Writing Skills for Students

Why does it matter?

‘Nobody ever discusses … poor writing skills,

and how you need to employ people in their forties, who have been taught to read and write’

(David Atherton, Managing Director, Dabs, quoted in The Sunday Times Culture Magazine, 16/02/03)

Correct spelling, grammar, syntax, layout, punctuation, clear phrasing… all very unfashionable, perhaps, but necessary.

When you write an essay, you’re judged not only your analytical skills and your ability to answer a question, but also on how you present your argument. Poor spelling, unclear phrasing, incorrect grammar and so on are taken into account by markers, and reflect not only your abilities, but how much care has gone into your work.

In the world of employment, good writing skills can be crucial, as David Atherton’s remark suggests (and he’s not the first to make the point), but employers have learned that a degree is no guarantee of good writing skills.

Typos and mistakes in an essay may cost you marks; typos and mistakes job applications can cost you the job: your C.V. is likely to end up on the ‘forget it’ pile. Employers may receive hundreds of applications for a single post and a common weeding-out process is by C.V. errors. (Trust me: I’ve been that office manager…) The employer’s argument runs: if you, the applicant, can’t be bothered making sure that a vital document like your application is correct, you’re unlikely to bother when writing on behalf of your employer, whose clients will not be impressed with the company if its documents are full of errors.

Develop good practice now! Once you have learned good habits, you’ll be able to use them without thinking about it and you can focus on what you’re saying instead.

Plagiarism and how to avoid it

What is plagiarism? Plagiarism means passing off someone else’s work as your own, whether it be parts of a book or information from a website.

Plagiarism is fraudulent. Universities take plagiarism extremely seriously and students discovered plagiarizing are likely to find themselves severely penalized, even asked to leave.

Plagiarism is stupid. On the one hand, it can be identified easily: after all, markers know something about the essay topic, so they are very likely to recognize the plagiarized material or to notice the difference in style or analytical skills between the plagiarized work and the student’s own work. On the other hand, students who plagiarize learn nothing about presenting a sound argument, which will quickly become evident in the exam room.

Critical or secondary reading is crucial: in essays, students are required to demonstrate that they’ve read around the topic and can engage with critics’ arguments as well as with their primary material. Quotation (= reproducing other people’s words, within quotation marks) and citation (= showing that you are alluding to someone else’s work) should be clearly identified at all times.

Beware of accidental plagiarism: an essay which demonstrates too much reliance on material you’ve read or information you’ve heard in a lecture, without acknowledgement of the source, is at risk of being thought plagiarized. Keep notes of what you read and a list of every book, article or website you visit, and make sure that all material you’ve read or heard relating to the essay topic is listed in your bibliography. If in doubt, ‘overcite’!

Some basic essay-writing tips

All examples of quotations and citations shown on this page is based on the MHRA style guide. Your department may specify a different style guide; if so, check it for preferred formatting, spelling &c.


Writing essays

Be in no doubt: university-standard essays are very different from A-level essays.

Try to find out as soon as possible (and definitely before you start handing essays in) what is required in terms of structure and content, and what can be penalized. For example, you will be expected to structure essays meaningfully and to use English correctly; you will lose marks if your essays are badly planned, badly worded and misspelled. Your essays should relate to the essay title chosen (which sounds obvious, but doesn’t always seem to happen); they should contain an introduction followed by engagement both with the subject and with critical material where required, and a conclusion which actually concludes!

Your department will provide guidelines of what is expected and how essay quality is judged, usually in a Student Handbook. Read this carefully, preferably before you begin every essay, for here is set out what will gain you marks and what will lose you marks.

Your department or faculty should offer courses in essay-writing and it’s a good idea to find out about these as soon as you can, and to take advantage of them. However good you think you are, you can always learn something.

Backing up

Learning the hard way is not fun: save your work regularly!

Other backup tips:

*   set up your word processor to make automatic backups every few minutes

*   always save a copy to an external (preferably re-writeable) medium (floppy disk, CD &c.) or e-mail a copy to yourself as an attachment.

Essay formatting

There are various elements which all essays should include: your name, the title, the name of the course and your tutor, the word count and (for literature students anyway) a bibliography. There are also layout considerations: paragraphs, line spacing, page numbering, margin size and so on. Preferred formats are generally specified by your department. You should follow the rules, which are there for a reason. (For example, wide margins and line spacing give your tutor room to insert comments.)

Break your writing up into paragraphs. The first line should be indented for clarity: if you don’t use indents, the reader cannot tell if a new sentence at the top of a page is intended to be a new paragraph; this can be confusing. Generally, additional lines should not be entered between paragraphs, but used only for section breaks. Good paragraph structure should help with essay planning, as well as being easier to manage and easier on the eye.


