Writing at university

Learn about what characterises good academic writing and what is expected in your assignments.

What is different about university writing?

You may be used to following a specific framework and set of rules to guide your writing. However, at university there is no single way of writing academically. Each academic discipline has its own philosophy and as a result, you will encounter different writing styles and conventions.

While the requirements for your written assignments will likely vary across subjects, there are common features that characterise all good academic writing. Becoming familiar with these features and applying them to your assignments will give you a confident and successful start to university.

Qualities of academic writing

The purpose of academic writing is to convey complex knowledge as simply and as effectively as possible. Academic writers need to strike a balance between the complexity of ideas and the effective communication of knowledge.

To achieve your communicative purpose, your academic writing must have these specific qualities:

Precision
Your meaning should be exact. Your use of language should be precise.

Accuracy
What you are saying should be correct to the best of your knowledge.

Logical reasoning
Your writing should follow a clear line of reasoning. One idea should logically follow another.

Analysis
Your ideas should be supported through evidence and sound argumentation. Broad, unsupported claims must be avoided.

Objectivity
You should build your opinion through reasoning, rather than through your personal attitude towards the topic. Most academic writing requires you to avoid any personal bias.

Tentativeness
Most academic writing requires you to present your ideas tentatively and show the complexities, rather than presenting your ideas as unalterable facts.

Conciseness
Your writing should convey your understanding of the issue(s) under discussion in as few words as possible.

Academic writing is often objective, formal and impersonal in style. See the following example:

Original text
If you want to stop people getting too heavy, it works best when they’re young and still at primary or high school, including the kids that miss a lot of school. When they’re older they could get something that’s hard to cure once they’ve got it.

Revised text
Obesity prevention appears to be most successful when implemented prior to or during adolescence as childhood obesity may lead to secondary, possibly irreversible illnesses in later life.

  • The personal reference ‘you’ has been removed to help create distance.
  • The vocabulary has become more discipline-specific: ‘Obesity’ as opposed to ‘getting too heavy’. The language is more formal and tentative as well.
  • Ideas are not stated as facts and reasons for claims are provided. Colloquial and informal words such as ‘get’ and ‘kids’, vague references (people, they), and contractions (they’ve) are not used in the revised version.

The overall changes made have helped achieve detachment, formality and conciseness.

Remember that the writing style you will use in your courses will vary according to your discipline and the type of the assignment. In some courses, you may be required to write in an objective, formal academic tone, while in others you may be encouraged to write in a more personal style.

Lecturers’ expectations

In general, in your assignments, your lecturers will be looking to see if you:

  • Answer the assignment question appropriately.
  • Have read widely, understood the course content and evaluated the evidence.
  • Use language effectively to present a logical, well-supported and well-structured argument.
  • Appropriately use descriptive, personal, analytical and argumentative writing.
  • Demonstrate creativity, curiosity and honesty.
  • Step back, put ideas into perspective and identify how they fit into the bigger picture of your field.
  • Write in a clear, concise, coherent, cohesive and convincing way.
  • Read your own writing critically.
Listen to Dr Molly Mullen, from the Faculty of Education, talk about academic writing styles.
View transcript for the academic style expectations video (PDF).

To ensure you are ready to meet the academic demands of your courses, learn how to read effectively, plan your assignments, integrate sources into your writing, revise your assignments and reference.

Additional resources

  • The write@uni online resource provides further information about what writing at university level involves.
  • The Learning Hub section on developing arguments provides a guide on how to analyse your assignment questions and articulate your answer with supported evidence.
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