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Writing Home Page

Advice about writing

There are many forms of writing, but some problems and solutions that are common to many of them. This page looks particulary at

generating ideas,
drafting and redrafting,
showing your sources,
using clear English,
using technical terms
planning your writing
Some tips to make your writing clearer

Generating ideas:

The main problem at the beginning of a project is to form the ideas that will be the guide for your research and writing. An added psychological problem for some people is getting the ideas out of their head on to a piece of paper. To get your ideas flowing, you leave being critical of yourself (scrutiny) to a later stage. Relax, and try to enjoy writing down your ideas. Anxiety will be the enemy of creativity. At this stage you need to play with ideas. Use whatever technique you find necessary to start your ideas flowing. Once they have started to flow, you will be able to tighten them up.

  • Some people get their ideas flowing by using rough diagrams ( spider diagrams, for example) of their ideas.

  • Other people "brainstorm" by writing down every idea that comes into their head.

  • I do it by drafting my ideas on a wordprocessor.

See the web page on generating ideas

Academic writing requires multiple drafts

Because writing is a creative task, you will need to think, and read, and write, and think again, and read again, and rewrite - and so on.

As you go through this process new aspects of the problem will occur to you, and will lead you to redraft your essay, report or whatever. Your end result will probably be very different from your first plan.

Because drafting and redrafting are so important, there are many words to describe the ways in which we break down, change and reconstruct writing. People speak of correcting, checking, drafting, editing, paraphrasing, redrafting, revising, rewriting ...

A draft refers to an early version of a letter, essay, poem, speech or other word creation. This draft is then used as the starting point for further work. The best way to write a first draft is usually to dive straight in with your own rough version of what you want to say. A less successful way, but one it is occasionally useful to use, is to start by expanding notes we have written on a subject.

See The good and the bad way to write
"in your own words".

Paraphrasing is altering the phrasing of something, or changing the way it is written. The word means to tell (phrase) the same thing differently (in a parallel way). If you paraphrase what someone has said or written, you express it differently. The word is most often used for altering the way someone else's work is written, but it can also be used for expressing your own ideas differently. "Could you paraphrase that?" might mean "Could you express that differently?". As the intention of paraphrasing is to make something clearer, paraphrase is often use for an expanded version of the original. However, if writing rambles, a précis can make it clearer.

Editing is preparing material for its use. It includes selecting the material to be used and altering it to make it more suitable for its purpose. On a computer wordprocesor, the edit menu lets you cut out pieces of writing or move them to other places. This indicates that editing includes arranging material. Editing also includes correcting errors, removing silly bits and thinking of better wording. It can also include making the material shorter or longer.

Show your reading

In academic work it is important to show that you have read and thought about the relevant sources of authoritative information and your work should show that you have used your texts in this way.

Referencing is one of the ways that you demonstrate your reading.

In projects, reports and dissertations you may be asked to
provide a Literature Review.

Do not borrow ideas without acknowledging the source.
This is plagiarism, which is an academic crime.

Write simply - in clear English clear thinking
Links to style guides

The style of writing will depend partly on the writing and partly on the writer's taste. Rules of style are only advice, and advice that is relevant to writing a poem will not be relevant to writing an essay about a poem.

People sometimes distinguish between creative writing (for example, a poem) and academic writing (like an essay about a poem), much of which is explanatory. The suggestions I make here are about writing that seeks to explain, (like essays, reports and dissertations), and not about stories, plays, poems or the lyrics of songs.

A poem does not have to explain itself.
Its rhyme, rhythm and reason are not those of an explanatory essay

weave a circle round him... Even with respect to explanatory writing, the subject of how you should write is controversial. There are people who will advise you to use the longest words you can find, in the obscurest way you are capable of, in order to give the impression that you know what you are talking about.

Those who follow such advice should be very sure that their readers are fools.