Unless you are very good at remembering essay formatting requirements, and don’t mind setting them up for each essay, it is wise to create a standard document, known as a template, to use for all essays, to include both basic layout and dummy headings to remind you to insert any elements you’ll need to include, such as the essay title, bibliography and word count.

To create a template in Microsoft Word:

*   open a blank document from the File menu

*   select File | Save As, type a name for the file (for example essay) in the File Name box and then choose Document Template (*.dot) from the Save as Type box

*   format the file with the required font (minimum 12 point)

*   adjust the margins (all margins should be at least one inch wide, to allow tutors to write helpful comments)

*   select 1.5 or 2.0 line spacing

*   turn on page numbering

*   enter your name and dummy headings to use as reminders: course, tutor, essay title, bibliography, word count

*   if your style guide or tutor requires you to use footnotes (much more friendly than endnotes), insert a dummy note by the title reminder and format it as required, in terms of font, indents &c.

*   add other reminders as necessary, for example check spelling, proofread (see below)

*   save the document on your hard disk and on a floppy disk or CD. If you have no external media access, e-mail the document to yourself as an attachment


To use the template:

*   select File | New and choose the template. Save it at once with a new filename and a document (.doc) extension

Note: if you are using a public access computer, you can still create a document template as above, but save it to a floppy disk (you’ll need to navigate to the A:\ drive to save it and to access it when you want to use it again)



Your institution or department will have a specific style guide it wishes you to follow, usually one of the following:

*   M.H.R.A. Style Book (based on U.K.-English punctuation and form: a free downloadable version is available from:


*   M.L.A. Style Manual (based on U.S.-English punctuation and form. No online version is available, but some universities’ own online style guides, based on the M.L.A. guide, can be found via a search engine)

Some departments won’t mind which you use, as long as you conform to the style detailed in the one your choose.

Using and checking words

Spelling should always be checked and unfamiliar words looked up in a dictionary.

*   Invest in a good (bigger is usually better) dictionary, by a publisher such as Oxford, Collins or Chambers. The Oxford English Dictionary, which, as well as definitions, has examples of how words have changed and been used at different times, is online and can be used free from a university or with an Athens password.

*   When you write anything in a word processor, use the spell-checker, making sure you have the dictionary language set to the correct language (for example, U.K. English).

*   Where the spell-checker identifies unknown words, check the spelling in your dictionary or, if it’s a personal or place name, in your primary source.

*   If you’re using your own computer, add these checked words and names to the word processor’s dictionary so you won’t have to look them up again.

*   Always check the names of authors against the volume you’re using.


Use clear vocabulary

Critical terminology should be used as required, but there’s no need to find a fancy-sounding word to replace one or more mundane, but accurate, ones. Always check whether the words you’re using really mean what you think they do…



Sometimes it’s hard to avoid repeating a word; sometimes you can find a synonym. If you’ve written suggests or shows six times in your essay already, and you’re as tired of the word as your reader is likely to be, find an alternative (while extending your vocabulary) in a thesaurus, such as Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases (ed. Betty Kirkpatrick. Penguin, 2000) or The Collins Thesaurus (ed. William T. McLeod. Collins, 2002). Look at the available titles in a bookshop before buying to find what’s best for you. Always make sure that the alternative word you choose does say exactly what you mean!


Always proofread your work before finalizing it. This means reading through the whole essays, including notes and bibliography, to check that spelling, language and layout are correct.

Do not just rely on a spell-checker: it won’t identify where words have been missed out, nor will it pick up unfortunate typos (my recent favourites include pubic instead of public and, from a student who had been listening to the Smashing Pumpkins, mellon collie for melancholy), unclear arguments, superseded remnants of earlier versions of your essay &c. You need to read every essay thoroughly before handing it in, especially if it’s assessed. No marker can give you marks for what you thought you said.


What’s the term for a verb form giving an order? What’s a subjunctive, how do you recognize it in Middle English and how do you translate it? How do you know when to use which or that? When are which and who clauses separated with commas? When do you use whom?

If you know your grammar isn’t brilliant, buy a good grammar book and use it! (Word processors’ grammar-checking facilities are notoriously inaccurate, if occasionally amusing.) Look at the available books in a bookshop before buying to see which is right for you. Books on English grammar include:

*   The Penguin Dictionary of English Grammar by R. Larry Trask (Penguin, 2000)

*   The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar, ed.Sylvia Chalker and Edmund Weiner (Oxford Paperback Reference, 1998

*   Oxford Guide to English Grammar by John Eastwood (Oxford University Press, 1994)

*   Fowler’s Modern English Usage by Henry Fowler (Oxford Language Classics, Oxford University Press, 2002).


