Jen’s student guide to academic writing

Disclaimer: I am in no way an expert in academic writing! However, below is a document that I’ve put together for my own students, which may be of use to others…

Here I’ve put together some tips that I recurrently make in student feedback around academic writing and study skills. If you use this before handing in an assignment it allows us to give you feedback which is much more content based (i.e. about the topics that you are discussing).

You’ll see that the recurring points in here are that the library is your friend! Get to know it by dropping in and speaking to a library and/or using the online ‘getting to know your library’ page here:

You’ll also see that there are many more steps to writing an academic essay than just sitting down and writing it. It takes thought and preparation – a lot of which is about reading!

I’d highly recommend that EVERY student attends all of the study skills sessions available at the library (through The Bridge). Learning these academic skills allows you to communicate your content – without them you may have brilliant ideas, but not the suitable ways of expressing them. You can see all the study skills sessions available at SHU here:

Finding literature

  • Use the reading that you do in preparation for seminars and lectures in your essays! Also remember, just because you’ve read something in relation to a particular topic, it doesn’t mean that literature won’t be useful in relation to another topic (whether that is within the same module, or in another module).

  • Look at the Resource Lists Online ( – you can search by module) and/or the reading list in the module handbook for more references that are relevant to the module that you’re studying. If you’re not sure if a piece of reading is applicable to you from the title, then the next place to look is the abstract.

  • If a particular source has been useful to you then follow up the reading that they have referred to in their reference list.

  • The above allows you to move backwards in time (seeing what has become before that particular article/chapter/book). You can use the ‘cited in’ tab on Google Scholar to move forwards in time. This allows you to see newer papers that have cited the original paper that you looked at (more on this and other tips on using Google Scholar here).

  • You can also have a look at the other writing by an author that you find particularly useful.

  • Search for your own literature using the Library Gateway, Google Scholar and other databases. The library has information on doing a library search, using Google Scholar, and other databases that are available to you here:

  • If you’re searches aren’t bringing up any relevant literature, think about your search terms. Are there synonyms (other words with the same of similar meanings) that you could use? For example, if you’re looking for literature on SEN, you could also search for ‘disability’, ‘learning disability’, ‘learning difficulty’, ‘intellectual impairment’, ‘developmental delay’ and so on. Bear in mind that often the terms that are used can tell you something about the position that the author is writing from (e.g. ‘developmental delay’ is a much more medical term than ‘learning disability’). You’ll need to think about this when evaluating your sources.

  • If you’re still struggling to find literature, drop into the library and ask a librarian to help you with your search. You can also attend study skills sessions on ‘finding information’ which will help you with both searching and evaluating literature (I would recommend that EVERY student does this!)

Evaluating Literature

You might find that you have feedback saying ‘not a suitable academic source’, by this we mean that the source you have used isn’t produced by an academic in a university. To be on the safe side, (most) journal articles and academic books are written by academics. However, this isn’t to say that you can never use a source that isn’t ‘academic’. Evaluating sources is all about appropriateness and context.

  • Sometimes sources that aren’t ‘academic’ are suitable to use. For example, you may use a newspaper article because you’re looking at media reactions to a particular event, or because the thing that you’re discussing is so recent that there is no academic writing on that particular event.


NB: this doesn’t mean that there won’t have been academic discussions that aren’t relatable to that event. E.g. If you’re looking at the Charlie Hebdo attacks straight after that event, there may not be academic writing about the Charlie Hebdo attack, but you could look for academic literature around terrorism, Islamophobia, and Charlie Hebdo more broadly.

  • Similarly, although in most circumstances I would advise you to avoid using Dictionary definitions, you may occasionally want to use a Dictionary definition to make the point that although a word is understood commonly to mean one thing, the term is in fact much more complex and the way that we define that word changes the way we understand a particular situation (see also the note on defining terminology in the introduction) . Finally, you may use a blog because it is giving a perspective that isn’t available in academic writing (e.g. that of a young person writing about their experiences of sex education), or because you are looking at public reaction to a particular event. Whatever the reason for using the ‘less conventional’ source – explain clearly in your writing why this source was relevant.

