Writing for different courses

Ways of writing • Different perspectives • Unpacking assignments • Key elements of university writing • Different ways of knowing • Structure and argument • The traditional essay format approach to writing • The 'building blocks' approach to writing

The thing I've learnt now on this course is that it's all about for or against, and criticizing one argument with another.

In management science students are encouraged to include examples from their own experience and are less oriented towards textbook theory than other subjects.

This year I've done courses from English, drama and Spanish and the writing is completely different for all of them.

One of the most difficult things to learn about being a university student is how to tackle the variety of different written assignments that you will be asked to complete throughout the course. Normally, when we think of writing at university we think about 'how to write an essay'. In fact, traditional essay writing may be only one of many types of writing that you will come across during your studies. You may be asked to write reports or to write about your subject area from a particular point of view, for example in a journalistic style or for a professional audience. You may be required to write a summary, an evaluation of a piece of personal research, a commentary or a critique of a book or article (see Chapter 12). In this chapter we will be thinking about some of the different types of writing that students have been asked to do and hope to get you thinking about the writing that you have come across at university so far. Different types of writing require different approaches. Before you can adequately complete a piece of written work you have to find ways of unpacking what that particular piece of work is likely to entail.

3.1 Ways of writing

If you are writing in a way with which you are familiar, you will be able to go through this unpacking process without even thinking about it. We talked about this in Chapter 1. A good example of this is to think about letter writing. Most of us send letters at some time in our lives. If you write a letter to a friend then you are likely to find that writing it comes quite easily to you. However, if you had to write a letter of condolence to the same friend then you would probably find yourself having to think very carefully, not just about the wording but about what you wanted to communicate in the writing. It is very likely that you would be aware of the possible responses that your friend would be likely to have to reading your letter. In contrast, you may at times have to write a letter for a job application, a letter of complaint to the local council or to your bank manager to ask for an overdraft. Each type of writing would be different but it is not very easy to identify why each is different from the other, or more importantly what new strategies you are adopting as you begin to write. When we write we are - often subconsciously - thinking about our audience; we draw from an enormous lexicon of words to express what it is that we wish to communicate to the person, real or imagined, who is going to read what we have written. Sometimes the 'ground rules' of what to write seem very clear and explicit. In other circumstances we find ourselves floundering around trying to work out what might be appropriate ways of writing.

3.2 Different perspectives

Writing in different ways and for different purposes does not just involve using different vocabulary. It is about the way that ideas are ordered into sentences and paragraphs to communicate to the reader of each particular piece of writing. At university the way that we write about something is determined by the assignment title within the discipline or subject that we are studying. One useful way of thinking about the different writing requirements of our courses is to think in terms of 'fields of study' rather than disciplines or subjects. The traditional academic disciplines are much less clearly defined than they were in the past, and so it is difficult to say specifically how you are expected to write in, for example, history, English or psychology. The way that you will be expected to write depends very much upon the particular orientation of the course and what degree programme you are following. For example, you may find yourself studying issues concerning the environment from a geographical, social, cultural or biological perspective, depending upon the particular course or unit that you are undertaking. The way in which you will be expected to write about environmental issues depends not on the subject area, 'environmental studies', but on the specific orientation of the course and the academic staff who designed it. In a similar way, a student in her first term at university was asked to complete the following written assignments, which were all being taken within an English degree programme:

• Provide a semiotic analysis of a visual image of your own choice, explaining possible denotational and connotational meanings, and showing how specific features of the image contribute to these meanings.

• Write an essay of about 1500 words reviewing a current London production in the light of the perspectives offered by the unit.

• Write a detailed account of your reading of one of the poems from the anthology, showing how that reading is influenced by one of the following: your race; your class; your gender; your education.

• Choose one novel which you have studied in the unit and, making use of one or two secondary critical texts, offer a critical discussion of ways in which the novel of your choice has been read by another critic.

Although they were all assignments from English-based courses, the student had to approach each piece of writing in a different way, drawing on different kinds of source material and different types of analysis for her final writing. In the first, she was required to analyse an image (possibly an advertisement), and, therefore, in her writing it was necessary to take on some new and complex vocabulary, and to use this to move back and forth between the image and her interpretation of it. (We talked about using new terminology in Chapter 2.) In the second, although she was directed to write an essay, she actually had to write something more akin to a theatre review. In the third case, she found herself having to incorporate some of her own experiences into her writing, whereas in the last assignment, although she was able to make her own choice of novel, the emphasis was on the secondary sources from other authors which would inform her analysis. Each piece of writing was asking her to look at the area of knowledge - the visual image, the play, the poem and the novel - in a particular way and from a particular perspective.

