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Academic writing

Expert guidance from Study Advice at the University of Reading

Styles of writing

When you’re asked to write an assignment you might immediately think of an essay, and have an idea of the type of writing style that’s required.

This is likely to be a ‘discursive’ style, as often in an essay you’re asked to discuss various theories, ideas and concepts in relation to a given question. For those coming to study maths and science subjects, you might be mistaken in thinking that any guidance on writing styles is not relevant to you.

In reality, you’ll probably be asked to complete a range of different assignments, including reports, problem questions, blog posts, case studies and reflective accounts. So for the mathematicians and scientists amongst you, you’re likely to find that you’ll be expected to write more at university than perhaps you’re used to. You may be asked to write essays, literature reviews or short discussions, in which all the advice on this course, including the advice below, is of relevance. In addition, even writing up your equations or findings will require you to carefully consider your structure and style. Different types of assignment often call for different styles of writing, but within one assignment you might use a variety of writing styles depending on the purpose of that particular section.

Three main writing styles you may come across during your studies are: descriptiveanalytical and reflective. These will require you to develop your writing style and perhaps think more deeply about what you’ve read or experienced, in order to make more meaningful conclusions.

The diagram below shows examples of each of these writing styles. It takes as an example a trainee teacher’s experience within a classroom and shows how the writing style develops as they think more deeply about the evidence they are presented with.

All of these forms of writing are needed to write critically. You’ll come across the term critical in lots of contexts during your studies, for example critical thinking, critical writing and critical analysis. Critical writing requires you to:

• view a topic from a variety of angles

• evaluate evidence

• present a clear conclusion

• and reflect on the limitations of your own argument.


So how will you know which writing style is needed in your assignments? As mentioned, most academic assignments will require a certain amount of description but your writing should mainly be analytical and critical. You’ll be given an assignment brief and marking guidelines, which will make clear the expectations with regards to writing style. Make sure you read these carefully before you begin your assignment.

Descriptive writing

It’s unlikely that you’ll be asked to only write descriptively, though this form of writing is useful in certain sections of reports and essays. You’ll need elements of description in essays before you go on to analyse and evaluate. The description is there to help the reader understand the key principles and for you to set the scene. But description, in this case, needs to be kept to a minimum.

However descriptive writing is often used in the methodology and findings sections of a report, or when completing a laboratory report on an experiment. Here you’re describing (for instance) the methods you adopted so that someone else can replicate them should they need to. Descriptive writing focuses on answering the ‘what?’ ‘when’ and ‘who’ type questions.

Analytical writing

Analytical writing style is often called for at university level. It involves reviewing what you’ve read in light of other evidence. Analytical writing shows the thought processes you went through to arrive at a given conclusion and discusses the implications of this. Analytical writing usually follows a brief description and focuses on answering questions like: ‘why?’ ‘how?’ and ‘so what?’

Reflective writing

Not all writing will require you to write reflectively. However you might be asked to write a reflective account after a work placement or find that at the end of a report it might be appropriate to add some personal observations. This style of writing builds on analysis by considering the learning you’ve gained from practical experience. The purpose of the reflection is to help you to make improvements for the future and, as such, it is a more ‘personal’ form of academic writing often using the first person. Evidence still has a key role in reflective writing; it’s not just about retelling your story and how you felt. And evidence in the case of reflection will include your own personal experience which adds to the discussion. Reflective writing focuses on future improvements and answers questions like ‘what next?’