Some Fundamental Tips for Academic Writing

This blog does not claim to be a comprehensive guide to academic writing, but it simply gives an overview of some fundamental points that can often be overlooked. 

1.What are you being asked?

Most essays, dissertations and theses are written in response to a question set by an examiner or tutor. It is essential to read this question very carefully and to understand fully what the examiner is asking. For example, you may be asked, “In the light of your own experience as a biologist, how has biodiversity been impaired by human activity during the past two decades and what action could be taken to repair this damage?” A casual reading of the question could lead to an essay on biodiversity generally, but the question specifies a number of aspects. Firstly, you need to consider your own experience, as the question implies that you have been studying the impairment of biodiversity, such as researching into the disappearance of various species. You would need to give evidence for the human activity that you claim has affected biodiversity; for example, different farming methods. A careful reading of the question would ensure that you concentrate on the past two decades only. Finally, you are being asked to be specific about what action could reverse this problem. This means more research into what action has been taken or suggested and giving evidence and citations. You will probably be set a recommended or a required number of words. In order to keep to this, you should avoid repetition which could lead to exceeding the required number, but you should also ensure that you have introduced a sufficient number of new ideas to enable you to reach the minimum word number requirement. 

2.Planning and timing your work

Gathering together all the information you need to write your essay will often take more time than you think.  You will, of course, need to read the notes on your study, do some further research and estimate how much time you will need to access and read the relevant literature, be it in printed books or electronically. You will have been set a deadline for your essay, but it is wise to plan to complete it well before that. You also need to allow for the fact that the best of plans can be subject to interruption.  

3.Structuring your essay

An essay consists of three parts: the introduction, the main body and the conclusion. The introduction tells the reader what to expect and how you intend to answer the question. You may also need to give the reader any necessary background information. Although it is the reader’s job to read and assess your essay, it is still important to gain the reader’s attention in the first sentence, so that he/she will think, “This sounds interesting, I am looking forward to reading this.”  In today’s world of multimedia presentation, it is no surprise that people’s attention span is much shorter than it was in the past. Imagine yourself listening to a lecture; if the first sentence is not interesting, it is highly likely that you will “switch off” before the end of the lecture. 

The main body is where you present your arguments based on your research, and give any citations that are necessary. It will comprise a number of paragraphs, each of which refers to a point you wish to make. There should be a natural language flow within each paragraph and also from one paragraph to another. Very short sentences (which can appear to be more like bullet points) should be avoided, as they break up the flow of the essay. However, excessively long sentences should also be avoided because they can make the essay unclear and unnecessarily complicated. This could result in the reader having to untangle the sentence in order to understand it. A sentence should express one thought or idea. It can be helpful to use link words such as “furthermore”, “moreover”, “additionally”, “however” or “nevertheless” which improve the flow of the text. 

The conclusion is neither a restatement of the introduction nor of the main body. It should contain a single theme which convinces the reader that you have answered the question and verified your arguments. It should not contain any new arguments. Although a conclusion brings your essay to close, it may not always be that simple. Sometimes, when a question is answered, it poses another question; for example, you may have verified your argument from a local or national perspective, but not from a global one, thereby raising more questions. Therefore, your conclusion may include some recommendations in response to this, and possibly a recommendation for further research (especially for dissertations). However, great care needs to be taken with this. You should not give the impression that you have not answered the question set for your essay. 

4. Formal language and clarity

The language of academic writing differs from the spoken and written language we use in everyday life. Examples of this are: (a) using words such as “obtain” or “acquire” rather than “get”; (b) using words such as “therefore” or “consequently” rather than “so”; avoiding phrasal verbs such as “carry out” and “break up” and replacing them with “undertake” and “dismantle”; (c) avoiding abbreviated words such as “can’t” and “it’s” and replacing them with “cannot” and “it is”.  Some words such as “thing” can mean almost anything, so formal language should use an alternative word which expresses the meaning more clearly. As language changes overtime, some words become overused, particularly in the media, modern examples of which are “iconic”, “legend” and “unbelievable”. Take care, that if you use these words, they are reflecting what you actually want to say.  

The purpose of formal language is not to use long and complicated words for their own sake, but rather to achieve clarity and accuracy.  It is important to take care that your sentences are not ambiguous, examples of which are: “New legislation has been introduced that drivers who exceed the speed limit in court from next week will be subject to higher fines”. This sentence would be clearer by saying “From next week, new legislation stipulates that the courts will impose a higher fine on drivers who exceed the speed limit.”  Academic writing has its own vocabulary, the words of which are too many to list in this short blog. You will probably be familiar with this vocabulary through your reading, but always remember to use it when writing an essay. 

5. Citations, References and Plagiarism

Although research is essential in the preparation of an essay in order to provide evidence for your arguments, you should never quote another person’s work as if it is your own. Such a practice can have serious consequences. This is why you should always use references and citations. If you quote someone directly, you should use quotation marks, and quote exactly and give the citation. Any attempt to edit or paraphrase the words could be considered as a misquotation. If you wish to write the quotation in your own words, you should remove the quotation marks, but still provide the citation.  Similarly, if you use another person’s ideas or opinions, you should rewrite the words and cite the author. There are many reference systems, among which the most frequently used are: APA, Chicago, Harvard, MLA, OSCALA, and Vancouver.  Before writing your essay, ensure that you know which system is required. In addition to in-text citations, it is usual to include a reference list at the end of the essay. Sometimes a bibliography is added which includes not only the cited sources but also a list of all sources consulted. 

6. Proofreading, editing and paraphrasing

Although you should read through your essay after completion, it is a known fact that when reading through their essays, people “see” what is in their minds rather than what is printed on the paper. For this reason, it is important for a third party to read the essay. We offer a professional proofreading service, editing service and paraphrasing service according to our clients’ requirements.