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Study Support

Stages of Writing

Instruction words

When trying to understand what has been asked of you, underline the key words.

These definitions will help you to understand some of the key words used in the questions/ tasks you will be set during your University studies.

Account for: Give reasons for; explain (note: give an account of; describe).

Analyse: Break the information into constituent parts; examine the relationship between the parts; question the information.

Argue: Put the case for or against a view or idea giving evidence for your claims/reasons for or against; attempt to influence the reader to accept your view.

Balance: Look at two or more viewpoints or pieces of information; give each equal attention; look at good and bad points; take into account many aspects and give an appropriate weighting to those aspects.

Be critical: Identify what is good and bad about the information and why; probe, question, identify inaccuracies or shortcomings in the information; estimate the value of the material.

Clarify: Identify the components of an issue/topic/problem/; make the meaning plain; remove misunderstandings.

Compare: Look for similarities and differences between; perhaps conclude which is preferable; implies evaluation.

Conclude/draw conclusions: The end point of your critical thinking; what the results of an investigation indicate; arrive at a judgement by reasoning.

Contrast: Bring out the differences.

Criticise: Give your judgement on theories or opinions or facts andback this by discussing evidence or reasoning involved.

Deduce: Conclude; infer.

Define: Give the precise meaning. Examine the different possible or often used definitions.

Demonstrate: Show clearly by giving proof or evidence.

Describe: Give a detailed, full account of the topic.

Determine: Find out something; calculate.

Develop an opinion/a view: Decide what you think (based on an argument or evidence).

Discuss: Investigate or examine by argument; debate; give reason for and against; examine the implications of the topic.

Elucidate: Explain and make clear.

Estimate: Calculate; judge; predict.

Evaluate/weigh up: Appraise the worth of something in the light of its truth or usefulness; assess and explain.

Examine: Look at carefully; consider.

Explain: Make plain and clear; give reasons for.

Give evidence: Provide evidence from your own work or that of others which could be checked by a third party to prove/ justify what you say.

Identify: Point out and describe.

Identify trends: Identify patterns/changes/ movements in certain directions (e.g. over time or across topics/ subjects).

Illustrate: Explain, clarify, make clear by the use of concrete examples.

Infer: Conclude something from facts or reasoning.

Interpret: Expound the meaning; make clear and explicit, giving your own judgement.

Justify: Show adequate grounds for decisions, a particular view or conclusions and answer main objections likely to be made to them.

Outline: Give a short description of the main points; give the main features or general principles; emphasise the structure, leaving out minor details.

Prove: Show that something is true or certain; provide strong evidence (and examples) for.

Review: Make a survey examining the subject carefully; similar to summarise and evaluate.

State: Present in a brief, clear form.

Summarise: Give a concise account of the chief points of a matter, removing unnecessary detail.

Synthesise: Bring elements together to make a complex whole, draw together or integrate issues (e.g. theories or models can be created by synthesising a number of elements).

Trace: Follow the development of topic from its origin.


Adapted From-


It is important to carry out a review of the literature for an assignment because it allows you to acquire an understanding of your topic. You can become aware of the key issues, and relevant research that has already been done relating to your topic and find out the latest information.

Searching, evaluating and selecting from the vast range of published information can be a time-consuming process, so it is important to know how to plan and carry out this task effectively.

A literature search needs to be systematic and focussed – you are not looking to read everything in a broad area, only things that are relevant to your work.

A literature search must also be evaluative - you need to critically assess each reference found to determine if it is worth pursuing and critically read it.

The aim of this guide is to help you to do this. You generally need to work through the following stages.

Define your topic and decide on scope

Clarify the meaning of the topic and particular words, using general or subject specific dictionaries/encyclopaedias if necessary.

If the subject area/topic is too general you may need to choose a specific aspect of it otherwise there will be too much literature for you to read and evaluate. Always check with your lecturers what they are expecting you to cover in the assignment and whether they have set you any parameters to work within.

