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How Writing Works

Technical writing process : the simple, five-step process that can be used to create almost any piece of technical documentation such as a user guide, manual or procedure

The essentials of academic writing for international students

Clear & concise

Improve your grammar : the essential guide to accurate writing

The essentials of academic writing for international students

The sense of style

The writers' handbook

English grammar for dummies

Grammar & Punctuation

Let's will look at how different types of sentences are constructed and how to use punctuation correctly. A sentence provides the framework for the clear written expression of our ideas. They always begin with a capital letter and end with one of the following:

  • full stop
  • exclamation mark
  • question mark

A complete sentence always contains a verb and expresses a complete idea. It makes sense on its own. To check that you are writing complete sentences, try reading them out loud. Pause when you come to a comma or full stop. Can each sentence stand alone as a complete thought? If you need more information to complete the idea, the sentence is not right.

Click on the arrow for more information.

Examples of good and bad sentences

Below are some examples of good and bad sentences with explanations.

Good: Andy reads quickly.

This is a complete sentence. It contains a verb, which is reads. It expresses a complete idea because you don’t need any more information to understand it.

Bad: When Andy reads.

This is an incomplete sentence because we need more information to complete the idea of what happens when Andy reads.

Good: When Andy reads, he reads quickly.

This is a complete sentence because it expresses a full idea.

Bad:There is another theory. Which should not be ignored.

The second sentence doesn’t stand alone as a complete thought.

Good: There is another theory which should not be ignored.

The sentence makes sense.

Bad: The proposal was finally rejected. Although they considered it.

The second sentence doesn’t stand alone as a complete thought.

Good: Although they considered the proposal, it was finally rejected.

The sentence makes complete sense.

Clauses

Sentences are made up of clauses, which are groups of words that express a single idea. There are two types of clauses:

  • Independent clauses - these stand alone as complete sentences.
  • Dependent clauses - they need an independent clause to complete its meaning.

A dependent clause always needs to be combined with an independent clause to complete an idea. Clauses make up different types of sentences - simple, compound, complex and compound-complex.

Simple sentences: They are made of just one independent clause and need only one punctuation mark at the end. eg The assignment was late.

Compound sentence: They are made by joining simple sentences. Joining closely related sentences makes the writing flow. Joins are made by using a comma or the words and, but, so, or yet Example: The essay was late, so he lost marks. Example: The essay was late; he lost marks.

Complex sentence: This is a sentence that is made by joining an independent clause with a dependent clause. Example: Because his assignment was late, he lost marks.

Commas in sentence clauses

The comma separates the dependent from the independent clause because the dependent clause comes first. Common words that start a dependent clause include although, as, because, even though, if, instead, through, when whenever, where, and while.

Example: He lost marks because the assignment was late.

The independent clause comes before the dependent clause so it doesn't need a comma.

Compound-complex sentences

This is a sentence in three parts. A dependent clause begins the sentence, it is separated from the central clause by a comma and then the end of the sentence is an independent clause. Example: When considering owning a pet, you must calculate the cost, or the animal may suffer.

Make your writing flow

Use different types of sentence structures to make your writing flow. Below is an example of writing that contains correct sentences but the writing doesn’t flow:

  • Jackie is confident. She is a good speaker. She is considered to be an excellent presenter. Everyone finds her interesting. No one has been critical. She is supportive of others.

The writing flows better if you combine some of the sentences that are closely related:

  • Jackie is confident, she is a good speaker. She is considered to be an excellent presenter. Everyone finds her interesting, and no one has been critical as she is supportive of others.

Below is a sentence that is long and complicated:

  • If you consider buying a puppy, whatever age or breed, always consider the type of house you have, as this is the most important first step, because without considering this first you can find yourself with a dog that, despite your good intentions, you just cannot keep.

This sentence should be shortened so the writing flows, but you must to avoid confusing the reader:

  • If you consider buying a puppy, whatever age or breed, always consider the type of house you have. This is the most important first step. Without considering this first, you can find yourself with a dog that you just cannot keep, despite your good intentions.

