Academic writing

Student working on her assignment in Library

If you are new to university, you will soon realise that academic writing is very different to school composition and other forms of everyday writing.

Some of your first assignments will comprise one or more tasks in connection with your prescribed readings and discussions at lectures and tutorials.

These may vary according to your course, but typically may require you to read and search for relevant literature, assess, compare and discuss claims and counter-claims (weigh up evidence), all while ensuring that your referencing is honest (avoiding plagiarism) and follows the recommended writing style.

On this page

Before you write

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

Plan your writing

Before you begin writing you should have a clear idea of how you will structure your assignment.

Underline key words, such as 'analyse', 'critique', 'compare' and 'discuss'. Sketch an outline or conceptual map in response to those questions. Sign-post your transitions between paragraphs. Draft and re-draft until the text 'flows', 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 be asked to produce assignments using a variety of writing types. These include:

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

Find out how to approach each writing type, in particular what questions to ask before you start writing, and how to structure your assignment.

Assessment requirements

The key to working out what a teacher wants is to look at the assessment from the teacher's point of view, because after all, it's the teacher who sets the question and it's the teacher who is going to mark it.

Assessments & class work

Your teacher will want you to have learnt things from what they have taught you in class, so try to work out how the question fits in with what you have been doing in class. Think back. If that doesn't work you might have to read your notes and connect the words in your notes with the words in the question.

Many teachers drop hints in class about what they want in their assessments, so be alert to this and note down these hints – they really pay off.

Understanding the question

Read the question from start to finish to get a general idea of what the assessment item is about. You learn far more if you work out the meaning of a question yourself.

Read 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

Looking up every unfamiliar word in a dictionary is not always helpful as you may lose the context of the whole sentence.

In English there isn't a separate word for each separate meaning. One word can have many meanings; and one thing can have several words to identify it! Words only have distinct meanings within a context (of both the other words around it and the situation in which it is used).

If you come across words you have not seen before or are not sure what they mean, carefully read the words around it and try to figure out what it means in this context. If this still doesn't clear up the meaning, look up the word 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 words have special meanings if they are used in a particular context. If you look them up in an ordinary dictionary you may get the wrong idea.

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 hasn't got a glossary, look up the index and find the first page, which uses the word. This page will usually explain what the word means.

Editing & proofreading your work

To edit your work you need to 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. Alternatively, have someone else read your work.


Make sure that you check your essays for spelling errors and make sure you correct them. Remember not to rely 100% on your computer's spell checker. Words can be spelt correctly but not be the right word. Your computer will not know this!

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.

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 your readers to recognise the thread of your argument more easily, and even to check back your sources for breadth of knowledge or possible inaccuracies. By allowing others to see through your arguments and weigh up the strength of your evidence, your work becomes transparent and its propositions more easily testable or contested.

In the course of your writing you will entertain doubts as to how much content from other authors you can bring to your own writing, when basic pieces of information can be taken for granted (without referencing them) and how your own voice can be weaved into others' without losing its own hold. The answer to these questions usually comes with time and practice. Moreover, disciplines tend to behave differently with regards to such matters, sometimes in very subtle ways. Following a referencing style (APA, Harvard) and a writing guide is only part of the overall answer.

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 and, depending on its extent and seriousness, 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.

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 are located on Level 3, Building M, Footscray Park campus.