Using a writing process

A six-step process to get writing done.

Written assignments are one of the major requirements of university. Writing tasks at university vary greatly, but generally, academics expect that tertiary-level writing will:

  • Directly respond to the specific task requirements;
  • Adhere to the conventions of the writing task so that the writing fits the requirements of the genre;
  • Present a clear, supported response;
  • Demonstrate evidence of research; i.e. use of literature;
  • Demonstrate understanding of literature through critical analysis, not just description or summary;
  • Acknowledge all sources used; i.e. through referencing.

Here, we present a process that will help you meet these requirements. Note that it focuses on the type of writing found in Social Sciences and Humanities disciplines.

1. Determine the genre

Once you have received your writing task you need to determine the genre; in other words, what type of writing is required. For example, essays, reports, a literature review; annotated bibliographies and reflective writing are all common academic genres with their own requirements, organisation, structure, style expectations and language conventions.

For example; an essay generally consists of an introduction, a body and a conclusion. It is presented in paragraphs; does not usually have headings or titles; and is written in an ‘objective’ formal style where you may not directly refer to yourself in the writing. It also concludes with a Reference List or Bibliography.

If the requirements of the genre are not made explicit to you, or if you are unclear about them, you need to find out what they are. The Subject Guide or the ‘Assessment’ tab on your subject’s Canvas site often has this information.

2. Analyse the task

The next step is to determine what the task is asking you to do. Spend extra time on this step, as it will save you time and heartache later. Look carefully at the task question i.e. the actual statement or question you have to respond to.

Written assignments

Essays, reports and reviews will typically have a question or prompt which consists of:

  • Topic words (what the task is about)
  • Direction words (which tell you what to do with the topic)
  • Focus words (which limit your topic to a specific area)


Analyse two theories of education and state a case as to which has the most relevance in today’s classroom . Illustrate how this could apply to your future teaching .

Legend: Topic words Direction words Focus words


These can also contain direction, content and focus words. Short answer exam questions usually fall into two types:

  • Factual (recalling relevant information), or
  • Interpretive (applying your understanding of key information and concepts)

Note: a question can sometimes require both of these -- asking you to first provide facts, and then demonstrate your understanding.


Use different-coloured highlighters to identify the direction, content and focus words in your assessment and exam prompts.Analysing these elements will help you to ‘get inside’ the question and focus on what it is at its core. Indeed, accurate task analysis informs all of the next steps.

Direction words

Here are some examples of common direction words and their definitions.

  • View examples

    Direction word

    What you need to do

    account for

    Give a justified explanation of why and how something is the case.


    Divide into parts or elements to discover the nature of something. Describe the function and relationships of the parts to identify possible problems or weaknesses.


    Make a case for accepting or rejecting a position by systematically giving reasons and evidence for or against it. Demonstrate that you are aware of opposing viewpoints and provide grounds for rejecting them.


    Examine from different viewpoints, weighing up strengths and weaknesses. Make a considered judgement.


    Work out exactly.

    comment on

    Provide an informed and supported viewpoint.


    Identify characteristics that are similar. Also stress differences where relevant.


    Identify characteristics that are different. Emphasise similarities where appropriate.


    Analyse systematically from different perspectives and identify positive aspects as well as limitations. Draw conclusions from the analysis and express as informed judgement. This does not mean to criticise in only negative terms.


    Determine essential qualities. State concise and clear meanings but omit details. Mark the limits of the definition and emphasise differences to similar items or objects.


    Work out by reasoning or deduction (from general to specific).


    Characterise, recount and relate systematically.


    Come to conclusions about after calculations or discussion.


    First analyse and then critically examine in detail. Consider pros and cons in order to come to a supported assessment and conclusion


    Give a listing, number.


    Work out an approximate or rough figure or judgement.


    Examine from different viewpoints, weighing up strengths and weaknesses. Make a considered judgement.


    Investigate closely, paying attention to detail and considering implications.