Sentence tips:

  • Read your sentences aloud to see if they make sense.
  • Check that each sentence stands alone as a complete idea.
  • Break long sentences into shorter sentences.
  • Join abrupt sentences together to make the writing flow.
  • Vary the length and type of the sentences you use.
  • Check your punctuation.
Paragraphs

Paragraphs divide writing into a number of points or stages. Each paragraph should deal with one idea or one aspect of an idea. It should be clear to the reader what the main idea is.

If used correctly, paragraphs create a clear written structure. A paragraph is a chunk of writing of any length. As a general rule they should not be less than 2 or 3 sentences, and there should be 2 or 3 on an A4 page.

Paragraphs are separated by a blank line or they are indented a few spaces. The end of a paragraph creates a pause in the flow of your writing. This pause tells the reader that the writing is about to move on to a different idea or a different aspect of an idea.

When you begin a new paragraph you should be clear about the main idea you are covering. Check that you don’t go off on a tangent, discuss details that would work better in a different paragraph, or discuss details that need a paragraph of their own.

Paragraphs often have a brief introduction and conclusion. The introduction of a paragraph makes the purpose of the paragraph clear to the reader. It often explains how that idea is relevant to the main topic. The main body of a paragraph should develop this idea. An idea can be defined, examples provided, commentary can be given, opposing ideas can be discussed, and implications and consequences can be shown. The conclusion of a paragraph links back to the introduction and comments on the implications of the point as a whole or makes a link to the next paragraph. Don’t end the paragraph with brand new or irrelevant detail.

Paragraph summary:

  • Paragraphs provide a structure that enables the reader to follow a thread of ideas.
  • Paragraphs have their own internal structure but they need to fit into a larger piece of writing.
  • Be clear about the idea or argument that you cover in each paragraph.
  • Check that the first line of a paragraph outlines the paragraph’s main idea.
Apostrophes
  • An apostrophe looks like this ' it has two main uses:
  • It replaces missing letters when we join two words together eg cannot becomes can't. This is called a contraction.
  • It shows ownership eg John's book

Contractions: They replace one or more letters, which creates a shorter word:

  • Do not becomes don’t
  • I will becomes I’ll
  • You are becomes you’re
  • They are becomes they’re
  • Were not becomes weren’t
  • Cannot becomes can’t

As you progress through your studies you should use them less and less in assignments.

Ownership: This is when an apostrophe is used to show ownership and make a word possessive. There are 3 ways to do this.

1. If the word is singular you add: ’s

  • eg the student’s book means that the book belongs to the student
  • eg the boss’s armchair means that the chair belongs to the boss
  • eg John’s dog means that the dog belongs to John

2. If the word is a plural but does not end with a “s” you add: ’s

  • eg women’s rights means the rights of women eg men’s toilet means toilets for men

3. If the word is a plural that ends with an “s” you add: ’

  • eg the students’ library books means the books that belong to a group of students
  • eg the womens’ football league means a women only football association
  • eg the workers’ rights means the rights of a group of workers

Common problems with apostrophes

Some words frequently cause problems and confusion. They are its / it’s and whose / who’s.

Its - belongs to a group of words that are already possessive. Others include his, hers and yours. Because they are already possessive they don’t need an added apostrophe. This means that the sentences below indicates ownership even though it doesn’t contain an apostrophe:

  • eg The school ignored its rules for one day.
  • eg The government abandoned its policy.

It’s - contains an apostrophe because doesn’t indicate ownership. The apostrophe tells us that the words it and is have been shortened into the one word it’s.

  • eg It’s a nice day.

Whose - is another word that is already possessive. This means that you don’t need to add an apostrophe to indicate ownership.

  • eg The student whose notes I borrowed is angry with me.

Who’s - contains an apostrophe because doesn’t indicate ownership. The apostrophe tells us that who is has been shortened to who’s.

  • eg The student who’s coming to visit is lovely.