3.3 Unpacking assignments

As a student you have to learn how to unpack what may be required in each new assignment. It is unlikely that the requirements of any piece of writing will be clearly spelt out to you; in fact a major part of learning to study at university is finding ways of understanding how to write your knowledge within a particular 'field of study' for a particular audience - in most cases the tutor who is going to mark your work. Each time you come across a new way of writing your knowledge in a particular 'field of study' it can seem strangely unfamiliar and very difficult to work out. Part of learning about that 'field of study' is learning to write it in your assignments. That is why it is very important that you try to work out what is involved in writing any particular piece of work. One way of doing this is to ask your tutor or the person who set your assignment. Most tutors will themselves be trained in a particular discipline and they are often expecting and looking for particular ways of writing that disciplinary knowledge within the 'field of study'.

The quotes from tutors below show some of the ways in which tutors in higher education have described their disciplines and what they are looking for in their students' written work. It is important to remember that these are individual tutors talking about what they see as necessary in a good piece of student writing. We are not describing specific, definitive ways of writing these particular disciplines. The purpose of these quotes is to help you to see that you, the student, are often being asked to write in many different ways as you move from one written assignment to another.

Students come into my course from many different backgrounds -sociology, anthropology, psychology, history, philosophy, American studies - and because of this they often have a lot of problems with their writing. Basically, I am looking for a traditional essay format and am particularly concerned with getting students to tease out the logic of an argument and look at the relationship between premises and conclusions. I often find that students under-analyse things and that their own voices are not heard in their writing. Writing essays is all about different strategies of interpretation and students find this difficult. In one of the courses I teach some of the students from social science subjects are very inexperienced at using the personal in their writing. Some of the students from English or history do not really know how to interpret the particular texts we use in this course in their writing.

(Politics tutor)

The students who are doing courses from the humanities in conjunction with this course seem to have some difficulties with their essays. In their other courses tutors are looking for spontaneity, personal reactions and something original. Those who come from social sciences write in a more organized but rather conventional way; they are better at developing an argument and using data to illustrate the argument. I am looking for something else again but I am not looking for a fixed style. Basically, the style of writing should be related to what students are saying. Adopting a personal perspective can be useful in essays but it is never more than a take-off point, and is something to incorporate into the main body of the essay from other materials that they have read. Your own experience can illustrate interesting points but cannot possibly do more than that. Some students keep intervening in terms of their own personal likes and dislikes and find it difficult to distance themselves from their own opinions. This is not really acceptable but students can give an anecdotal example to help bring out a point, particularly if it fits in with other examples and can show that this illustrates the point that they are trying to make. In this way they can incorporate the personal. An increasing tendency is for students to write safe essays based on basic facts. A good essay has to have structure and content and be well argued but apart from that there are not any strict guidelines about how to write an assignment. By the final year I would expect my students' writing to be about processing information, not just the facts.

(Social anthropology tutor)

Some students tend to 'copy' rather than express themselves in their writing. Law requires information processing and analytic skills and students have difficulties with using their legal knowledge to work through the argument to a legal solution. Sometimes we use sample answers which deal with the substance of a legal point; the sample answer deals with the substance of the legal point but not with issues of style and presentation. In student writing the use of correct terminology is very important - for example, in civil law you cannot say X is guilty, you must say X is liable. This sort of thing is very important for students to get right in their writing. In critical legal studies students are not just learning but evaluating and deconstructing many of their own ideas. In the first year they unravel and evaluate critically what those ideas are, and in the second year they are evaluating the law and whose interest is being protected.

(Law tutor)

Students have a problem of not being selective and knowing what is essential information, so in their writing there tends to be too much description rather than the development of a structured argument. Also they often lack an understanding of the link between theory and evidence. They need to be able to evaluate theory using evidence as support and write a structured essay which develops logically. A lot of students have difficulties setting something up, arguing it through and bringing it to a conclusion. Although a standard 2.2 answer may give accurate information most students are not using argument skills. Writing clearly and well with clarity is important, and I focus as much on the written style as on the content but I know that some of my colleagues focus more on the content. I am looking for the ways in which students use the structure of their writing to convey their point. Getting underneath the problem is a difficulty for students. If you don't get a central concept right then how can you argue about it if you do not know what you are talking about? Sometimes students don't pick up on the central issues. They learn to put one theory followed by another one and then end up by saying they don't know the answer. This is a typical 2.2 answer which is limited in its scope of the real grasp of the argument. Of course, many mature students are trying to unlearn and develop new ways of thinking. They have to learn not to think about what they are doing as an office manager but to think about it as a psychologist.

