Psychology students on campus

Written Communication

Whatever your course at university, one thing is almost guaranteed, you will need to do a lot of writing! Here is a brief guide to the main types of academic writing you might be asked to produce.


Although a familiar part of study at school or college, essays at university will probably be of longer length and require a greater and more specific use of source material such as books and journal articles. They will also demand much more critical thinking and analysis!


A report is the usual way of writing about a practical, laboratory or group exercise. You will be familiar with the basic structure; Introduction, Method, Results, Discussion and Conclusion, from school or college work, but greater levels of complexity and detail may be needed at university. Your lecturer or tutor will be able to advise you.


This will normally be a part of the final year of your course. It will involve an extended essay or report based on your own research. Many of the same principles discussed in this section still apply.

General Principles for Planning and Writing

Whatever the exact type of academic writing, you will probably need to do the following:

  • Choose a question or title (if appropriate)
  • Find out exactly what is expected of you and what your particular lecturer wants. For example, how long should the piece of writing be and how should the work be presented?
  • Collect the information and source material you will need, such as books, journal articles or lecture notes.
  • Plan strategies for producing your writing. Write a plan, or brainstorm your ideas. Write a first draft.
  • Allow your writing to follow a set structure (this may vary according to your subject area). For many types of writing, it will probably include the title, introduction, development of your argument, conclusion, references and/or bibliography.
  • Create a logical argument based on the question you are addressing. Each point should follow on from the previous one. Remember to use paragraphs to structure your writing.
  • Support your argument using source material and remember to refer to these sources in your writing (see below). You might need guidance from your lecturer about which type of source material you are expected to use.
  • Compare and contrast the views of different source materials. You may need to look for evidence supporting both sides of an argument in order to make a final decision about which side of the argument has most strength.
  • Show that you can think critically about the source material. Is it the latest research; is it a reputable source? Acknowledge any weaknesses in your argument, but remain emotionally neutral.
  • Edit your final draft carefully.


If you have used or quoted a source, such as a book, thesis or journal article, in your writing, you need to acknowledge it. There are several different ways of doing this and your lecturer will probably suggest the conventional method for your subject. This is quite a complex area, so make sure you get specific advice from your lecturer.

Broadly speaking, you should refer to your source briefly in the text of your essay, and then in more detail in the reference list at the end. Here is one example:

In the text:

The botanical survey of the Northern Pennine Way by Smith (2002) indicated that few of the rare species associated with this upland area had been affected by the impact of trampling by ramblers.

In the reference list:

(a) If the source is a journal article -

Smith, J G (2002). Impacts of intensive use of upland footpaths on species diversity. Botany Today 56 121-156.

(b) If the source is a book -

Smith, J G (2002). Impacts of intensive use of upland footpaths on species diversity . London : Oxbridge University Press.

(c) If the source is a book chapter -

Smith, J G (2002). Impacts of intensive use of upland footpaths on species diversity. In Jones, A (ed). Recent advances in upland research . London : Oxbridge University Press.

(d) If the source is a website -(Check first if your lecturer considers websites to be an acceptable source of material for your work!) 12 May 2001. (The date given here is the date you referred to the site.)

Alternatively, a bibliography is a list of all the material you have read, whether or not you have actually used or quoted it in your writing. Some lecturers may prefer that you use this, so check!

Avoiding Plagiarism

If you use or quote a source of information without referring to it, you are committing plagiarism (ie copying). This is viewed very seriously at university and is easily spotted, for example software is available that detects material downloaded from the Internet! Also remember that if you use someone else's words exactly, make it clear that is what you are doing by putting them in quotation marks.

Hints and Tips: Understanding and analysing university essay questions

Essay questions will mostly identify a general topic, focus on a specific area within that topic and contain an instruction of what you need to do. For example, here is a question from a Business Studies course:

  'Critically evaluate the supply chain of fresh produce of a major retailer.'

The general topic is fresh produce (fruit and vegetables). The area of focus is the supply chain (how the produce gets from the field to the supermarket shelf). The instruction is 'critically evaluate', ie explain how the supply chain works and assess how effective or ineffective it is. When writing this essay you would have to make your own choice of supermarket and types of produce to discuss.

Essay questions often use the same types of instruction words. Make sure you understand what these mean, and then focus carefully on exactly what the question is asking for. Focusing on the words in the title of the essay is your key to success as you won't get any marks for irrelevant information, however good it is!

Here are some common 'instruction words' in essay questions together with their meanings:

Critically evaluate - weigh up the importance or effectiveness of something, or strength of an argument, using relevant examples or evidence.

Examine - give a detailed account, exploring any relevant issues.

Discuss/comment on - present a logical argument exploring something.

Define - explain the meaning of something.

Account for/explain/illustrate - give a precise account of something, how it works, or how it came to be the way it is. 'Illustrate' is similar but is probably asking for the argument to be supported with specific examples or statistics or diagrams etc.

Argue/justify/assess/to what extent/how far? - weigh up the value or importance of something by exploring the case for and against a claim.

Compare/contrast - look at the similarities and differences between two things. 'Compare' means looking at both the similarities and the differences. 'Contrast' means concentrating mainly on the differences.

Summarize - identify the key points.

Review - survey and assess a topic.