La Trobe University


La Trobe University


La Trobe University



Arts & Social Sciences

Writing for Arts and Social Science subjects is ideally clear and straightforward. You may find yourself reading some sources that do not live up to that ideal, but you will appreciate the ones that do. Equally, when it comes to assessment, the people reading your assignments will feel the same about your writing!

A lot of students feel that their style is not sophisticated or "academic" enough, and try to complicate their sentence structure and vocabulary in order to make the writing sound "more impressive". However, your lecturers and tutors will be far more impressed by your ability to respond to assignment topics in language that is clear, coherent, well-structured and accurate.

To meet the requirements of appropriate academic writing, your style should be formal rather than conversational. That is, avoid slang and contractions (conversational forms like isn't, it's, or would've instead of the "written" forms is not, it is, or would have).

In Arts and Social Sciences subjects many of your assignments will take the form of essays. They need to:

  • include appropriate content,
  • be supported by evidence and properly referenced sources,
  • make use of logically ordered paragraphs, and
  • have sentences that are grammatically complete and proper punctuation.

You need to put the ideas you are reading in your sources into your own words. This may seem strange and difficult at first, especially if the information is complex, but there are good reasons for paraphrasing.

  • Paraphrasing shows the person who is marking your work that you understand what you are writing about/
  • It also helps you to keep a consistent writing style. Every writer has their own style and your writing will flow more smoothly if all of the sentences are written in your own natural style.
  • Be Precise. Use specific terminology where appropriate

  1. A machine was used to see how big the site was.

  2. A theodolite was used to measure the size of the site.


  • Be careful with words like 'it' and 'they'. Sometimes it is better to be specific about what it is or they are.

  1. After a while it went up.

  2. Over the next ten years, the rate of divorce in the 16-30 age group increased by 30%.


  • Be Concise – aim for maximum content, minimum words

If you are under the word count, you need to add more content rather than ‘pad out’ your writing with extra words. Adding ‘filler ‘words will not get you any extra marks. It’s the number of ideas that are marked, not the number of words.

  1. In my opinion, up until the present time, it seems relatively unclear as to which will, in the long run, emerge as the best method of sampling to use in order to obtain the desired results in the shortest possible time.

  2. It is not known which sampling technique is the most efficient.


  • Be Formal – avoid personal, emotional and colloquial (everyday) language

It is advisable to avoid using personal language, particularly pronouns which refer to the reader e.g. you, your, us, our, because it sounds as if they’re in the room with you. Academic writing is addressed to any reader, not just the ones you know.

  1. If you want to improve this survey, you should increase the sample size. [informal]

  2. To improve this survey, the sample size should be increased. [more formal]


It is sometimes acceptable to use I and we in academic writing, but this varies throughout the different disciplines.

The purpose of avoiding “I” is to keep you focussed on the thing you are writing about, rather than on yourself, and to remind you to be objective about it, rather than allowing your personal, subjective opinion to dominate your exploration of a topic.

However, it makes sense to say “I” if you are asked to write about your own response to, or reflection on, something.

You could also say “I” when you are signposting what your essay is going to do: “First I will explain Mill’s concept of the sociological imagination, and then I will show how it helps us to understand the experience of a particular Australian family in the 1950s.”

However, if your tutor frowns on “I”, you have an alternative: “First, this essay will explain….”


  • Avoid colloquial language – the sort of ‘everyday’ language that may be suitable when speaking should not be used in formal, academic writing.

  1. Every day, more and more electronic stuff is chucked out and ends up in the tip. [informal]

  2. Electronic waste is an increasing problem with 75% of computers bought annually in Australia ending up in landfill (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2006). [more formal]


  • Avoid emotional or aggressive language - it may actually weaken an academic argument.

  1. It will be a tragedy if these incredible sites are lost to the world forever. [emotional & informal]

  2. It is vital that conservation measures are immediately put in place to save these historic sites from destruction. [more formal]


  • Be assertive, but not aggressive in your views on other writers:

  1. As this essay will prove, Bloggs is biased and blatantly wrong. [combative]

  2. This essay will suggest that Bloggs has given undue emphasis to….. [more modest, and courteous – still makes the point].

