Academic writing is a craft which takes time, patience, and endurance to refine. We can, however, identify certain key guidelines that will help improve your overall composition.
Good academic writing starts with the building blocks of language. Every word in a sentence can be defined by its role. We refer to this as "parts of speech". Before looking at more specific ways to improve your academic writing, take the time to understand your tools: words.
Knowing how sentences are structured is key to discovering how to improve your academic writing. We will offer some general tips here, but every subject is different. So, if you receive advice from your tutor such as "use fewer adjectives" or "never start a sentence with a proposition", you'll understand what it means.
A noun describes an object. This includes "team", "dog", or "gentleman" and is often the subject of a sentence. Proper nouns are the names of things , such as Sheffield United, Dachshund or Hank Smith. Proper nouns differentiate a specific thing from its collective name.
Pronouns are used in place of nouns. Words like "he", "she", "they" are common pronouns. They allow you to write without repeating nouns over and over.
However, pronouns require context to make sense. For example, the sentence:"They allow you to write without repeating nouns over and over." makes no sense unless you know what they are.
Verbs are action words. They describe what a noun is doing in a sentence. If the question is "What are you doing?" the answer is a verb. Writing, reading, dodging, ducking and diving are all examples of verbs.
Adjectives are describing words. They help give nouns a unique quality. If you have written a "first-class essay", first-class is the adjective that describes the noun, essay.
Adverbs describe verbs. As such, they often end in '-ly'. Like adjectives, adverbs are used to give another word a unique quality. Hurriedly is the adverb in the sentence: "He was writing hurriedly".
Prepositions define a location, whether in time or in space. Above, below, during, before and soon are all prepositions.
Conjunctions are words that join words, phrases and clauses together. And, yet, but and for are all examples of conjunctions.
Interjections are words that express emotions. Words like ouch! and hurray! are interjections. They don't find too many uses in academic writing, but depending on the nature of your essay, they may do.
One of the biggest incorrect assumptions undergraduate students make is the idea that longer sentences make for more intelligent arguments. The use of run-on sentences that affirm and then reaffirm a point are both unnecessary and hard to read.
The goal of good academic writing is to convey information. The best way to do this is to be clear and concise. “Good prose”, as George Orwell said, “is like a windowpane”. You can achieve such clarity by using short, simple sentences and sticking to the point.
Here is an example of unnecessarily wordy prose:
"We must avoid unnecessary information. Good writing is tightly focused; it only says what it needs to say. If you can delete any word or phrase from your writing without losing the text's overall sense, then do; those words are probably superfluous. Good writing is well researched and thus insightful. If you are thoroughly prepared you will have much to say and will not need to repeat yourself."
Remember, academic writing is critical and analytical: it dissects and evaluates, rather than simply reiterating.
Readers prefer sentences with an active voice. An active voice propels your essay forward, making your work much more compelling.
Active voice improves academic writing by showing responsibility or giving credit for an action. When we avoid showing responsibility, we often don’t give enough information to explain the issue and how you plan to address it.
If you want to discover whether you are using an active voice, you need to identify the subject of a sentence. Next decide whether the subject is performing an action or an action is being acted upon.
"The essay (subject) was written (action) according to the tutor's guidelines by the student (object)."
In this case, the subject is being acted on; the essay is getting written. Using an active voice, we would say:
"The student (subject) wrote (action) the essay (object) according to the tutor's guidelines."
In this example, the subject is the one acting upon the object. An easy way to spot a passive sentence is the use of the verb "to be". So if you see am, is, are, was, were, being or been think about how you can restructure your sentence so you can cut it. In doing so, you write in an active voice.
Active sentences are also more concise than passive sentences because they use fewer words.
At its root academic writing seeks to argue a specific point. This point should be made very clear to the reader. This is why it is always a good idea to identify your essay's core premise early on. With this premise firmly established, the reader can evaluate the rest of the text from the appropriate frame of reference.
For example, you may wish to examine whether or not using Latin phrases makes for a better essay. If opposing this position, you could open: “This essay will argue that Latin phrases do not improve the quality of academic writing”.
This is a clear statement of intent. The reader understands your position. Next, it is useful to outline your reasoning: “This is because non-English words place an interpretive barrier between the reader and the text, making it less clear”.
Now the reader knows your position and the thinking behind it. The purpose of the essay from here on is to convince the reader that your reasoning is sound. You want tostress the importance of verbal clarity in order to reiterate your core premise.
To do this, back up your argument with a reliable source. In this case, you could again cite George Orwell, who advised: “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent”.
By now, you have stated your case; outlined your reasons for this perspective; and backed it up with an academic source. This is the foundation of a well constructed academic argument.
Academic prose has a scholarly tone. This does not mean the writing needs to be stiff or dry. Rather, it should be rigorous and impartial. While it is important to convince the reader of your viewpoint, you need to be careful not to construct an imbalanced argument.
For this reason, it is beneficial to present the arguments for and against the point in contention. Showing both sides of the issue demonstrates that you have considered different views and are objective. But, avoid mischaracterising opposing viewpoints or to constructing straw man arguments.
Be wary of excessive rhetoric or stridency and avoid informal or misleading language. Distorting the point only serves to harm your own case. If your premises are false then your conclusions will likewise be false.
In the same manner, avoid using vocabulary that you don't fully understand. Big words may look good in abstract, but in context they can muddle the issue or confuse the reader.
If you need help with a particular style of essay, you can find the advice you need on our essay help pages.
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