Skip to Main Content

Writing Centre Online Resource Guide


Writing in First Year

Academic Writing: The Basics

Contributed by Linda Macdonald, PhD

Writing for university purposes involves interacting with academic material in ways that may be new to you. As you advance in your education, you will be increasingly expected to participate in the academic dialogues that propel the development of ideas. Scholars engage, for example, in debates concerning the actual authorial identity of plays allegedly written by William Shakespeare, the most feasible water management practices in First Nation populations, and the environmental impact of natural gas exploration. Academic writing requires you to be familiar with the ongoing academic debate in your discipline and to contribute to it.

An academic paper demonstrates the synthesis of knowledge, builds on the work of others, and offers original insights. This expectation can initially be intimidating. What, you might ask, could I possibly contribute to the field? Do I know enough to make a meaningful contribution? Published papers use words I don’t understand, and I am not sure I even understand what they are about. How can I be expected to participate in an academic debate?

Relax. You are just beginning to enter the debate, and you are at university in order to learn how to engage in it. It takes time to learn the language of your chosen field and to master it. Writing an academic paper is part of the learning process and the development of professionalism in your chosen field.

Even before you receive that first assignment of a course, you should begin the habit of thinking critically. Critical thinking is the art of questioning. As you listen to lectures, as you read the textbook or academic articles, and as you experience academic life, you should develop the habit of questioning. What does this word mean? Are these claims always true? Is there something overlooked in this study? Has the idea regarding A ever been applied to B or C? Why did this event occur? Are there theoretical models for understanding this problem?

Some of these questions may have answers. Some may not. The problems that these questions reveal are possibilities for exploration. Your solution to the problem will evolve into your thesis statement.

Once you have discovered an interesting problem, you can pursue it through research. Look for proposed solutions to the problem and for engagement in similar issues. In particular, note points of tension in the literature— areas of disagreement among scholars. As you read the academic material, continue to think and to read critically. Continue to ask questions.

To write an academic paper, then, you need to

  • think and read critically;
  • find a problem worth pursuing;
  • explore the literature that informs your understanding of the problem and that offers evidence for your solution;
  • demonstrate active engagement in the scholarship in your discipline.

Presentations on Writing at University

The Writing Process

Contributed by Linda Macdonald, PhD

The writing process is very difficult and complex, yet it is often tremendously rewarding.  The stages of the writing process outlined here—prewriting, planning, writing, revising, and citing—lead you through the process of writing an effective piece. Keep in mind that writers might move through the stages of prewriting, planning, and drafting and then discover the need to re-think, re-plan, and re-write. In other words, you will frequently revisit stages during the process. Ultimately, the time you spend in crafting your product will result in a work that demonstrates your efforts.

Writing Emails to Faculty

Notifications of absences, requests for reference letters, clarifications on assignments, and expressions of thanks for supervision on your thesis are common reasons for writing to instructors. Most professors use e-mail either within Brightspace or through other accounts. The syllabus or departmental website will provide you with the correct address. The general rules are keep your remarks concise and always be polite. Here are a few additional tips:

  • Write a clear subject line (Can’t Make It to Class might be better than Class Attendance or My Schedule);
  • CC only those involved, such as a team member if your actions impact on them;
  • Use an appropriate salutation (a way of saying “Hi”);
  • Write complete sentences and spell out words rather than use abbreviations;
  • Introduce your topic rather than jump into a continuing conversation that the professor may or may not recall;
  • Refer to the course number, when appropriate;
  • Give only the pertinent details;
  • End the note with a polite closing.

Subject: Missing Monday’s Class Due to Swim Meet

CC:  Sam Sani, Teaching Assistant

Hello Professor Smith,

            As we discussed at the beginning of the term, the swim team periodically travels to meets during the week. I will miss our Monday class (BUSI 340) because of a meet in Montreal. Since I have the syllabus, I will complete the readings and assignments before I leave, and I will send them to the marker electronically. Thank you.

F. Lebrun


Resources for First Year Students at Dalhousie