The way we structure texts depends on our culture. The following points apply to all writing you do at university in Australia:

Order points logically

It is very difficult to make a piece of writing flow well if the ideas are not presented logically.

  • Order points for discussion at the planning stage of your writing.
  • Make sure you have one main unifying idea per paragraph and that the ideas within the paragraph lead logically from one to the next.
  • Take note of the order of paragraphs so that there is a logical progression from one main idea to the next, making clear links between your ideas.
  • making it clear how each main idea is related to the topic.
  • Where possible, linking words and expressions should indicate the relationship between ideas.

For example if you want to show that something in the second sentence is a result of something in the first sentence, you could start the second sentence with ‘as a result’.

The effective use of these words and phrases should help you to introduce, compare, contrast and evaluate ideas; add examples; build up and consolidate an argument; show the relationship between causes and effects and help establish a chronology (timeline) of events and processes.

Warning: Don’t use a linking word just for the sake of it. Choose carefully!

Using the wrong word to express the relationship between ideas, is worse than no link at all, as it looks as if you yourself don’t know how the ideas are related.

The table below gives a brief list of linking words and expressions. Note that this is not intended to be a complete listing of all the linking words and phrases available for use in assignments. The examples provided here are some of the ones more commonly used in the Humanities and Social Sciences.

More often than not, the written assessment you undertake in Arts and Social Sciences subjects will take the form of an essay. No matter what field of study you are engaged in, the same basic process can be used to plan and write your essay. This process can be divided into six steps, which are described in more detail below:

Analyse the topic

This is not just a matter of noticing the instruction words (compare, evaluate, etc.), though of course you must do that. More importantly, it’s a matter of figuring out what the question has to do with the larger concepts, methods, theories, and perhaps debates that are discussed in that subject. So you need to ask yourself:

What overall questions or ideas give rise to the particular question you are writing on?

How will you show, in your essay, that you understand the context relating to your question?

Most assignments in the Arts and Social Sciences want you to consider how a general idea or theory (or more than one) applies to a specific example of whatever phenomenon you are studying.

  • You will need to explain what that idea or theory is, then

  • You need to show how it relates to the example(s) you or your tutor have chosen for analysis.

See the section Understanding topics for more information.

Research the topic

A well-written essay is well researched, this means you have to:

  1. Seek information from the sources indicated, and search more widely if appropriate.
  2. Keep a record of all sources used and the relevant pages when you make notes so that you can include them in your in-text references and reference list.
  3. Start with the sources recommended in your subject, and move out from there if required.
  4. You can follow up relevant references used by the authors of your essential and further readings, by checking their reading and/or reference lists.

Plan the essay

This involves three main steps through which you organise key ideas and related themes, taking into consideration format restrictions and word limits.

  1. Firstly, brainstorm: Write down everything you already know about the topic – this could be in a diagram or a table.
  2. Now access the resources and add anything you have missed or that you can add to your brainstorm. Make sure you record which sources you used for which information (The easiest way to do this is to write the reference and page number next to your notes).
  3. Next group the common ideas within the brainstorm. Give your grouped ideas a heading. These groups then become the themes for your essay.

Finally, outline the essay in detail with each theme becoming a main point supported by factual evidence. Writing for arts and social science subjects is ideally clear and straightforward. You may find yourself reading some sources that don’t live up to that ideal, but you’ll appreciate the ones that do. Equally, when it comes to assessment, the people reading your assignments will feel the same about your writing!

See the sections on ‘Brainstorming’ and ‘Planning and Structure’ for more information.

Draft the Essay

Construct these themes into the key elements of an essay: introduce them in an introduction, detail and exemplify or contrast etc., them in the discussion (or body) divided into a number of paragraphs, and consider their value in a conclusion.

The writing style is formal but the essay can, at this stage, be quite disorganised. Don’t panic! This draft is only for you, to get all your ideas and information down in one place where you can see what they are. You can edit it later.

Rewrite and edit and proof read your draft

Leave enough time before the submission deadline to proofread rigorously, so that your presentation does justice to your ideas. (If it doesn’t, your tutor may have trouble even seeing your ideas!)

Write your reference list

Make sure that all references cited (in-text) are included in your reference list and all references in your list have been cited in your essay.

Now is it good enough? 

You could use the following “checklist” to satisfy yourself that the writing, at least, is good as it can be.


