An Alphabet for Academic Writing

Most people notice fairly quickly that most academic writing doesn’t read quite the same way as we do when writing emails and texts. I’ve written elsewhere about the differences this alphabet is a kind of check list for good academic writing.


Analysis: This is the goal of most assignments at university. They want to see what you can work out. This means going beyond description of what is and into what it means or even might mean in certain circumstances. Does your assignment analyse what you’ve found or stop at describing it. Even in first year analysis is necessary for the top marks.

Breadth: Focus on exact areas and detail is vital for good academic work. However, you still need to include enough breadth for your readers and reviewers to localise and understand where and how your work is functioning.

Context: The context is vital. If you are writing a paper for a particular discipline and you include lots of well organised and presented ideas about the subject but from outside that discipline you are unlikely to do well unless you can link this to your discipline.


Depth: A lot of papers that pass, or even ‘do OK’ suffer in this department. The writers do enough but then stop before fully investigating and exploring their ideas. If you get the comment ‘unpack this a bit more’ then you probably need more depth in your work.

Engagement: Are you interested in that paper you have to write about the observation of the mating habits of fruit flies in the 1730s? If you can’t find something to engage your own interest in your work then it’s unlikely that you’ll engage others.

Flow: Good writing, academic and otherwise, flows. This means that it is easy to read and doesn’t confuse the reader. One trick can be to read your work aloud, we can all be too close to the things we are writing and editing yourself for good flow is difficult, but if you run out of breath in mid-sentence or lose your place while reading then you probably have found the problem with the flow.

Guarded: A lot of people new to academic writing make more of their work than it perhaps merits. It can be a good idea to temper your enthusiasm a bit with some moderation. So instead of “I have proven the existence of fairies” perhaps “The existence of fairies is perhaps more plausible in the light of recent evidence”.

High Standards: Your reviewers may see themselves as defending their tradition, position, values etc. they will hold your work to high-standards, standards that they should publish and make you aware of. Get to know these standards and hold yourself to them.


Insight: This is another thing that people tend to leave out. What have we learned from this research? What do you the researcher (even if you are only reading textbooks you are doing research) think it all means?

Juxtaposition: This isn’t always a requirement; in fact sometimes it might be a distraction. However, from time to time it can be an idea to develop a topic by comparing and contrasting two things. This is a step on the road to deeper critical engagement. If you are writing about Shakespeare, why not compare a modernised retelling of Romeo and Juliet with a more classically staged one?

Knowledge: While it can be a good idea to go further with some assignments there are a number of assignments that will be intended, at least in part, to test what you know. Is the assignment you’re working on a knowledge testing one or more skills based, or something else? It might, (as many assignments are) be a mix.

Length: One course that I’ve been teaching on for a few years now as much as 30% of the submitted work is the wrong length 20-25% is to short, some is too long, some much too long. Assignment lengths can be fixed limits, ranges or more flexible but a good response to the assignment will fall within a certain length. Too short and things are left out or skimmed over, too long and there’s probably repetition and/or derivation from the topic in there.

Mastery: This one can take a bit of time to develop, usually somewhere in the top grade band or two you’ll see this word. If you display mastery of a topic you have become an expert. This may seem like a distant goal, especially in first year, but if you know lots about the topic try and show that in your assignments.

Open-Minded: As academics we often think we know about x or y, but we need to keep our minds open, the evidence may not support our theory, it may even contradict our theories. This can feel discouraging but if you can learn that you were wrong… you can learn anything.

Proofreading: All good writing has been proofread, carefully, often more than once. It’s impossible to overstate the value of good proofreading.


Question: What is the question you are trying to answer? A surprising number of poor assignments, and even some OK ones could have been a lot better if the writer had kept their focus on the question, and not allowed their work to creep off track into other questions.

Reflection: Increasingly reflection is called for directly in many assignments, but it can be useful to all. Once you’ve done the research reflect and ask yourself what have I learnt? Once you’ve written it up reflect again and see if there is anything that needs adding or taking away.

Style: Every discipline and task type has its own genre and style conventions many courses come with a style guide and/or provide examples of good work. Part of learning a subject is learning how that subject is written.