(Psychology tutor)

Students are meant to be putting answers into words for a manager but sometimes they just analyse the last number they come to and that is the answer. We try to use model answers but the problem with model answers is that there is not really a model answer. What we are looking for is various key points in some kind of logical order and the conclusion to follow from the evidence. Students often lack any appreciation of the real issue that they are meant to be looking at and do not know how to put maths into writing and into solving real-life problems. So they look at the key word and dump everything on the page that they have heard about it instead of developing a logical argument around the subject. In management sciences students are working across disciplines; they are combining with languages, psychology, accounting, economics and in essence can come from any subject area. In some ways students have less difficulty adapting to writing in management science than they do in adapting to other subjects because it is more flexible and more common sense; it is less related to the literature. Students are encouraged to include examples from their own experience and are less oriented towards textbook theory than other subjects.

(Management sciences tutor)

Students have difficulties with organization and knowing how to use primary texts. They often fail to build the essay around the text. They need to be able to organize an argument, answer the question and learn to play with the terms of the question. There is a need to be able to find appropriate quotations, and once students have the quotes they should use these for analytic purposes or to further an argument. One of the problems with 'post-structuralist' theories in the humanities is that writing such theory takes you away from where the students are. Students exposed to these discourses begin to parrot these discourses. We do need to find ways of introducing students to these discourses without their parrot-phrasing it in their own writing.

(English tutor)

The assessments include problem-solving exercises, writing essays, practicals, answering short questions, mini-tests, theoretical projects and a comprehension exercise. We are testing the students' ability to read and critically evaluate a paper, and their writing and comprehension skills. Students are also asked to write an abstract for talks they are giving. There are no clear guidelines for written work but it has to have some structure and content and be well laid out and argued. In some essays we are looking for factual information and in others looking at things in much broader global terms. By the third year writing is much more about how students are processing the information and not just the facts.

(Biology tutor)

What you should notice as you read through the comments of these tutors is that they are all asking for something slightly different from their students' writing. In other words, there is no one way of academic writing. It is important to keep this point in mind as you approach each new written assignment. As we said, one of the best ways of finding out what is required for any particular piece of written work is to ask your tutor. Since your tutor is most likely to be the person to mark your work, it is useful to establish what their guidelines are about written work. Your tutor will probably have set 'office hours' when they will be able to answer students' queries. Increasingly, tutors are also making their email addresses available to students. The sorts of question you may be asking, depending on the subjects that you are studying, are listed below:

Questions to ask the tutor

• Should I say what exactly I am going to do in my introduction?

• How do I incorporate the quotes I use?

• How do I set out and refer to charts, diagrams and tables?

• What do you mean when you say 'use evidence to support my argument'?

• In my last essay I was told that I needed to 'develop an argument'. Could you explain exactly what that means?

• Is this to be written in the form of a report or an essay, or is it a different kind of writing altogether?

• How do I use theory to describe my practical professional experience?

• I do not really understand the essay question. Could you give me a bit more information about it?

• Is it all right to quote from newspaper articles?

• I know what I want to say but I just cannot get it down on paper. Is there any advice that you could give me for this particular assignment?

• What sorts of thing should I be putting in the conclusion?

3.4 Key elements of university writing

The tutors quoted above all had slightly different ways of describing their students' writing but often used a similar kind of terminology (what we call 'key elements') to describe what they were looking for. Below is a list of some of the more commonly used key elements for university writing. You will often find that feedback on your work may refer to these and you can expect to have to include some of them in the different kinds of written assignment that you will encounter during your studies. Each time you write you will probably be using a number of these key elements in some form or other in your writing. The tutors who mark your work will be looking out for the things that they think are most important, but as you will have seen from the above examples, they will not all be looking for the same things. It is useful for you to find ways of identifying at what points in your writing you are drawing on these elements. The following activity is designed to help you to do that.