Apostrophe tips:

  • Just because a word ends in an “s” doesn’t mean that it needs an apostrophe.
  • An apostrophe is added to show ownership/possession or it indicates that a word or two words have been shortened.
Commas
  • Commas look like this , They can help your writing be easily understood. They divide or separate parts of a sentence to make the meaning clear. A comma marks a brief pause in the sentence, usually at a point where you would naturally pause if you were reading out loud.

Commas can be used to separate words or phrases that together make up a list.

  • eg The fish kept in the ponds were pike, perch and carp.

Commas can be used to separate an introductory word or phrase in a sentence.

  • eg Nevertheless, many critics see value in this theory.
  • eg After the first decade, the changes were fully integrated into the system.

A comma can separate a word or phrase that briefly interrupts the flow of a sentence.

  • eg The same theory, according to most writers, can be applied to language acquisition.

A comma can separate an afterthought or a final phrase that contrasts with the main part of a sentence.

  • eg The war was vitally important for Europe, far more than it was for America.

Commas can link short and simple sentences if you add a coordinating conjunction or word such as and, but, so, or , nor and yet. A comma cannot join two sentences on its own because a comma only indicates a pause. You need to add a comma and a coordinating conjunction to join sentences properly.

  • eg The university is large, and it is close to the town center.

Comma tips:

  • Read each sentence aloud and pause briefly at each comma. If the sentence flows badly and seem jerky, you probably have too many commas. If you are breathless at the end of the sentence, you might need to add a comma.
  • It is a good idea to divide a long sentence into two or more separate sentences.
Semi-colons

A semi-colon looks like this ; It has two uses- It can link sentences or separate items in a list.

Linking: A semi-colon can mark a break which is stronger than a comma but less final than a full stop. Using a semi-colon to link related or closely linked sentences emphasis their relationship and varies the pace of the writing.

  • eg I read the book in one evening; it was not very helpful.
  • eg He was nervous about giving the speech; he asked for water several times.

A semi-colon can also be used to link sentences that include connecting words such as otherwise, however, therefore, moreover, nevertheless, thus, besides, accordingly, instead and consequently.

  • eg I did not finish reading the book; instead, I watched the TV.

Lists: A semi-colon is used to separate items in a list, when that list contains one or more commas. It reduces confusion.

  • eg The three venues will be: Middleton Hall, Manchester; Highton House, Liverpool; and the Ashton Centre, Sheffield.
  • eg The main points in favour of the new system were that it would save time for buying, accounts and on-site staff; it would be welcome by the reception staff; and it would use fewer resources.
Colons

A colon looks like this : They create a pause and indicates that the reader should look forward to information that follows on from the last statement. It can be used to introduce a list or introduce an explanation.

Lists: A colon can indicate that a list is about to follow.

  • eg Topics discussed included: the structure of viruses, virus families and current research.
  • eg Students joining the department must attempt to: attend all classes, meet deadlines and join in class discussions.

Explanations: A colon can be used to introduce a conclusion, a clarification of an earlier statement or an explanation. The colon separates and highlights the second statement, showing that it follows on from the first.

  • eg Yoga is more than a form of exercise: it is meditation in movement.
  • eg After much research, the teacher came to a final conclusion: development could not take place without more funding.

The colon and the semi-colon are often underused because many people aren’t sure how to use them correctly. Both can make your writing easier to understand and prevent an overuse of commas and full stops.

[The text above is based on that provided by the University of Leicester]


Report writing

A report is written for a clear purpose and to a particular audience. Information and evidence are presented, analysed and applied to a particular problem or issue. The information is presented in a clearly structured format, making use of sections and headings so the information is easy to locate and follow.

When you are asked to write a report you will usually be given a report brief that provides you with instructions and guidelines. The brief may outline the purpose, audience, problem/issue, format, structure and any other specific requirements.

