Have you been tasked with a piece of academic writing and are unsure of how to go about it? Or perhaps you're just curious about how academic writing differs from other kinds of writing. Either way, you've come to the right place. In this article, you'll get tons of help and tips to produce a great piece of academic writing.
This guide is part of our free online Grammar Book.
Academic writing is a style of writing that's used in academia, which includes higher education institutions such as universities as well as scholarly publications like journals and research papers. Students and academics alike use it.
Here are some places where you'll see academic writing:
Academic writing is pretty formal and therefore doesn't allow you to get away with as much as other types of writing. One of the main reasons for this is that it's used to impart knowledge or findings. Therefore it's important that you come across in the right way so your readers trust you. That's why I encourage you to put a lot of thought and preparation into your academic writing, and the tips that follow will help you do just that.
Below I'm going to lay out my best tips for successful and efficient academic writing. And unlike you might think, it doesn't necessarily involve using complex words or long sentences.
There are a few things you should do to prepare before you start writing. First and foremost, you must understand why you're writing. Academic writing is purposeful; there's always a reason for your writing. So what's yours? Are you trying to convince your readers? Or is your goal to educate them? Know what your goal is before diving in.
Planning is a significant and essential part of academic writing. Now that you know your purpose, you can start planning your piece's structure. Not only will this make your work easier to read, but it will also help you reach that purpose. After all, how can you teach anything without a plan? How can you convince anyone of anything without structure?
Not to mention that any academic writing tends to be quite long, so you'll need structure to keep your readers engaged throughout.
Next, you'll want to determine which referencing style you're expected to use. Check which one your institution abides by. This might vary depending on your specialty.
Here are some of the most common ones:
Last but not least: write a draft first. Then, read your draft, make amends where necessary, and pull it all together into one coherent piece.
Active voice is when the action is attributed to the subject, whereas the subject isn't actively doing the action with the passive voice.
Here are some examples of sentences in the active vs passive voice:
I hang up my coat on the coat rack when I arrive at work. (active)
My coat is always hung up on the coat rack when I arrive at work. (passive)
Bees tranport pollen from one flower to another. (active)
Pollen is transported from one flower to another by bees. (passive)
Active voice is stronger than passive voice and therefore helps to convey your point more confidently.
Take the following sentence, for example:
All relevant studies were read and it was concluded that the most effective form of medication is the placebo.
This sentence isn't incorrect, per se. The grammar and punctuation are correct. But it's in the passive voice.
Let's see if it can be improved by changing it to the active voice:
I read all the relevant studies and I concluded that the placebo is the most effective form of medication.
Isn't that heaps better? Not only is it a tad shorter, but it's also less ambiguous because we know precisely who read the studies and who drew the conclusion. As well as this, it's more persuasive this way.
These situations include:
Academic writing isn't personal. You won't be revealing much information about yourself or your emotions. You should avoid stating your personal opinions and, overall, try your best to avoid letting your personal bias inform your conclusions or arguments throughout your work. You should try as much as possible to remain impartial. Let's take a look at some examples of sentences that aren't acceptable in academic writing and how you might edit them to make them more appropriate.
Avoid putting forth unfounded personal opinions:
I feel it was unfair to place the subject under such stress as this influenced the results. ❌
It is possible that the state of stress the subject was under might have influenced the study's results. ✅
Don't let your personal circumstances influence your decision-making:
I have children myself so I know they would never react that way. ❌
The children's reaction appeared to be out of the norm, which prompted further investigation. ✅
Use of the personal pronoun 'I' has long been frowned upon in academic writing for the reasons stated above. But it's increasingly become accepted. Just make sure that when you use it, it's for the right reasons: not to express your opinion but to discuss your intentions for the paper or explain how you did your research. Those are just a few examples.
English is a rich and varied language. There's no shortage of punctuation marks, and often, many words exist to say the same thing. Make the most of it! The audience will eventually get bored if a magician keeps using the same tricks. The same goes for your writing!
