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

Understanding your assignment

Read your professor's description of the assignment over several times carefully. If you don't understand any part, ask the professor for clarification – he or she will be happy to meet to make sure you are on the right track. Never underestimate the importance of spending time getting organized: Time spent now will save you both time and effort in the long run!

Determining your focus: Coming up with a thesis statement

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. This main claim is usually formulated in a thesis statement. For tips on putting together your thesis statement, check out these helpful pages:

Creating an outline

Develop a plan of action by breaking your writing task down into smaller parts. An outline is a great tool that you can use to organize the content of your assignment and help you stay focused. For help on developing an effective outline, follow these links:

Writing a draft

Now that you have an outline for your assignment, it's time to fill in content by developing a first 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:  


Each paragraph generally contains one main idea and most paragraphs consist of six to eight 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:

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:

  Glossary of Grammar concepts

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":

  End punctuation
  Quotation marks


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

  100 commonly misspelled words (YourDictionary.com)

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:

  Eliminate wordiness (Purdue OWL)

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:

  "List of banished words" (Lake Superior State University)

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

  Unbiased language (University of Toronto)

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:

  Why sentence structure matters (University of Ottawa)
  Strategies for variations (Purdue OWL)

The need for sentence variation (Lumen Learning Centre)

Learning 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:

  "The Ten Most Common Errors (and how to fix them)"


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. We must cite in quotation marks any of that author’s own wording, and we must cite her 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 ideas or wording 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.

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 – books, articles, and perhaps websites. Keep a list of these references as you will need to indicate any that you use in your writing. 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 guide 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:

Building your vocabulary

Online dictionaries


Oxford English Dictionary online (When you're off campus, you'll first need to set up remote access here.)

Online thesaurus



Writing grant proposals, thesis papers and resumes

Grant proposals and thesis writing

If you need help with writing your honours or graduate thesis, the coordinator of the Writing Centre, Dr. Stephen Ahern, is available to work with you one-to-one. During 50-minute sessions he offers personalized attention in a comfortable setting.  This service is free to all Acadia students. To book an appointment, please e-mail (writingcentre@acadiau.ca). Dr. Ahern also offers thesis writing workshops during the academic year. Check out the Writing Centre website at writingcentre.acadiau.cafor upcoming events.

Writing resumes and cover letters

Did you know that Acadia's Career Services provides help with writing resumes and cover letters? Send an email to career.services@acadiau.ca to book an individual consultation.

Is English your Second Language? Getting More Help

Academic writing in general

Here are links to a few websites that give information on academic writing specifically for students who are ESL:

  Using English for Academic Purposes – An overview of the various aspects of academic writing in English (UEfAP.com)
  Advanced composition for non-native speakers of English – Practise organizing your ideas according to English formal writing conventions. (ESLbee.com)
   Purdue OWL Writing Lab Select "OWL Exercises" from the left-hand column to practice different aspects of writing



A well-developed academic vocabulary is an important factor in academic success at university.  The following websites will support you in achieving this:

  Academic phrasebank – Select commonly used academic phrases according to the categories listed in the left-hand column (University of Manchester)
  Academic vocabulary (ESLGold) -Word lists and phrases are provided for intermediate and advanced students.
    Academic vocabulary practice – Ten academic word lists are provided along with fill-in-the-blanks exercises for each list (Gerry's Vocabulary Teacher)
  Online dictionary with basic definitions (Macmillan Publishing)
  Online dictionary with pronunciation function (Merriam-Webster)
  Web text dictionary – A useful tool that allows you to click on any word on most webpages and get its definition. (lingro.com)



Use of correct grammar in your writing is a must as well.   Here are a few websites that can help:

  Online English grammar resources – An extensive list of grammar items, with examples, explanations and practice quizzes (edufind.com)
   Hyper-grammar – A self-learnable on-line grammar course (University of Ottawa)
  Guide to grammar and writing – A comprehensive grammar and writing guide (Capital Community College)