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)
  • 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.

In 'Academic writing':

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Student working on her assignment in Library

Typical types of academic writing

There are a number of different types of written assignments that you may need to do during your course. Most require you to: address a question or problem or outline what is known about a particular topic and possibly critique the ideas.

We discuss some of the most common writing types at university including:

  • essays
  • reports
  • literature reviews
  • annotated bibliographies
  • case studies
  • reflective writing
  • portfolio

Understanding the task

When writing an assignment, make sure you:

  • understand what is being asked of you
  • check your Unit Guide and VU Collaborate for task requirements and assessment criteria
  • underline key words in the task instructions that tell you what the assignment is about and what you need to do. Words that indicate what is required include: describe, analyse, critique, reflect on, compare, discuss, report on, etc.

Your lecturer or tutor will probably spend some time in class explaining the assignment.

  • Make sure you attend all classes!
  • Ask questions to clarify what is required.
  • Listen to the questions that other students ask, as well as the response.
  • Think about why your lecturer has set the task - what do they want you to demonstrate through your writing?

If in doubt about what you need to do:

Planning your writing

Not many people do their best writing in one go. It takes time and there are several steps you need to follow. You can start by thinking about what you already know about the topic and what you need to know. Then organise your thoughts and plan what you'll write.


Note down all that you know about the topic. Include questions about things you need to find out more about.


Organise your ideas into groups or around themes or key ideas or concepts. You might like to do this:

  • on a large piece of paper
  • using sticky labels that you can move around
  • online using a mindmapping tool.


Think about how you'll structure your assignment.

  • What order will the information come in?
  • How many words will you write for each section?
  • Are you addressing all the requirements?

If writing a report, think about what headings you will use. Try to write the first sentence of each section so you can see how your ideas or arguments fit together.

If you need help from your lecturer, a Student Writing Mentor or an Academic Support lecturer, it helps to take along a draft plan.

Researching your topic

You will probably need to find more information about your task.

You may need to:

  • re-read the set readings for your unit
  • read the additional readings recommended in your Unit Guide or in VU Collaborate.
  • find your own materials using the VU Library resources: the catalogue and databases.

Read and take notes from the materials you find. Remember to gather the details for each source of material you think you might use (this includes author(s), year of publication, title(s), pages numbers of quotes, etc). It’s better to gather this information as you go rather than plan to come back to it at the last minute.


Start to write by expanding on your plan. Organise your writing into paragraphs. Draft and re-draft your writing. It should be clear and address the task.

Check that each section deals with a different aspect of the task and that you do not repeat ideas unnecessarily. Paragraphs should have a clear topic sentence that summarises the main point.

Be careful not to overuse lists or information in dot points (unless that is what the task requires – e.g. in a PowerPoint presentation or in parts of a report). If you include any diagrams or figures, make sure to label them clearly and acknowledge where they come from if they are not your own.

Any ideas from other authors or sources need to be acknowledged by referencing. Take note of the reference details as your write rather than wait till the end to do this. Referencing can take a long time.

There are different ways we can use ideas from other sources. These include:

  • summarising
  • paraphrasing
  • synthesising.

To do this, you need to understand:

You also need to understand more about academic integrity.

Keep to the set word limit. Check when the assignment is due. Plan to have a draft completed before the due date so that you have an opportunity to edit, proofread and make changes before submission.

Editing & proofreading your work

To edit your work, read it through a number of times, each time with a different focus. Check that:

  • your ideas are clear and written in an ordered, logical manner
  • your use of headings and section and paragraphs breaks reflect the logical organisation of your ideas
  • your grammar, spelling and punctuation are accurate. (Learn how to use your computer's spell checker and grammar checks effectively. Words can be spelt correctly but not be the right word.)
  • you have adequately and consistently acknowledged your sources of information using the referencing style required by your College or unit. You do this using in-text references or footnotes and a reference list. Take a look at the VU Library referencing guides.
  • you have formatted your writing according to the task requirements. (This includes things like use of headings, fonts, and font size, etc.)
  • if doing a group assignment, check that your writing fits together as one piece. If different members write different sections there’s a risk that your combined writing may be disjointed and not flow well. Allow enough time to edit the final version to avoid this.

You need to allow yourself plenty of time to edit and proof read. If you finish your assignment at the last minute, you won’t have time to do this effectively.

Many lecturers require you to submit your work online (via VU Collaborate) and use a tool called Turnitin to check for plagiarism. This also checks your work against other students' work. Turnitin may be set up in a way that allows you to submit drafts of your assignments and receive a feedback report before the final due date - this means you can check that your referencing and quotes are correctly acknowledged before submitting your final work. However, you will need to check in advance that your lecturer or tutor has enabled this function. Again, you need to have your draft done in enough time to be able to get back the report and make changes if necessary.

If possible you should also have someone else read your work and give feedback. However, the assignment must be your own work.

Some writing resources

Writing in particular disciplines

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

Contact us

For more help with your academic writing:

Contact Academic Support & Development:

Footscray Park campus, Building M, Level 3
Phone: +61 3 9919 4744