Academic writing, quick takeaways

Essay & Dissertation Writing Tips 

1.The language of academic writing 

(a)   Formality: Academic writing is formal in style, but is also concise, without wasting or repeating words. It does not need to be complex or to use big words as an attempt to impress whoever is assessing the paper. Its purpose is to convey a message or an argument to the reader as clearly as possible, and to demonstrate that the writer fully understands the topic.  

(b)  Grammar, spelling and punctuation: If academic writing is to be well-presented and clear, it is essential that these aspects are correct. Even a small punctuation error, such as a comma in the wrong position, can change the meaning or confuse the reader. Additionally, errors of this kind can lead to ambiguity. 

(c)   Phrasal verbs: Verbs such as ‘carry out’ or ‘back up’ are best avoided in academic writing, and could be replaced by ‘undertake’ or ‘support’. There may be occasions when phrasal verbs are unavoidable, such as to avoid repetition, but they should only be used very sparingly. 

(d) Contractions: Words such as “don't” or “it’s” should be avoided in academic writing, although they are common in informal writing, particularly in novels.  

(e) First person: This is a debatable point. Until recently, it has been considered good practice to avoid the first person, and sometimes even the second person, in academic writing. However, this appears to be changing, and some academic institutions now accept it. 

(f)   The split infinitive: This remains a controversial issue, with the grammar purists claiming that it is incorrect. Others claim that the rule originates from the Latin infinitive being one word. It is certainly occurring more often now. However, in defence of the purists, a split infinitive can look ‘awkward’ in academic writing and the text flows better if it is avoided. Nevertheless, there may be occasions when it is unavoidable. 

(g)   Prepositions: In the past, grammar teachers frowned on ending a sentence with a preposition; such as, ‘The new book is where this idea came from.’ This could be avoided by saying ‘The idea came from the new book.’ Today, few would defend the avoidance of placing a preposition at the end of a sentence, but doing so can make the text look somewhat ‘untidy’ in academic writing. 

(h) Abbreviations: At one time, it was common practice to place a full stop after an abbreviation; for example, “Mr.’ ‘Mrs.’ or ‘B.B.C.’ This is now considered to be unnecessary in any kind of writing. However, placing a full stop after initials, such as ‘J.A.Smith’ still generally applies. However, there is now a growing movement not to place full stops after initials. 

(i)   Present and past tense:  Essay writers sometimes confuse the past and present tenses, as it is not always a straightforward decision which to use. If an experiment conducted by the author in the past is being reported, then the past tense should be used. However, if the outcome of that experiment is being described or a conclusion is being reported, then the present tense should be used. 

(j)   Evidence: Statements or claims should not be included in academic writing if there is no evidence to support them. For example, if no evidence is provided, expressions such as ‘It has been proved that.’ or ‘It is certain that’ should not be used. It is better to say ‘It has been suggested that’ or ‘It is implied that.’ The writer of an academic document is open to challenge of any claim or statement made. 

(k)   He/she or they: It is becoming increasingly common and acceptable to use the word ‘they’ when it is not known whether the person is male or female, although it is grammatically incorrect. For example, ‘When an individual makes a claim, they are open to being challenged.’ It is possible to say, in the interests of political correctness, ‘When an individual makes a claim, he or she is open to being challenged.’ Nevertheless, this can make a sentence awkward, especially if it is applied to many consecutive sentences. Another way to avoid this is to reconstruct the sentence, ‘Claims made by people are open to challenge’. 

(l)   House style: Most academic institutions have their own house styles which should always be consulted before writing an academic work.  

2. The planning and structure of academic writing 

Before writing one word of an essay or dissertation, it is essential to undertake much preparation and background work. This involves considerable research and planning as well as a thorough understanding of what the writer is being asked to do. The writer needs to understand all information obtained from the research and to form an opinion of it. The purpose is then to convey all of this to the person who is assessing the paper.  

The next stage is to plan a structure, which usually comprises an introduction, the main body, and a conclusion. The introduction gives a general outline of the essay and informs the reader what to expect. The main body presents the argument in detail by quoting from research or describing experiments. The conclusion brings everything together and reports on the results and outcomes.

It is important that an essay flows naturally and logically as it develops the ideas and arguments. A succession of short sentences, which appear unconnected to the general flow of the essay should be avoided. These should be linked by such words as ‘however’, ‘moreover’, ‘therefore’, ‘additionally’, furthermore’. These are known as signal words. However, excessively long sentences should be avoided as they can confuse the reader. 

The writer needs to produce a number of drafts before being satisfied that the paper is ready for submission. Finally, it is a good idea to have the work edited, paraphrased or proofread before submitting it.

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