A grammar will supply a brief explanation and examples, though it’s often useful to find alternative phrases from your own experience as an aide memoire. For example, the Bloomsbury Grammar Guide (by Gordon Jarvie. London: Bloomsbury, 2000) provides ‘Good luck be with you’ as an instance of the subjunctive, but you might find Star Wars’ ‘May the Force be with you’ or the Beatles’ song ‘Let It Be’ clearer and more memorable; similarly, you might remember the imperative by Jean-Luc Picard’s characteristic ‘Make it so’.


Your department should issue a guide about essay requirements and how essays are marked. It is wise to reread these notes before beginning each essay.

Don’t waste marks by ignoring the required critical apparatus: your essay will need, for example, a bibliography and demonstration of critical reading, and will be marked down without them.

Make clear rough notes as a basis for your essay and sort these into a sensible structure, with paragraph numbers and highlights for your main arguments if necessary. Balance close analysis, wider argument and historical and/or critical context according to the requirement indicated by the essay question. Discard everything that is not relevant to the essay title, however beautiful the idea or your expression of it.

Quote sensibly: quotations should illustrate your argument and/or provide the basis for further close analysis. They should be carefully chosen to maximise their effect, and never used to eat up your word count! If you’re making a point about an author’s frequent use of a conceit, word or image, you will need to use a couple of examples, not just one; if space is limited, quote the best example and then indicate the location of other examples, using cf. or see also: ‘your quotation’ (ll. 4-5, cf. ll. 7-8, 10).



There may be a lot of things I’m not good at, thought Vimes,

but at least I don’t treat the punctuation of a sentence like a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey…

(Terry Pratchett, Jingo. London: Corgi, 1998, p. 66)


Punctuation is not a twisted form of torture, but intended to make meaning clear and unambiguous. It was originally used to indicate logical breathing spaces in narrative.


The precise use of the standard symbols of punctuation may vary between one style guide and another, though all style guides and grammars should detail preferred use. Here’s a brief overview of the more confusing ones.


Colons (:) are most commonly used to introduce an idea which is directly dependent on the earlier part of the sentence. What follows the colon provides evidence or explanation of a statement made before it by supplying additional details, explaining more fully or introducing a quotation which illustrates the point.


Spenser intended The Faerie Queene to teach noblemen behaviour appropriate to their status: he discusses in his letter to Raleigh his wish to educate his audience in in ‘virtuous and gentle discipline’ (p. 519).


Spenser wrote The Faerie Queene as a didactic allegory: the chivalric story would entertain the audience whilst simultaneously teaching noblemen behaviour appropriate to their status (‘A Letter of the Authors’, p. 519).


Spenser intended that The Faerie Queene would teach noblemen behaviour appropriate to their status: ‘The generall end therefore of all the booke is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline’, as he states in his letter to Raleigh (p. 519).


In these examples, the information following the colon provides fuller details, or evidence for the statement given before it, and the colon itself indicates to the reader that what follows will add details which are directly relevant.


The use of a colon in relation to quotations follows fairly static rules. If the quotation is inset (separated from the main text; see Quotations below), it will usually be introduced by a colon to demonstrate that it is illustrating what precedes it, although this will depend on the surrounding syntax and a comma or even no punctuation may be more appropriate. Quotations which are not inset will often be introduced by a colon (see the third Spenser example above), but a shorter quotation may require no introducing punctuation, or only a comma, so that it is integrated into your own sentence.


It is clear from his letter to Raleigh that Spenser intended The Faerie Queene to teach noblemen the ‘virtuous and gentle discipline (p. 519) appropriate to their status.


That Spenser intended The Faerie Queene to teach noblemen behaviour appropriate to their status, ‘virtuous and gentle discipline’ (p. 519), is clear from his letter to Raleigh.


With semi-colons (;), conversely, the second part of the sentence is related to, but not dependent, on the first.


The Faerie Queene is Spenser’s conscious attempt to write an epic; its intended, but uncompleted, twelve-book structure is modelled on Virgil’s Aeneid.


Spenser intended that The Faerie Queene would teach noblemen behaviour appropriate to their status; he makes his intentions clear in his letter to Raleigh (p. 519-22).


In these examples, the information following the semi-colon contains a point which loosely relates to the preceding comment: the additional information is not dependent on the earlier statement and the secondary details do not alone prove the first part, thus providing a connection, but not the whole evidence.


