La Trobe University Library La Trobe Library


La Trobe University Library La Trobe Library


La Trobe University Library La Trobe Library



Structure and style

At university, the structure and style of written assessments varies from one study area to another. It is important to read the instructions carefully. You will be expected to understand the general style conventions of writing essays, reports and case studies in your area of study.

Introductions and conclusions are important. A good introduction should encourage your reader to continue reading, while a good conclusion should ensure that the central theme sticks in the mind of the reader.

When writing essays and other types of assessments, the lecturer reading and assessing your work will want to know if you understood the topic. What was your response, did you understand the relevant background and context for discussing the topic, what was your overall argument, and what were the main points?

Introductions should include:

A clear response to the topic: A short, direct statement that tells the reader 'where you stand' in regard to the topic. This statement is simply to identify your response; there's plenty of space left in the Introduction to explain your response and how you will go about arguing it.

Background & context(s): All assessment topics fall within different contexts and you may include a statement or two that shows you know what these are – either historical, social, political, demographic, theoretical, etc.

You will often be expected to show your understanding of the assessments’s academic context: you can do this by identifying how your position fits into the broader academic discussion that has already taken place. You might also identify a gap in previous research; and/or identify how you will interpret and discuss key terms.  

Signposting: The sentences that position your argument within broader discussion of the topic and identify the plan for your essay. This helps the reader focus on a particular set of ideas you’ll discuss in the body paragraphs. - What will your main points be? In which order will you present them?

Example 1 - Topic: The biggest challenge facing our world in the twenty-first century is climate change and all nation states have a responsibility to make it a high priority.

Every nation must develop local strategies for dealing with the impact of climate change, yet on a global level some nations should take more responsibility than others. Carbon emissions from petrol, coal and natural gas have created a ‘greenhouse effect’, warming the world’s air and sea temperatures. While the most obvious impact of this pollution so far is environmental, its future effects will also be economic and political. Many experts believe that almost all governments have failed to make climate change a priority because of the significant costs involved. However, we must differentiate here between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ nations as the latter often face more immediate challenges such as political instability, war, disease and famine. Developed nations have a greater responsibility for acting on climate change as they are historically the biggest polluters and have greater resources for positive change. While some steps have been taken to reduce carbon emissions, much more needs to be done. Developing nations often suffer the impact of climate change but need help from wealthier nations to address the causes and effects of climate change locally. Meanwhile, developed nations that fail to make climate change a priority will become politically isolated and therefore must act, no matter what the financial cost.

Conclusions may include:

Summary of the main points - remind your reader of the main points without using the same wording as elsewhere in the assessment.

Your findings, if applicable - re-emphasise what you discovered after researching for this essay.

Your response to the question, together with possible solutions - restate your main argument, if you had an argument.

Remind the reader of your suggested solutions to any problems raised in the essay.

Remaining problems and questions - indicate what still needs to be solved; don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know everything.

Areas for future research - provide suggestions for future research which could address the problem.

Strong final sentence that leaves the reader with an overall impression of your views on the topic.

Link your opinion to the broader topic.

An academic essay consists of a series of paragraphs. Just like an essay, a paragraph has a structure.

Each paragraph unit consists of three types of sentences:

  • topic sentence - the key idea that frames the paragraph and acts as a signpost for what will be included.
  • supporting sentences - explanation, evidence or an example in the form of direct quotes, paraphrasing, statistics and personal experience (where appropriate). All evidence MUST be referenced.
  • concluding sentence - can restate the topic sentence but in different words, summarise the main points of the paragraph or provide a link to the next paragraph.

Body Paragraphs - structure and coherence

Each of the paragraphs must have their own internal coherence, by having a clear and logical structure that includes:

  • a topic sentence that introduces and focuses the paragraph
  • language that refers back to previous ideas by repetition, rephrasing in slightly different words, or pronouns such asthis, that, it, they, etc.
  • supporting evidence (either via quotation or paraphrase)
  • linking terms such as for example, thus, however, therefore

Example 1.

Karen Barnett and Barbara Adkins’ article “Computers: Community for Aging Women in Australia,” suggests that the internet allows older women who would otherwise be quite isolated from society due to poor health or lack of mobility, the ability to forge friendships with other women in similar circumstances. Through this, they attain a sense of community, a sense of belonging and security. If something were to go wrong, the virtual community that they interact with on a day to day basis would be the first support system to respond (Barnett & Adkins, 2001, p. 23).  For example participants of internet chat rooms, instant messaging and other forms of on-line contact each other in person regularly or have met before (Wellman, Salat; Dimitrova, Garton et al, 1996, p. 213).  Therefore this means of communication is an extension of face-to face interaction, a feature commonly associated with pre-modern society (Bessant & Watts 2002, p.10).  As access to technology such as the internet increases and people become more technically competent, virtual communities will prevail and the new generation of aged citizens can rely on such devices.