Checklist for Essays

Every essay is different, but there are common criteria. To be considered adequate for uni, your essay should meet the criteria below (many departments don’t require a synopsis; but all require everything else). So, when you’re ready with a final draft, check it for these; they’re the kind of thing that can make the difference between one letter grade and the next!

1. SYNOPSIS/ABSTRACT (if required)

Sometimes you may be asked to include a synopsis (or “abstract”). If so, it’s a paragraph on a separate sheet, before the essay, that summarises its content. It’s more comprehensive than your introduction; the introduction says what the essay is going to do, but the abstract boils down the whole thing. It should include (not in point form, as here, but in a paragraph):

  • The problem or question that you’ve addressed
  • Your answer (your “thesis”)
  • If important, your scope; focus; method; sources)
  • Your main reasons for your answer /main findings of your research
  • Your conclusion (with implications, if any)


Does your first paragraph explain the question and (briefly) give your answer and/or indicate how you are going to approach it?


Does each paragraph make a clearly identifiable point? Is there a sentence, preferably the first sentence that expresses this point?

Does the rest of the paragraph develop that point with explanation and/or evidence from the reading?


Does each section of your essay clearly contribute to your answer?


Does each paragraph develop one idea (not a mixture), and develop it fully?


Is there a connection between each point and the one that follows it?


Have you put quotation marks around, and a reference after, everything that you have copied directly from your reading?

Have you put a reference after everything that you learned from reading but have put in your own words?


Are the references throughout your essay in the format specified in the study guide for this subject?

Have you included a Bibliography of all the sources you used for this essay (even if you only used one)? Again, for all sources, have you given the details in the order, and with the punctuation, that your guide for this subject prescribes?


Have you carefully checked spelling, etc., by spellchecker, if any, and again by eye? Remember that the spellchecker will accept any word that it has in its vocabulary, and it doesn’t know what word you meant, so it won’t pick up errors like of/off, there/their/they’re, it’s/its, here/where, etc.

Reading your work aloud can help you to notice anything amiss (and savour what sounds really good!)

What is it? Usually an annotated bibliography assignment is an early step on the way to writing a research essay. It is typically assessed independent of the essay (but you may be required to submit an annotated bibliography in order for your essay to be accepted).

The idea is that:

  • you do some preliminary research for an upcoming essay in order to find out what has been written already about your topic.
  • You decide which sources are most relevant to what you’re doing, and write a brief description (annotation) about how each of them is relevant to the topic and could contribute to your response.
  • The number of sources you are required to include will typically range from 5-10, however, this will be decided by your lecturer, based on a number of factors.

What is it for? It is a basic expectation for essay writing in the Arts and Social Sciences that your essays will be based on research.

  • Submitting an annotated bibliography gives you a chance to show your tutor that you’ve started to think and write about the topic and understand the appropriate context(s) for your discussion.
  • Equally, it gives you a starting point for your research so that when you come to write the essay you’ll already have some sources to draw on.

You don’t need to read every word or every book, at this stage.

  • Read the introductory chapter, or the chapter that introduces the section dealing with your topic.
  • If it’s an article, read the first couple of pages and the last, and look at the headings.
  • If it’s a research article, scan the introduction and the discussion section (what did they ask? What did they learn?).
  • If it’s a report, read the summary at the beginning. Use your judgement about how much more you need to read in order to know what this source says and does.

What does it look like? As with a normal reference list or bibliography, an annotated bibliography is arranged alphabetically according to the author’s last name. Each entry starts with the bibliographic details of a source (the citation) followed by a brief annotation of about one paragraph (approx. 100 - 150 words) per citation.

Each annotation should include:

  1. A clear explanation of the topic or theme of the research material
  2. An identification of the key argument(s) in the source
  3. A description of the author’s method (eg. how was the topic discussed and what evidence is provided to support the argument?  Examples/ statistics/ personal accounts/ concept development, etc.)
  4. A concluding sentence or two that describe what this research material will contribute to your essay (What questions does it raise? What ideas does it contribute?)