Reasons why reports are used include:

  • To find out what you have learned from your reading, research or trial.
  • To give your experience of something eg a skill that is widely used or needed in the workplace

A good report presents and analyses facts and evidence that are directly relevant to the problem/issue. All sources of information should be acknowledged and referenced. The style of reports should be less ‘wordy’ than an assignment or essay. Reports should be more direct. A good report will show your ability to:

  • Understand the purpose of the report brief and to stick to it.
  • Gather, evaluate and analyse relevant information.
  • Structure material in a logical and coherent order.
  • Make appropriate conclusions that are supported by the evidence and analysis in your report.
  • Make thoughtful and practical recommendations.
Report structure The structure of a report can be:

 

  • Title
  • Summary or abstract
  • Introduction
  • Methods
  • Results
  • Discussion
  • Conclusion
  • Appendices – where you include all of your supporting information that you have used but not published.
  • Bibliography.
     
Stages of report writing The stages of writing a report are:

 

  • Understand the report brief. You need to be sure about the purpose of the report, who the report is for and why it is being written.
  • Gather and select information. You may use a variety of sources depending on the level of detail your report includes.
  • Organise your material. Decide what information to include and in what sequence it will be presented. The sequence needs to be logical and easy to follow.
  • Analyse your material. Take time to consider and make notes on the points you will make and the conclusions you will draw. What are the limitations of the evidence? Do pieces of evidence contradict each other? You don’t simply present the information, you must relate it to the problem/issue at hand.
  • Write the report. You may find it easier to write the summary last so you can be direct and precise. The structure may include sections and paragraphs where you introduce an idea, explain or expand it, present evidence, comment on the evidence and conclude the section by showing its significance to the whole report or linking it to the next section.
  • Reviewing and redrafting. Take a break and then read your report from the perspective of your reader. Be prepared to change sections.
  • Presentation. Make sure the formatting is consistent and proofread for spelling and grammar errors.
     
Feedback Use the feedback from your teachers to create a check list of points to consider when writing your next report. Feedback is useful because it helps you to develop and improve your writing skills.

 

[The text above is based on that provided by the University of Leicester]

Inclusive writing You need to take care when writing about gender, disability, race and sexual orientation to avoid using stereotypes and exclude or label individuals/groups as inferior. There are many widely used words that are based on outdated assumptions eg words containing ‘man’ such as ‘chairman’ or ‘manpower’ can imply that women do not participate in these activities.  

The appropriate use of language is complicated. There isn’t a clear guideline you can use in every situation but treat every person as an individuals and your equal. Listed below are examples of writing that are not inclusive:

  • ‘If we get an engineering student on the committee we’ll need to make sure that he can fit the meetings in around his project work.’ This assumes all engineering students are male.

  • ‘The professors may need a little extra time in case they forget where they’ve parked their cars.’ This implies all professors are absent-minded and forgetful.
     

Non-inclusive writing can make others feel less important, defective, stereotyped, excluded, offended, unvalued, abnormal, like they have fewer rights or are subject to bias. Sometimes what may seem to be a minor difference in your writing, can make a huge difference to the impact it has on someone reading it.
 

General principles:

  • Avoid implying that people in a certain group are abnormal eg when comparing people with a disability to those who don’t have that particular disability, use the term ‘non-disabled’ or ‘people without a disability, instead of the word ‘normal’.

  • Don’t use your own group as a reference group because this implies normality and superiority eg describing a culture as ‘culturally deprived’ suggests that this culture is inferior to yours.

  • Remember that differences between races or cultures are not failings or deficits.

  •  Avoid assumptions about gender, race, disability, sexual orientation or any other pattern or grouping.


Examples:

  • Use ‘they’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’ eg ‘each person was asked whether they wished to participate’

  • Use ‘people’ instead of ‘man’.

  • Use ‘police officer’ instead of ‘policeman’.

  • Use ‘person with a disability’ instead of ‘disabled person’.

  • Refer to the person first and their disability second eg use ‘individual who had a stroke’ not ‘stroke victim’

  • Use active not passive language eg use ‘person who uses a wheelchair’ instead of ‘wheelchair bound person’.

  • Use positive descriptions eg use ‘Asian’ not ‘non-white’.