Synonyms are your friend! If you notice you've used the same word repetitively throughout your text, replace it with a synonym. You can look these up in a thesaurus. Transition words are an example of words that tend to get repeated a lot.
Here are some of the most common transition words and some synonyms for you to use instead:
Getting your punctuation right has a much more significant impact than many think. The correct punctuation can save you many words and help you get your point across much more efficiently. So many great punctuation marks are underused; what a waste!
Here are some of my favorites:
Often a punctuation mark can be swapped for another. Parentheses and emdashes, for instance, are interchangeable when it comes to providing clarity or additional information. Before using any form of punctuation, ask yourself not only if there's a better choice but also if there's a different kind that you haven't used yet that would help keep your text varied.
Conversely, some punctuation marks won't get used very much in academic writing. Exclamation points, for instance, aren't very appropriate unless they appear in reported speech. The same goes for ellipses. Slashes are a little too informal.
Sentence structure is key to high-quality academic writing for several reasons. First and foremost, understanding your sentence structure helps you maintain parallelism. Parallelism allows your paragraphs to flow more naturally and improve your credibility. Which of the following sentences sounds better to you?
Subjects were instructed to take the supplement, have dinner and go to sleep.
Subjects were instructed to take the supplement. Then, they would be having dinner and going to sleep.
If you picked the first one, then we agree! In the first sentence, the three verbs are in the present indefinite tense. In the second sentence, only the first one is, while the other two are in the present participle tense. The first sentence is more to the point and sounds more harmonious.
Paying attention to your sentence structure also affords you something that might seem obvious but that shouldn't be underestimated, and that's awareness. Are you using a good mix of simple, compound, and complex sentences? Are you avoiding too many complex sentences? Are there any run-on sentences or sentence fragments you need to eliminate?
As a wise man once said:
"Knowledge is power."—Francis Bacon.
Academic writing requires formal language only. Colloquialisms, idioms, and slang aren't going to go down well. One of the reasons for that is academic writing needs to be precise. Using formal language avoids any opportunities for miscommunication since slang and colloquialisms are ever-changing, and not everyone is up-to-date on the latest meanings.
Not only this, but it just doesn't sound quite as professional. Can you imagine reading a journal article that said:
The study found that a circular desk layout is the cat's pajamas; it increases focus tenfold.
It would be pretty entertaining, that's for sure, but not great for the writer's credibility.
do not ✅
I am ✅
there is ✅
we will ✅
they would ✅
We've discussed using various words and punctuation and using formal language to come across as knowledgeable and credible. But another great way to do that is actually to keep things simple.
We can often overcomplicate academic writing and think it needs to be full of complicated words and complex, long sentences to show how clever we are. Don't get me wrong: flashy, clever words are great, and you can use those in your text. But what's even more important is that your reader understands what you're saying and can get to the juicy information quickly and efficiently.
It can be tempting to use long sentences when writing academically, especially if you have a word count to reach since it helps you get your words in. They do have their place. But don't overcomplicate a sentence just for the sake of it. If a short, simple sentence suffices, just do that.
There are four main types of sentences you can choose from:
It's normal to repeat yourself in academic writing. After all, you're trying to prove a point, so using many arguments to back it up is normal. But watch out for unnecessary repetitions and redundancies.
This can often happen by using words that mean the same thing. Take the title of this section, for example: "Be Clear and Concise." Imagine if I'd called it "Be Clear, Concise, and to the Point." The 'to the point' bit would be redundant because it means the same thing as 'clear and concise.'
The English language has so many words that you can always find the exact right word for what you're trying to say.
Last but not least, check your work. Don't just hand it in as soon as you've finished it. You should always proofread it at least once. And consider using a spellchecker; they can often help you catch some errors you might not see by yourself.
Some people like to proofread their work out loud, as it lets you hear things you might miss if you were just reading in your head. That's a personal choice. My advice? Try both and see what works for you.
That brings us to the end of this article with tips on academic writing. I hope you found it helpful and now feel armed with all the tools you need to produce a great piece of writing!
Let's summarize what we've learned:
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