Writing in English effectively

How to improve your writing in 5 easy steps

bibliographic detailsWriting is a challenging yet tremendously rewarding task. Although it is a skill that some people are born with, it is often in the actual act of writing that we come to discover our aptitude for it and our knowledge on any given topic. If we can agree with the premise that writing is a thinking process, it becomes an imperative for writers to allow themselves considerable time for their writing and thinking to mature, especially because every piece of writing notably differs…

Written pieces of content will accommodate distinct purposes and needs. At work, you might only need a concise list of points to express your arguments orally whereas, at university, students are always expected to extrapolate on subject points with argument and explanation. For instance, when writing assignments, one is required to think clearly and critically, use valid evidence and produce well-structured and coherent pieces of writing. This applies broadly in all academic fields of study and the writing an individual is required to do, for one’s subjects, will also normally involve consulting a wide range of text types such as essays, reports, papers based on case studies, literature reviews and short answers and problem-solving of tutorial questions.

Have you ever wondered why written assignments are perceived as the most popular way of assessing student learning? The answer lies in the fact that writing is both a product of learning (in theory, your finished assignment displays your learning) and a tool for learning (through the process of writing, writers can deepen their thoughts and understanding of the targeted subject). All you need to do at first is to plan out your writing pieces into stages, so that it is substantially easier for you to come up with your first and final drafts.

In the next sections of this post, I will provide you with insight into some of my proposed stages.

Note Taking

Note TakingThis process can make things clearer. The thinking and analysing involved will help you develop ideas as you will be able to identify important points and examples, and place your experiences within the relevant context. Thus your assignment may be taking shape as you read and take notes, though it may not seem so to you!

What’s involved in taking good notes?

  • identifying main points and supporting evidence and detail;
  •  thinking about what you read;
  • asking questions about what your read;
  • comparing what you read with the findings of other authors and researchers.

Important points for taking notes

First and foremost, have a clear idea of what the assignment or reader is asking you to do, and what the keywords and concepts are.


Make a list of the things that need to be included and the words or ideas that need to be addressed. Use these to evaluate which sources are useful to you and worth taking notes from.

How to improve your writing in 5 easy steps 1
How to improve your writing in 5 easy steps 2

Bibliographic details of each source

As you read, begin by noting down the bibliographic details of each source, because you will need these to correctly reference your writing piece.

  • For a book, list the author, date, title, edition, publisher and city of publication;
  •  For a journal article, list the author, date, article title, journal title, volume number, issue number and page numbers of the article.
  • For material from a website, list the authoring body, date of publication or update, title of the site or page, retrieval date, URL or web address.
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Your notes should contain summaries (the main points) of articles, chapters or sections, in your own words.

The length of your summary depends on why you have written the summary and how you might use it in your writing.

Take down the page numbers for each note you make and try not to quote large blocks of text.

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Use of quotation marks

Indicate when you’ve copied a quote by using quotation marks. This way you will be certain which words are the author’s and which are your own.

Choose carefully what you are going to quote and think about how it will add meaning to the point you are going to make.

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Notes in the margins

Try to engage actively with the text by making notes in the margin, making comparisons and asking questions. Highlight very selectively (keywords, phrases and single sentences) so that the important points are obvious to you without having to read the whole piece again.

What is the best way to take notes?

What is the best way to take notesOne suggested way is to rule the page into three columns as follows:

  • Use the first column for keywords and page numbers;
  • Use the middle column for summaries, paraphrases or direct quotes;
  • Use the right-hand column for any hypothetical questions, reflections, etc

Taking notes directly on the computer is becoming increasingly popular. This is fine, however, it is still important to do this in a way that makes it easy to identify what is from a source and what is your own idea.

Photocopying and highlighting may sometimes be OK,  however it is not as active a process as taking your own notes, in your own words. You will have to ‘do’ something with these highlighted sections of text anyway, before they can go into your writing piece.

Summarising, paraphrasing and quoting

Your writing piece should be a discussion of ideas and findings from the sources that you have examined. Writers are often understandably confused by two apparently opposing requirements – you are required to discuss the work of other people whilst presenting your own argumentative ‘opinion’.

What is expected then? Your writing should reflect the knowledge and understanding that you gained from reading and thinking about your subject. Your contribution lies in:

  • who and what you choose to discuss;
  • what level of detail you go into;
  • who and what you choose to exclude;
  • how to structure and present your content.

So, how do you bring in what you’ve read? There are three comprehensive tools that you should be using: summarising, paraphrasing and quoting in the context of your initial purpose for writing.


Summarising an extractA summary is a condensed version of a passage, an article or book. There is no connection whatsoever between the length of a text and the length of its summarised content. In fact, depending on your  purpose as a writer, an entire book can efficiently be summarised in one sentence. What’s essential is to understand the text and have a clear purpose for summarising it, in whatever detail you choose to do so.

