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Writing: Structure and mechanics


Structure and mechanics

Academic writing generally needs to be formal, clear and concise. It is normally written in the passive voice (e.g. samples were taken) or active third person voice (he/she/they took samples). One exception is reflective writing, where you will write about your own feelings or attitudes towards a specific topic. All assignments need a structure that makes it easy for a reader to follow. Subheadings and sections are used in several assignment types, such as reports and case studies.

 Assignments are structured like a narrative – they include a beginning, a middle and an end. Generally, they start with an introduction where you’ll set the scene for your reader, and end with a conclusion which sums up your ideas, or provokes new ones. The middle is where things vary, but this is where the hard work is done – where you provide the bulk of the information that answers your assignment question.

All your assignments need structure. Here we refer to essay structure but many elements can be carried across to other assignment types.

  • Essays are made up of paragraphs.
  • Paragraphs are made up of sentences.
  • Sentences are made up of particular arrangements of words and punctuation.

If sentences are the bricks, paragraphs are the wall, and the building is the essay.


Sentences explained

Test yourself

Active and passive sentences

An active sentence is one in which the subject is also the agent (doer) of the action; for example, "The nurse dressed the patient’s wound".

A passive sentence is one in which the subject is being acted upon; for example, "The patient's wound was dressed by a nurse".

The active uses fewer words and is more direct. However, you should use the passive in the following situations:

  • When you want to focus on the receiver of the agent’s action, e.g., "Arsenal was beaten by Manchester United" (in this case, you want the reader to focus on Arsenal).
  • When you write scientifically, you focus on the phenomena rather than the agent; for example, “Heat was applied to the compound…”
  • When the agent is unknown; for example, "My car was stolen".

Cohesion and transition

One way to create cohesion between sentences is by using transition markers. Transition markers are words or phrases used to link sentences and paragraphs and to help the reader follow the direction of your argument.

Transition markers

Faulty transitions

Only use transitions when you need to. If the logical relationship between sentences is already clear you don't need one.

If you use a transition marker, ensure it represents/articulates the relationship that exists between the two sentences it connects.


Punctuation plays a significant part in making your writing clear. It's easy to be accidentally ambiguous in your writing. While you know what you are trying to say, you don’t know how it will read to your reader. Paying close attention to your punctuation is vital, and it always helps to get someone else to check over your final draft to ensure your writing and punctuation makes sense. 


Old man with glasses appearing shocked and standing next to text that reads: "Let's eat Grandpa. Let's eat, Grandpa. Punctuation saves lives."

Different types of punctuation



Work through the activities to test your knowledge of how to use commas, brackets, semicolons, colons, dashes and apostrophes.