How do I improve my academic writing?

Unsurprisingly, given our name, one of the most common questions we’re asked at the Writing Development Centre is “so how do I improve my academic writing?” Although writing is only one of the topics we can help you develop, it is one of the most prominent ones as writing is the main way that learning is assessed in most subjects. Our writing is a reflection of ourselves, our voice, so it can be quite personal, and academic writing in particular can feel a bit of an alien way to express ourselves.

Each subject and level of study ‘does’ academic writing in a slightly different way, and each of us will have different things we need to work on in our own writing. So in our latest “You Ask the WDC” video, our tutor Caroline shares some ways which you can target things to work on and develop your own academic voice.

If you’ve got a question for our You Ask the WDC agony aunts, let us know!

Your Writing Playlist: “Words” by Boyzone

Your favourite mix of 90’s hits and writing tips is back and hopes you’re all doing okay out there. This one goes out to all the writers who find that they just have too many words.

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

“It’s *only* words,” croon Boyzone on their lovely 1996 cover of the Bee Gees classic.

That’s all very well for them to say, though, isn’t it?! It would be a ‘brand new story’ if they were only meant to write 6,000 words, for their dissertation say, and then ended up with nearly 10,000 of them! Or if they somehow had to cut 500 words out of their essay! It wouldn’t be all linen suits and chandeliers then, would it?

No, it would be “but we did loads of research! It took us ages! We can’t just cut it out!” And “but what if we cut the wrong bits?!” And “but we think it’s all important!”  

Luckily, if Boyzone were to re-evaluate their rather blasé attitude towards words and require assistance in these matters, we’d be there with these handy hints.

First thing’s first, try nibbling

There are two general approaches to getting rid of words, Cutting, which we’ll come to, involves bidding farewell to substantial portions of text – entire paragraphs or sections. If you’re significantly over the word limit, cutting probably can’t be avoided. However, it’s always worth ‘nibbling’ first to see if you can get rid of any unnecessary words. We’re all guilty of using more words than we need to at times, and reading your work aloud might be a good way of picking up on this. Have you said “during this time period” when you could just have said “during this time”? Any places where “prior to this?” could be replaced to “previously” and that sort of thing? Deleting the odd unnecessary word here and there can add up and once you’ve done this, you’ll have a clearer idea of how drastic your cuts will have to be.

Cutting words: it’s not about you

 It’s natural to get very attached to the words we write. We put a lot of work into them. It’s never a pretty scene at WDC HQ whenever we’re asked to cut a paragraph from one of our blogposts, we can tell you! But as writers, we’re not always the best judge of what’s important because everything seemed important enough for us to write it down in the first place. We have to take a step back and think of our readers. Sometimes, we need to write something – to develop an understanding of a topic or to untangle an idea – but the reader doesn’t need to read it.

Need to know versus nice to know

To establish what’s important for the reader, remind yourself what you are trying to tell them. What’s the take-home message of your dissertation, for example? Or the main argument of your essay? What do you want the reader to know, think, understand and/or believe after reading your work? The material that best contributes to this is “need to know” for the reader and also more likely to be critical – something that serves your argument rather than merely delivers “nice to know” information. When we do a lot of reading and research, such as when we’re writing a longer essay or dissertation, we tend to want to show this off. This can result in overwhelming our writing with facts and description that don’t contribute to the overall argument. Editing out these unnecessary facts will not only get the word count down, it will also open up space for the analytical writing that will make your writing more persuasive.

A few words on signposting

Signposting words and phrases tell the reader what you’re doing and why, and help them following your argument. A lack of signposting can cause the reader confusion. We can turn again to popular song to see what havoc a lack of signposting can wreak. It causes Dionne Warwick no end of bother in “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” And let’s not mention the struggles poor old Tony Christie has in “Is This the Way to Amarillo?”

When ‘nibbling’ words, it can be tempting to just get rid of all the ‘howevers’ and ‘additionallys’ but proceed with caution: these words could play a crucial role in conveying your argument.

It is also possible to ‘over signpost’. This can often happen when you’re writing a longer piece like a dissertation or a thesis. We can have a tendency to start a  chapter by recapping the previous one – often because it’s been a while since we wrote that previous chapter so we need a reminder for our own purposes. But the reader’s experience will be different. They will have just read the previous chapter – do they need a recap? A useful way of judging can be reading your work all the way through as the reader would: how much of a recap do you feel they might need at the beginning of new section or chapter?

