Writing Tips and Resources

Finding the help you need to become a better writer – today

The Acadia Writing Centre helps all members of the Acadia community become the best writers they can be. Many students are intimidated by the writing process and although they want to write effective assignments, they are not sure about how to make this happen. The good news is that there is lots of free help available at the Writing Centre, including tutorial sessions, presentations and workshops, and consultations with the Coordinator for senior students.

Becoming a great writer is not accidental or a mystery — it involves learning particular skills. Learning these skills will enable you to  communicate your knowledge clearly. Don't let poor writing skills hold you back from sharing your ideas!

Getting started: the big picture

Understand your assignment
Read your professor's description of the assignment several times carefully. If you don't understand any part, ask the professor for clarification – they have regular office hours, and will be happy to meet to make sure you are on the right track. Always keep in mind the importance of spending time getting organized: Time spent now will save you both time and effort in the long run!

Determine your focus
Read up on the topic of your assignment to find your particular focus. Then decide what claim you want to make about that topic. This is sometimes called your hypothesis, sometimes called your argument (or thesis). No matter what term your professor uses, most academic writing requires that early on in your paper you state one main claim, which you then go on to prove for the rest of the paper. This main claim is usually formulated in a thesis statement.
For tips on putting together your thesis statement, check out these helpful pages:

Create an outline
Develop a plan of action by breaking your writing task down into smaller parts. Coming up with an outline is a great way to help you organize the content of your paper and help you stay focused. For help on developing an effective outline, follow these links:

Write a draft
Now that you have an outline for your assignment, it's time to fill in content by developing a full draft. At this point don't worry too much about the finer details of your writing. This stage is all about getting your ideas down on paper in an organized manner. For help on your first draft, take the time to look over the following advice:

Focus on Paragraphs
Each paragraph generally deals with one main idea, with most paragraphs consisting of six to ten sentences. Read through your paragraphs, checking for unity and coherence. For more information on how to write good paragraphs, view the following resources:

Each effective main paragraph has a topic sentence. See the following links for more on what this means:

Have questions? Come see us at The Writing Centre!

Fine-tuning your work: success is in the details

Grammar and punctuation
Too many grammatical mistakes in your assignment can be distracting and prevent you from communicating your ideas clearly. English grammar is tricky at times but the good news is that most mistakes are common and can easily be avoided. To understand some of the basic terminology, click on the following resource:

Punctuation is area of writing that tends to give students problems. To learn how to use punctuation marks correctly in your written assignments, take a look at the following sections of the University of Ottawa's "Hypergrammar":

Do not rely on your spell-checker for complete accuracy. Take note of the following:

Test your grammar and spelling!
Go to the Purdue University OnlineWritingLab and take their "OWL Exercises" Best of luck!

Academic writing is formal, meaning it follows quite strict conventions or rules, including those for organization, grammar, and spelling. This is important as your reader wants to focus on what you say – your evidence or results – and not get tangled up in how you say it. To be as clear and concise as possible, consider how to:

While we use slang to fit in socially and clichés to convey ideas quickly in a conversation, forms of informal language are not appropriate for academic writing. Clichés in your writing will not only bore your reader but make it look as if you put no time into revising your paper. One university keeps the following list, which shows just how quickly what seem like original ways of speaking become yesterday's news:

Be gender-neutral and avoid conveying other unintentional personal bias in your writing. To help you do so, see the following:

Using appropriate diction (word choice) is a key to good academic writing. You may be expected to use technical vocabulary appropriately, but at the same time you don't want to sound too formal, pretentious, or bureaucratic. Avoid using a "big word" when a smaller one will do.

Using synonyms correctly will spice up your writing . . . but be sure to look up a word if you're not sure of its meaning (don't just right click and choose randomly from a list of synonyms – they rarely all really mean exactly the same thing!). Get ideas for synonyms using the following:

Varying sentence structure and length will improve the quality of your writing as well. For more on varying sentences, see the following:

Learn to avoid common writing errors
Take a look at the Acadia English Department's explanation of the most common errors students make in their writing. When you think you've learned enough here, you can test yourself to make sure:

Have questions? Come see us at The Writing Centre!