Draw up a list of keywords

Define your topic in terms of keywords to use for searching the various information sources. There are various ways to approach this task from including making lists of words, diagrams or mind maps. Chose a method that works for you.

In order to make your search as comprehensive as possible, you should think about the following:

  • Words that may be used as alternatives for your topic (synonyms) e.g. 'staff or employees' or 'work or employment.
  • Alternative spellings, particularly American ones, e.g. 'labour or labor'.
  • Possible truncations e.g. manage* will retrieve manage(ment), manage(rs) and manage(rial).
  • Broader and narrower terms
  • Layman terms and technical terms

Look at ways to link your keywords. Boolean searching is the name given to the method of searching that uses the words AND, OR and NOT as operators to link keywords in a logical way to include or exclude certain terms.

OR is a good technique to use when there are different ways of expressing the same term, for example 

"heart attack" OR "Myocardial infarction"

If you have a phrase and you want the search engine to treat it as a phrase, the general rule is to enclose it in speech marks, for example "global warming".

Set limits to your search

Set limits to your search, for example:

  • Publication date - how far back do you want to search?
  • Range - what types of publication or documentation do you wish to include? Do you want to include newspaper articles, data sources, statistics for example?
  • Geographical - do you want to limit your search to material relating to a particular country or other geographical area?

Draw up a list of sources/databases to search and carry out your searches

Now that you know the subject areas you want to find information on, you can see which sources will contain information on these topics. Sources may be print-based or electronic There are many subject-specific guides to resources in the Library and on our website. As well as providing information about how to obtain material relevant to your subject, they supply links to some of the resources increasingly available electronically.

The Library search engine, Summon, is a quick way to begin your search for subject information and to identify the key sources for your subject.  It allows you to search the Library Catalogue, databases, and collections of e-journals and newspaper articles all at the same time. It's a great starting point for your research. However, you may also need to do more detailed searching via the Library Catalogue tab of our the search box, or via individual electronic databases.

Different sources will provide you different information:

  • Instructional books – these are books that take you step-by-step through how to do something.
  • Textbooks- these contain the principles of a subject area and will be central to you learning your topics
  • Monographs - these cover a subject area in great detail
  • Edited books – Each chapter is written by different experts in the area.
  • Reference books – these contain useful facts or information on a specific topic, such as encyclopaedias, dictionaries, indexes etc. 
  • Academic/Scholarly journals: These are written by researchers at universities/centres and contain the results of their research.  They are written to be read by other experts and contain high quality information
    • Easy ways to spot academic journals:
      • Reference list at the end
      • Credentials of authors listed
      • Word ‘Journal’ in the title (not always the case)
      • Split into sections (Introduction, Methodology etc)
      • Similar length to a book chapter

Keep a record of your searches.

An essential part of literature searching is keeping accurate, consistent and correct records.

Record all useful references. The useful references should be recorded from print-based sources or marked and downloaded from electronic databases. A detailed record of everything useful you find will enable you to provide an accurate bibliography at the end of your project.

Review progress

It is important to carry out a review of your progress after an initial search.

Have you found material that is likely to be relevant to your topic? If there seems to be too much or too little, you may need to redefine your topic - and repeat the process. Evaluate what you have found in terms of relevance, reliability and usefulness. It is the quality, not the quantity of references that counts.

Obtain copies of useful references

It is very important to allow sufficient time to obtain copies of useful references. Most databases will have a mixture of full-text articles and bibliographic citations plus abstracts (summaries) of articles. Check Library Catalogue to see if the Library stocks the items you require. If the items you require are not available in full text via our Library they may be obtained via Inter-Library Loan, but make sure you have enough time before ordering.