We hope these tips have been useful but perhaps you have tricks of your own up your sleeve? If so, let us know in the comments or come and see us on Twitter (we’re @NCL_WDC)!

Make progress on your assignments with the WDC!

Tuesday 29th October is shaping up to be an exciting day for us all here at the Writing Development Centre as it will mark the launch of our brand new ‘…with the WDC’ workshops. What makes the launch even more exciting is that it will introduce a brand new format into our range of provision. For these are workshops with a difference. Instead of spending most of the session sitting listening to one of us speaking, you’ll be able to bring your assignments along and use the time to make progress in a supportive, distraction-free environment. We’ll be on hand to provide you with a structured session, along with strategies and techniques you can try on your own work. You will also have the chance to reflect on and discuss your approach to studying and writing with your peers.

‘…with the WDC’ workshops will take place three times a week in the Writing Development Centre (we’re on Level 2 of the Philip Robinson Library, which is, somewhat confusingly, the entrance level). The sessions will run on a first-come, first-served basis so there’s no need to book; just turn up ready to make progress with your assignments. To do this, you will need to bring your work with you on paper or a fully charged laptop or device given that the sessions will not be taking place in computer cluster.

The sessions we have on offer for you this semester are:

Kickstart Your Assignment … with the WDC!

This session is for everyone who’s ever been given an assignment title and thought: “Where do I start?!” So, yes: this session is for everyone!! We’ll help to make this stage more manageable with a set of activities that will take you through: 

  • Narrowing the question down and finding ‘an angle’ 
  •  Analysing the question/task to work out what markers are looking for 
  • Planning your reading: considering what to read and how much to read!

Bring your current question/task along and get ready to kickstart your assignment!

This session will take place on: 

  • Tuesday 29th October: 10am-12pm 
  • Thursday 7th November: 2pm-4pm 
  • Tuesday 26th November: 10am-12pm 
  • Thursday 6th December: 2pm-4pm

Top tip! You may still like to attend this session even if you’ve already started your assignment. Our strategies and techniques can help you double-check that you’re on the right track and producing the best work that you can.

Strategic Reading and Notetaking … with the WDC!

Need to avoid getting swamped by your reading? Don’t fancy becoming a human photocopier? Want to read more critically? This is the session for you, with a set of activities that will take you through: 

  • Identifying your purpose – what are you reading for? – and the strategy to achieve it  Experimenting with critical reading techniques 
  • Reviewing your current notetaking strategy and experimenting with new ones
  • Remember to bring some of the reading for your current assignment! This session will take place on: 
  • Thursday 31st October: 2pm-4pm 
  • Tuesday 5th November: 10am-12pm 
  • Tuesday 12th November: 10am-12pm 
  • Thursday 28th November: 2pm-4pm

Write Here, Write Now! … with the WDC

Our regular writers’ group is here to: 

  • Provide you with a supportive, structured, distraction-free environment in which to get some work done 
  • Help you work towards a clearly defined writing goal for the session – such as drafting a particular section or achieving a specific word count 
  • Encourage you to reflect on your existing writing process and discuss your practice with peers
  • Highlight techniques and strategies that you can use to maintain your writing momentum – and help beat procrastination and writers’ block – beyond the session

You can use Write Here, Write Now! for any writing-related activity, including planning or outlining and editing and revising. Remember to bring your assignment materials and/or devices with you! These sessions will take place every Wednesday from 10am-12pm from 30th October to 11th December.

Editing Your Work … with the WDC!

You’ve got your thoughts down on paper and it all makes sense to you. But could someone else follow your argument? Does the structure flow? Are your points clear? Our editing session comprises a series of activities that will take you through: 

  • Writing for a reader 
  • Structuring paragraphs 
  • Transition and cohesion 
  • Ensuring relevance: need to know or just nice to know?! 
  • Unpacking and developing your points

Bring your current assignment and get ready to make it as good as it can be! These sessions will take place on: 

  • Thursday 14th November: 2pm-4pm 
  • Tuesday 19th November: 10am-12pm 
  • Thursday 21st November: 2pm-4pm

Refresh Your Revision Strategies … with the WDC!