Most of your assessments will require evidence to support your arguments and observations, as well as to show that you have engaged closely with key ideas and texts. Personal opinions are requested in some pieces of assessment, but will need to be articulated within a particular context, usually by comparing or contrasting your thoughts with those of established writers. When you draw on the works of other writers you will need to show evidence that you have read, considered and understood their views.

In an academic context, we could define evidence as: information/ observations/ findings that support or verify an argument/ thesis. It must be in a form and from a source which meets academic standards. There are several types of sources where you can find evidence. Not all these sources are equal in value.

Further information on using academic sources as evidence in your assessments is available from the Using information module

Academic integrity means being honest in the academic work you do at university, and taking responsibility for learning the conventions of scholarship. This includes acknowledging where the information you use comes from, and using it ethically and appropriately. If you are a new student, you must complete the Academic Integrity Module. For further information check our Academic Integrity page.

In your written work, you will need to reference all the sources of information you use. It's important to learn how to reference correctly and follow the conventions within your discipline. You can lose marks, or even fail assessment tasks if you don't reference correctly.

For help with referencing, check out the Referencing module.

Clear writing is highly valued in academic work and in the professional workplace. In Australian academic writing, it is important to be concise and ‘get to the point’ quickly and briefly.

How to write concisely:

  • think about the purpose of every sentence and paragraph: What is the message you're trying to deliver? This will help you to explain your point more directly.

  • when editing a draft of your work, look for any redundant (unnecessary) words and phrases  that do not add to the meaning of the text, and have no purpose.

  • don’t be afraid to use the 'Delete' key. When you write the first draft you will be trying your best to make sure you have fully responded to an assessment topic. Delete any words, phrases or sentences that do not contribute something new to your overall message.

  • try to find sections of your writing where one or two words can replace several words. For example, instead of saying, “changed his mind after a long period of time”, you could say “eventually reconsidered’.

Activity 1 - Concise writing

Below is a text on academic and professional writing, but it contains a lot of unnecessary information. Rewrite in a more concise style so that you capture the essential message only. See the sample response for an answer.

Tip: Read the whole text first, trying to capture “the big picture”. Then try to summarise it in no more than 3 sentences.

At the beginning of their Master of Business Administration degree programs, a great many students in these various programs find it quite a struggle to learn the art of writing without employing redundancy. Generally, they hold onto a misplaced belief that very good quality writing should contain extremely long words and that the sentences they compose should be at least five lines long as this will sound very impressive when their reader, who is often their subject lecturer, reads the paper. Actually there is a lot of evidence to the contrary of the preceding sentence. Basically, a great majority of lecturers in the Australasian context have a preference for writing styles that do not contain too many unnecessary or redundant words and in fact comes to the point with a degree of rapidity. In other words, the student writer is required to think about what he or she wishes to say and then quite quickly comes to the point without wasting too much time on providing overly-detailed background to the subject at hand, while at the same time paying attention to the most important key points that he or she wishes to establish in the context of the whole paper.  Understanding the basic principles of concise writing in academic and professional contexts can and should contribute to the student in due course achieving success in his or her program. It is a basic reality that  each and every Master of Business Administration student can benefit  from being able to identify the basic principles of concise writing  in academic and professional writing contexts.

Sample answer:

At the beginning of their Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree programs, many students find it difficult to write without redundancy, believing that good writing means long words and sentences.  However, most Australian lecturers prefer writing styles that do not contain unnecessary words, and that also identify the main points or arguments in the introduction. Understanding the basic principles of concise writing can contribute to student success in the MBA program.

Developing cohesion in your writing

Cohesion in an academic paper results when all the parts of the paper fit together. There are a number of ways in which this can occur.


Readers like to know exactly what a piece of writing is trying to achieve and how it is going to get there. For that reason, it's a good idea to make use of 'signposts', which point the reader toward important ideas or claims and also outline how you will respond to a topic.

Signposting is often achieved by using linking words and phrases. Sometimes called transition signals, these help to connect sentences and paragraphs in your writing so that you can express your ideas more clearly. The following table provides several examples of linking words and phrases that can be used to achieve different results in your writing, such as comparing similar ideas, showing difference, making additional points, summarizing, evaluating and concluding:

Activity 2 - linking words and phrases

Read the following short paragraph. You will probably find it difficult to read, because the sentences are not linked well to each other: 

Corporate Social Responsibility has the potential to improve corporate behaviour. It takes commitment from the CEO and other stakeholders. Environmental sustainability has become a key concern. The impact of global warming has become more visible. Firms that have embraced CSR realise that it has positive marketing implications. CSR continues to suffer from a public perception that it is little more than window-dressing. Some companies have invested significant levels of time and money into implementing CSR. A growing number of these are now realising financial gains. They have improved their reputations in the process.

Now, read a version of this paragraph that has used linking words and phrases (in bold font). Notice how the link words make the text easier to read.

