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A Practical Guide to Technical Tips for Writing Academic Assignments - V12 April 2019

A Handbook by Dr Chris Haughton, EdD MA BA CertEd QTLS Master Mariner FNI FSET

Haughton Maritime Limited
Inversanda, Rosslyn Avenue
Preesall, Poulton-le-Fylde
Lancashire FY6 0HE
United Kingdom

Notice of Terms of Use


While the advice given in this pamphlet ‘Technical Tips for Writing Academic Assignments’ has been developed using information currently available, it is intended purely as guidance to be used at the user’s own risk.


Haughton Maritime Limited accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of any information or advice given in this document or any omission from the document or for any consequence whatsoever resulting directly or indirectly from compliance with or adoption of guidance contained in the document, even if caused by failure to exercise reasonable care.


The publication has been prepared to deal with the subject of ‘Technical Tips for Writing Academic Assignments’. This should not, however, be taken to mean that this publication deals comprehensively with all of the issues that will need to be addressed or even, where a particular issue is addressed, that this publication sets out the only definitive view for all situations.


Advice, guidance, rules, regulations, policies and procedures from the learning Institution in which the user is enrolled, or will enrol, always has precedence.

Why, and who needs them?


Good questions: this pamphlet grew out of my experience as a face-to-face and distance learning tutor on Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.), Master of Science (M.Sc.) and Master of Business Administration (MBA) programmes. Hence the references throughout of ‘dissertations’ and ‘degrees’. I soon came to realise that students were either not finding the information they needed from their Institution’s Programme Handbooks, or if they did, weren’t paying it sufficient attention. I reasoned that if all the technical stuff was in one, easily accessible location, it may help.


My own experience as a student in the Higher Education (HE) sector was another motivator. Often, learners who don’t have a formal, traditional, university academic background (including myself) may have missed out on some of the basic requirements of technical academic presentation. These are second-nature to career academics and so often get overlooked with assumptions such as ‘everyone knows you don’t mix fonts in an essay’, or ‘it’s obvious you’d include page numbers and a footer with your student name and reference number’. Well, the truth is that many mid-career learners are not aware of these expected conventions. 


It’s more than likely that the information will be buried in your Programme Handbook (though surprisingly not always) or on the website of the Institute in which you’re learning. But, as I’ve said, sometimes the pages are difficult to find and access. The idea of this pamphlet is that you can keep it at your side, on your device or in print, and keep it as a ready reference.


Critical evaluation and questioning are the cornerstones of academic enquiry.  So it’s legitimate to ask ‘why do I need technical tips for writing academic assignments?’ The short answer is if you’ve had senior year, sixth form, or college education or been to university you may not.


But if, like a lot of us, you left school at 16 and went straight to sea or into another job, it’s quite likely that much of your academic development has been focussed on professional, vocational and technical issues.


The professional demands of your job may have included report writing or presentation skills which you have practiced and become accomplished at over many years. But academic writing is different. It has a structure, a pattern, a plan - and readers expect to see certain established conventions being observed. So, the following bullets aim to answer the ‘why?’ question:


  • If the scaffolding isn’t right there’s not much hope for a strong building. And the scaffolding for an assignment is everything that follows below. The grammar, syntax, vocabulary, layout, and prezentation. Occasional glitches and mistakes – we all make them – can sometimes be forgiven - but the higher the standard of the programme you’re following (undergraduate, bachelor’s, postgraduate or doctorate), so the aspiration towards achieving a ‘publishable’ standard becomes more imperative. The occasional spelling mistake can be overlooked, but if they become excessive they will distract your reader and may even impact on meaning. No doubt you spotted the mistake in this paragraph and most of you will have done a double-take, re-read the sentence to verify your perception and then may even have tut-tutted. You don’t want that happening in any of your writing.
  • Adopting conventional rules in your work means that readers won’t struggle to understand the layout. They’ll be familiar with the overall plan and can concentrate on the content.
  • Following a tried and tested route map for dissertations means you’re less likely to miss out important stuff. Likewise, conventional chapter and section headings will keep you focussed and prevent scope-creep. That’s where you end up talking about ship construction in China when you’re supposed to be concentrating on manning on North Sea Ferries (or whatever).