  • Only include the main points;
  • The text is to be condensed without losing the essence of the material;
  • Use your own words (NOTE: Do not change technical terms);
  • Reporting verbs (e.g. ‘suggests’ or ‘encompasses’) are usually utilised to refer the original text;
  • In-text citation is to be provided – include family name of the author (no initials), year of publication and page number (e.g. Warner (2001, p. 6)). Page numbers should always be provided if the summarised material appears in specific pages, chapters or sections;
  • The source should have a reference list entry giving full bibliographic details.
Photo: Coutesy of the University of Newcastle (Australia)


ParaphrasingA paraphrase is the act of dramatically re-wording a short passage from a text, in approximately the same number of words. As a writer, you need to choose the passage or passages you wish to paraphrase – because of their importance or interest and relevance to your content. Reminder: You’ll need to fully understand the passage and have a clear purpose for using it.

  • The sentence structure and the vocabulary of the original needs to be changed;
  • The first sentence is to introduce the paraphrased written content. Reporting verbs (‘argues’ and ‘maintains’) are normally used to discuss the ideas from the source.
  •  In-text citation is necessary. Page numbers should be provided too. The year and page numbers are not required for second and subsequent references to the writer within the narrative in the same paragraph, if references are to the same work. When the name of the author and year are in parentheses, in any one paragraph, the year is included in subsequent citations;
  • The source should have a reference list entry giving full bibliographic details.

Photo: Coutesy of the University of Newcastle (Australia)


Short Quote 

A short quote of a sentence or part of a sentence from a source, which is reproduced exactly It consists of fewer than 30 words when using the author – date (Harvard) style and fewer than 40 words any time that one utilises the APA style. 

Block quote

A block quote is a longer quote. It consists of more than 30 words when using the author – date (Harvard) style, and more than 40 words when one is utilising the APA style. It is set off from the body of the content by indentation.

Entry in reference list

Whether you summarise, paraphrase or quote, you should provide in-text citations and give full details of each source in a reference list at the end of your content.

The reference list should contain all the works cited in your content and no works that are not cited. A work is listed only once in the reference list, regardless of how many times it is cited in text.

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How to improve your writing in 5 easy steps 7
How to improve your writing in 5 easy steps 8

Photo: Courtesy of Abbas Media Law

Photo: Courtesy of Abbas Media Law

Photo: Courtesy of Northumbria University

Using appropriate language and style in writing

How to use appropriate language and style in your English writingUsing your own words in your summaries and paraphrases can be extremely difficult when you are beginning your writing endeavours, however keep in mind that, as your subject knowledge increases and your vocabulary is incremented, the more likely it is for you to achieve both flexibility and choice. Also, the more familiar you become with the sentence structure and the grammar of English, the better able you will be to rephrase passages in your own words.

Reading in your subject is absolutely essential for gaining more advanced knowledge in the relevant areas of your writing. It can also help to improve your language skills generally, and familiarise you, with the specific language (technical terms and jargon) of your subject.

Students often believe that they are propelled to use big, impressive words in order to sound ‘academic’. Whilst you should express with a certain formality in your writing (for example, not utilising conversational English or ‘text messaging English’), keep in mind that you should write to express, not to impress. Use words that you fully comprehend and are familiar with.

If English is not your first language, it is definitely worth asking a native speaker to proofread your content It all depends on your overall level of English however, even native speakers, regularly have their content proofread.


When your writing is meant to draw on the work of others, correct referencing is expected. Avoiding plagiarism is one of several reasons why it is important to reference your writing. Understanding the reasons for referencing and acquiring the skills to correctly reference your writing are vital for success in your writing endeavours.


To show that you have read. Your audience is your benchmark. They will most likely already be  familiar with much of the information that you’ll present to them. Your purpose is not to explain to someone who does not know about the topic, but rather display your knowledge of the subject by showing that you have read about it and thought about what you are supposed to in the light of your readings.

To show what you have read. Referencing allows you to demonstrate the breadth and depth of your reading and connects you to the views of other authors.

To enable the reader to locate the sources mentioned in your content. Assessors/Readers need to be able to locate where you found your quotes. This is due to the fact that they may be interested in understanding an idea or its context and want to read more themselves. Their intention may also be to check that you have copied it accurately as well as to evaluate your comprehension skills against the original author’s work. Therefore, providing full details of the source (including the page number) indicates that you are not plagiarising other people’s writing.

To acknowledge your sources and avoid plagiarism. Writers (and students) must also recognise that new knowledge is built upon the work of those who have paved the way to all of us. Those authors must be given credit for their contributions.


Avoiding plagiarism

Plagiarism is the use of other people’s words, ideas or research findings without acknowledgment, that is, without indicating the source. This is so serious that Google claims that they will not index/rank your website if they detect that your content has been plagiarised.

Plagiarism has become more widespread and is an issue of increasing concern on the internet. You should never submit a piece of work without acknowledging sources in the body of your content and without providing a list of sources with bibliographic details (if required).

Please note that using the spoken words of your lecturer, and interviewee or someone you heard speak on the radio or Youtube, for example, is the same as using someone’s written words. Whether something is quoted, paraphrased or summarised, the spoken word is to be always cited.


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