How much am I expected to remember?! What are markers really looking for? Why isn’t it going in?! We’ve all been there. Take some of the stress out of exam season with our workshop, which features a set of activities that will take you through:

  • Establishing what exams are really testing
  • Selecting: what should be in your ‘Store Cupboard of Knowledge’?! (Don’t worry; we’ll explain!)
  • Memorising: evaluating your current approaches and considering new ones
  • Discussing and comparing revision strategies with peers

Bring your current revision notes along with you!

These sessions will run on: 

  • Tuesday 10th December: 10am-12pm 
  • Thursday 12th December: 2pm-4pm.  We’ll be running more revision sessions in January, along with sessions for Dissertation students throughout Semester 2.

Keep an eye on our website for further details. We’re really looking forward to launching these workshops and to welcoming you all along. If you have any questions about ‘..with the WDC’ or if you have any suggestions for future workshops you’d like to attend, don’t hesitate to drop us an email at

Your Writing Playlist: I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That) by Meatloaf

The third in our blog series in which we use popular song to help you consider the oft-posed question: “Is my writing academic enough?”

The most cursory of glances around this blog will reveal two important things about the WDC: 1.) we like 90s music and 2.) we dislike unhelpful study advice.

Advice like “make sure your writing is clear” is particularly unhelpful because, well, if we’ve written something then odds on we’re able to understand it. It can be very difficult to distance yourself from your work to the extent that you can respond to it as a reader would. This makes it tricky to spot any instances where your reader could get a bit lost and where communication between the two of you could break down.

Tricky, but not impossible. There are practical editing strategies you can apply to help identify any areas where your meaning might be getting lost. One such strategy is ensuring you don’t repeat the mistake Meatloaf makes in his stirring power ballad, “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That).”

Ever since its release in 1993, the song has been part of a running joke in pop culture as people across the globe puzzle over just what exactly it is that Meatloaf wouldn’t do for love. Wrestle a bear? Climb a mountain? Investigate what’s blocking the U-bend? If you’re simply agog to find out, you’re not alone. Apparently, “WHAT WOULDN’T YOU DO FOR LOVE MEATLOAF?!” is one of the questions most frequently put to the man himself.

Well, would it surprise you to learn that the answer was there in the song all along? It would? You don’t believe us? Let’s take a closer look at that first verse, then, shall we?

And I would do anything for love

I’d run right into hell and back

I would do anything for love

I’d never lie to you and that’s a fact

But I’ll never forget the way you feel right now

Oh no, no way

And I would do anything for love

Oh I would do anything for love

I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that

No, I won’t do that

See? The answer was hiding in plain sight all along. Meatloaf would do anything for love but he would never, under any circumstances, not even if you paid him a million dollars, “forget the way you feel right now” (eew). So why the confusion?

Well, in this case the cause of the confusion is a four-letter word: “that”. The relationship between “that” and the thing it actually refers to (“the way you feel right now”, remember?) is not clearly signalled. The fact that there are four lines of emoting in between them doesn’t help matters either. Even if you had managed to establish what “that” was, you’re likely to have forgotten by the time the word crops up.

So, if you’re wondering how on earth you can check whether your writing is clear or not, one thing you can do is ask yourself if it’s always apparent what you’re referring to. “That” is just one potential cause of confusion. You might also like to double-check any instances of “this”, “they” and “these”. That way, any “Meatloaf Moments” may be neatly avoided.


Your Writing Playlist: No Scrubs by TLC

The second in our new series in which we use popular song to help you consider the oft-posed question: “Is my writing academic enough?”

Academic writing is about constructing a scholarly identity. You might not *feel* like an authority on a particular subject, but it’s necessary to *sound* like one in order to convince your readers they’re in safe hands.

You can begin projecting this authority from the get-go with an introduction that tells your readers:

  1. I know exactly what I’m talking about
  2. I know exactly what I want to say

We now refer you to TLC’s 90s feminist anthem, No Scrubs, as the perfect example of an authoritative introduction.

