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Strategies for writing

At university you may have multiple deadlines due close together.  Finding effective ways to manage writing at university can be key to your success.

Here are some suggestions about writing you may want to consider:

  • Be prepared for writing - you may want to 'grow' your writing from a plan, which may be in outline, visual or diagrammatic form, or you may want to start with an idea for a sentence or paragraph
  • Plan to write regularly - getting into the habit of writing can help you find ways of managing it 
  • Set aside blocks of time which match your concentration span and try to gradually build on your ability to focus
  • Make a realistic time plan for your pieces of writing and stick to it. Acknowledge that there are many stages to producing a written assignment including reading, writing and editing/revising for final submission. 
  • Write up a section or paragraph as it becomes ready - but remember that you do not have to write everything in order
  • For longer assignments and reports, you may begin by writing a section that comes part way through e.g. you may begin by writing the methodology section and end by writing the introduction before checking the whole piece links together smoothly
  • When you are writing, stop at a point when you could carry on writing. Make a quick note about the next point you will make. This can make it easier to settle back down to writing next time.
  • Find out where and when you find writing easiest and try to maximise these benefits
  • Take breaks, a breath of fresh air, a chat with friends, but make sure you set times and keep to these for when you plan to re-start writing 

Remember that research and writing are only part of your work as a student. During each day, some people may need a variety of tasks to maintain their interest and motivation.

Preparing to write

These are some points that are important when approaching writing tasks at university:

  • Be clear about the task - what is expected of you, what is needed to answer the question
  • Identify and use available resources and written advice
  • Listen and respond to guidance offered while producing your work
  • Keep focused on your question or task - keep asking yourself whether any material you plan to include is really relevant
  • Be clear, concise and to the point in what you write
  • Present your ideas in a clear and logical way
  • Make sure you clearly reference any sources or data that you use as evidence and that your examples are appropriately justified 
  • Take note of feedback on completed tasks.

In particular, academic writing should be clear and reasoned, with conclusions based on evidence. This evidence should be sound - derived by robust and reliable methods, so you are expected to be critical of evidence available and consider its strengths and weaknesses.

Process of research/connection

"I think what I found during the PhD was that I find it difficult to think without writing so I suppose the writing is very, very creative ..."

 

 
 

Organising materials

No matter what you are writing, an essay, dissertation, report or thesis, you will collect a significant amount of supporting information that you will need to refer to while you are writing. These could be:

  • Copies of journal articles
  • Books; both academic and non-academic
  • Notes you make as you read this material
  • Lecture and/or seminar notes
  • Notes you make as you think about the question you are trying to answer
  • Lab books or journals that you keep during any research project.

It is important to keep your information gathering, reading and note-taking proportionate to the task you are writing, so you will usually gather and refer to far more materials and read more widely for a long assignment than for a 2,000 word essay. 

You will need a filing and retrieval system that works for you in order to cope with this material so that you know what you have, where it is, how it should be referenced and to know what your views about it were. The filing system should allow you to decide which items you want to find to address any point that is currently confusing you, and then to quickly locate those items.

Managing time/work

"I think, be prepared to manage your own time. For a PhD topic you do have a lot of time between supervisions ..."

 

 
 

Tips and strategies for writing 

Find strategies that work for you - how do you work best? This is what other people have said.

Don't just have one way of writing; experiment and try other methods

"I was always a Grand Plan writer but now I tend to dive in write and see what happens."

 
Many people have rituals to get them to write. Do you have any?

"I make a strong coffee, open the office window and then I sit down and get started and when I finish I tidy the desk before I stand up and leave."

 
Where do you write best

"I need to be near a window for natural light, whereas a colleague prefers to write outside sitting on a bench. I love listening to music as I write, while many people need complete silence. I only write in my office and yet another colleague writes in lots of places."

 
When do you write best

"After I have cleaned the kitchen floor!"

"I prefer early evening when all my colleagues have left our open plan office."

"I prefer to write in the morning because it allows me to relax later in the day when I have produced some new text. I then reflect on that writing later in the day."

"I break up a writing session with little household jobs, so they can go on all day."

 
Do you prefer pen/pencil and paper or computers for your writing?

"I use a fountain pen and paper for my exploratory writing. I also write in black ink and edit my writing in blue ink. A colleague only uses a pencil but she has lots of different ones for different tasks."

 

Many pieces of writing require lots of writing sessions. How do you end yours?

"I leave a handwritten note that tells me what I need to do next. A friend always stops in the middle of sentence. Another colleague just walks away when the time is up."

 

As you can see, each writer is different and no one way is the right way. However, trying out different ideas may help you see if changing your habits helps to improve your writing and the process that produces it.

Hear more from students and staff

Writer's block

"I have suffered from writer's block, especially the first few weeks of the PhD. I think there's nothing worse than staring at a blank computer screen ..."

 

 
 

 

Using pictures to develop ideas

"I like to organise things in terms of the pictures I can use to describe something ..."

 

 
 

 

Different kinds of writing - timeline

"I have trouble putting things together in my head sometimes. Especially with history. I love history ..."

 
 
Student writing
Student writing
 

Further reading

Studying at university

Being organised

Reading and interpreting sources and data

Practical strategies for managing writing

more from Academic Support study resources 

People who can help

Talk to someone in your school or a specialist support service

 
 

Studying Effectively

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