    Make something clear by elaborating on it. Give reasons and try to analyse causes.

    give an account of 

    Describe, and give a list of reasons for something.


    Establish or say what it is distinguish from other items, point out.


    Explain and clarify using concrete examples, data, diagrams, etc.


    Explain something and make its meaning explicit. Give your own judgment


    Show adequate grounds for decisions or conclusions


    Present in an ordered way.


    Present the main features and how they relate to each other in a logical order. Include all main points and omit details.


    Show that something is true by presenting facts, statistics, examples etc.

    Note: prove has a particular meaning in the mathematical/physics context.


    Narrate or tell about, show how things are connected to each other and to what extent they are alike.


    Survey and examine critically and comprehensively. Comment on controversial aspects.


    Present the main points briefly and clearly. Omit details and examples.


    Give ideas about, suggest.


    Give a short and clear description of the main points.


    Follow the development of a something from a particular point in time.

Task analysis in action

Watch this video to learn how to deconstruct your assessment and exam questions and prompts to understand the task.

3. Make a plan

After analysing the task, map out a plan. You can do this on paper or as a Word document, organising your ideas into logical sections.  Using the above assignment task as an example, a starting plan (not including Introduction and Conclusion) might look like this:

Example writing process plan

4. Research and write into your plan

Now you need to find information to use in your writing. You are looking for information include in your plan.

The website has two excellent resources you can use for research:

  • Discovery, on the Library frontpage, enables you to search across databases, catalogues and the digital repository for information sources.
  • LibGuides at provides excellent collections of resource materials specific to discipline, course and subject.

You may find as you research that you refine your initial plan; re-organise, change, delete and re-sequence ideas.

As you read, transfer ideas directly into your plan. Fill in the plan with bullet point information, including BRIEF reference details (author name, page number or URL). Don’t forget this – you can then easily go back and find the information if you need it again.

5. Draft your writing

Note that this step comes some way into the entire process. The benefit of using research-to-plan transfer is that when you are ready to start writing the actual paper, you already have information there! This is also a very effective way to prevent writer’s block.

One way to start writing is to try expanding the bullet points you have into sentences and to link related sentences into paragraphs. Writing is a step-by-step process; it doesn’t just happen all at once. Review the following orderly steps.

Steps in writing

  • Free write (1st draft): just write; don’t worry about the word count at this point; get ideas flowing on to the page.
  • Take a break – get away from it for a while
  • ‘Hack’ edit (2nd draft): come back and ‘cut’ into the work. At this stage, you might remove sections that are repetitive or irrelevant, shift things around, or make choices about things you don’t need i.e. if you have compiled six definitions, you may decide to cut back to three.
  • Take a break
  • Refine edit (3rd draft): come back and ‘fine cut’ the writing. Work on expression and clarity; check grammar and references; make sure the writing answers the question. At this point you need to look at the word count: are you within the +/- 10% range? (There is an expectation that the amount you write will fall within 10% of the word count. E.g. for a 2000 word essay, 1800 – 2200 words is acceptable)
  • Take a break
  • Final edit (last draft): do this 1-2 days prior to submission. Print the work and ‘hard edit’ it into the word count range. You are editing for:
    • Typos, spelling and grammatical mistakes
    • Formatting, including line spacing, page breaks, font consistency, headings if required
    • In-text referencing and Reference List correctly formatted; sufficient range of sources evident

Note: the breaks in between steps are very important. They allow you to create distance from the writing, feel refreshed and be able to have a clear, renewed perspective on your work.

6. Final step – submit the work

Make sure that the writing is ready on the due date. Check how and where you submit your work and the exact time and date. Take into account that ‘stuff happens’: printers jam, people get sick etc., so, be prepared.  If you can’t submit on time, talk to academic staff and be honest.

Two people looking over study materials

Looking for one-on-one advice?

Get tailored advice from an Academic Skills adviser by booking an individual appointment, or get quick advice from one of our Academic Writing Tutors in our online drop-in sessions.

Get one-on-one advice