Before starting, remember all universities and learning Institutions have their own rules. Some of these will be rigid and applied right across the university; some may be departmental and changed from year to year. Some prescribe requirements to a high level (for instance, stipulating font styles and margin widths); all should have their own Programme Handbooks and guidance on structure, layout, referencing systems to be used and other technical aspects. Finally, you may have an academic supervisor or tutor who will stipulate a certain method.


Whatever your situation, clearly the guidance given below must be read in conjunction with your Institution’s rules and guidance. The latter will take precedence where there’s any contradiction.


So, these tips represent the nuts and bolts of the work you’re going to embark on. The comments are address specifically to students writing degree assignments but the principles apply across the board.


A special note about Referencing


To do justice to this subject needs an entire pamphlet on its own. So only the most basic points are covered here. This is justifiable since there is masses of information on referencing available on line and there will be entire chapters devoted to the topic in your Institution’s Programme Handbook.


The crucial point to take on board is that the need to reference properly is not a ‘may’ but a ‘shall’. You will be penalised if your refencing is not up to scratch.


There are two main systems in use – Oxford and Harvard – and in my experience most Institutions recommend (and in some cases, stipulate) the latter.


The key to effective referencing is consistency so whatever your chosen method, stick to it.  But in any case, and before setting pen to paper, have an early discussion with your tutor since there is likely to be a preferred method and you need to know that before you start. See page 18.




Some of the guidance below is, of course,  subjective (i.e. my own personal preference) and you may have perfectly viable alternative styles. If you wish to submit feedback on them, or anything else in this pamphlet, it would be useful and informative to receive your comments. Please always include your contact details. Also, it would be good to know if you write as a student or teacher.


Dr Chris Haughton

Preesall, 2017

E: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.



Before starting to write

1. Read and re-read the assignment brief meticulously, highlighting key words.

2. Answer the brief that has been set, not the one you would have preferred. So if it asks for two examples of something or other, give two only. You get nothing extra for adding another. In any case, the extra one may not even be read by the examiner and it certainly won’t be marked. It’s a waste of your time and an indication that either you didn’t understand the brief or, worse, chose to ignore it.

3. Note the submission deadline and devise a plan, allowing sufficient time for thinking, research, reading, planning, writing, proof-reading, revision and submission. Allow for professional, personal and domestic time constraints. Allow contingency time for computer problems, poor internet access and anything else that may impact. If you’re working on a distance learning programme, don’t get caught out by different time zones. If you think you may miss a deadline, contact your tutor straightaway. Missing a deadline without prior arrangement is usually considered a ‘fail’. Check your Institution’s regulations.

4. Know the marking scheme. Your tutor uses this to grade your work so it makes sense to ensure your submission hits the right notes and addresses all the elements that will be awarded marks.

5. Observe the word limit. Assignments that are excessively short or long may be penalised or even fail. A common leeway is +/- 10%. Check with your tutor. Avoid under- or over-running by careful planning and the allocation, at the outset, of ‘word- count budgets’, to each section or chapter.

6. Tables, graphs and pictures are not usually included in the word count. Neither are title pages, indices, contents pages, appendices, footers, headers and other rubric. Bracketed references aren’t included either though clearly it’s impractical to count the actual words in all the brackets throughout an assignment. Hence the leeway given.

7. Scope your work and justify it. The maritime industry is astonishingly broad in its reach and you can’t possibly write about everything in a 3000-word assignment answer, or even a doctoral thesis, come to that. So, provided the assignment brief allows leeway, scope down to a manageable and realistic topic area. You should discuss this at a very early stage with your tutor. Word limit is, in itself, a legitimate justification for restricting your scope.


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