Writing in an academic style involves lots of components, of course, and there isn’t just a simple one-size-fits-all approach to writing for university. Learning to write like a world-class academic might take a little time, but here’s an article to cover the basics, share some resources, and get you started on polishing up your writing!
Formality and register
So, ‘academic style’ is the general term for the register we write in for university, and it’s a bit more formal than A-level writing or the language used in English tests like IELTS, TOEIC, TOEFL, and so on. It’s basically the kind of language you’d hope to find in your course readings – clear, concise and professional. You don’t need to use really long words just for the sake of it, or pepper every single sentence with thus and hence, but of course there are plenty of everyday phrases with higher-level equivalents if you’re thinking of making some changes. I’m sure we’ve all turned, in desperation, to Microsoft Word’s thesaurus function (shift + f7, or right-click), but this can be risky, especially if English isn’t your first language – and when you get it wrong, tutors can tell!
One reliable resource for levelling-up your structures and vocabulary is the Academic Phrasebank, created by the university’s own Dr. John Morley, and you can find it for free online. The headings along the top of the page are grouped by theme, and each section contains lots of perfectly-written example phrases for you to refer to when you’re lost for words. If you want to know more, here’s a blog post from the Student Team’s Madha explaining exactly how the Academic Phrasebank can help you!
What to include and how to start
Deciding what to include in any piece of academic writing is impossible if you don’t understand your question properly, so take a quick look at this resource and make sure you know where you’re going with your argument. After that, you can get going. Bear in mind that you’re writing to share your ideas, so everything in your writing should focus on that goal. Your introduction will briefly explain the issue you’re covering, so you’ll also need to establish the broader themes at play in your topic, and how they and your ideas interconnect. Crucially, though, an introduction needs to reveal your thesis statement – this is a one-sentence summary of your argument, and helps contextualise your reader so they can understand everything that’s coming next.
The main body: paragraphing, sections and sub-headings
In the main body of your essay, structure counts. Focus on arranging your sections logically and linking your ideas together smoothly. Bear in mind that you’re not here to tell a story – you’re here to say what you, and what other people, think about whatever the topic is. Most essays don’t require much narrative, and the serious marks are for critical analysis – so check out these resources for help with evaluating sources and writing critically.
Your main body, then, will be a series of sections, but how will you structure it? When it comes to sections and sub-headings, it’s a good idea to check your tutor and department’s style guidelines. Some subject areas veto sub-headings completely, whereas for reports they can be essential. Whether or not you use different sections, though, you’ll definitely use paragraphs! As a general guide, we tend to start a new paragraph when we introduce a new idea, right? But I’m sure we’ve all written whole-page-long paragraphs once or twice. Try to think of the poor reader trying to follow your (long, complicated, insightful) thoughts and rein yourself in. Have a minimum of two paragraphs per page for readability, but more than five can make you seem scatter-brained. Long paragraphs are just as confusing as really short ones, so go for somewhere in between. Most of all, though, make sure they’re concise, relevant, and critical, and that you remember to link them together logically so your argument flows.
Concise writing and staying on track
This can be a problem for everyone. So, you haven’t done enough reading and you’re waffling on about everything you know – or you’ve done too much reading, and you’re desperate to get all that information in – but without checking whether it actually addresses your question. The only way to avoid this trap is to be really, critically hard on yourself. At the planning stage, while you’re writing, and during proofreading, just keep asking yourself these three big questions:
- Why am I writing this? (Is it relevant, or do I just want the tutor to know I did the reading? If it is relevant, is this paragraph really the best place for it?)
- What evidence have I got to support this? (Why do I think this? Do I need to look for the source again, or was it said in class? Did I read it somewhere unreliable? Have I just made it up?)
- How does this answer the question? (Does this link back? Is this obvious to the reader or do I need to make the connections clearer? How am I going to link it in?)
Any section that can’t pass this test needs more work, or may even need cutting out. It’s hard to decide sometimes, so there’s more help with this process in our resource Being critical: thinking, reading and writing critically – have a look!
Conclusions are your last chance to hammer your point home. They’re the grand finale in the dramatic tour de force that is your essay – so they’re really important! What they are absolutely not is just a summary, or a place to desperately insert new information you’d forgotten about until the end. You do need to make sure your point of view or findings are clear, and that you’ve answered any questions you outlined, but you should also use a conclusion to acknowledge issues like any limitations of the research, and perhaps present a hypothesis about future developments.
Formatting, font and spacing
This sounds like a no-brainer, but academic writing is about professionalism. By the end of your degree, you’ll be writing stuff that’s of publishable quality, but you know what nobody will publish? A paper written in Comic Sans with inconsistent formatting. Inconsistent formatting will distract the reader from what’s really important: the content. Maybe you know better than that, but how much time do you waste, say… reformatting your footnotes to make everything match? Save yourself some stress: set up your word processor to change the template, set the default font and set up the footnotes by default so you never have to worry about it again!
This is the step everyone is, at some point, tempted to skip. You’ve been writing all day and finally finished your essay three hours before the midnight deadline, and the last thing you want to do is drag your aching eyes back over the whole thing all over again. It’s fine, you tell yourself, it’ll be fine… But it won’t. Proofreading is more than just checking spelling and punctuation (although you should check this, particularly common mistakes like colons and semicolons!). It’s checking that your ideas actually make sense, and link together logically, and crucially, actually answer the question. Here’s a great proofreading resource that guides you through checking your flow, clarity and accuracy, to get those extra few marks that might make all the difference!
Sources, referencing and plagiarism
Everybody uses bad sources sometimes, especially when you’re new to a topic. In a way, that’s okay – it’s just that your academic writing isn’t the place for them! Use a simple, accessible website to help you get to grips with a topic, by all means… but use the proper academic sources to move your argument forward in an essay. If you’re struggling to decide whether sources can be trusted, get some help with knowing your sources, and if you’re still searching for material, we can help with that too!
Once your sources are sorted, it goes without saying that you need to get your referencing right. You don’t need to reference anything which is common knowledge, which includes things like names and dates, but anyone’s original research or ideas should be properly credited to them using a reference. Even if you paraphrase another text, you still need to reference it, and anything you can’t paraphrase and have to repeat word for word is a quotation, and should be enclosed in quotation marks. If you feel like you still need help understanding exactly when to reference, so as to avoid accidental plagiarism, check out this resource, and here’s a great guide to referencing itself. Referencing styles might vary between schools and even modules, so this is another thing you should check with your tutors about. Lastly, if referencing is taking up too much of your time, you might like to spend a little now to save in the long run – why not invest in learning how to use reference managing tools like Mendeley or EndNote online through one of our workshops?
Hopefully you feel a little better about writing in an academic style, but if you still need a little help, why not book a place on one of our workshops on writing, referencing, or being critical – or come along to a drop-in to get some one-to-one advice? At the end of the day, though, once you’ve done your preparation and your assignment’s handed in, try not to worry too much – writing is a skill like any other, and the more you write, the better you’ll get! Even a dissertation of a thousand pages starts with the first word!
By Kit from the Student Team