Read, evaluate and absorb

The quality of the information you will find when searching will vary enormously depending on the sources you use. Therefore, it is important to be able to distinguish between academic and more popular or biased material. You must evaluate what you have retrieved. Some questions to think about:

  • Is this a primary or secondary text? (i.e. is it the original research/source of information or is it an evaluation/summary/discussion text) Both will be useful in your research, you just need to be sure which one you are reading.
  • Is the information relevant?
  • Who is the author?
  • When was it written? (i.e. is it still relevant to today, is it out of date and so should be disregarded or is it seminal (so ground breaking/influential to the research that took place after it was written)
  • Why was it written? (i.e. what influences/biases do you need to be aware of)
  • Does it agree / disagree with what you already knew or have read? (i.e. this is normal, you will find respected authors who think very different things to each other and have done indepth research on the topic)
  • What is the evidence? (i.e. make sure you are not just reading the conclusions and that the author is backing up their statements)
  • Are they quoting others work or their own? If they are quoting the work of others, do follow this up and find the original source (if you can) as this will provide you with further context and detail.

Make sure you are noting down the arguments/evidence not just summary sentences so that you can refer in your work to the core of the information source. 

Also make sure you are not reading passively and keep testing yourself. Can you close the source and remember the key things it was mentioning and explain them to someone else. This is a good sign you have understood the source and will help with paraphrasing the work in your assignment. 

Within your notes and whilst you are reading make sure you are separating facts from opinion/interpretation so that you are clear on which is which. Most sources will have a combination of both within them.

For further assistance in evaluating material look at “Critically analysing information sources” from Cornell University.

Always make sure, when you are reading and making notes from the sources that you are keeping an accurate record of what you have been reading so that you can do your referencing later. Within this, make it clear when you have copied a quote from a source or done a summary in your own words as you reference these differently to each other.

Once you have enough relevant and reliable material you will be ready to write.

Proof Reading

Imagine you have just finished your dissertation, which is full of original insights, informed by a range of research and with a brilliant argument.  However, if you do not read through it afterwards, checking for spelling, grammar and overall presentation, this omission may negatively affect your marks.

Proof reading gives you a chance to review your work and add in anything you may have missed out.  If you have written your assignment in a rush before a deadline, this means you have less time for checking your work thoroughly for errors. Thus it makes sense to be well organised and make a note of essay submission deadlines ahead of time – ideally making a start on each assignment well before this.

Spelling and grammar

Spellcheck on Microsoft Word is a fantastic tool, but it does have weaknesses. Often it can confuse homonyms, such as ‘bear’ and ‘bare.’  Similarly, spellcheck may present some unusual brand names as erroneous if it cannot be found in its dictionary.  Check that your computer is using the UK version instead of the USA.    Some students like to use Grammarly, an Internet based plug-in.

Techniques to follow

After you have finished writing, take some time away from your assignment and then come back to it in a few days’ time. You will have a fresher approach and will find it easier to spot errors.

Printing your assignment out and reading it through line by line will help you see mistakes. Some students like to read from the bottom or read it out loud upwards.  Asking friends and family who are not on your degree course to read it through can be useful as they will be able to concentrate your use of English, presentation and structure, rather than focusing on your subject knowledge.

George Orwell, the famous English author of ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984,’ had his own rules for improving your writing style.   He suggested ‘never using a long word when a short one will do.’ Sometimes students believe that if they adopt long words borrowed from their thesaurus, it will impress their lecturer, but actually this may make your writing harder to read. Orwell also advised that ‘if it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.’ This will help you follow a simpler, easy to follow mode of writing. (Orwell, G, 1945. Politics and the English Language. London: Penguin Classics.)


Some lecturers may specify that you submit your work in a certain format, such as Size 12 Times New Roman and double spaced.  It is essential that you follow these instructions when they are given. Paragraphs should be between 4-7 lines long, and can be used to introduce a new topic or give the reader time to pause.   It has been known for some students to present a wall of text without line breaks, which can be off putting to the reader.


Think back to the feedback you received for your last assignment.  How have you built on the advice given from your last piece of work? It is crucial that you engage with lecturers’ feedback in order to develop as a learner.



Osmond, A. (2016) Academic Writing and Grammar for Students. 2nd edn. London: Sage.