  • Look at the date of the publication – is it suitable for what you are trying to say? Not all older texts are unsuitable – if you are making a point about the 1960s then a reference from 1970 is probably fine. However, if you’re making a point about something current, then the year of the reference needs to reflect this.

  • Consider the geographical location that the author is writing from and how this effects the relevance of that source to your work.

  • Think about the disciplinary perspective that the author is coming from, as this will change their perspective on the issue. You can get a clue about this from the name of the journal. For example, if somebody is writing about disability in The British Journal of Psychology, they are likely to be coming from a different perspective than somebody writing in the journal, Sociology or Disability and Society.

  • Have a think about other issues that may inform the authors position and the wider context of their work (it goes back to looking what else they have written).

  • When you have decided that the particular source is relevant to include, tell us in your writing how you have evaluated it (especially important if it isn’t a traditionally ‘academic’ text or there is something noticeably different about it. By this I don’t necessarily mean write “I evaluated this source and it was…”, but include sentences like, “Erevelles (2012) is writing from a US perspective, but the literature is still relevant to my argument as we can draw parallels in her argument to the situation surrounding race and disability in the UK”.

  • Think about the politics of the citations you are using. I.e. are the authors that you have cited all white men? You could read more about this in work around critical information literacy or looking at campaigns like ‘Why is my curriculum white?

Using Literature

To write a good essay, you will be creating an argument through your writing. This means that generally it is better to have a clear idea of what you want to say, then to say it, with supporting references in brackets at the end of the sentence. This is a much better approach than stringing together a range of other people’s words, but also requires an in-depth exploration of the literature before you begin to write.

  • You will hopefully have read enough to realise that several authors are coming from a particular perspective. If so, say that, and separate the citations in the bracket with a semi colon. E.g. Despite tensions between psychology and Disability Studies, some authors within Disability Studies have started to see the potential in bringing together these two disciplines (Goodley and Lawthom, 2005; Reeve, 2002; Thomas, 2012).

  • Avoid using too many direct quotes. Direct quotes should only be used: a) for emphasis; and b) if you can think of no better way of making that particular point. Instead, paraphrase and put writing into your own words, including the reference (author, year) at the end of the sentence.

  • Don’t be over reliant on secondary references (those where you use ‘cited in’). Instead, follow up the reference by going back to the original source. This a) shows us that you have spent time exploring the literature yourself (not just relying on other people to do it for you); and b) you have the opportunity to make your own interpretation of the original source – you may not agree with the interpretation that the other person has made. Secondary references should only really be used when you cannot get hold of the original (e.g. because it is no longer in print) – and even then use it with caution!


Referencing isn’t just about finding somebody that agrees with the point that you’re trying to make. Rather, it is a way to show us that you have explored the topic, both in depth and breadth, in relation to the academic literature (see all sections above!) Nevertheless, here are some tips for the nitty-gritty of referencing:

  • When you read something, record the reference (in the correct SHU referencing format – which may be different to the way that it is referenced in another source). Keep one document called ‘references’ which you can cut and paste the references across from as and when you use them. This way you will only ever have to write each reference down once!

  • Alternatively, you could also consider using referencing software. The library has advice about this here:

  • Whichever method you choose, do your referencing (in text citations and the final reference list) as your write your essay. It will save last minute panics at the end!

  • The library has lots more resources on referencing here:

  • If you are struggling with referencing, attend a study support session at the library, or drop in for a chat with a librarian (they are the experts here!)

Planning and Editing

A good academic essay will have an argument running through that the reader can grasp onto. This means time is needed for planning at the beginning (what do I want to say?) and editing at the end and perhaps also as you write (have I said/am I saying what I want to say?) It also means signposting as you go along using phrases such as (I have so far discussed X and so will turn to explore Z) and subheadings which clearly represent the writing underneath them (also see Structuring an Essay). Different people will approach planning differently their essays/arguments differently, and again I can’t stress enough the benefits of using the library’s study skills workshops and guides. You could also buy yourself/borrow from the library a study support book which will help you in different types of academic writing (e.g. reports, essays, dissertations).

