How to Write an Academic Essay for a University Course.
Marking student work is a large part of academic's roles in education. Having worked in education since 2011, I have marked thousands of pieces of student's work from level 2 to level 7. I remember over 20 years ago having to learn how to write myself as a nursing student to meet the expectations and marking criteria at university. This was a whole new world and one I had to master quickly to succeed with my studies. Now as a nurse educator, I see many common mistakes within student's work and have created a guide to help to avoid making errors and to optimise success with academic writing.
Anyone can learn to write academically once the rules of writing are understood:
Tip #1 - Get the contents right
To get as many marks as you can, you must answer the assessment question or address the assessment task that has been set - markers cannot give you marks if you deviate from the assessment requirements.
Check the quality of your work against the marking matrix for the level of work being undertaken e.g., Level 4 - 8.
Make sure you answer the assessment questions and address the assessment task fully. Have you written about what you've been asked to?
Make sure you write the correct volume of words to reflect the marks available if a matrix or rubric is used e.g., in a 2000-word essay, 10% for an introduction would be 200 words.
Do not exceed the word limit. You may have an upper threshold of 10%. This will be outlined in the assessment brief. Any work over the word limit will not be marked and you risk key messages being unread.
Use English spelling, not American e.g., ‘tachypneic’ should be ‘tachypnoeic’.
Always write terms in full before abbreviating e.g., endotracheal tube (ETT). Once this is done, the abbreviation can be used thereafter.
Avoid informal language e.g., 'went up' or ‘was high' could be 'became elevated' or 'increased.
Check grammar. Common errors include:
Missing words such as 'the' or 'an', e.g. 'an ETT tube was inserted'.
Incorrect use of plurals e.g., 'and patient deteriorate' should be 'and the patient deteriorated' or 'and the patients' deteriorated'.
Using inconsistent tense. Academic writing usually adopts third person writing. If you use 'I' or 'my' this is first person, often used in reflection. If you use 'we' this is second person and suggests you are speaking directly to an audience such writing a conversational piece. Third person does not do this and describes the topic objectively. Tense should not be changed frequently in writing. For example:
1st person: I insert an ETT.
2nd person: We insert an ETT.
3rd person: An ETT is inserted.
Tip #2 - Structure your work well
The assessment guide will tell you how to structure your work. Is it an essay? Is it a portfolio? Is it a dissertation? The type of assessment will affect how you structure your work and it's helpful to plan this before your start writing.
Consider if you are permitted to use headings, tables, bullet points, or diagrams. Academic essays generally require paragraphs only, but projects or dissertations may permit different presentation of work. Check the assessment guidance given for the assessment task.
There should be a short introduction which outlines the content of the essay. This is an opportunity to show the marker that you understand the assessment task that has been set, i.e., rewrite the assessment task into your own words!
Paragraphs should be used for each topic and therefore should not be too long or short.
A short conclusion is also required to provide an effective summary of the topics discussed.
"Make a logical outline. This is the last step before writing begins." – Read (2019)
Tip #3 - Referencing know-how!
Referencing can be one of the most daunting parts of academic writing to master, but there are rules to follow for each technique. Once you follow these, you will know how to reference.
The first thing to do is to work out which reference style is required? e.g., Harvard and APA have alphabetical reference lists not numerical.
Ensure all details are added to references in the reference list - don't miss parts out, i.e., author, year, title, source, journal issue, volume, and page numbers, etc.
In-text citations do not include author initials only surnames.
Bracket placement is important; at the end of a sentence the reference is fully enclosed (e.g., ... has been indicated in research (Park, 2022).), but if referred to in the written dialogue then only the year is in brackets (e.g., Park (2022) indicated that....).
Read aloud function in Word software can be useful to hear how writing sounds when read out.
Follow Cite Them Right guidance or use a referencing software such as Endnote to consistently cite sources in your writing.
Tip #4 - Acknowledge sources to avoid plagiarism!
It is essential that work is written in your own words or if not, that you acknowledge where you have found the work from to avoid academic misconduct and plagiarism.
Every factual statement made requires a reference. If the source has not been acknowledged in work, then you have plagiarised it from somewhere else and presented it as if it is written by you. This is an academic misconduct offence which carries a penalty.
Sources must be written in your own words to avoid plagiarism. Do not cut and paste authors work unless presenting as a quote. Markers want to see that you can read, understand, critique, and explain to others the evidence you have read. This is called paraphrasing.
Adding one reference at the end of a paragraph is insufficient and it does not apply to the entire paragraph, it only supports the sentence it is inside.
All references must be inside of sentences before the full stop.
To demonstrate criticality in writing a wide range of high-quality academic sources are needed and usually this includes sources up to 5 to 10 years old unless seminal key theories are used which will be older. Evidence must be contemporary and relevant.
Tip #5 - What is critical writing??
Critical writing is a high-level academic writing skill and you will notice a change in assessment criteria in degree level studies. Criticality, analysis, and evaluation skills are needed to demonstrate your ability to critique and debate information to further enhance your knowledge and to demonstrate originality of thought.
Analysis and critical writing are high-level academic writing skills. This requires reading multiple high-quality sources and then comparing them in your work.
Demonstrating your own original thought is another high-level skill and this can be done by sandwiching your own thoughts between referenced sentences or by making sense and evaluating the key message or findings after you have critiqued sources of evidence.
Expressing your own thoughts can be done using ambiguous sentences and these do not usually need references. For example:
'Therefore, based on the literature reviewed it can be suggested that...'
'Within personal clinical practice the following has been observed.... Research undertaken by author (year) supports this practice observation and provides insight into this topic area by....'
The Manchester Academic Phrase bank is an example of a useful resource to help to phrase work: https://www.phrasebank.manchester.ac.uk/
Anyone can write academically if they follow the rules...
Academic writing can be done well with planning and by following the rules. The 3 golden rules of writing are:
Answer the assessment question and include high-quality relevant information.
Reference all sources that are not your own and show you have read lots.
Compare resources and add your own original thought to show you can read, compare, comprehend and then further extend this information.
Give this list a try - check your work against this guide and I suspect you'll be on your way to writing well structured, logical, and critical assignments in no time! Don’t be shy to ask for assistance from the library and access guides and resources where you can. Academic writing is like any other skill in life - you just need to practice it to become good. Let me know how you get on by leaving me a comment and good luck with your writing!
Dr P 😊