  • Use specific terms eg ‘Cuban’ not ‘Hispanic’

  • Be aware of assumptions in commonly used words eg ‘illegal asylum seekers’ implies that to seek asylum is an illegal activity but it isn’t.

  • Use the term ‘sexual orientation’ not ‘sexual preference’.

  • Don’t imply that certain people are not part of the normal population eg say ‘AIDS education must not focus on selected groups’ rather than ‘AIDS education must extend beyond the gay male population to the general population’.

  • Don’t assume that people are heterosexual.

Because of the ingrained nature of cultural bias, it is possible to cause offence without intending to do so, and without noticing. It is worth scanning your writing for sensitive language before you submit an assignment or let others read your writing

 

[The text above is based on that provided by the University of Leicester]

Critical writing
When you write critically you will:

  • Be clear and confident about whether you agree or disagree with the arguments and evidence contained in the information sources that you include in your writing.

  • Be able to give a balanced presentation of the reasons why the views of others should be accepted or treated with caution.

  • Give a clear presentation of your own evidence, arguments and conclusions.

  • Recognise your own limitations.

Your assignments and essays need to balance the use of critical and descriptive writing. Descriptive writing refers to writing that describes an object or a theory, background history, biographical details about a person’s life or research.  
When you write descriptively you are not developing your own argument – you are merely setting the background within which an argument can be developed. You are presenting ideas but not transforming information. You are presenting a situation and not an analysis or discussion. This type of writing is easy to do, so many students fail to balance descriptive with critical writing.

When you write critically you are participating in a debate and weighing up the evidence and arguments of others, and then you are contributing your own. You are not writing critically if you are putting together a string of quotes from other people to support your argument. A large number of quotes won’t make your argument stronger. You need to balance the quotes you use with your own interpretation of the material. Explain to the reader how the quote, idea or argument is relevant or irrelevant. Show how they relate to the topic and discuss whether they are valid.

More Information

Planning your paragraphs can help you to write critically. You can use paragraphs to make a clear and visual separation by switching to a new paragraph when you move between descriptive and critical writing.  This can help:

  • Emphasise to the reader that you are including both types of writing and analysis.

  • Force you to produce critical writing and counter balance your descriptive writing.

A good rule is: If it’s worth including, it’s worth telling the reader why you did so.  A certain amount of descriptive writing is necessary but it is easy to include too much. After you have described something, get into the habit of explaining why that description is relevant. A sentence or two might describe something, but then the next few sentences can explain what this information contributes to the argument you are making. This may feel like duplication at first, or that you are explaining something that is obvious, but it is your responsibility to explain things to the reader. Don’t assume the reader will follow the same logic you do.

Remember not to lose sight of your line of argument as your write several paragraphs.  You need to ensure that each paragraph has a beginning, middle and end, but you also need to consider their placement in the overall structure. The aim is to lead the reader through the thread of your argument to a well supported conclusion.  

When you read back over your critical writing, ask yourself:

  • Why should the reader be convinced by what I’ve just written?

  • Are their gaps in my logic or arguments?

  • Is there a balance between descriptive and critical writing?

  • Is my conclusion well supported? Do I lead the reader to my conclusions via the evidence or do I spring them suddenly on the reader?

  • Have I made general and sweeping statements which I haven’t backed up with evidence?

[The text above is based on that provided by the University of Leicester]

 

Essay writing

A good essay clearly presents material in a way that is logical and easy to follow. Before you start writing make sure you have a clear plan. Then you can concentrate on expressing your ideas.
Brief essay writing summary

  • Select and order your information sources into a clear plan before you being writing.
  • Guide your reader by making the best use of the introduction and conclusion.
  • Use paragraphs to present points in a clear and logical thread.
  • Use evidence to support and illustrate your points.
  • Acknowledge and reference all of your information sources.
  • Take a break and then critically read your writing.
  • Make the most of the feedback you receive so you can keep improving.
     
Introduction
The introduction is a signpost for your reader, showing how you intend to answer the question and the main areas that your writing will cover. Show the reader that you understand the key issues. You can:

 

  • Begin with a general point about the central issue.
  • Use the words in the question to show you understand it.
  • Describe what the following sections of your writing will cover.
  • Link the points you will make in the different sections of your writing.
     
