Academic Writing

This was produced by Liz Thackray

Writing is a skill and like any other skill it can be learned and improved with practice.  For many Open University students presenting written work is a substantial challenge.  They may have little experience of writing since leaving school, and may be very anxious about having to write essays and reports to be marked by a tutor.  There is no doubt that having ones work assessed by another is a daunting experience, but there are techniques which can be adopted that may make this easier.

In addition to formally assessed work it may be necessary/desirable to make notes for oneself including summaries of articles and books.  This can provide an opportunity to begin to practice writing skills.

These notes are an adaptation of advice given in various Open University course books combined with personal experience of writing and marking assessed work.


A      Preparation

A1     Identify your audience

Before embarking on any written exercise, have it clear in your own mind who you are writing for.  This may not be as obvious as it sounds.  You may know that you are writing a piece of work that your tutor is going to mark and return to you.  But this may not be the most helpful of starting points.  The rule of thumb I adopt is to write for somebody like myself, another student who has an interest in but who has not studied the material that I am writing about.

Being clear about your audience assists in deciding what information to include and what to omit, what type of language to use, and what pre-knowledge of the subject area can be assumed.  Sometimes you will be asked to address yourself to a particular audience, and if this is the case, before even looking at the question you are answering, be clear in your own mind about the level of understanding that audience will have of your subject.


A2     Lay any ghosts

As an undergraduate, I was required to study a history module.  I had done very badly with history at school, despite the efforts of an excellent teacher.  The undergraduate syllabus covered the same time period from a broadly similar perspective to my ‘O’ level experience.  I retreated to my school notes to prepare my essays.  After one disastrous submission, my history tutor told me the only solution for me was to throw out my school notes and to begin to learn the subject again.  It was the best advice I could have been given, but it was years later before I realised how much my previous negative experiences were affecting my current performance.

Likewise, for Open University students it is important to let go of any memories of past academic failure or difficulty.  This is a new opportunity in a new setting.  The past may inform but should not be allowed to control the present.  There may be real problems to overcome, such as difficulties with spelling and grammar, and these need to be faced up to and tackled, perhaps with assistance from a tutor.  It is a very different thing learning as an adult among adults and at a distance to being in a school classroom.


B      Writing an Essay or a Report

Most of the writing you will be required to do will consist of writing essays, reports or summaries.  The following notes give guidance on how this might be achieved.  Though there are differences between essays and reports, most of these notes apply equally to either.  The word essay is used to refer to any formal written work in these notes.  One of the things that many people find surprising when they come to academic writing for the first time is that it is an iterative process.  You will be obtaining, organising and presenting information, but as you work through this process you will find it is necessary to return to earlier stages to fill in gaps or to more thoroughly understand your materials.


B1     Understand the Question

Most writing is done to answer a question set in either a TMA or an examination context.  It might sound obvious, but before doing anything read and re-read the question.  What is it actually asking you to do?  Do you understand the question?  If there is something in it, or in the way it is phrased, and it is a TMA question, look at any guidance notes for answering the question – they may help to clarify what is required.  If you are still unsure what is required seek guidance from your tutor or put a question into a course conference on First Class.  If you are unsure what is required, you can be pretty sure others will be too and will welcome guidance just as you will.

As you become more experienced in answering questions, you will find a number of words and phrases occur regularly, and which, if properly understood, give the clue to what the question is asking.  The following examples are taken from Workbook 1 for the DD100 Open University course: “An Introduction to the Social Sciences; Understanding Social Change”.

Word found in Question


Account for

Explain, clarify, give reasons for


Resolve into its component parts.  Examine critically or minutely.


Determine the value of, weigh up.  Make an appraisal of the worth/validity/effectiveness of something in the light of its truth or usefulness


Look for similarities and differences between, perhaps reach conclusions about which is preferable and justify this clearly.


Set in opposition in order to bring out the differences sharply


Give a detailed account of

Examine the argument that ..

Look in detail at this line of argument


Give details about how and why it is …


Make clear and explicit, using carefully chosen examples


Show adequate grounds for decisions or conclusions, answer the main objections likely to be made about them


Give the main features or general principles of a subject, omitting minor details and emphasising structure and arrangement


Give a concise, clear explanation or account of … presenting the chief factors and omitting minor details and examples

It can be helpful to rewrite a question in your own words and then to read and re-read the question to ensure you really have understood it.


B2     Gather together Information

Once you are clear about what you are being asked to do, you can begin to gather together the information required to answer the question.  You may not be able to do this immediately, but it may be a case of making notes as you work through the course material.  It is a good idea to remind yourself of the question at the start of each study session.

