourself and your own opinions which may inappropriately guide the reader to reaching the same conclusion as yourself.

Additionally, avoid the use of colloquial language. The use of this kind of “spoken” language is not appropriate when communicating academically. Avoid the use of non-specific words. For example take the sentence:

“The build up of junk and other stuff has made the harbour pretty much useless.”

While this is the way that you may speak in every-day conversation, it is far to informal for academic writing. Consider rephrasing the sentence as:

“The accumulation of refuse and other detritus has resulted in limited access to the harbour.”


While it is important that you are able to make an argument and present data and references to support your findings, it is equally important that you do not impose your views on the reader. In most cases it is expected that your written work presents your findings to the reader in a manner which allows them to make up their own mind about your research. The hope being that you have illustrated your point of view sufficient objectivity that the reader also finds themselves arriving at the same conclusion. To this end it is critical that you avoid overly subjective or bombastic language. Words such as “amazingly” or “incredibly” have no place in academic writing and only serve to negatively colour your written work with your own personal opinions of the significance of your findings.


Avoid being overly convinced of findings for which you have insufficient evidence. Avoid the use of the word “significant” unless you have actually done the analysis that demonstrates statistical significance in your data. Avoid language that signifies over-confidence in your findings, such as the word “certain”. Additionally, avoid using the word “exact” unless you are dealing with finite countable objects. For example: the amount of money in your bank account is an exactly quantifiable amount. The measurement of a distance with a ruler is not – it is an approximation whose accuracy is dependent upon the accuracy of your measuring equipment.


Academic writing is generally conducted using the past tense. That is to say, it is inappropriate to phrase your statements in the present or future. The primary reason for this is that it is expected that you have conducted your research and come to your conclusions before putting together your academic article. Hence, all writing will need to be in the past tense. For example, it would generally be inappropriate to say:

“This study will show that global temperatures have increased by an average of 1.5 degrees Celsius over the past 100 years.”

Instead it would be more proper to say:

“It has been observed that global temperatures have increased by an average of 1.5 degrees Celsius over the past 100 years.”

There may be some exceptions to this stylistic rule, for example when writing an academic study proposal (such as for a PhD or Masters project) in which you may at times expect to write in future tense as the study has yet to be conducted.

Word Count:

Most academic writing comes with associated word counts that must be adhered to, either in individual sections or in the paper overall. While some instructors may be a little more lenient, be sure to stick closely to the word limits that have been set. You may have written the greatest conclusion of all time and it would be a shame if nobody were to read it because it falls outside the available word count of the paper!