Clear English and a precise use of technical terms are the two rules that I would advise. I have based these guidelines on advice from writers on style who aim at clear English:

  Although simple, straightforward writing is easier to read than confused, complicated writing - It is much more difficult to write. To help the reader understand your writing you should also signpost it clearly with a good introduction and well constructed paragraphs. A full outline in the introduction pointing to clearly marked parts in the body, and a systematically constructed summary often enable readers to understand what you write, even if your English is confused.

See (more) tips to make your writing clearer

Use technical terms correctly

Each subject will have its technical terms and learning to use these correctly and meaningfully is one of the purposes of student writing.

Many of these terms will be new to you. The deluge of new words often makes starting University confusing. As you try to use some of the new words in your writing you will gain confidence and the words will become a language instead of a cacophony.

But not all the technical words will be new. Often, words from everyday speech will take on special meanings and become technical words. "Happiness" becomes a technical term in utilitarian theory and "market" in economics. "Argument" and "critical" have meanings in academic discussion that seem quite far removed from the way we use them in a family squabble.

Work hard at understanding technical words, and explain them in your writing. The way the words are used in your recommended reading and in lectures may tell you a lot about what they mean. Often the reading or the lecturer will define the words. You can also look them up in a general dictionary or a dictionary about the subject.

Do not let the use of technical terms degenerate into jargon. Most ideas can be simply expressed once you have them clear in your mind. To reach that point, however, may take a lot of work, as you can see from reading the following example.


The technical terms id, ego and superego (as used by Sigmund Freud), explained in an essay by Deborah Goulden.

  • Freud believes that the human mind is divided into three distinct regions. At birth we are equipped solely with the id. The id contains "everything that is inherited...the instincts" (Freud, S. 1938 p.1). It represents our basic drives, which are not conscious and require instant gratification. A baby crying to be fed or held illustrates this. Freud says "the id ... knows no judgements of value; no good and evil, no morality.'(Freud, S. 1933 p.499). The id is our mind before social skills have developed. The rest of the world is merely a vehicle for satisfying its needs.

  • A baby soon learns that the external world does not always meet these needs, so its mind has to develop a new region which Freud names the ego. The ego's main task is one of self-preservation by avoiding unpleasure. Unpleasure is Freud's terminology for the heightening of tension. The role of the ego is a balancing one, it balances our need for pleasure within the demands and restrictions of society. The ego develops through experiences as we become aware of our individual existence and learn to deal with the reality that we cannot have whatever we want, whenever we want it. The ego is therefore the part of the id that has been affected by the outside world and it represents the influence of this upon the id.

  • "We might say that the ego stands for reason and good sense whilst the id stands for untamed passions" (Freud, S. 1933 p.501). This statement is rather inconsistent with Freud's axiom that our unconscious past is the controller of our mind, not the power of reason. However, in this case, the reason, which the ego stands for, needs to be understood as being unconscious. Freud compares the relationship between the id and the ego to that of a horse and rider.(Freud, S. 1933 p.502) The id being the strong, powerful horse and the ego being the rider that guides it.

  • Freud believes that our childhood experiences create our personality. These become repressed into our unconscious, which leads to the emergence of the third region of our mind, the super-ego. "The parental influence of course includes not only the personalities of the actual parents but also the family, racial and national traditions handed on through them' (Freud, S. 1938 p.3). So, the super-ego is the way in which the culture and values that our parents and mentors instil in us effect our personalities acting in the form of a conscience and control over the ego. It is the tool through which the ego evaluates itself and constantly strives for perfection in the same way that a child sees its parents as being perfect and tries to emulate them. According to these theories it would then be very unusual for a child to break away from his past because he would in fact be breaking away from himself. To summarise "the id and the super-ego represent the influences of the past ... the id the influence of heredity, the super-ego the influence, essentially, of what is taken over from other people - whereas the ego is principally determined by the individual's own experience, that is by accidental and contemporary events." (Freud, S. 1938 p.4)

  • Bibliography

    Freud, S. 1938 An Outline of Psychoanalysis, London, Hogarth Press 1979

    Freud, S. 1933 "The Dissection of the Psychical Personality", in Freud, A. (Editor) 1986 The Essentials of Psychoanalysis, London, Penguin.