To begin with, the ladies – T-Boz, Left Eye and Chilli – define their terms. You may notice that this series talks a lot about the need to avoid ambiguity in academic writing. Indeed, it’s crucial there’s no room for misunderstanding between you and your readers. In this case, you may be slightly mystified as to what a “scrub” is. Are the ladies declaring their refusal to wear protective overalls whilst working in a hospital? Are they happy with every other item in their Boots No. 7 gift set aside from that exfoliating face wash? It would be impossible for me to understand, let alone begin to agree with, their argument if I didn’t know what they’re rejecting in the first place. Luckily, the opening lines of the song inform me that a “scrub is a guy who thinks he’s fly”. Moreover, the group helpfully explain that a scrub “is also known as a busta” – just in case I’m familiar with the concept, but happen to call it something else. I’m also impressed that TLC’s knowledge of their topic is such that they’re aware of variations in terminology.

When it comes to your own writing, you may think there is no need for you to define your terms in this way. After all, you’re writing for somebody who already knows them: your tutor. But remember that one of the reasons this tutor is reading your work is to assess your knowledge and understanding of the topic. So you know that they know, but they want to know that you know. Right? And maybe there are – as in the case of a “scrub” – several possible definitions and even synonyms. It’s important for your readers to know which definitions you’re using.

Anyway, once TLC has clarified exactly what they’re talking about, they get right down to outlining their argument. “No, I don’t want no scrub,” they declare. “A scrub is a guy that can’t get no love from me.” Straight away, then, we know what critical stance the ladies will be adopting in this song. They then go on to provide a rationale for this argument, stressing that this gentleman is being rejected because he is “hangin’ out the passenger side/Of his best friend’s ride/Trying to holler” at them. Justifying your claims in such a way is, of course, good practice in academic writing where much of your authority stems from having evidence to support your claims rather than leaving them unsubstantiated.

Is your writing as authoritative as it could be? Use our TLC editing checklist to make sure:

Terms: have you defined them?

Lay out your argument and/or aims in your introduction

Check you have supported your claims with evidence

Your Writing Playlist: Nothing Compares 2 U by Sinead O’Connor



The first of a new series in which we use popular song to help you consider the oft-posed question: “Is my writing academic enough?”

Academic writing is precise rather than vague. To achieve such an effect, you could do worse than take a leaf out of Sinead O’ Connor’s book. We refer you here to Sinead’s emotive 90s ballad, Nothing Compares 2 U, which was actually written by Prince – just in case that ever comes up in a pub quiz. Of course, we wouldn’t advise you to follow Sinead’s lead when it comes to spelling. However, she’s definitely on to something when it comes to being specific.

The song addresses a recent ex. How recent? Well, it’s interesting you should ask. Thanks to Sinead (and Prince), we are able to provide a definite answer. For Sinead doesn’t declare that it has been a “significant amount of time” since her beloved “took [their] love away.” No. She informs us that it has been “seven hours and fifteen days.”

Precise. Specific. No room for misunderstandings there. Which there may well have been if we were only told it had been a “significant amount of time.” My idea of “significant” may well be very different to Sinead’s, for instance. I would have been unsure quite how she was defining that term and that might have impacted on my understanding of the whole song. At least this way, I know exactly what she’s referring to and I can make up my own mind. IS seven hours and fifteen days a significant amount of time? Well, the lyrics go on to reveal that she’s killed all the plants in the backyard and is “[putting] [her] arms around every boy [she] see[s].” Personally, we think that’s a bit much after just over a fortnight.

The fact that Sinead can be so exact also says something about her persona in this song. She may be lonely and heartbroken, but tell you what, she’s on the ball when it comes to the passing of time. When it comes to writing academic assignments (which we presume you’re more inclined to be writing than power ballads, though do feel free), this level of precision is something to aim for. After all, a key feature of academic writing is convincing your readers that you Know Your Stuff. Any instances of vagueness could undermine your scholarly identity.

So when it comes to editing, are there any instances in your draft where you are leaving something open to interpretation and risking a situation where you and your reader might not be “on the same page”, as it were? Are there places where you don’t sound quite as definite, knowledgeable and assertive as you could? Apply the “Sinead O’Connor Rule” to ensure your prose is as precise and as direct as it can be.

