Who are these tips for?
These academic writing tips are for you if you need general advice about writing academically. And they are especially for you if you’re new to academic writing. Having said that, this guide is suitable for anyone who’s confused about how to approach this difficult subject. What you’ll get here is a solid overview of what you need to do to become a better academic writer. And in further guides, which I’ll link to as they become available, I’ll dive deeper into some of what I’ve covered below.
So, here are my top academic writing tips:
- Think like an academic
- Organize and prepare
- Use academic style
- Use academic structure
- Know your grammar!
- Edit and Proofread
Let’s dive in!
Think Like an Academic
You need to approach academic writing with the right mindset and that means thinking like an academic. Of course, that’s easy to say, but what does it actually mean? Good question! Probably the most important aspect of thinking like an academic is to train yourself to think critically.
For example, if you asked yourself the above question “What does that actually mean?” you’re on the right path. But there’s more to it than that. There’s being “curious” and there’s being “critical”.
A critical thinker will not only want answers but will also want to know that those answers are the right ones. So, a critical thinker applies several stages to the questioning process that go beyond a curious thinker:
- What is the answer? (curious)
- What is potentially wrong with that answer? (critical)
- How can I verify that those things are not actually wrong with the answer? (critical)
Another way of putting this is that a critical thinker thinks logically and systematically about the information he or she is presented with. This may make the whole process of academic writing more time-consuming, but what is lost in time is more than made up for in quality. Where quality translates to reliability and accuracy of information.
And if your information is not reliable and accurate, other critical thinkers will soon find you out. So, think academically by thinking critically, and think critically by thinking logically and systematically.
In practical terms, this involves a lot of organization and preparation. First, in relation to your sources and then in relation to how you present them in your academic writing. And that brings us nicely on to the next academic writing tip.
Organize and Prepare
Aware of the importance of critical thinking, the first practical job you need to do to ensure success with your academic writing is to prepare your sources. Where are you going to get your information from and why are you going to get it from there?
There are many types of academic sources including:
- Journal articles
- Theses and dissertations
- Government Documents
And even blogs like this one! The important thing is that for every potential source you come across, ask yourself two questions:
- Is it relevant?
- Is it reliable?
Is it relevant = Does it have information that you need?
Is it reliable = Can you trust that information? Is the source academic enough?
Assessing relevance should not just be a yes/no question. Some sources are more relevant than others in at least two ways.
- They have more of the information you need
- The information is more directly related to what you need
Let’s call this quantity and quality of information per source.
Quantity of information
In order to cut down your workload, it’s better to have fewer sources to have to dig through. A caveat here is that you still need a variety of sources while keeping your research under reasonable control. So do make sure you have enough variety and then keep the sources that have more of the information you need.
Quality of information
When you come across some information in a source that you think answers a question you have or provides support for a point you want to make, don’t think the search ends there. Sources may be more or less relevant in at least two ways:
- They directly answer your question/more strongly support your point.
For example, suppose you are writing about the causes of heart disease in China and you come across a study that suggests that exercising when you are over forty is of much more benefit in preventing heart disease than exercising when you are under forty. Ask yourself questions like: Was the study done in China? Was it done on a national level in China? Was the sample size large? “Yes” answers to these queries indicate more direct relevance.
2. They are contemporary.
All other things being equal, newer sources of information are considered higher quality because they are more up-to-date. This may not matter much if the difference is only a few years, but if your source is several decades old, that in itself may be reason enough to dump it.
When assessing reliability, you’re often assessing how academic a source is. That’s easy enough when you’re dealing with academic textbooks and journal articles, but when let loose on the wild wide world of the web, things become murkier.
There is a lot to be said about assessing sources, particularly online sources, for academic worth, but for this article, I’ll limit myself to providing a few basic tips:
- Consider the author: Who wrote the article and what are their academic qualifications?
- Consider the organization: What organization or institution is the author a part of?
- Consider the style: Is the author themselves writing in an academic style? For example, is the article referenced?
- Consider the url: .ac and .edu urls tend to be reliable for obvious reasons. .org are a mixed bag. Avoid .biz, .info etc.
You get the picture. Oh, one last thing. No, Wikipedia is not an acceptable source. That’s because it is publically editable. It may, however, lead you to a good source if you look at its sources as listed on the bottom of the article’s page.
Use Academic Style
I just mentioned academic style. Well, what is it? In a general sense, it’s made up of grammar- and vocabulary-related conventions that signal that it is writing that’s meant to be authoritative. More specifically:
- Information not originating with the author is cited and referenced.
- The writing style is formal:
- No contractions (e.g. “don’t”, “aren’t”, etc) are used.
- No phrasal verbs. Alternatives used (e.g. use “examine” for “look up”).
- Personal pronouns generally avoided. (Passive voice or “the researcher” often used to avoid “I”, for example.)
- The writing is highly structured and organized.
And that last point leads us seamlessly on to the next tip:
Use Academic Structure
So, you’ve got your sources together, you’ve taken notes, and you’ve finalized your thesis. Time to start writing, right?
Not quite. Time to start planning your writing! Sounds boring, but the reason you need to plan what you are going to write no matter what length of academic text you intend to write is that you must structure your writing properly. I cannot emphasize this enough.
We spoke earlier about logical and systematic thinking applied to the content of your text, but you must also apply it to the form of your text. We always need to know where we are while reading it.