Activity Seven: Looking for key elements

Choose an assignment that you are working on at the moment. Work through the following list and consider which key elements are likely to apply to this particular assignment.

Key elements of university essay writing

• Developing an argument

• Linking theory and evidence

• Drawing a conclusion

• Being critical

• Developing a central idea

• Processing information

• Incorporating facts

• Correct terminology

• Logical order

• Use of evidence to support an argument

• Use of primary texts

• Use of quotations

• Drawing on personal experience

• Expressing own opinions

• Using personal interpretation

If you have difficulties deciding which key elements will be relevant, then try completing the activity with a student who is writing the same assignment.

3.5 Different ways of knowing

You have probably begun to get a sense by now of the complexity of academic writing and why it can often seem rather a daunting task when you are faced with your written course assignments. You may be asking yourself the following questions:

• How can I learn to recognize what each writing task is about?

• How can I learn to be a competent writer in all my different courses?

If you look back to Chapter 2, you will see that we emphasized the importance of asking questions at each stage of writing. The following activity develops this idea by getting you to ask questions about a number of your own assignments.

Activity Eight: Comparing two assignment titles

Find two assignment titles that you are working on from different courses at the moment. They may be courses in the same subject areas or 'fields of study' (for example, both broadly history courses), or they may be from different areas altogether (for example, European studies and English).

Take a blank piece of A4 paper. At the top of the page write the two assignment titles that you have chosen.

Now look at the list of questions below. As you work through the list write down your answer in relation to the assignment titles that you have chosen. For this particular exercise it is best to avoid note form. Try to write your answers in complete sentences. Imagine that you were going to ask somebody to read this, so you should make sure that it makes sense to the reader.

• Are the two assignments from the same subject area?

• How do you think they seem similar?

• How do you think they seem different?

• Would you describe the kind of writing that is being asked for as an essay or as something else - for example, a report, a commentary, a summary?

• Will you need to quote from sources in writing this assignment?

• How will you reference other authors in this assignment?

• What sources (books, articles, reports, handouts) will you need to help you to write the assignment?

• Will you use any of the following in preparation: lecture notes; books and articles by recognized authors on the same topic; official reports; primary sources (a poem, a novel, an original historical document); secondary sources (what somebody else has written about the above, for example, a book on literary criticism); graphs, charts and diagrams?

When you look at what you have written you should be able to see just how varied the writing tasks from different courses may be and how approaching them in this way can help you to focus on how to analyse each one. Each time that you are confronted with a new piece of work you can use this kind of analysis to help you work out how you are going to approach your writing at this very early stage. We develop this approach to analysing the assignment in more detail in the next chapter.

The following quote from Lizzy, a first-year undergraduate, might also help you to understand some of the difficulties that so many students experience with the requirements of different courses, particularly in their first year at university.

The trouble is that coming from A levels it all seems so different here. When I did my A levels I never had any difficulties writing essays. In all our courses we were given dictated notes and wrote essays from these notes. We weren't expected to use a number of different sources or make any choices about what we used in our essays. I think that was one of the reasons I came unstuck with my writing when I got to university. I found it really difficult to introduce arguments and use different authors' opinions in history. In fact I had real problems with my first history essay. I'd never done history at school, well not since before GCSE, and I just wrote this essay using one book. That was the way we'd learned in English. I had no idea that you had to read one author and set one idea against another. Although we had lots of advice on essay writing it was all about the technical things, referencing and all that, not about the really difficult bits like structure and argument. The thing is that in Spanish everything here is centred around this one sort of textbook, so again you don't really have to use other ideas much. That makes it easier to write an essay. And of course it's the same in English. You just relate the essay to a particular text. I'm doing drama as well and there we have a list of what's needed, we don't have to write an argument or anything. It's about things like stage plans. The thing I've learnt now about history is that it's all about for or against and criticizing one argument with another. Although I would like to put forward my own point of view I'd never say anything like 'I think'. I'd have to say something like 'it could be argued' or 'general opinion would be'. Sometimes I have used 'I' in the conclusion but it would depend a bit on who my tutor was.

3.6 Structure and argument

If you look back at the quotes from the tutors you will see just how many of them refer to the notion of 'structure' and 'argument'. Lizzy also talks about these concepts. We will be looking at this further and in more detail in Chapters 6 and 7. What we can say at this stage is that argument and structure are not tangible concepts, as one lecturer said:

I can recognize a good piece of student writing when I see it. I know when it is well structured and has a well-developed argument but it is difficult to say exactly what I am looking for, let alone describe a good argument more fully.

