I suppose you know what academic writing is and can tell the difference between slang and academic words. So, why have a meaningless introduction? Let get down to business and learn how to improve your academic writing. These are my tips.
3 Main Things About Academic Writing You Should Know
Students often get the wrong idea that academic writing is just about following a set of arbitrary rules. In reality, it is about being aware of your audience. Three main things you should know to improve your academic writing are genre, audience and purpose.
The genre is what am I writing. Is it an essay, a report, a case study, a review, a critique? Whatever it is, it has its own characteristics, features, conventions, style, organizational patterns. By studying them, you can more effectively produce a similar kind of text within the expected conventions. The audience is who I am writing for. Am I writing to my tutor, an external assessor, a peer, some other expert in the field? What is the purpose behind it: to explain, to report, to argue, to describe, to persuade? All texts have a particular purpose, and by knowing it, you will figure out the best approaches to apply in them.
One of these three things is more important than the others: the audience. How well your message is received by people is what it boils down to. And soon you will understand why.
Avoid Informal Style
Academic writing is a form of language used by people who communicate within an academic context. This is why they say academic writing should always be formal, clear, carefully and appropriately referenced. Let’s get this straight. Point by point.
Academic writing should be more formal than most other language forms such as an everyday conversation or a newspaper article. You’d want to avoid emotive language, slang and colloquialisms like “out of order,” “over the top,” etc. This is what most of the teachers taught you to do. So, why does academic writing require strict formatting? Because it all comes down to the audience.
But instead of thinking about an academic paper as being formal, maybe, it is more productive to think about it as not being informal. In other words, rather than striving to make your writing sound more formal, the easiest way to achieve formality is to avoid informal writing, such as slang words, abbreviations, etc. But do not go out of your way to make your paper sound more formal. Do not approach academic writing as an exercise in using big words and complicated sentence structures. Use the best word, not the biggest one.
In order to develop your academic writing style, try to copy the style of academic papers. You should write so that the reader can easily follow what you are trying to say. In this context, I like using the phrase “take the reader by the hand and guide him/her.”
Forget About Personal Pronouns
Try not to use personal pronouns like I, we, you. But there is a caveat. In reflective essays such pronouns are quite welcome. Again, this is what your teachers meant when they told you to be impersonal in your paper. The idea is that academic writing should be about the subject matter and not about you. Because you are not addressing the audience you have a relationship with, you should generally avoid talking about yourself and phrases such as “I think,” “I suppose,” “In my opinion.” The fact that it is your opinion does not really matter to the audience. What they want to know is what your opinion is, not that it is yours.
First-person plural pronouns like we, us, ours are in some ways even more dangerous to use. Because when you say “We need to make this change,” you are making assumptions about your audience. You are basically excluding them from the decision process. Such words are too inclusive and intrusive. They show that you may have some kind of a relationship with your audience, which is not necessarily true.
Academic writing, in addition to being generally formal and impersonal, is also known for being very careful. Academics place a high value on accuracy and correctness. It means that when you are writing in the academic context, you need to make sure the information you provide comes from a reliable source.
Be precise. You want to avoid vagueness in your writing. However, you should not be specific just for the sake of being specific – accuracy comes first. “No kids like to eat vegetables” is a bad sentence for an academic essay or a report because, first of all, some of them do. And secondly, the word “kids” is yet another example of informal writing.
For your paper “careful” also means correctness, as in avoiding grammatical errors and misspellings. Since the audience does not know you personally, you must establish your credibility as someone they should listen to.
Give Details to the Reader
Finally, academic writing tends to be more thorough. The key differences between an academic audience and a general-purpose audience is that academics care more about the details of the subject matter. You can find articles as long as 2-3 pages in the bookstore. The academic periodicals, on the other hand, can be up to 25-30 pages in length. So, yet again, the devil is in the details.
It does not mean you need to write 30-page papers. It means you must treat your subject thoroughly. You do not want to just brush across the surface when you are writing to an academic audience. Make sure you’ve considered all ideas in a careful and analytical way and covered the issue in sufficient detail.
So, as you see, in each paragraph the audience plays the main role.
Academic Writing Skills: Exercises
A key skill in academic writing is the ability to think and write critically. Do not be solely descriptive in your paper. Whereas descriptive writing states what has happened, analytical and critical writing will explain why what has happened is significant. So, one of my main tips for good academic writing is to evaluate the paper, to show why its theory is relevant and how it relates to the practice.
So, the answer to the question “how to improve academic writing?” is to evaluate as many works as possible, starting from movies and books and ending with the research papers and newspaper articles.