Plan to finish your writing ahead of time

You need time to put the writing in perspective, before reading it through to make final corrections.

See the student tips on time management

Be specific rather than general

in the following sentence the phrase "all concepts mentioned above" is general rather than specific:

    "Freud believes that all concepts mentioned above determine the individual's fate in society."
It becomes specific when the sentence is changed to:
    "Freud believes that the individual's personality development, childhood sexual fantasies and conflicts, and the resulting content of the unconscious mind will all determine that individual's fate in society."

Use familiar words unless a more unusual one adds precision

I suggest you write Not:
These issues are discussed in Plato's The Republic and Aristotle's Politics. These two greek philosophers discoursed their studies in two main sources of literature The Republic and The Politics.

Shortening sentences to make sense

Breaking long, confused, sentences into shorter ones makes it easier to work on the meaning. In the following example, a thoughtful student commented on a quotation. I could not understand what she was saying, so I broke her long sentence into shorter one and thought about how each of these could make sense.

The student wrote:

"This quote infers that to encourage individuals into the way of thinking as they wish the state imposes its ideals to the family as does the church to place principles, morals and politics a manoeuvre by the state for citizens within society to be stereotypical."

I re-wrote this as:

"I infer from this quote, that state and church encourage individuals to think the way they want them to. They impose ideals on the family. Together they try to establish the principles, morals and politics they desire. Such manoeuvres by state and society (church) aim to make citizens stereotypes of one another."

Do not torture your English

It is not a good idea to use "I" frequently in academic writing.

Some people try not to use "I" at all, but this often results in tortured English and loss of clarity. I hope you will nurture, not torture, your English - and I would advise you to always use "I" when it is needed for clarity.

I suggest you write Not:
I will discuss the relation between sex and gender.

or (if you must avoid I)

This essay will discuss the relation between sex and gender.

The writer will discuss the relation between sex and gender.

or (ambiguously, as well as tortured)

The author discusses the relation between sex and gender.

There are a minority of academics who tell students never to use "I" in essays, but reading academic texts will show that most writers use "I" when it is needed. The tragedy of the advice "never use I" is that many students who take it seriously have weak English. If you have difficulty expressing your ideas clearly (unambiguously) in English, you must use "I" where necessary if you want to survive as a student. Essays with meaning buried under strange phrases are likely to fail because the meaning is far more important than the style.

Read about clear English

First, second, third person

"The writer will discuss the relation between sex and gender" is writing in the third person.

"You will discuss the relation between sex and gender" is writing in the second person.

"I will discuss the relation between sex and gender" is writing in the first person.

You will not improve your work by replacing several "Is" by "the writer" or "the researcher". Whichever person you write in (see above), try to avoid saying I, or its equivalent, many times.

Do not use Question Style

"What have Mill and Taylor to say about social change? How can society move from hierarchy to democracy? How can the working class become self- determining?"

May sound exciting when you write it. Rather like:

"Will Amanda escape the criticisms of her boring tutor? How can she write the way she wants to? What is the matter with writing in questions anyway?"

Nevertheless, the following communicates more, provides an argument rather than just questions, and provides content that can gain you marks:

"Mill and Taylor argue that the struggles of the working class for self- determination are an engine of social change leading from hierarchy to democracy."

Some (more) tips to make your writing clearer

If you are writing in a language that you are new to, or if you have problems writing clearly in your first language (perhaps because what you are writing about is difficult), there are things you can do to make it easier for the reader to understand.

The same practices will help you write clearer essays about difficult texts, even if your English is fluent. These are some of them:

  • Plan your writing and include the plan in an introduction. Also write a summary of what you have written in the introduction. Make the introduction as clear as you can. This will help the reader to understand the rest of what you have written

  • Use sub-headings to separate the parts of your essay. The sub-headings should match the outline in your introduction.

