La Trobe University Library La Trobe Library


La Trobe University Library La Trobe Library


La Trobe University Library La Trobe Library



The process of writing

Written assessments at university come in a broad range of formats, each of which help you to develop valuable skills, such as writing, critical thinking, research, analysis and problem solving.

It's challenging enough to figure out what to write, and it's harder when you don’t know how to write. They each come with a different set of rules, word limits and expectations. It is very important that you understand these before you begin planning or researching.

Before you begin to write, ask yourself

What does your lecturer expect from you?  Make sure you fully understand all the requirements relating to style and format, word limit, structure, submission dates, referencing style any specific reading or evidence you are expected to include.

What skills am I being assessed on?  University assignments test your knowledge of each subject’s content (key ideas and contexts, practices, methods and problems) but also assess your academic writing skills. As such each assignment should also come with  clear Marking Criteria that outline how the assignment will be assessed. Familiarizing yourself with this information will give you a sense of what is most important to get right for each assignment. This information will be attached either to the assignment instructions, or included in your Subject Learning Guide, or available through the subject LMS page.

How does the task connect to the weekly readings?  Many university assessments draw on the readings you were asked to do in preparation for classes. These may be the readings for a particular teaching week, or several weeks. It’s vital that you are clear about which readings you are required to draw on.

How does the task draw on lectures and class discussions?  It’s always good to know how an assignment fits into the ideas and practices you’ve studied in the subject. Understanding this will give you a good starting point for your assignment as you’ll know which weekly ideas and readings you need to re-visit, along with your own notes.

If you still have any questions, seek advice from your tutor or lecturer as early as possible. Also look at subject forums as other students may already have posted helpful tips.

The key to understanding the writing requirements of any assignment topic is to identify the instruction words and key words.

  • Underline the instruction words: these tell you what you need to do in the assignment with the information you already have.

  • Identify keywords: these outline the topic you will write about. There may be words used that have a special meaning within a subject, so check with your tutor or lecturer. Otherwise, check the meanings of keywords in a dictionary and think about how you would need to approach your research for this task.

Activity 1. Identify keywords in essay question

Identify instruction words and keywords

In the sample essay question below, select: Keywords (the topic you will write about)
Click on each word to highlight your choices.

Recently, there has been publicity about plagiarism in Australian universities. Discuss the problem of plagiarism and suggest what universities could do.

Recently, there has been publicity aboutplagiarism in Australian universities. Discuss the problem of plagiarism and suggest what universities could do.


In the sample essay question below, select: Instruction words (what you have to do)
Click on each word to highlight your choices.

Recently, there has been publicity about plagiarism in Australian universities. Discuss the problem of plagiarism and suggest what universities could do.

Recently, there has been publicity about plagiarism in Australian universities. Discuss the problem of plagiarism and suggest what universities could do.


  • Paraphrase the topic (rewrite it in your own words) so that it makes sense to you:

    By paraphrasing your question, you can check whether you have understood exactly what you have to do. To paraphrase you should: rewrite the question using simpler language and think of clear explanations of what the question is asking you to do.

    You may wish to show your paraphrased question to your tutor to check your understanding of the question is correct.


    Task: Examine the impact of tourism on a range of different environments. What are the resulting management implications? (Business)

    Paraphrase: Tourism can have different effects on different situations. What are these effects of tourism? And what does this mean for managing these effects/ how can they be managed?

You can develop your understandings of subject content for an assignment in a number of ways.

Think about the essay as soon as you are given it. This means you can:

  • Plan your calendar so that you have enough time to do preparation; look at whether you will be given time to work on material in class, if so make sure you have done some work before then as it is a good opportunity to clarify matters with teaching staff.
  • Get the important readings before they are all borrowed from the library.

Study with others.

  • When you first get an assignment topic, talk to another student/s about it.
  • Organise times to discuss ideas about the assignment and decide what the key ingredients need to be.
  • Discuss the research you have done, explaining to each other what you have read.
  • Remember this is about exchanging ideas and perspectives and identifying key resources in order to find a starting point for your own individual assignment, so you must avoid copying the work of others (Check the Using Sources module for further information)

Connect the assignment with what you have been studying in that subject.

Ask yourself:

  • Which classes were on topics relevant to this assignment?
  • Which weekly readings are about topics that relate to this task?
  • How does this assignment relate to concepts your lecturer has discussed?
  • What other issues could be connected to the topic?

Decide what you will need to explain to your reader.