Be confident in your writing. When you are watching a stand-up performance and notice that a comic has a dry mouth, the first thing you want to do is to turn off the TV. The same goes for the academic writing. Words like “try,” “hope,” “attempt” is “the dry mouth” of your essay. It’s like you are implying that you are not so confident about your “joke.” You are inviting the audience to pass judgment on your paper before they even read it. Compare these sentences.
This assignment will critically analyze differing perspectives on World War II.
This assignment will try to critically analyze differing perspectives on World War II.
Steps on How to Improve Academic Writing Style
After all you have read, let’s recap.
Keep the language impersonal and passive, using phrases like “It can be seen that,” “There has been a number of,” “The essay shows,” “It can be said that this argument is flawed,” etc.
Academic writing is an objective form of language. That is why you must get rid of personal subjective words such as interesting, nice, wonderful, worthwhile, natural. The reader’s understanding of these words may be different from your own. Ask yourself a question – can my paper be interpreted as biased?
There is also a lot of confusion about using the passive voice. Before you use the passive voice, determine your focus. If you want to focus on the doer, write the sentence in the active voice, when the doer is not important for you, use the passive one.
Let’s say you are writing a sentence “Statistics was collected from 200 followers by Facebook.” “By Facebook” part is not really important and can be cut. So, it is better to write just “Statistics was collected from 200 followers.” If it is important that Facebook did it, not Twitter, not Instagram, but Facebook, then use the active voice. “Facebook collected statistics from 200 followers.”
When writing a sentence, it is important to recognize that position has meaning. The first half of the sentence contains the most important information. The lower part of a paragraph or its second part provides explanation. This means that you need to put the focus in the first half of the sentence and the key thoughts or whatever you consider the most important information up at the beginning.
Take a look at these two sentences.
In the fight for a clear environment and a sustainable economy, plastic pollution has been headlining the covers and remaining one of the most discussed topics for quite a long time.
Plastic pollution has been headlining the covers and remaining one of the most discussed topics for quite a long time in the fight for a clear environment and a sustainable economy.
Both of these are grammatically correct, but the focus shifts. In the first example it is “the fight” that is the focus, and in the second sentence “plastic pollution” is the focus.
So, you need to recognize that what you put at the beginning of the sentence the reader perceives as being the most important information.
In academic writing there is already a large number of very complicated terms. So, if you do not need to use yet another one, go for a simpler word. Your reader will appreciate it. Believe me, it is not a good time to show off. Compare these two examples.
Initial categories were amplified into more encompassing categories. It’s a rather difficult sentence to understand, isn’t it?
Initial categories were expanded to include a greater number of factors.
Both of these have the same meaning, but in the first sentence we have a higher level of vocabulary which makes it more difficult for the majority of readers to understand.
To create a good academic paper, you need to cut unnecessary words. Here is an example.
The brain injury incidences have two peaks: the rates are highest for the very young and the elderly. Why not get rid of the unnecessary words and make the sentence simpler?
Brain injury incidences are most common among the very young and the elderly. This sentence renders a much clearer meaning.
Quoting is one of the best ways to prove your thesis. But it can be quite tricky. You must not copy the large chunks of text. If the quotation is too long, it’s better to include just a part of it in your text or paraphrase entirely. Quoting should be used to support your argument, not to artificially inflate the number of words.
A key academic skill to be mastered is referencing. Use the system used by your school or college. If you are unaware of the system, consult your student handbook. It is important for you to list all the sources used in your work. Be careful to balance your own ideas and those of other scientists and scholars. Hopefully, you do remember about in-text citations and bibliography?
One of the most important features of academic writing is the structure. I suppose you already know about an introduction, body paragraphs and a conclusion. But it’s not the end of a story. In academic writing everything should be put in a logical order. Your sentences should flow and link together. Paragraphs and sentences are not independent arguments, they should create an overall picture. Your writing should act like a glue to connect your ideas.
Do not use sweeping generalizations in your work. It is so common to read “This issue is very important for our society” or “There are plenty of studies which prove that.” Do not make vague statements. Such sentences have no semantic content at all. You are just wasting the time of your reader, and it is getting really boring to read the text. So, either give examples why it is an important issue for the society, reference the studies that prove your thesis or cut those sentences off.
And there it is, my favorite part comes. Do you know what the difference between a good academic writing and a bad one is? Do you know the difference between A+ and D? Editing. And it doesn’t concern just academic writing. Movies, books, articles, essays – they all require editing. And the secret of editing is simple like a Sunday morning. You need to become a reader instead of a writer.
And that is it. You already know the basics. And now, try to conquer “Everest.” It is so much easier to do when the experts have got your back.