  • When reading difficult texts take word for word quotations from them that illustrate key points, think about these rather than getting overwhelmed by the whole text. Use them as described below.

  • Do not mix the words that you read with the words that you write. Separate quotations from your own writing with a clear line. Whenever you quote, explain what the quotation means in your own words. When you have explained something in your own words, add a quotation that illustrates it.

  • Reference what you say clearly, so that the reader can check the meaning against your sources.

    Here is an example of some of these points:

    In this essay I will be talking about the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). I will analyse some of his ideas about society, and I will relate these to the French Revolution (1789). In the first part of the essay I will look at Rousseau's book The Social Contract, published in 1762. I will then compare this to The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which was written by the revolutionary French Parliament in 1789.

    The Social Contract

    [Missing part]

    The Declaration of the Rights of Man

    The The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen says that

    "Men are born free and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions can only be founded on communal utility" (Declaration 1789 par.1)

    By "men" this means all human beings. The first part of this quote means that everyone is born with equal rights, no matter who they. It suggests, therefore, that people are born equal whatever their physical differences, including race and gender. Whoever we are, we are not born better than one another.

    The second part of the quote ("Social distinctions can only be founded on communal utility") does say that people can have different positions in society. Some may be more powerful than others. However, it argues that these differences have to be based on usefulness (utility)

    [Missing part]


    Declaration 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen Paragraph numbers from the web copy at <>

    Quotations should illustrate, not carry, your essay

    Quotations are used in essays to illustrate what the essay writer is saying. Sometimes they carry the writer's message, but this should be done with care. Here is an example of what I mean by carrying the writer's message

    "According to the prevailing view, human sexual life consists essentially in an endeavour to bring one's genitals into contact with those of someone of the opposite sex. This endeavour is supposed to make its appearance at puberty- and to serve the purpose of reproduction." (Freud, S. 1938 par. 3.1)

    However Freud's view on sexuality contradicts this common conception. In fact he found this definition of sexuality too narrow and limited since

    " it has been found that in early childhood there are signs of bodily activity to which only an ancient prejudice could deny the name sexual and which are linked to psychical phenomena that we come across later in erotic life." (Freud, S. 1938 par. 3.3a)

    The writer makes an intelligent choice of quotations from Freud to show what he is saying, but her essay just jumps straight in with the quotes, with a few words of her own to link them. Here is how she could have embedded this in explanation of her own, and used the quotations mainly as illustration:

    I will begin my analysis of the relationship between sexuality and personality in Freud's writing by explaining his view of infantile sexuality. This is very different from what he calls the "prevailing view" of sex, which is essentially sexual intercourse between adults. Freud says:

    "According to the prevailing view, human sexual life consists essentially in an endeavour to bring one's genitals into contact with those of someone of the opposite sex. This endeavour is supposed to make its appearance at puberty- and to serve the purpose of reproduction." (Freud, S. 1938 par. 3.1)

    For Freud, this definition of sex is too narrow and limited since he wants to include in the concept a wide range of physical pleasure seeking by babies and young children. He argues that the mental sexual imagery of adults is often related to these early "sexual" experiences. He says:

    " it has been found that in early childhood there are signs of bodily activity to which only an ancient prejudice could deny the name sexual and which are linked to psychical phenomena that we come across later in erotic life." (Freud, S. 1938 par. 3.3a)

    By surround the quotes by her own words, the writer explains Freud and gives her interpretation of what he is saying.

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  • Index

    ABC of writing

    Academic Writing

    Advice on essays

    Advice on reports


    Being specific

    Clear English

    Creative Writing



    Familiar terms

    Generating ideas


    Literature Review




    Question Style


    Showing Reading

    Simple English


    Technical Words

    Time Management

    Tortured English

    Using "I"