Corporate Social Responsibility has the potential to improve corporate behaviour, but it takes commitment from the CEO and other stakeholders. As the impact of global warming has become more visible, environmental sustainability has become a key concern and firms that have embraced CSR realise that it has positive marketing implications. However, CSR continues to suffer from a public perception that it is little more than window-dressing, even though some companies have invested significant levels of time and money into implementing it. Fortunately, a growing number of these are now realising financial gains, and they have improved their reputations in the process.

There is also a range of other phrases you can use to make the purpose and structure of your assignment clear to the reader. These include:

  • The aim of this study is to …
  • The purpose of this thesis is to…
  • This essay argues that …
  • The main questions addressed in this paper are …
  • This essay critically examines…
  • The above discussion raises some interesting questions.
  • This paper begins by …. It will then go on to …. Finally, …
  • This chapter reviews the literature …
  • In conclusion, …

Other strategies for creating cohesion

Pronoun reference

Pronoun reference is the use of a pronoun (e.g. he, she, it, which, they, it, those, these) in place of a noun (e.g. The lecturer, the university). This reduces repetition and aids information flow. The Achieve@Uni module 10 common mistakes in student writing contains further examples and explanations of how to use pronouns effectively to avoid poor cohesion.

Topic sentences

Topic sentences help to maintain coherence in your writing. They improve the clarity of the paragraph by limiting what is said (normally to one idea). Your lecturers and tutors have many assignments to read and therefore expect clear, concise topic sentences that quickly identify what each paragraph is about. For example (in an essay on the history of Australian government responses to climate change): "Compared to other developed nations, the Australian Government was slow to accept the early evidence of global warming."

Reporting verbs

We use reporting verbs frequently in academic writing. They tell us how the writer expressed a thought. For example, "In contrast to previous claims Jones (2012) argued that, on balance, globalisation has failed".

In academic writing this illustrates how ideas have been expressed by other scholars in your field of study and how they support or otherwise align with your own perspectives.

Activity 3 - writing cohesively

Using pronouns, keyword repetition and link-words help the reader to link parts of the paper to previous or succeeding sections. This helps to create cohesion. See some examples of this in the box below:

Hover the pointer over the bold text below to discover the reviews of each excerpt.

Writing is a significant feature of teaching and learning in university settings. It fosters students' self-expression, construction of identity, understanding and knowledge-building (Galbraith, 1999; Quitadamo & Kurtz, 2007). Writing has long been seen primarily as an individual learning activity; however, educators are increasingly discovering new pedagogical benefits in students writing collaboratively (Hodges, 2002; Reither & Vipond, 1989). As research shows, Collaborative Writing (CW) can: a) promote deeper learning (Quitadamo & Kurtz, 2007); b) encourage students' initiative, creativity and critical thinking (Hodges, 2002); and c) help students to work jointly on shared objectives (Caspi & Blau, 2011; Palloff & Pratt, 2005). Some researchers also argue that participation in CW activities (even online text-based discussions) can, when accompanied by ways of knowing and thinking that are characteristic of disciplines or professions and a sense of knowledge-building community, assist students in becoming more competent knowledge workers (Ellis & Goodyear, 2010; Goodyear & Zenios, 2007). The emergence of online tools such as wikis, blogs, Google docs and online forums, presents writers, including teachers and students, with new technological affordances for collaborative work. Nevertheless, academics who try to embrace Online Collaborative Writing (OCW) in their teaching often report challenges that result in less positive student experiences or learning outcomes (Caspi & Blau, 2011; Cole, 2009).

Reference: Limbu, L. & Markauskaite, L. (2015), How do learners experience joint writing: University students' conceptions of online collaborative writing tasks and environments. Computers & Education, 82, 393-408

THESIS STATEMENTS: A thesis statement is usually a single statement that tells the reader what the main purpose or argument is in the text (usually provided in essays and journal articles). Sometimes this is expressed as an argument:

E.g. "This paper argues that (e.g.) collaborative writing can be beneficial for student's writing process and self-confidence"

Sometimes it is expressed as an issue that needs resolving and why it is important to resolve it, followed by what the authors will do, or what they found.

E.g. “To date, there has been little investigation of the expectations that students bring to Online Collaborative Writing (OCW) tasks and of how they interpret the OCW affordances offered to them. Knowledge about students' experiences of the OCW phenomenon and of what they conceive to be an effective OCW environment can provide important insights into the improved design and scaffolding of these collaborative learning experiences. Fifteen university students with varying levels of OCW experience were interviewed in this study. The findings showed that these students conceived of OCW in four qualitatively distinct ways, namely... etc”


Integrating sources into your writing

It is an expectation in academic writing that you will include existing sources (other peoples ideas, statistical evidence and data, etc) via direct quotation or paraphrase. The information you use should be clearly integrated into your own writing for a  specific purpose (e.g. to support your claims, help define your argument, provide further evidence, etc). It is important that you quickly and clearly indicate what the information contributes to your commentary, and also that you reference it correctly. For further explanation and examples of how to properly integrate sources in your writing with accurate referencing, see the Achieve@Uni module Using Information

  • 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].