Transferability: Can your research be transferred to another context? What can you learn in terms of knowledge, skills etc. from the assignment? Many UK universities will publish “transferable skills” statements for courses.

Universality: Is your work universal? How does it connect to other work in the field? How does it relate to theories and ideas that are ‘trending’ at the moment in your discipline? Good work doesn’t necessarily need to be universal but it often, (perhaps usually) addresses the question of universality.

Voice: Some might think this is all about presentations but we talk about a writer’s voice as well. It refers to an individual style or flair that may be imitated but is not easily duplicated. Does your voice come through in the piece? Does it sound like you? If not you might not be done editing.

Wisdom: The University of Winchester’s motto is “Wisdom ond Lar” and academic work should contain wisdom, learning reflected upon and shared. It should also be put together with wisdom, use your own words, cite your sources, and display your learning and expertise but above all answer the question.

eXactness: Ok I confess, I’m cheating here. But exactness is important in academia. Wherever possible avoid expressions like: recently; these days; a few years ago; some people; a proportion of; etc. they are not exact and introduce vagueness into your work.

“Yada-yada”: Your word count may seem huge, but don’t “pad your work out to fit the word count” use as few words as you can to say something, then say something else. The best academic work does more with less rather than the other way round. “Yada-Yada” by the way is another way of saying “blah blah blah” often used negatively when you want to say that someone was speaking without saying anything.

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Zero-in: It’s a good idea to try and zero in on one aspect, explore it fully and then move on. A significant proportion of papers every year don’t really focus closely enough on any one aspect of something. This goes back to depth… but it’s worth saying again.


End of Semester doesn’t have to mean “reaching the end of your rope”.

This post offers some ideas from our vault, to help improve those final assignments.

But first of all let’s look at that idiom in the title.

If you reach the end of your rope (sometimes ‘line’ or ‘tether’ depending on dialect) you are probably tired, fed up and stressed. Whether it’s showing or not, the feeling of not being able to cope with much more is what this phrase is about.

From talking to our students lots of you are feeling this at the moment even those that habitually get first class marks, (perhaps they most of all).

Here are some links to study skills themed posts from the past to help you.

First of all proofreading, it can be hard to do well at the best of times but being tired and stressed out can make it more difficult. This is perhaps because of what Stephen Krashen termed the affective filter hypothesis … namely that if you are: tired; stressed; hungry; or otherwise uncomfortable your brain works less well and that this affects your proficiency in second or further languages more than your first or ‘native’ language.

Here’s the link directly for sharing:

For those of you with exams coming up; well those can be even more stressful, if in a more concentrated way.

Here’s the link to share:

If you’re just trying to do enough to pass… be careful. While it may seem obvious that there is a gap between ‘good’ and ‘good-enough’ you want to make sure you are on the right side of the line.

And the link:

And remember for international and European students at the University of Winchester we’re here to help. Book an appointment via the Learning Network (log in required) or email us.

An A-Z connected with spring & flowers.

Someone was asking me about all the spring flowers coming up in the UK because of this post Here’s one from last year that develops the list.

ELTSU Winchester

A: ‘April showers bring May flowers’ is part of an old rhyme for teaching children the order of the months.

B: ‘Blossom’ this is another word for flower really, blossom is especially well associated with fruiting trees, such as apple, cherry and orange trees.

‘Bluebell’ these flowers tend to grow in deciduous woodland, coming out before the leaf cover is too dense for much sunlight to filter to the forest floor.

‘Bouquet’ this can refer to the scent of a flower or to a bunch of them.

C: ‘Cherry Blossom’ traditionally a sign of spring in Haiku and Japanese culture.

‘Crocuses’ often one of the first flowers and ranging in colour from deep purple to white and lavender to (occasionally) yellow.


D: ‘Daffodils’ these yellow trumpet-shaped flowers are often among the first, this year seeks to be especially good for them.

E: ‘Edelweiss’ this white alpine flower grows…

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Spring in the English language

Original Photo J Beddington

Original Photo J Beddington

Spring is arriving in Winchester so perhaps it’s time to look at some of the language and idioms around the word spring.