There are many different ways of making notes, some of which are described in the Chapter 2 of The Sciences Good Study Guide, and which I am not going to describe in detail here.  Suffice it to say that most of us when we are new to notetaking tend to make a continuous list.  This is OK until the point is reached where new information is elucidating ideas contained earlier in the notes and it is desirable to link the two in some way.  It is useful to develop a methodology which allows these links to be made within your notes – this might be done diagrammatically or by the use of index cards or hyperlinks in computer documents.  Whatever method you choose, it is important you understand your notes and can use them to gain the information you require about your subject without referring back to the original documents.

When making notes, include full references for any quotations you include.  Section B9 of this document describes how references should be presented in academic writing.


B3     Reflect on the Question and the Information

Once you have gathered your information you can return to the question and remind yourself of what you are being asked to do.  Having done this, you can look at your notes and consider whether or not you have the information you require to answer the question.  Are there any obvious gaps?  Where will you find the necessary information?

If you are keeping your notes on index cards or on separate sheets of paper for each topic area it may be appropriate to clear a space and physically move the cards around and begin to put them in groups that fit together.  This will assist as you move into the next task.


B4     Identify key points

Following your reflection on the question and organising your information, you should be able to begin to identify the key points you are going to include in your essay.  Note these down and check that you have the information you will need to cover each key point.  If information is missing, assess whether the point really is a key point or whether it belongs with another point and is subsidiary to it. If it is a key point, decide when and how you are going to get the necessary information.


B5     Make a plan

Making a plan is a relatively straightforward exercise now.  Virtually all pieces of academic writing need an introduction, even if it is only a sentence, and a conclusion and the substance of your work in the middle – a bit like a sandwich.  In your plan you will identify any sub-headings (usually the main points you have already identified) and any more subsidiary points which may be highlighted in some form in the finished document.  Your plan is in effect a road map of your essay and shows where you are starting and finishing and gives a shape to your journey through the materials.

Once the plan is complete you are ready to begin writing.


B6     Write an Introduction

An introduction is generally a good place to start any piece of written work.  It may need some revision, once the rest of your document is complete but it provides an opportunity to set out your stall.  In your introduction, you set the scene for what you are going to write and place the topic in context.

For instance, if you have been asked to summarise an article, you will need to:

·         Put the article in its context.  Who was it written for and when was it written?  Is it part of a longer document or does it stand on its own?  Was it written for any particular purpose, for example to rebut an alternative viewpoint?

·         Explain who the author is.  What are his/her credentials?  Why should what this person says be taken note of.

The introduction to a short essay may only take one or two sentences.  For a more substantial piece of work, it may be one or more paragraphs of essential background information and describing what you intend to say next.


B7     Write a Conclusion

It may seem strange that I am suggesting writing a conclusion now, rather than at the end, but there is a value in not only setting the scene early in your written work, but also being clear where you are going.  A conclusion provides the opportunity to both summarise the ‘flavour and feel’ of your essay and to offer your own critique.  If you remember that your ‘audience’ is a student who has not studied the material, one of their needs will be to assess the relevance of the material contained in your essay to their own interests.  They will be interested in your views, but remember your views should be come clearly out of your analysis and be supported, not simply IMHO (in my humble opinion).

You will probably need to review your conclusion after writing the body of your essay, but by writing it early you have established your goal.


B8     Write the body of your essay

If you have spent time planning and organising your material, this should be a relatively straightforward process.  Each of your main points is the basis for a paragraph or section and minor points will be included in the appropriate sections.  As you have organised your information, you will have relevant quotations and illustrations readily available.

Do remember to use your own words and not simply to string together a number of quotations.  Good writing is not about regurgitating ideas, but about processing them and expressing them appropriately.  If you are writing a summary, think particularly carefully about how much of the original to paraphrase and quote and when to use your own words, even in expressing the author’s key points.

Opinions vary on the use of ‘I’ in academic writing, and as to whether the active or passive voice should be used.  Traditionally, such writing always used the passive and the use of ‘I’ was rarely acceptable.  However, the climate is changing and in the preparatory advice I was given on writing my MSc dissertation (in November 1998) included a recommendation to use the active voice and not to be afraid of speaking in the first person when stating my conclusions or critique. 


B9     References

Quotations should always be indicated and references given.  There are different schools of thought on how to reference and the guidance given here is based on that given in THD Assignment Book 1 (Open University 2000).  Remember the most important thing about references is to enable your tutor, or any other reader of your essay or other writing, to trace the quotation and its original context, and if they wish to extend their reading to include that original work.