Body Each paragraph in the body of your writing should express clearly one point or one aspect of a point. Your paragraphs should link together to provide the reader a sense of logical progression. Paragraph should have an introduction, present and comment on evidence and make a link to the next paragraph.
 

 

Support your essay with evidence
Use evidence to illustrate and support your points. Evidence may be the opinion of an expert or the results of a study. It might be written words, facts or diagrams. Use evidence to add authority, credibility and interest to your argument. Don’t forget to acknowledge and reference the information you include.
 

Conclusion   The conclusion is another signpost for the reader. Here you can:

 

  • Remind the reader about what you have covered.
  • Show the significance of the material you have presented.
  • Provide an overall assessment of the theories or arguments you have presented, and summarise your point of view.
  • Use words from the question again to show you have answered it thoroughly.

Give a brief recap in the conclusion. Make a reference to the larger issues, evaluate your main arguments and highlight the most important points.
 

When you've finished writing  
When you finish writing, have a break and then go back and edit it, if you have time. Remember to make the question your focus so you stay on track and only include material that directly relates to it. It can be difficult to edit your own work so it might be easier to read it aloud, carefully adhering to the pauses in the punctuation you have used. This will help you identify problems and make the writing easier to understand. Spell checks on computers are useful, but they don’t always identify the appropriate spelling of words.
 

Feedback Pay attention to the feedback you get from your teacher about your marked work. This can help to identify your strengths and weaknesses so you can keep developing and improving your writing. Consider:
  • Discussing your writing with your teacher.
  • Chat with your fellow students.
  • Seek the advice of the student support staff.
     

[The text above is based on that provided by the University of Leicester]

Editing summary

Editing

It is better to write something that is imperfect and spend time revising it, than to waste time trying to produce something that is perfect first time round. Editing improves the standard of a piece of writing. It is an interactive process where you critique and revise. 

Typically, editing looks at:

  • The overall logical structure of the idea you present.
  • How well you stick to the question.
  • How well the content is linked and flows.
  • Whether appropriate information is located under appropriate headings.
  • Whether the argument makes sense.
  • How clear your argument is.
  • The length of sentences and the use of words.

It is more than proof reading. Proof reading refers to the specific job of checking the spelling, grammar and formatting. This is best done in the last stage of the editing process.
 

If you plan to have editing time you will get a better result because your teacher will find it easier to read your writing. Some students don’t like editing because they prefer the creative process of writing and don’t like critiquing their own work. Others like editing because it improves the quality of their writing.

More Information

It is a good idea to write and edit in a different location. Print out your writing so you can work on a paper copy away from your computer. Make clear notes on your paper copy and don’t rely on your memory. Read your writing several times from start to finish. If you only concentrate on specific paragraphs you may lose sight of the overall flow of your argument and miss where you repeat ideas or information.


Ask yourself two questions when you are editing:

  • What did I try to do and did I do it? You need to show that you are clear about what you intended to do in your writing. This question makes you critique how things went.
  • What am I trying to say and do I say it? It is very easy to think that you have explained something, only to find that you haven’t fully done that. It can be useful to read aloud or talk to a friend and attempt to explain what you did and what you found. Will the reader find your argument believable?
Some parts of your writing may be really good but check whether they directly relate to the question. If they don’t it is better to remove them - be ruthless. Look for consistency eg
  • Do you use the same tense throughout?
  • Is the formatting the same?
  • Is the referencing consistent?
  • Do you spend a balanced amount of time on each point?

Add signposts for the reader. These are sentences that provide clarity eg

  • 'This paragraph will discuss…'
  • 'This argument concludes with…'
  • 'This section has shown that….'

Link different sections to guide the reader through the writing by using sentences like:

  • 'In the previous section I …'
  • 'This section has looked at the user’s point of view. The next section explores …'

Links can look forward and back, reviewing what has been said and introducing what is about to be said.