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Succeeding in postgraduate study
Succeeding in postgraduate study

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7 Academic writing – general principles

Academic writing is more formal than reflective writing and requires a specific set of skills, as well as proficiency in the use of English. If you have taken a career or study break and have been away from formal education for some time, or if English is not your native language, then you would probably benefit from developing your skills further in this area.

What do we mean by ‘formal writing’ at postgraduate level?

  • Work needs to be grounded and supported by appropriate (informed and credible) sources.
  • The language used is more tentative or cautious (fewer ‘absolute’ statements).
  • Colloquial terms and contractions (don’t, won’t, shouldn’t, etc.) are avoided.
  • Ideas from others need to be attributed accurately (cited and referenced appropriately).
  • Writing needs to be structured logically, with clear expression of thought.
  • It needs to show a deeper, more critical engagement with the subject matter.
  • There should be clear evidence of your extended reading and understanding of the topic.
  • Writing at the very highest level, approaches the style you would read in a scholarly publication, such as an academic journal.

Box 2 Tips on writing assignments

Follow this seven-point procedure for writing assignments (adapted from Cottrell, 2013).

  1. Clarify the task: Examine the assignment brief carefully and determine the exact requirements. Pay particular attention to any guidance notes.
  2. Collect and record information: Be selective and use your judgement when gathering information. Check word limits.
  3. Organise and plan: Careful planning helps prevent repetition, clarifies your thinking, and helps you organise the material.
  4. Engage, reflect, evaluate: Is it clear to you why this task was set? Do you have enough evidence and examples? Has your viewpoint changed? What arguments or evidence oppose your point of view? Are they valid? Have you clarified your argument?
  5. Write an outline plan and first draft: Structure your writing, include section headings. Work out the order to introduce each point.
  6. Work on your initial drafts: Develop and improve your first draft. Make sure your argument is clear to the reader. Check that you have included examples and evidence to support your points. Check that you have cited and referenced every source of information you have used. Check your work against specified learning outcomes and assessment criteria and make sure you have met these. Rewrite your early drafts – leave time between these to allow you to further hone, develop and fine-tune your thoughts.
  7. Prepare your final draft: Edit, check and proofread your final draft. Correct errors and improve the flow of writing. Read it out loud to check that your writing is clear.