Academic writing

Assignments vary from course to course, but typically require you to: read and search for relevant literature; assess, compare and discuss claims and counter-claims (weigh up evidence); and ensure that your referencing is honest (avoiding plagiarism) and follows the recommended writing style.

See the 'Workshops & study groups' page for details on writing groups and workshops.

On this page

Student working on her assignment in Library

Before you write

When writing an assignment, ensure that you understand exactly what is being asked of you.

Plan your writing

Before you start, get a clear idea of how you will structure your assignment.

Underline key words in the task or question/s, such as 'analyse', 'critique', 'compare' and 'discuss'. Sketch an outline or conceptual map in response to those questions. Draft and re-draft until the text 'flows', being particularly mindful of transitions between paragraphs, and keep to the word limit.

If in doubt, ask your fellow students for help, double-check with your tutor or visit the Writing Space and talk through your assignment with our Student Writing Mentors.

Writing types

Throughout your studies you may have to produce assignments in a variety of writing types, including:

  • essays
  • technical reports
  • annotated bibliographies
  • case studies
  • journal writing
  • literature reviews.

Learn how to approach each writing type, including what questions to ask before you start writing and how to structure your assignment.

Assessment requirements

To work out what a teacher wants, look at the assessment from their point of view. After all, it is the teacher who sets the question and is going to mark it.

Assessments & class work

Think about how the question fits in with what you have been doing in class. Perhaps look back at your notes and connect the words in you wrote down with the words in the question.

Many teachers drop hints in class about what they want in their assessments. Be mindful of this and note down any you pick up – they really pay off.

Understanding the question

Read the question from start to finish for detail and underline the key words. Try to identify the following:

  • What are the particular things the teacher wants you to cover (break the question up into its component parts)?
  • How do they want you to write up the answer (format – an essay, checklist, report, etc.)?
  • How much do they want you to write ("detail"/"outline", word length)?
  • Do they want you to reference the work?
  • When is the assignment due?

If you are still unsure, ask your fellow students for help, double-check with your tutor, visit the Writing Spaces and talk through the assignment question with our Student Writing Mentors or book in for an individual consultation with a Language & Learning lecturer.

Unfamiliar words

In English, one word can mean different things; or one thing can have several words to identify it!

The meaning depends on the context (of both the words around it and the situation in which it is used). If still unsure, look the word up in a good dictionary. With your understanding of the context, you will be now be able to select which of the dictionary meanings fits best.

Check the textbook glossary

Some terms have special meanings in a particular context, in textbooks for example, which may not be evident by looking them up in an ordinary dictionary.

The best place to find the meaning of these words is in a glossary, usually found at the front or back of textbooks.

If your textbook doesn't have a glossary, look up the index and find the first page that uses the word. This page will usually explain what the word means.

Editing & proofreading your work

To edit your work read it through a number of times, each time with a different focus. We recommend reading your work at least twice:

  • once to make sure your ideas are clear and written in an ordered, logical manner
  • a second time to review your grammar.

It is usually necessary to do this sort of editing very slowly. One way to slow yourself down is to read aloud, or to at least mouth the words. It can also help to have someone else read your work.

For support on assignments please read our advice on editing and proofreading assignments.


Check your essays for spelling errors and don't rely entirely on your computer's spell checker. Words can be spelt correctly but not be the right word.

Referencing & plagiarism

When writing your assignments, any ideas, theories, graphs, findings or contributions to your work made by others needs to be acknowledged and referenced appropriately. The absence of such acknowledgement and referencing is called plagiarism.

Download the How to Avoid Plagiarism guide for more information.

Acknowledgement refers to such things as the extent of help or commentary received from fellow colleagues, co-authors, reviewers and editors.

Referencing involves identifying the sources from which you have taken your data, ideas, findings, and more. Whether you quote directly (with exact words) or indirectly (by paraphrasing), all such references to other peoples works needs to be referenced.

The most commonly used referencing styles at VU are

  • APA
  • Harvard
  • Oxford.

Appropriate referencing allows readers to recognise the thread of your argument more easily, examine it and evaluate the strength of your evidence. This makes your work transparent and allows its propositions to be more easily tested or contested.

Failing to comply with basic standards of academic integrity (of which avoidance of plagiarism is an important component) is taken as a serious breach of discipline. Depending on its extent and seriousness, failure to comply may lead to a number of consequences, including:

  • repeat of assessment task
  • loss of marks for assessment task
  • loss of marks for unit of study
  • suspension or exclusion.

Some units or courses may actually prescribe that all or part of your written assignments be submitted through Turnitin or other plagiarism detecting software systems.

Writing resources

Purdue Online Writing Lab: resources on the writing process, academic writing guides, the mechanics of writing, grammar and much more.

LearnHigher - resources for students: resources on academic writing, critical thinking, group work, note making, referencing and much more.

Monash writing lab: online tutorials for improving skills in different writing genres such as essays and literature reviews, as well as in specific discipline areas.

University of Sydney WRISE: writing reports in Science and Engineering.

RMIT Learning Lab: resources for general academic study, writing and maths skills through interactive tutorials and printable handouts.

BBC Skillswise: English language skills for adults.

University of Adelaide English for Uni: grammar help from intermediate levels upwards.

Nursing Writing Online: online learning environment to help nursing students enhance their language and learning skills in writing academic discourse. 

Contact us

If you would like more help with your academic writing, visit the Writing Space and chat to our Student Writing Mentors or book in for an individual consultation with a Language & Learning lecturer.

If you have any other questions, email or phone +61 3 9919 4744.

The Department of Academic Support & Development is located on Level 3, Building M, Footscray Park campus.