Dashes should be used sparingly and only for particular effect; a dash should never be used to introduce quotations. Generally, dashes should come in pairs and allow you to insert a brief comment or quotation without breaking the syntax of your main sentence. The material between the dashes should be relevant, but relates only tenuously to the main sentence. Usually a comment of this kind can be separated adequately with paired commas (or omitted altogether: proscribed maximum word-counts dictate that there’s little room for less relevant material in an essay).


Paradise Lost is Milton’s conscious attempt to write an epic; its twelve-book structure, which Spenser also intended to follow in The Faerie Queene, is modelled on Virgil’s Aeneid.


Paradise Lost is Milton’s conscious attempt to write an epic; its twelve-book structure — a structure Spenser intended for The Faerie Queene — is modelled on Virgil’s Aeneid.


In the first example, the reference to Spenser is separated with commas, indicating that it has relevance to the essay as a whole (which it would have if you were writing generally on epic influences on later authors, for instance). In the second example, the paired dashes indicate that the reference to Spenser has less relevance to the essay as a whole (you’re writing on Milton), but allows you to demonstrate that Milton was not alone in using the classical epic structure as a model.


Apostrophes are used in two ways in English: to indicate possession and to replace omitted letters in contracted words. They are never used to pluralize a verb.



*   a noun in its singular form is followed by an apostrophe + s (’s): the knight’s sword, John’s book.

*   For nouns ending in s, you can use the standard form, apostrophe + s: Jesus’s teachings.

*   Alternatively (but be consistent), you can just use the apostrophe: Jesus’ teachings.

*   Most plural nouns take the apostrophe after the whole word: (six) knights’ swords, (two) dragons’ teeth.

*   Non-standard plurals generally follow the single-noun rule, adding apostrophe + s: children’s stories.


Omitted letters/contractions

In informal language, separate words are often merged into one contraction: it isn’t (= it is not), I don’t (I do not). (Strictly speaking, contractions are too informal for use in essays…).


If in doubt, the correct form of apostrophe placement will be shown in the dictionary or grammar book. If you have problems with apostrophes, check the correct form and keep a list on your computer or wall to save checking every time.


The most common apostrophe confusion is between the possessive its and the contraction it’s (= it is). You can easily check which is right by expanding the contraction: if it is makes sense, then it’s right; if not, then it’s wrong! Example: The dog has its coat on, as it’s a cold day. ‘The dog has it is coat on’ clearly makes no sense, so this its is a possessive and takes no apostrophe; but ‘it’s a cold day’ expands to it is, and thus this apostrophe stands for a missing letter.


Quotations should be in a roman typeface, not italicized, unless there are italics in the source. Generally, italics should be used only if you wish to make a particular point, and this should be shown with a phrase such as ‘my emphasis’ or ‘my italics’ after the line reference.

Only longer quotations should be set apart (inset). Short quotations (up to about three or four lines) should run on within your own text; separate lines of verse with a forward slash (/):

Chaucer provides a dedication in the closing lines of Troilus and Criseyde: ‘O moral Gower, this book I directe/To the and to the, philosophical Strode’ (5.1856-7).

Short quotations are marked by quotation marks; inset quotations should show quotation marks only if a character is speaking. Use single quotation marks (‘ ’) to enclose quotations, and for short titles. Double quotation marks (“ ”) should only be used within single ones, to indicate (for example) a character’s speech within a longer quotation:

Our first impression of Criseyde suggests a certain arrogance in her manner: she looks around ‘Ascances, “What, may I nat stonden here?”’ (Troilus and Criseyde I.292).

Make closing punctuation clear: clauses or sentences must be clearly closed outside both the quotation and the line reference. Remove the author’s punctuation if it makes no sense within your own syntax. In the above quotation, Gower is followed by a comma in the text, but the punctuation must be adapted to the surrounding syntax:

Chaucer dedicates Troilus and Criseyde to ‘moral Gower’ (V.1856) in the closing lines.

Make the source of quotations clear and insert line references (l. for one line, ll. for more than one, if you’re using these abbreviations) for verse or page numbers (p. for one page, pp. for more than one) for prose, including secondary sources.

Quotations should be in the language used by your primary source, not translated into modern English. Translation of quoted words or phrases can be inserted (for example) to demonstrate your interpretation where the original is has several possible meanings, or in a discussion of ambiguity where your understanding of the meaning is crucial to the argument.

If you use a quotation which is quoted in a secondary source, identify it as ‘quoted in …’ and provide full source details for the secondary source, together with as much information as possible about the original quotation.

Website design, maintenance & copyright ©2002-2015 Amanda Hopkins

Page last updated: Thursday March 26, 2015 11:09