#unhelpfulstudyadvice 1: the placebo effect

There’s a lot of study guidance around. Top tips, how-to’s, help sheets, study guides, skills books, online resources, not to mention all the advice (solicited or unsolicited!) from lecturers, other students, family, friends, online contacts and yes, Writing Development tutors… All of it’s well meant, most of it is given by people who have been students at some point and presumably know what they’re talking about, and much of it may be genuinely helpful or encouraging.

There’s also plenty of study advice out there which is unhelpful. It may look useful, it may be accurate, it may seem reassuring, but for one reason or another, it just doesn’t quite work.

  • “Your writing should be clear”
  • “Make sure you have a strong argument”
  • “One point per paragraph”
  • “Check your work has a logical structure”
  • “Follow these simple steps to writing an essay”
  • “Plan your time effectively”
  • “Don’t include any unnecessary material”
  • “Ensure your grammar is correct”

None of this is untrue or unreasonable. Your work should be clear and critical, well argued and logically structured, grammatical and well written. You should just get on with it and plan your time effectively. Easy.

So why aren’t you just doing it?

What does it mean?

Clear. Concise. Relevant. Well-structured. Effective. All good qualities to aim for, all good things to check your work for. But what do they actually mean? All of these words are ambiguous, abstract, subjective and context-dependent. What is clear to one person may not be to another. What is well-structured in one subject may be inappropriately organised in another. What is concise at one level of study may be simplistic at a higher level. These words are almost meaningless out of context. So how could you even begin to aim for them? Any advice that tells you that your writing or study practices should conform to a subjective term like this should at least try to unpack in concrete terms what they mean by it, and help you understand what it might mean in your own subject or level, or the audience you’re writing for.

How do you achieve it?

Telling you that “your writing should be clear” or “you should check that your structure flows” doesn’t actually help you to get there. Much of this type of advice doesn’t actually give you concrete and practical things to do, but only tells you what you should be. But never mind the what; what about the how? Leaving you without practical strategies to achieve this goal isn’t really helpful.

Other advice might give you attractively practical-seeming suggestions:Ten Simple Steps to Successful Essay Writing! Always do this! Never do that! But it doesn’t acknowledge that there might be other ways to achieve the same goal, exceptions to the rule, or that the process might be less simple and clear cut, more messy than that. Much of this type of advice may have worked for the person giving it (possibly a long time ago, and with the benefit of hindsight…), and it may well work for you, but then again, it may not. Giving the impression that there is only one correct way, that the same advice should work for everyone, or that it’s just a straightforward process, may set you up for failure if it doesn’t suit you or if the simple steps turn out to be not so simple in practice.

What would it look like if you did? How would you know?

Does anyone actually try to write unclearly? You think it’s clear; of course you do, you wrote it.  It makes sense to you. Is it clear to someone else? Well, how would you know? It’s all very well to tell you to check your work, but without a idea of what you’re looking for and strategies to reflect on your practice and edit your work, you’re not going to know if your efforts are working until you get your mark back and it’s too late. Does the advice show you what clear writing might look like and why, with examples? And does it offer practical technique to read back your work as if through a marker’s eyes?

The Placebo Effect

University study is challenging, complex and diverse. It teaches you that nothing is ever that simple, to question everything. And this can be unsettling. It would be nice to think that there are simple tips which could make sense of all this complexity; straightforward steps you could take through the challenges of higher level study. And that’s why this kind of study advice is so appealing. It’s tempting and reassuring, it looks very certain and authoritative, but doesn’t actually offer you any way to act on it. It’s a placebo. It might make you feel better but does it actually help you to develop and learn? It doesn’t do justice to the challenge of university study, and it doesn’t do justice to the complex, diverse individual that you are. Ultimately, it disempowers and undermines students by making them feel that they are the failures- all you had to do was just had to ‘write clearly’, such a simple thing, and you failed to do so.

We’re working on a series of blog posts, #unhelpfulstudyadvice, in which we will examine some of the less useful tips and try to turn them into more useful guidance. Do let us know if there’s a particular example you come across and we’ll include it! We promise to explain what we mean, to give you concrete strategies to achieve it and ways to reflect on or edit your work to see if you’ve been successful!

And we promise to avoid the words “should”, “just”, “always” and “never”…

Posted by Helen