Referencing sources in your writing

The importance of referencing your work
As academic writers, we must reference (or cite) ideas and facts that we get from sources other than our own knowledge. We must cite in quotation marks any of that author’s own wording, and we must cite their ideas even if we put them into our own words as a paraphrase. For tips on how to do all of this right, click here (Purdue OWL).

Failing to give credit for particular wording or ideas taken from someone else is to commit plagiarism – a form of cheating. For help on doing it right, see our "Avoiding Plagiarism" handout available in the right-hand column of this webpage. Also, the Vaughan Memorial Library’s interactive tutorial "You quote it, you note it!" teaches us how to reference work properly and avoid plagiarism – check it out!

How to reference your sources: Style guides (APA, MLA, etc.)
As you research your topic, you will want to refer to a variety of sources for facts or ideas you find relevant and helpful to your own work. These can be books, or articles, or perhaps websites. Keep a list of these references, as you will need to indicate any that you use. For each source, you will need to give an in-text citation as well as a more detailed description of the source, often in a list at the end of your paper (this is your bibliography – often called the "References" or "Works Cited" section). How we format these citations depends on the specific style that we use.

Your professor likely wants you to use a particular documentation or citation style. Some of the most common ones are APA, MLA, and Chicago. For an overview on how to use each of these (with useful examples), click on the relevant link below:

Have questions? Be sure to ask your academic librarian -- full list here

Building your vocabulary

Use a dictionary
Learning to "talk the talk" and develop expertise in your particular academic subject is largely a matter of paying attention, to how the experts express themselves in the published work you are reading for class and assignments. When you come across a word or term you're not familiar with, circle it or add it to a list. Then, when you have a bunch, look them up in a good dictionary, one at a time. Then, a few days later test yourself: look at each word again, and ask yourself: "Ok, what does this word mean?" If you now know what it means, great -- you're becoming an expert. If not, look it up again.
   Myth: only weak students look up things in dictionaries.
   Fact: the smart students know to fill in the gaps in their knowledge, and so increase it word by word.

So what dictionary to use? Here's a great basic one: Merriam-Webster

And if you're doing any research that deals with earlier periods in the English language and history, here's the best one:

Refer to a thesaurus
Want to increase your options for expressing yourself? If you find you're using the same key word over and over, look for a good synonym here:

  • Thesaurus.com
    (and keep in mind that since few synonyms in English are in fact exact equivalents, if you're not sure of the new word, look it up in the dictionary before using it).
Writing theses, scholarship applications, or grant proposals

Writing a thesis
If you need help with the writing aspect of your honours or graduate thesis, the coordinator of the Writing Centre, Dr. Stephen Ahern, is available to work with you one-to-one. For more information click here.
Dr. Ahern also offers thesis writing workshops during the academic year. Check here for upcoming events.

Writing scholarship applications and grant proposals
Are you planning to go on in school and are hoping to secure a scholarship or grant? After consulting with your academic advisors – the professors in your program – you are always welcome to contact as well the coordinator of the Writing Centre, Dr. Stephen Ahern, for some additional advice about how to write an effective application or proposal.

Is English not your native language? Getting More Help

Studying at a Canadian university, far from home

  • Are you an international student new to Canada, who wants to know more about how university works and what the expectations are? Be sure to read this introduction to learn more

  • One challenge faced by international students can be how to use other people’s ideas in a way that is acceptable (and so doesn’t count as plagiarism, a kind of cheating) – Read this short guide to understand how to do this properly

Grammar and Vocabulary

  • There are many expressions or idioms in English that don’t make sense at first (and there are thousands of them!) – Check here to learn some of the most commonly used, so you can build your understanding: Canadian idioms   American idioms

  • Many international students struggle with knowing which verb tense to use at the right time – Be sure to work with these Verb tense exercises to improve your writing

  • Many international students have trouble using articles correctly in English (“Should I put a he in front of this noun, or is it an a?” they ask themselves) – Be sure to look at this quick guide to learn how to do it right!

Have questions? Come see us at The Writing Centre!