This actually goes for any time you want to explain something well, just much more so for academic writing, which is aimed at an academic audience looking for facts, analysis, and useful information (or even just giving you a grade!). This is because these things are what academic writing is for and as you expect and deserve them when you read someone else’s academic writing, you should offer the same to your readers.
OK, I hope I’ve convinced you of the importance of structure, so how do we achieve it? Huge question, which I will touch on just briefly here and in more detail in upcoming blogs.
So, here are the absolute bare necessities to keep in mind regarding academic structure. I’ve chosen the academic essay here as the focus as it’s the most general and likely the most relevant academic text type for most of you reading this:
- Divide your text into an introduction, a body, and a conclusion.
- Depending on length, each of the above sections may be further divided into paragraphs and subsections.
- Put a clear, unambiguous thesis stating your position/argument/focus near the end of your introduction.
- At the beginning of each paragraph of the body section, put a topic sentence. This must cover all of the content in that paragraph but no more.
- Make sure each paragraph has a unique topic sentence.
- Support each topic sentence with evidence and analysis.
- Make it clear what the evidence is and what the analysis is. The best way to do this is to cite and reference properly.
Did I say, “cite and reference properly”? Yes! Which is the perfect segue to:
Cite and Reference Properly
One of the main reasons academic writers lose marks with their academic writing is that they don’t cite and reference properly. Here’s the basic rule: Every bit of information that is not your own must be traceable. Why? Because if it’s not, it can’t be verified and is as such useless. Or worse than useless, seeing as putting it there may cost you marks.
What this means in practice is that you cite from your sources in every case. Again, every case. I’ve heard students complain “But I just used one source for the entire paragraph, it looks too repetitive!” The answer to that is to use more sources, not to skip citing. If you skip citing, you are plagiarising and that is a form of cheating. Don’t do it. Even by accident.
So, I said every case, but… there are a couple of exceptions.
- You don’t have to cite general knowledge.
If you state “Obesity is a major problem in western countries”, that’s unquestionable for any reasonably informed reader. So, no need to cite. When in doubt though, cite. For example, take the claim “Obesity is increasingly a problem in large Chinese cities”. Not unquestionable. It could decreasingly be a problem. So, cite.
2. You don’t have to cite when immediately referring back to a cited sentence where there is no ambiguity about the source.
Here’s an example: “…as confirmed by Murphy and Richardson (2005). In the same study, [no citation necessary] these two researchers also confirmed that… “.
The above is just to say that the rules of proper citation are not there to make your life difficult. That’s just a happy coincidence! (Joke…). They are there because they are necessary. Ignore them at your peril!
Know your Grammar!
This next academic writing tip focuses on a subject we all love. Grammar. Ok, just me. Anyhow, you don’t want to get all the above right in your writing and then ruin its presentation by making mistakes with grammar, punctuation, or vocabulary.
Note that incorrect use of grammar goes beyond style and is generally a more serious error. An error in style could involve mistakenly using a contraction, e.g, “It doesn’t” instead of “It does not”. A comparable error in grammar would be to write “it do not” instead of “it does not”. Yes, ugh! Obviously, these kinds of errors are more likely to occur with non-native speakers, but not exclusively so.
Some common mistakes I’ve come across in reading and correcting academic texts include the following:
- Subject-verb agreement errors. E.g. “Obesity and heart disease, according to this study, is [change to ‘are’] closely related”.
- Confusing similar words. E.g. ‘it’s’ with ‘its’ and ‘there’ with ‘their’.
- Forgetting the comma after an introductory phrase. E.g. “Since this phenomenon began in 1989 [put a comma here] there have been”.
- Incorrect word usage. E.g. The medication showed averse [the correct word is “adverse”] effects.
- Unnecessary/incorrect use of colons. E.g. This approach is mostly utilised for: [remove colon] elderly adults and those with pre-existing conditions.
And there are lots more. Don’t make them! It’s like spraying graffiti on your newly constructed house! Or something equally bad! You know what I mean.
Edit and Proofread
But of course, you will make them, or at least you will make mistakes in your first draft, whether it be in layout, in style, or in grammar and punctuation. And these will need to be rectified. Go through your draft several times and make sure it’s write, um, I mean right. If you must, use a grammar checker, but be aware of some of the problems in doing so.
If you want to save some time and get an edge in this respect, get a professional to do it. Like me, for instance. Funnily enough, I provide an academic editing service. Ta-dah!
Whatever you do, get it right. That’s the main thing.
Wouldn’t be much good if I went on about citation and referencing but didn’t do my own. This blog is strictly speaking, not academic writing, though it’s about academic writing. And most of the information comes from my own experience in teaching academic writing (and I hope I’ve convinced you I’m an authoritative source on that!). However, I did refer to a couple of online sources while writing it.
Here they are:
Davenport, B. (n.d.). 15 Common Grammar Mistakes That Kill Your Writing Credibility. Retrieved March 22, 2020, from https://authority.pub/common-grammar-mistakes/
Enago Academy. (2019, July 19). Word Choice in Academic Writing: Tips to Avoid Common Problems. Retrieved March 22, 2020, from https://www.enago.com/academy/word-choice-in-academic-writing-tips-to-avoid-common-problems/
About the Author
Hi, I’m Paul Buckle and I run Eiredit.com and Editrue.com. I’ve been an editor and academic English teacher for over a decade and I have taught academic English at, among other places, Durham and Nottingham universities in the UK. These days, I spend a lot of time blogging on academic English and other writing and editing topics, and I very much hope these articles are useful to you. If they are, please bookmark, share, and leave a comment below. Cheers.