A formal bibliographic reference to a book must include: author, year, book title, edition number (desirable if it is not the first edition), publisher, and page numbers.  For example,

Cringely, Robert X. (1996), Accidental Empires, revised and updated edition, Penguin Books, pp 210-212

The bibliographic reference for a journal article gives: author, year, article title, journal title, volume number (if applicable), and page numbers.  For example,

Hulme, Moira (2000) ‘Intercultural E-mail Exchange – Educational Prospects and Problems’, Computer Education, issue 94, February, pp 14-18

References to chapters in anthologies are normally given as:

Hammond, G. (1994) ‘A year in Oz’ in Platt, E. (ed) (1996) Distance Teaching Around the World, Open University Press, p13.

When the reference is to course materials supplied by the Open University it is not essential to give a full bibliographic reference.  For example:

Blair, G. M., ‘Groups that Work’, T171 Module 1 Website

The important thing is to ensure that the cited work can be located from the information given.

Where reference is made to information obtained on the Internet, this too needs to be referenced.  As web pages are constantly being added to and removed from the Internet, the reference should include the date the information was accessed:

Banbury, P., 1999, Strategies for Success, Peter Banbury speaking in the BCS keynote address at BETT99 (accessed February, 1999)

It is normal to list references at the end of the essay, and in the course of it to refer to (Hammond, 1994) or (Blair).


B10   Read your essay

You have now written your essay.  It is tempting at this point to breathe a sigh of relief, put it into an envelope and send it on its way before you can change your mind.  My advice would be not to send it off yet, but to put it away for 24 to 48 hours.  After this time has elapsed, get it out again and read it.  Then read the question and your summary of the question.

Now ask yourself some questions.  The following are from The Sciences Good Study Guide (Open University, 1997 page 258):



Have I kept to the essay topic?

Cut out irrelevant material

Does the introduction clarify what I am dealing with?

Redraft to make clear what approach to take

Is the purpose of each paragraph in the essay clear?

Use preliminary sentences to cue in the paragraphs

Does my conclusion just repeat the points in the introduction?

Conclude by showing how the arguments have advanced

Is there a logical flow to the essay?

Rearrange paragraphs to ensure topics are set out logically

Have I included link words to make my intentions explicit?

Use link words (including signposting) to improve flow

Do my sentences ramble and repeat information?

Rewrite sentences so they are more concise and precise

Have I written enough/too much in the essay?

Add/delete material to achieve recommended length


C      Presentation

Writing an essay or report or other piece of academic writing is not only about content but about presentation.  You will be using a computer for all your written work assignments, and its facilities can be used to good effect.


C1     Headings, sub-headings, bullet points and formatting

Make use of headings and sub-headings.  Before you begin typing your essay into your word processor, think about what headings and sub-headings you will be using, and how many levels of sub-heading will be required.  If you understand Styles, set up a template for your essay fixing the font and spacing for your headings and for normal text and bullet points.  If you do not know how to use Styles, decide what font you will be using and make a note for yourself of what size font you will be using for different levels of heading.  Consistency is important.

It is completely acceptable to use sub-headings and bullet points in academic writing, even when you are asked to write an essay.  Too often essay is confused with the compositions we were asked to write at school, but they are a very different thing from the structured writing you are now undertaking.  It makes it very much easier for yourself and your reader if it is possible to quickly assimilate the structure of your work by quickly glancing through the sub-headings and bullet-points.  Very often this quick assessment of content will enable the reader to decide whether or not to read the piece, though of course with assessed work it will always be read and commented on.

When you are working with a limited word count, bullet points can be invaluable.  They avoid the need to write fully grammatical sentences, and enable you to make your point succinctly.

It is also worth considering the shape of your essay.  Would some sections benefit from being indented?  Remember, first impressions count.


C2     Spelling and Grammar

Another advantage of using a word processor is that spell checking, and sometimes grammar checking, is available.  Use it.  Even the best of spell checkers will not identify when you have written ‘hole’ instead of ‘whole’, but they will identify many errors. 

Even if you pride yourself on your use of language, and are an excellent speller, consider asking somebody to proof read your work for you.  It is human nature not to see our own errors, and a proof reader who is not familiar with the material can be invaluable.

You may be one of those people who has ‘always been poor at English’.  If you know you have difficulty expressing yourself in writing, do speak to your tutor.  The OU has various publications designed to help students improve their use of English.  If you know you are dyslexic, or suspect you may be, this too should be mentioned to your tutor as it qualifies as a special need and will ensure you have proper provision made for you in examinations.

D      Other forms of written presentation

On T171, much of the assessed work takes the form of web pages.  Specific advice is available separately on this, but the advice given in this document on preparation and planning is as relevant to work presented as web pages as more conventional essays.

Presentation is even more important.  The most important thing here is to ensure your design enhances your work, rather than taking away from it or obscuring it.