Spring cleaning: doesn’t always happen in spring but any major attempt at cleaning really thoroughly could be called spring cleaning. This can also mean cleaning out cupboards and getting rid of stuff that you don’t want any more. Sometimes it’s more metaphorical than literal, “While no crime had been committed the inspector recommended some financial spring cleaning for the company.” In this case nobody had broken the law but everything had not been done as it should be.

Spring in your step: if you have a spring in your step you seem optimistic and energetic about things it could be literal or metaphorical. “Susan has a spring in her step today… do you think she’s got good news?”

Spring lamb: is reputedly the juiciest and best tasting so in a way is a quality mark for the product. Spring lambs are also white, fluffy and full of energy.

Spring: can also be used to talk about movement with a variety of combinations; spring forward/back/sideways etc. The key here is that this is a very sudden movement. “The car nearly hit Carl but he sprang out of the way at the last moment.”

Spring into action: can be movement but can also be metaphorical describing rapid and decisive reactions to circumstances. As soon as the clock struck nine the students sprang into action… silently opening the first page of the exam.

This might relate to the adjective use of spring-loaded: something that is spring-loaded functions quickly and suddenly but not necessarily automatically. “Watch out for the new doors, they are spring-loaded”

Spring break is a holiday common in North America: stereotypically one where teenagers go away without their parents to have fun and wild parties with their friends.

To spring off something: shows a link and a connection if not exactly a cause. “Tina sprung off Simon’s suggestion and proposed moving the whole operation.”

Spring-board is a diving board that gives a little bounce to help divers get into a swimming pool. But, it can also have a metaphorical sense. “Failing my driving test was the springboard that made me buy a bicycle.”

Wound like a spring: means nervous and/or agitated. If someone is wound like a spring they are very stressed out and not dealing with it very well. “Kevin seems would like a spring today; I wonder what’s wrong?”

Stonehenge and Bath

Visit to Stonehenge and Bath

On Friday 27th February, a group of seven students taking the Tourism module on the CEIS programme along with 10 students from the International Foundation Programme visited Stonehenge and Bath.

The first stop was Stonehenge …

Photo: English Heritage

Photo: English Heritage

…and the students were able to check out the newly revamped visitors’ centre. We went directly to the shuttle buses which took us out to the stones themselves. It was cold on Salisbury Plain, but the sun was shining and we were able to get quite close. Afterwards, we spent a short time looking at the replica Neolithic houses and the gift shop.

Next stop was Bath. The Tourism students headed for The Jane Austen Centre. Austen lived in Bath for five years and, as our enthusiastic guide explained, the city features in one way or another in all her novels. We looked at paintings and artefacts from the era and the students enjoyed dressing up …

Photo: K Saman

Photo: K Saman

…in some period costumes – shawls, fans and top hats.

Photo: K Saman

Photo: K Saman

Photo: K Saman

Photo: K Saman

Photo: K Saman

Photo: K Saman

After lunch, we visited the Roman Baths.

Photo: Bath Tourism

Photo: Bath Tourism

We spent over an hour exploring this major tourist attraction. According to the audio guide, it’s the only hot spring in the UK and it was impressive to see the steam and bubbles coming from the green water.   The Romans built a temple here and there are hundreds of interesting objects and sacred artefacts to see. At the end of the tour you’re able to taste the spring water – it wasn’t very nice!

Finally we went back past Bath Abbey

bath abbey

Photo: Unkown

…to catch our bus back to Winchester.

The Sangji Breakfast

It’s a couple of weeks ago now but, every winter and summer we are visited by SangJi students from South Korea who attend ELTSUs English programme.

Photo: M Jones

Photo: M Jones

The students study a variety of subjects at SangJi, from oriental medicine to international business. They are fantastic students and we are always pleased to have them visit.

Photo: M Jones

Photo: M Jones

One of the most important cultural events is taking the students for a traditional English breakfast. And as you can see, it is an event very much enjoyed by all the students!

Photo: M. Jones

Photo: M. Jones

The breakfast forms part of their lessons on British culture. Food can be a very useful way of experiencing and understanding a culture, enhancing your understanding of the language.