How To Improve Academic Writing?

Writing for academia, such as in publications, exams, and reports, is typically formal, descriptive, and direct. In general, academic writing should be straightforward, without creative use of English and without much bending of the rules, to give the clearest and simplest descriptions of processes, concepts, and discussions. 

Academic writing can be more complex than other forms of writing, however, in the overall structuring of ideas and the use of specialist language.

The structure of any non-fiction text should be planned to present points in a logical manner. In simple terms, for example, it makes sense to follow the chronological order of a process or to group the points of an argument thematically. 

It is important to devise a structure to suit your purpose, as it will guide your writing and can help make your point effectively. In longer texts, this may include planning sections, chapters, and sub-headings before you begin writing.

Use of specialist language in academic writing depends strongly on your context. If you require specific vocabulary to discuss specialist topics, be aware that it may differ from common usage. 

Certain scientific theories, for example, may have names that dictate whether or not to use a definite article with them. Read widely to see how such language works within your field, and do not be afraid to challenge regular English usage if you are familiar with specialist language usage.

When writing for an academic niche, also use your wider reading to get an idea of the vocabulary that is commonly used and understood, and the terms that might need explaining. If you are concerned about whether or not a particular piece of vocabulary will be understood, include a brief explanation the first time you use a word, and again if there is a large break between usage. Otherwise, it may be sensible to compile a Glossary, indexing unusual words, at the end of your work.

Referencing is more important in academic writing than in other fields. There are many different conventions for referencing sources in English, which can depend on a specific publication or institution’s style. These styles can dictate the use of footnotes and endnotes and may contain precise requirements for references (such as using periods and commas around names and deciding the order that the book’s title and author’s name are written). 

Learn the particular reference system required for your writing, and be consistent with it, as errors here may be considered mistakes and reduce the credibility of your work.

Academic writing is generally formal and often impersonal. It is rare to discuss academic topics in the first person or to reference actors involved when discussing general patterns, processes, or findings. It is therefore common to use the passive voice in academic writing:

  • We studied the monkeys and found no signs of disease. (active, personal)
  • The monkeys were studied and no signs of disease were found. (passive, impersonal)

Using the passive voice can lead to longer, indirect sentences. This is not a problem if it is the clearest and most neutral way to present your case. However, there are ways to keep such formal writing direct and simple. 

One method is to use an adjective formed from a verb (e.g. studied monkeys) together with a demonstrative verb (e.g. show, prove, demonstrate) to describe results:

  • The studied monkeys showed no signs of disease.

Actors are needed in academic writing when you wish to discuss specific people’s activities; for example, when discussing other writing and studies. In such cases, people are often referred to by surnames, or by their full names:

  • Pavlov’s experiments are still talked about today.
  • The oldest person to be appointed first-time Prime Minister in Britain was Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston.

Beyond these starting points, the way that you structure and style your academic writing will need to be informed by your field and may depend on the purpose of your writing. 

Academic writing can, for example, be used to inform or to argue, so while it should be neutral in style it may still require persuasive language. 

Even in the case of writing that must persuade or debate, bear in mind that neutral language is more likely to be taken seriously. Emotional or overly expressive language can undermine academic writing, as it draws attention to the writer, rather than the topic of discussion.

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