Improve your academic writing #1 (Content)

Academic writing can be frustrating at times, especially if you are a Minion or an international student. In QUT’s Diploma course, they offer international students two Academic Communication units, QCD110 and QCD210, to bridge this knowledge gap. I’m a recent Diploma graduate and I know that academic writing is a part of my Bachelor of Engineering and my career. This has inspired me to write a guide for myself and other students to reinforce the foundation skills and strategies I’ve learned.

A written assignment is usually divided into four parts: Content, language, organisation and referencing. I will divide my guide into two parts. The first will cover how you can improve the content of your research essay.

This will be a long post and contain many pieces of information. Therefore, finishing the post in one go is counter-productive. Instead,  skim the post, then read and apply the tips from each step.

Disclaimer: This is my current approach to writing an academic paper and not the only one.  Add any useful bits to your own approach along the way.

1. Breaking down the assessment and the criteria sheet

You can get access to relevant documents through the Assessment tab, including the criteria sheet.

A criteria sheet (CRA) of an assessment describes the requirements for each grade. Instead of a general instruction like “write a killer essay”, the instructions for the CRA are more specific and divided into smaller parts such as content, language, and organisation, each with their own weight. My strategy is to identify the part that has the greatest weight, which is usually the content of the essay and work on it first. The fact that I’m making early progress on a major part of the assessment gives me more confidence and sufficient work for a passing grade in case I’m short of time.

For example, this is my initial approach for the literature review:  If I want to get a 7 in the literature review – get a 7 in the content and get a 7 in the body paragraphs. Then, I have a look at the CRA for the body paragraphs.

From the sheet, I give myself more specific instructions (you can ask tutors to clarify the CRA if need be).

  • Evidence of critical thinking

Demonstrate the writer’s voice (covered in step 3)

  • Highlights links in literature

Demonstrate the similarities and contrasts between the articles.

  • Provides justification

Provide suitable articles to support arguments (covered in step 2).

The next step will cover how you can search for credible sources and form arguments in your essay.

2. Researching and forming arguments

Quality research contains clear arguments supported by reliable sources. The second step is researching sources for your assessment and forming your arguments in the research. This process is divided into two steps:

  • Searching for the sources
  • Justifying the sources.

QUT Library is a great tool to search for credible sources (how to use QUT Library efficiently). Personally, I’ve used the filter function the most, to sort out relevant sources from the gigantic library. For instance, peer-reviewed articles, which has been reviewed by other researchers in the same field, is a great filter option. You are more likely to find a credible source in less time with appropriate filters.

When justifying the sources, the general rule of thumb is applying the CRAAP test:

  • Currency: How old is the source? Is it outdated?
    This depends on the topic of research, but a source published within the recent 10 years is a good place to start with.
  • Relevancy: Is the source relevant to your research?
    A source is relevant when it adds depth or justification to your research. As writing assessments have a word limit, your research should be concise and informative by only including crucial sources. If a source is beyond your understanding, discuss it with friends or tutors.
  • Authority: Who published the information?
    Research conducted by authors with relevant background has greater credibility. In contrast, Wikipedia is not a reliable source because anyone can edit documents on the page.  Therefore, it’s better to include sources which have experienced authors. However, as some sources such as articles may contain technical terms, you can use any sources you’re familiar with to get a head start.
  • Accuracy: Is the information reliable and correct?
    You can justify the source by identifying this information from the source:

    • The number of participants
    • The method used to conduct the research
    • Any possible weaknesses of the source
  • Purpose: What is the purpose of the source?
    Does the source want to inform, entertain or to sell a sponsored product to the readers?

I consider this to be the most challenging part when writing a research paper because you can become overwhelmed by the new information. You should have a reading plan to avoid burnout (I read two new articles every week for the Literature Review in QCD210).

3. Demonstrating the writer’s voice

After researching, you have become well-informed and capable of forming your arguments in the research. The next step is to include the writer’s voice, your own reasoning, in the research. This may include:

  • Why a source is included
  • Any special detail from the source
  • Explaining the relationships between the sources
  • A conclusion drawn from the sources

Your essay should aim for a balance between the writer’s voice and sources from researchers. This does not mean every source must be followed by your own opinion, but comment on how sources benefit your research for the readers. On one hand, arguments lacking sources will not be convincing. On the other hand, a research paper without the writer’s voice will be unclear to the reader.

Congratulation, you have obtained enough tools to enhance the quality of your writing! From now on, drafting and attending consultations with tutors will be the key to guarantee you’ve applied the tips effectively.

In the second part of the guide, I will cover how you can improve your language, organisation and reference. See you then!


Although Nam often introduces himself as “Nam from Vietnam”, his friends call him “Namie” for some reasons. Nam is studying Bachelor of Engineering, majoring in Electrical. Elon Musk, the CEO of tech companies such as Tesla and SpaceX, became a huge inspiration for young Nam to become an engineer and help solve problems around the world. For now, Nam’s interested in building websites and robots. His goals for 2019 are building a great personal website and participating in the Droid Racing Challenge hosted by QUT Robotics Club. Outside of Engineering, Nam aims to expand his comfort zone by volunteering and socializing more. If Nam’s journey resonates with you, you’ll love the stories shared through his posts.

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