What is a literature review? A literature review is a common assessment task in both undergraduate and postgraduate courses.  It is an up-to-date synthesis of relevant literature about a topic or issue. A literature review provides the reader with a critical summary of what is currently known about an area of study. It is not just a description of various studies, one after the other, nor is it a set of summaries, one after the other. A literature review centres on a problem, issue or argument and is guided by this concept. It highlights the strengths and weakness, the similarities and differences, the contested areas, and the gaps in previous research to provide a clear and concise overall summary of the field.

Why write a literature review? If you are an undergraduate student, the literature review demonstrates that you are able to research and report on what is already known about a topic. In particular, you are providing evidence that you have read, evaluated, drawn links between the various studies and identified the central issues. If you are a postgraduate, the literature review will, in addition, indicate that you have identified the important unresolved critical issues and integrated previous research findings with your own research.

How to write a literature review: The production of an effective literature review involves a number of academic research activities:

  • searching and selecting the relevant sources from the literature in the field
  • reading and note taking (understanding, summarising & evaluating) see Cornell note taking
  • grouping and categorising (identifying themes in your topic which might be based on methods, theories, types of studies, issues, chronologies)
  • structuring and outlining (deciding on the order of the themes)
  • synthesising (connecting, comparing/contrasting, bringing together)

How is a Literature Review different from an annotated bibliography?

  • An annotated bibliography is a list of sources, each one accompanied by a short paragraph saying what it deals with and how it contributes to your project.
  • The Literature Review is more than simply a list of short entries; it is written more like an essay, using paragraphs (and often subheadings as well – check with your assignment instructions for formatting). It provides a more detailed synthesised and contextual discussion of existing sources, with a more strongly developed sense of how the sources will not just contribute individually, but how they will also work together as you build your essay.
  • You start with a paragraph introducing your project and giving an overview of the literature you’ve found.
  • Then you go into detail, not source by source but theme by theme, looking at how various sources, or clusters of sources, deal with each theme (see the example excerpt below). 

Example from a social science literature review


Interest in children’s production of questions, in English at any rate, has a long history. During the nineteenth century, a number of people, including Darwin, wrote about children’s questioning behaviour (Bain, 1879; Bohannon, 1896; Darwin, 1877; Sully, 1896; Taine, 1877).  Their theoretical framework was that of early genetics and psychology; their driving interest that of explaining the child’s use of questions in terms of  ‘evolution’ or ‘instinct’.  Some of these earlier works provide a cautionary reminder that the cultural and social divide between our present and our past can be as great as that between any two contemporaneous cultures. Children’s questions and the “instinct for inquisitiveness and curiosity” from which they were seen to stem were deemed by some of the nineteenth century scholars to be evidence of  “defective self-control” (Bohannon, 1896) or  “a mood of general mental discontent and peevishness” (Sully, 1896). By the 1930s, however, we are on much more familiar terrain. Lewis (1936), in a longitudinal study of one child’s acquisition of questions, related their emergence to the desire of “securing a response” and observed that both occurred in his subject at the age of sixteen months.  Lewis, along with Davis (1932) and Smith (1933), produced some of the earliest recognisably ‘linguistic’ studies of children and their acquisition of questions.  Despite their dependence on written records, and the limitations of the Piagetian framework within which they operated, these researchers identified the key issues that were to preoccupy many subsequent linguists in the field: the age of onset of questioning behaviour, the frequency of various forms and functions, and the sequence of their acquisition.

(from a literature review on children’s use of questions in linguistics)

The following books are mostly for undergraduate students, however, they may prove beneficial to postgraduate students seeking advice and clear explanations of methodologies in their fields.

Ballard, B. & Clanchy, J. (1991).  Essay writing for students: a practical guide. Longman Cheshire: Melbourne Longman Cheshire.

Barnet, S . (2007). A Short Guide to Writing About Art. New York: Pearson Longman.

Brick, J. (2011). Academic Culture: a student’s guide to studying at university. South Yarra, Vic:Macmillan.

Corrigan, T. (2009).  A Short Guide to Writing about Film. New York: Pearson Longman.

Johnson Jr,. & W, Rettig, R,. & Scott, G., & Garrison, S. (2002). The Sociology Student Writer’s Manual.  New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Marius, R.  (2009).  A Short Guide to Writing about History. New York: Pearson Longman.

Taylor, G.  (2009). A Student's Writing Guide: How to Plan and Write Successful Essays. Cambridge: CUP.