  • Making a plan can include writing down what you think you might say in what order, or spending some time thinking about it. I don’t tend to plan what I am going to write before I start, but I do have a vague idea of what I’m going to say next. Not planning also means that I spend A LOT of time editing which of course means finishing a long time before the deadline. Laurel Richardson (1998) has a chapter called, Writing: A Method of Inquiry which I can really relate to in my own writing (PDF available here).

  • Another way that I have planned in the past is to break the overarching question down into a series of smaller questions, then play around with the order of those questions. I’ll often amalgamate some, and then reword into subheadings at the end.

  • When planning, make sure that you are answering the question/meeting the assignment criteria. This isn’t to say don’t make the question/title your own, but ensure you are doing what you have been asked to do. If you have a general topic but not an essay question as such, discuss with your tutor writing yourself a question that will fit into framework of the assignment.

  • When you think you are almost done, go back again and double check that you have met all of the assignment criteria.

  • Editing is different to proof reading! Whereas editing is about moving sections around and thinking again about your writing, proof reading is checking for those final little spelling errors and typos. Both need time spending on them!

Structuring an Essay: Introductions, Middle Bits and Conclusions

Most academic writing follows a pattern of introduction, main text and conclusion. In the introduction you tell your reader what you’re going to say, your main text says the thing, and the conclusion summarise what you’ve said. This means that often you end up writing the introduction and conclusion last, or at least returning to the introduction at the end to check that you’ve done what you said you were going to do!

The Introduction

  • This is the first thing that the reader (often also the marker!) will read of your work, so think about how you can draw them in with a snappy first sentence.

  • It is useful if they begin with a brief conceptual or historical context to the question you are seeking to answer. This should serve the purpose of being interesting enough to make the reader read more, as well as giving them enough information to understand why addressing the question is important.

  • Define you understanding of the key concepts, explain and justify your use of terminology early on. Recognising there are multiple understandings of a word but picking a side and then justifying why demonstrates that you are taking a critical stance. Remember that once you have justified your use of terminology stick to throughout your essay.

  • Give some sort of statement of what the essay is actually about. This is often a rework of the essay title.

  • Signpost what is to come by talking a little bit about how you are going to address the topics/make your argument. There needs to be considerable detail in this. It could include key phrases from the assignment criteria, but shouldn’t just be a repetition of the assignment criteria. Often you will write, or at least come back to this, at the end.

The Middle Bit

  • There are some disciplinary differences here so double check with your tutor, but unless otherwise stated then use subheadings to guide the reader through your work.

  • Think about how you can structure this section – you could use themes/concepts from the literature or chronology, depending which seems more appropriate for the essay.

  • Back everything you are saying up with suitable literature (see Evaluating Literature).


  • This should be a concise summary

  • No new information/argument should be introduced at this stage

  • Don’t make your conclusions too strong. Academic writing is tentative – if you haven’t fully justified a conclusion, then don’t make it.

  • Avoid making the conclusion a section about ‘your opinion’. You will have carved an argument as you are going through so rather than saying ‘in my opinion…’ you can use phrases such as ‘throughout this essay I have argued that…’.

Some More General Tips

  • By ‘critical thinking’ we mean demonstrating that you have interrogated stuff, rather than just accepting what’s written. It is often about getting underneath dominant discourse. A lot of this goes back to evaluating your sources and acknowledging the conflict and contradictions in other people’s work. It might also include taking a particular stance on a subject through your writing – but this always needs to be justified in academic literature.

  • Think about the formatting (presentation) of your work. It really makes a difference to see that somebody has put the time and effort into aligning their margins, not leaving big unnecessary spaces, including the title and so on.

  • Be specific in your writing. Instead of saying ‘there has recently been a lot of media attention around boys doing badly in education’, say, ‘since the 1990s in England, Australia and North America there has been media attention around the claim that boys are not performing as well as girls as GCSE level, particularly in English (then your reference here could either be an academic who has made this claim, or examples of newspaper articles form the 90s until now that have reported on this subject).

  • Avoid using the synonym function on Word unless you know the meaning of the word that you are replacing with, and are sure that it makes sense in a sentence.

  • Don’t feel that you have to use long, flowery words and sentences. Instead, make your writing clear and concise – the most important thing is that you sentences make sense!