Writing an academic assignment

"How do I know what I think until I see what I say?"

E.M. Forster

University writing is quite different from writing at school or work.  There is a range of different types of writing you are expected to do at university. Each type requires different structures and features according to the assessment task. You are expected to use formal language and write an argument with evidence. This may mean changing habits you have developed and allowing plenty of time to edit and revise your writing style after you have finished writing the content.

It's important to learn the basics of writing an academic assignment. This includes:

  • how to approach the writing assignment
  • the writing process
  • editing and proofreading.

This resource will provide a general overview of writing an academic assignment.  You can also work through the resource before you attend the writing an academic assignment workshop. For more information on referencing please see our referencing guide.

Assignment types

Writing an academic assignment at university can be quite a daunting task if you've never written one before – and even if you have! At university you will encounter a number of different types of assignments.

Essay, report, case study, literature review, annotated bibliography, short answer, reflective

Factors to consider

Consider the following when approaching different types of writing:

  • Purpose – To demonstrate understanding of the topic and related positions outlined in the recommended readings.
  • Audience – Your marker, who needs to be convinced you understand what you have read and that you have evaluated the argument.
  • Language features – Discipline-specific vocabulary; formal academic style.
  • Structure – This will depend on the discipline and task. Check the unit guide and marking criteria.


  • Carefully read the assessment task and any explanatory notes.
  • Try to work out why this particular assessment task has been set – look at the learning objectives for the unit in your unit guide.
  • Look at the marking criteria.
  • Ask for clarification if necessary.
  • Read critically.
  • Plan before you begin writing.

The writing process

Academic writing is a process, it is a good idea to revisit and revise your writing numerous times. Keep in mind that analysing the question and planning how you will respond is important. So make sure  you dedicate a significant amount of time to this.

The writing process, analyse the question, research and reading, develop an argument, plan and draft, write, edit and proof read.

Analyse the question

Identify content words, limit words and action or direction words in your assignment task.

  • Content words – usually nouns – tell you what to consider.
  • Action or direction words – verbs – tell you what to do.
  • Limit words – tell when/during what period, or how much/how many, or which ones to include, which to exclude.
Research and reading 

It is not sufficient just to give an opinion based on past experience, general knowledge or a summary of lectures. Writing at university must be based on reading and investigation.

  • Read recommended texts from your study guide or unit guide related to your topic.
  • Read actively: seek the answers to questions related to your assignment task.
  • Read for main points, not all the details.
  • Summarise the main arguments and evidence for this in each text.
  • Compare the arguments and evidence.
  • Paraphrase relevant information.
  • Note reference details.
Develop an argument

Form a tentative position; this is your thesis or answer to the question. Before you can develop your own stand or argument you need to understand and evaluate the arguments of experts in the field. Often they will disagree. Reflect on the issue and evaluate what you have read.  Try to connect ideas, group evidence that is similar and evidence that contradicts. Substantiate your claims. You are expected to support and strengthen and add validity to your arguments with reference to your research on the assignment topic.

  • Don't just report what you have read; interpret it and evaluate it.
  • Consider the variety of positions you encounter in your readings.
  • Develop and then express your point of view, based on evidence from your research.
  • Make sure each point you make is relevant and leads logically to the next one.
Plan and draft

A plan helps you to develop your critical thinking and come to a position on a topic.

This is what academic writing is in a nutshell, whether it is an essay or a report, and whether it is 1000 or 100,000 words long!

If you need assistance with understanding your assignment question you should speak to a Writing Mentor or a Language and Learning Advisor. You could also ask your tutor, lecturer or Unit Chair.

Writing an essay


Define the topic, state your purpose clearly and present your line of argument.


Develop your argument; Use headings/subheadings and paragraphs in logical order.


  • Sum up your argument in answer to the question. 

Now you can write a draft of your essay.

  • Write the main points/topic sentences and list them in a logical order.
  • Add the detail and evidence for each point.
  • You may find gaps that require you to return to the research stage.
  • You don't have to start with the introduction.
  • The introduction and conclusion can be written together at the end.

Write clear paragraphs

To write a clear paragraph give the main idea - (lead or topic sentence) and then develop the main idea by:

  • citing a reference
  • giving examples
  • explaining terms
  • adding more detail
  • sum up the main idea / link to the next paragraph.

A sample of a clear paragraph

Editing and proofreading

Reading aloud is an effective way to edit and proofread. Check your work to see that:

  • ideas are coherent and flow logically
  • there are no typing errors and spelling mistakes
  • your sentences are carefully constructed and grammatically correct
  • you have presented your work in the format (i.e. font size, line spacing etc) as indicated in your unit guide.
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