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Excerpt from Katharine McMahon, ‘What’s Going On With Student Writing?’, study commissioned by the Royal Literary Fund (June 2004)

The writing skills that students need at university level to write an effective academic assignment include:

  • The ability to spell, to construct a sentence, to punctuate rationally and to divide writing into logical paragraphs.
  • Competence in word-processing, cut and paste, formatting, page-numbering and foot-noting.
  • The ability to assimilate and organise information.
  • The confidence to read widely, fast and with focus.
  • A grasp of the subject under discussion.
  • The confidence to select and discard material.
  • An understanding of the particular style and format required by their chosen discipline.
  • An understanding of how to compile a bibliography, and to reference their sources.
  • An understanding of what plagiarism is, and how to avoid it.
  • An understanding of how to interpret and read a question or title so that they can respond to it with confidence.
  • A facility with language, so that they can give expression to complex ideas.
  • An ability to plan.
  • The ability to develop an argument, so that the essay flows smoothly from one idea to the next because there is an underpinning logic.
  • The courage to face a blank page (screen).
  • The confidence to search for help from the tutor, other students, the library and the internet.
  • The courage to re-write or start again as necessary, to extract the good from the over-written or irrelevant, to restructure and on some occasions rethink completely.
  • An understanding that writing is a creative process that in itself develops ideas and often produces more than the writer imagines possible at the start.
  • The ability to think laterally and make connections.
  • The ability to edit, re-draft and proof-read.
  • The qualities of self-motivation and patience.
  • The qualities of self-discipline and time-management, to give time for analysing the question, reading and note-taking, first, second and third drafts, proof-reading.
  • The ability to be receptive to verbal and written feedback, so that they can build on strengths and weaknesses identified in previous work.
  • The ability to work for long-term aims, with little immediate reward.


  1. Which of these do you think are your strengths?
  2. Where are your weaknesses?
  3. How can you improve in the areas you find hardest?
  4. How has your experience of writing essays so far been different from your experience of writing essays at school?
  5. Have you noticed any discrepancies between what supervisors are asking you to do and how you were taught to write essays at school?