  • Think about which key terms and concepts will need to be defined.
  • Think about describing relevant frameworks, theories, etc.
  • Think about how to describe your methodology, if required.

Decide what might be different points of discussion on the different issues.

  • What are the pros and cons of an issue?
  • What aspects need to be considered?
  • Can you defend a choice or position you have taken

A useful first step when writing assignments is to brainstorm ideas and create a visual map of potential content. In brainstorming you write down anything that you know about the topic – you will be surprised at how much you already know about a topic if you are up-to-date with lecture notes and tutorial readings. Write down any questions that you have. These questions will help to focus your ideas and make it a bit easier when you start to do research to draw up an initial structure for your assignment.

Brainstorming can be done in any form: in point form or as a mind or concept map where you can link similar ideas.

There is a range of mindmapping software, a free version you might use is MindMup.

Your writing is assessed not only on what you write, but also how it’s presented. The aim for any assignment is to present your ideas and information with logic and coherence. Having a plan from the beginning helps you to keep focused on the main task, divide the assignment into more manageable sections, identify what needs to be done and in what order, and locate the places where you'll need to support your writing with additional reading and research.

There are many ways to structure an assignment and these will differ from one study area to another. While essay writing is relevant to many areas of study, there are several other types of assignment that come with their own set of expectations. Advice and examples of how to structure specific types of assessment commonly used in your area of study can be found in the left hand menu under each discipline.

When it comes to collecting information and evidence for an assignment you are never really ‘starting from scratch’ if you have been attending classes and doing your weekly readings and you will probably already have a lot of useful notes and information that you can make use of. However, there will also be ‘gaps’ in your knowledge that need to be filled before you attempt to write up the assignment. Your own notes will often be the starting point for your research, but you may also be required to find a number of additional sources to support your arguments and build your response to the topic.

For further information on locating sources, refer to the Finding Information module.

Always plan time to read over what you have written before you submit it.

You should give yourself enough time to review your essay a day or so after you finish writing with a fresh eye. Then you will see any errors and make improvements.

Some strategies to help:

  • Check your grammar and punctuation. You should use a spell-checker AND your own eyes just to double check.
  • Proof read your writing in hard copy. Sometimes when you proof read on the screen, your eyes substitute the correct form and you miss many typos.
  • Read your work aloud! This can help you to hear how the writing sounds - what sounds good and what doesn't.
  • Check your referencing format consistency and the fine detail of your references, even if you're using a referencing program like Endnote.

Editing checklist

Have you...

Understood the topic

  • Answered what the question is asking you to do?

Abstract (if required)

  • Stated the problem or the question that you've addressed?
  • Provided your answer (your "thesis")?
  • Outlined your scope, focus, method and sources?
  • Identified your main reasons for your answer / main findings of your research
  • Stated your conclusion (with implications, if any)?


  • Set the context?
  • Narrowed the focus?
  • Stated a summary of your argument in a thesis statement?
  • Provided an overview of your writing?
  • Defined key terms?


In each paragraph

  • Given a summary sentence (topic sentence) which is clearly related to the thesis statement?
  • Ensured each paragraph develops one idea (not a mixture), and have you developed it fully?
  • Developed each point with explanation and/or evidence from the reading?
  • Used too many short paragraphs? Could you merge some by making categories with a topic sentence that link to the thesis statement?
  • Do any paragraphs need deleting?
  • Are the verb tenses appropriate?


  • Repeated key terms/concepts through the text?
  • Linked ideas between paragraphs?
  • Used a lot of "and" connectors - could you change some of them to give more variety?

Argument and evidence

  • Made generalisations which need to be more tentative?
  • Provided evidence to support your arguments?
  • Summarised/paraphrased the views of other in your own words, then referenced them in the text?


  • Summarised the major point of the essay?
  • Given the reader a clear understanding of the argument you have pursued?


  • Checked the referencing style suggested in the subject guide?
  • Used enough references?
  • Used paraphrasing appropriately (not copied out sections of the texts you have read)?
  • Put all direct quotations in inverted commas?
  • Varied the way you refer to sources?
  • Provided a reference list in alphabetical order and referencing format?

Presentation & Formatting

  • Checked with your subject outline for these requirements?
  • Included a cover sheet with all the information filled out, including writing the question you have answered out in full?
  • Double spaced your writing?
  • Used appropriate margins?
  • Used size 12 font?
  • Indicated where a new paragraph begins either by line spacing or indentation?