‘Edit, edit, edit!’: The dos and don’ts of academic writing at third level

Follow these simple tips to help ensure your assignments are up to scratch

Don’t submit your first draft - and be sure to  leave time for the invaluable editing stage. Photograph: iStock

Don’t submit your first draft - and be sure to leave time for the invaluable editing stage. Photograph: iStock


There is a myriad of things to consider when it comes to academic writing. In my work as academic writing tutor at Athlone Institute of Technology, I come across these issues all the time, so I’ve compiled a list of “dos and don’ts” to help you along the way.


1. Check your assignment brief: All instructions should be clearly laid out, including reference to the various headings, the various deadlines, the required word count and details of the specific referencing guide.

2. Clarify with the lecturer: If you are unsure about any aspect of the assignment, then check with your lecturer/tutor. It might be a question about referencing, whether there is leeway with the word count or if feedback is available at the draft stage.

3. Engage with the VLE (Virtual Learning Environment): Many lecturers actively use the Virtual Learning Environment i.e. Blackboard, Moodle and Sulis where weekly lecture notes, helpful information on examinations and deadlines, changes to class times and assessment briefs are located. A lot of assessments are submitted through the VLE.

4. Get started! If you have six weeks to complete a written assignment, don’t leave it until week five-and-a-half . . . get started earlier rather than later! Many students find it difficult to get started on their assignments, for a variety of reasons. There are plenty of other priorities i.e. the part-time job, course work, social life, sports commitments, family issues etc. Rather than look at these things as a problem, allocate some decent time for your course work along the way.

5. Word count: Don’t ignore the required word count! Check with the lecturer if there is any leeway. Some lecturers are happy to accept up to 20per cent over or under the required word count, depending on the size of the particular assignment. Others are strict and 2,000 words means just that. It’s important to know what the exact requirements are, from the moment you tackle your assignment.

6. Time management and planning ahead: The importance of planning your assignment and managing your time effectively cannot be overstated. Spending short spurts of time on your assignment can be just as or even more effective than several hours on end without a break.

7. Referencing guide: Referencing is vital in academic writing but so many students hate the thoughts of it! There are several guides i.e. Harvard, APA, IEEE, MLA and Chicago, so be clear on which one your lecturer requires. The bibliography must follow a standardised format, while the in-text citations must be uniform. Poor referencing can have a huge impact on your work and mistakes can easily be overcome by following the relevant guide.

8. Critical analysis: It’s not just a case of reading literature and listing it in your essay - you are required to critically analyse, stamp your own authority on it and make a valuable contribution to an important field of study.

9. Back up all work: Losing all your work because it was not saved or backed up doesn’t wash at third level. Back up everything! From the moment you open your document through to the submission, it is vital that you hit ‘Save’. There are plenty of options for back up such as Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud or simply emailing it to yourself. Don’t use it as an excuse not to get work done on time!


1. Don’t use the first person: For formal academic writing, don’t write in the first person. In academic essays, steer away from the ‘I’ and ‘you’ and use the third person: “This paper will look at. . .”

2. Procrastinate: Tackle the work - don’t put it off for weeks and weeks! If you get details of an assignment in the first week of term, then start doing some of the groundwork early on. It means less work and less stress later, as the deadline approaches. A lot of coursework is now examined through continuous assessment so it often means several deadlines approach in different subjects around the same time. Hence the importance of tacking work as early as possible!

3. All-nighters: No need to pull an all-nighter to finish an assignment due at 9am! There is always plenty of time in the days and weeks running up to assignment deadline to get it done so don’t leave it until the very last minute. Leave aside a couple of hours each day in the week leading up to deadline and that will mean so much when it comes to final deadline.

4. Submitting the assignment: Don’t leave it until the last minute, particularly if you are submitting online. Problems arise with technology, the internet, computers crashing and material disappearing.

5. Edit, edit, edit! Don’t submit your first draft! Leave time for the invaluable editing stage. Sometimes it is difficult to spot mistakes on the screen in front of you, so it is a good idea to print out your piece of writing and sit down with the pen and highlight the errors. It might be issues with grammar, punctuation or sentence structure, or perhaps there are glaring errors with referencing which might be easier to identify when it is printed out in front of you.

6. The blame game: Don’t blame someone else when you haven’t done the work! It’s not the lecturer’s fault, it’s not the friend’s fault etc. The onus to get the work done lies with you so accept responsibility if you fail to meet a deadline!

7. Negative attitude: Don’t adopt a negative attitude when it comes to your academic writing. A significant proportion of students have issues with some aspect of their writing: some find grammar and punctuation a problem, others have difficulty with sentence structure, while referencing is an issue for several students. Rather than throw in the towel after receiving negative feedback, aim to address the weakness!

8. Don’t make excuses: Everyone is busy! It’s just a case of sitting down with the pen, paper, laptop or PC and getting the first words out. Sometimes it can be difficult to know where to start with an introduction. Abandon the introduction, temporarily, and focus on the main body of the text. Come back to the introduction later.

9. Writer’s block! We all have days when the writing just isn’t coming together. The words are in the head but cannot get out. Get to know what works best for you. For some it might be a case of writing a few lines on a notebook, for others it is a case of reading up on your subject area. Other students benefit from leaving the project aside temporarily and returning to it when the appetite is better, perhaps at a different time of the day. For example, some people work better in quietness, others like hustle in the background and many find early mornings or working at night suit them better.

Emer Connolly is the academic writing tutor at Athlone Institute of Technology