3.7 The traditional essay format approach to writing

If you look back over this chapter you will see that we have made reference to the idea of a traditional essay, although, as we have said, in practice you are likely to come across many different ways of writing during your studies. The more traditional academic essay will have an introduction, which sets the scene; a main body, in which you outline and develop your argument; and a conclusion, in which you bring everything together. Advice about essay writing usually gives instructions as to how to go about and successfully complete this type of writing at university in the way laid out below:

• Introduction: What is this essay going to be about?

• Main body: What are the themes that I am developing to support my argument?

• Conclusion: What are the consequences of what I have written?

In our experience many students find it very easy to identify this kind of format and know that they have to start with an introduction, develop their ideas in the main body and then bring everything to a neat and satisfactory conclusion. In practice, of course, following this kind of format is much more complicated than it seems; many students struggle with getting their ideas down on paper despite knowing in theory what the finished product should look like. Although this framework may be useful as a general rule of thumb for some of your writing, you are likely to find that many of your assignments do not fit neatly into it. You may find it more useful to think of this idea of breaking down the essay into three parts as just one approach to assignment writing. Another approach which we develop below is the 'building blocks' approach, which can give you a general feel for the structure of the assignment that you are writing. The chapters that follow develop the notion that you are creating and building your own structure in your writing as you work through the process of writing a particular assignment. In essence, you are moulding your knowledge - through your writing - to the task, the written assignment.

3.8 The 'building blocks' approach to writing

Writing assignments is about finding the right building blocks each time and putting them together in a coherent order. In the same way that using the same raw materials is unlikely to result in two identical buildings, even if you use the same sources and answer the same question no two assignments will ever be exactly the same. If we look back to the tutors' comments we can see how repeatedly they use words and metaphors linked with building as ways of describing student writing in their own subject areas; if it is difficult to describe something one way, then coming to the same thing from another direction can often help. We can use metaphors in this way to help understand how to develop structure and argument in our academic writing. These are some of the words and phrases tutors and students use to describe writing assignments:


Building blocks






Processing Getting underneath




Using 'building blocks' is a metaphorical way of thinking about writing, which we hope will be helpful to you when you come to a new assignment. As you approach each new assignment, you, the writer, are the 'apprentice' but your tutor is more likely to be an 'experienced builder'. Although a more experienced academic writer may be able to describe in very general terms what a finished structure - the written assignment - could look like, that does not necessarily help you with the actual process of writing. Your tutor will be able to tell you where you went wrong with your writing after the finished structure is completed. What you have to remember is that at this stage, although you may feel like an 'apprentice' you are actually in charge of the building. As the writer you have to be able to identify the building blocks and put them together in a way that makes sense. In Chapter 2 we discussed brainstorming and illustrated the use of a spider diagram. These are useful techniques to use now to identify the building blocks, the different parts of your assignment. In Chapter 6 we look at the ways in which you can build from topics and themes to support your argument and illustrate this with the use of a mind map. Using these visual representations can be helpful in identifying the building blocks that you may decide to use in your particular piece of writing. Whatever piece of academic writing you are attempting, whatever subject or course you are doing, you will be putting together all the components into a structured coherent whole. You will be the one to have to make choices about the sources you will be drawing from, what to put in and what to leave out, and what are the most important points to make in answering the question. Assignment writing is never about writing down everything that you know about the subject. It is always about addressing a specific question and answering it in such a way that your tutor is able to assess how well you have understood that aspect of the course. In the next chapter we will be examining how you start from the title and begin writing. Before we move on, it will help you to have completed the activities set in this chapter because, in themselves, they are the building blocks of what is to follow.


• There is no one way of academic writing.

• Courses may ask for a variety of ways of writing, even if they are broadly within the same 'field of study'.

• Be prepared to write - and think - in different ways for different assignments and for different parts of courses.

• Tutors will have their own understandings of what constitutes a good piece of student writing.

• Ask your tutor what he or she is looking for in your written work.

• Find out if it is possible to email your tutor as an alternative to seeing them personally.

• Visual representation (spider diagrams, mind maps) can help you identify your building blocks for writing.

• Writing an assignment is about more than knowing you have three parts to an essay.

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