The Oxbridge Editing Blog 1st November 2019

Academic writing tips: How to write like a real academic

1st November 2019
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As we move further into the 21st century, it’s becoming increasingly clear that this generation has the potential to bring us the most proficient writers in our history. Reading and writing were once pastimes of the upper classes. They eventually became part of occasional select tasks in most professions, but in the modern day these skills are a constant presence in most people’s lives. Whether it’s updating our Facebook status, responding to a forum thread, blogging or sending WhatsApp messages, we are always writing. A person might type up a film review, respond to a text, then begin a heated political argument on social media all in the space of just a few minutes.

More and more young people are becoming fluent with new technology. And yet, in amongst this potential, there are a few key factors being left behind. We may be increasingly able to express ourselves and formulate our arguments on a page, but often this is in an informal, less structured way. And that informal style of writing won’t do you many favours if you are hoping for top marks in your university assignments. Essays, dissertations, coursework, reports… these all call for a more formal, academic style of writing.

That’s where this article comes in: it’s been written to help anyone wanting to transition their writing proficiency into something more professional and academic. It’s an overview into mistakes most commonly made when writing academically, and how to improve upon them.

We’ll start by answering this question:

What’s the difference between informal and academic writing?

There are many aspects that distinguish academic and informal styles of writing – but most importantly, it is not the setting in which the writer writes! In short, not every piece of writing done in an academic setting will be written in the academic style detailed below – nor should it be.

Most obviously, while there are styles of classroom note-taking which are generally more effective than others (for instance, shorthand), not all academic notes should be in an academic style. The priority for that form of writing should be whatever is easiest for the student to keep track of the information they are jotting down. After all, these notes are almost always going to be for them and them alone! Each person’s brain works differently, and anything from cue cards to symbols to sketches may help a person remember what they’ve learned. Research papers and argumentative essays, however, are often intended for an audience aside from just the writer. It is this difference that marks the need for the academic style.

Put simply, the academic style of writing exists to ensure the arguments and positions put forward by the writer can be most effectively understood by an audience separate from themselves. It is not just a special type of writing people use at university; it’s also a valuable means of formulating an argument in the clearest manner possible. Think of it, in a sense, as the ‘purest’ form of an argument with a focus on the facts, rather than personal interjections.

Formal academic writing also differs from creative writing. Although these two styles of writing are both utilised by students, there is a distinct difference. In creative writing, clarity and impersonality are often not the priority and may even be intentionally subverted. However, for research papers, argumentative essays and other assignments mentioned above, it is the academic style which will most benefit the writer.

Which leads us nicely on to…

Academic writing: what to avoid

Creative or informal writers will often naturally adopt ‘voices’ in their writing, giving a distinct tone to their work which often reflects themselves and their personal preferred styles. For instance, the use of many emotive descriptors and exaggerations – ‘enraged’, ‘distraught’, ‘flabbergasted’ – can in turn give an emotive tone to the work. Some writers may prefer to incorporate their personal speech patterns into their writing – swapping ‘isn’t’ for ‘ain’t’, for example, or PUTTING AN ENTIRE SENTENCE IN CAPITAL LETTERS TO GIVE THE IMPRESSION OF A RAISED VOICE. These quirks, as mentioned earlier, often reflect on the writers themselves – and necessarily put the focus more on the writer than the subject actually being discussed. This can be charming to some readers, but it can also distract from the arguments being presented.

Academic writing styles usually dissuade the writer from incorporating too many personal touches in their work.  The utility of this is twofold; one, as mentioned earlier, is to prevent the audience from being distracted from the actual arguments being presented. Second, this depersonalisation maximises the ability for readers from a broad range of backgrounds to fully understand the writing. Whether they share the same dialect as the writer or come from the other side of the globe, they can grasp what is being presented to them.

Here’s a summary of what to limit or avoid in your own academic writing;

Limit colloquialisms

Informally, you might use words like ‘alright’ or ‘mega’ or ‘stoked’ to describe something. Or you may use phrases such as ‘that’s a big deal’, or start sentences with words like ‘Anyway…’.  Typically these are all examples of colloquial language and would not be seen in academic writing. It can be difficult to spot what is colloquial and what is not, as colloquialisms are by definition often words or phrases we have fully absorbed as part of our daily lives. Some phrases – such as ‘hit below the belt’ or ‘nipped in the bud’ – are often not even recognised as colloquial as they are so commonplace.

Remember that academic writing aims to cater for a broad audience and help the reader focus purely on the content of the arguments. Using colloquial phrases like those above can unnecessarily limit the audience range and distract from the actual argument being put forward.

Avoid vulgarity

This should really go without saying, but vulgarity (swearing, blasphemy etc.) should be avoided. Obscenities may help emphasise a point in casual conversation, but will only make an academic argument appear unreasoned and irrational. Professionalism is key in maintaining credibility as an academic.

Limit hyperbole or exaggeration

For similar reasons, hyperbole and exaggeration should be avoided in academic writing as much as possible. In creative writing, phrases such as “The most important issue facing our society” can provide emphasis and impact. In academic essays, however, this can at best obfuscate the writer’s points and at worst lead to outright misinformation being communicated to the reader. Stating that a political figure was “the most underhanded backstabber of his time” may convey that they had an infamous reputation, but could also be a personal opinion and imply they were combative even in situations where they were not. This would be factually incorrect and therefore misleading. Academic arguments must be provable and should deal primarily in facts and data. Research should, for the most part, be able to speak for itself when presented.

Limit other personal quirks, including ‘creative’ punctuation!!!!!!

Having a somewhat standardised format from which to argue is one of the greatest advantages of the academic style of writing. This advantage becomes undercut significantly by ‘personal quirks’ a writer may otherwise use in informal or creative writing.

Some of this is fairly obvious: exclamation points should be hardly (if ever) used, as should CAPITALISING words to denote emphasis. Other rhetorical devices should be avoided, such as rhetorical questions (when you pose a question that is not necessarily meant to be answered, for instance: “Was the focus group really justified in their judgement?”). Whilst rhetorical questions in speech work well to guide the listener towards an intended outcome or opinion, in academic essays they can give the impression that the writer lacks confidence in how to answer the question convincingly. Once again, the focus should remain on the subject at hand, with sources and data backing up points rather than vain attempts at persuasive-sounding language.

Limit use of personal pronouns (I, mine, me, my)

It’s crucial in academic writing that the ‘fact-value’ distinction is upheld. This means that what is presented as factual information should not be conflated with the personal values of the author. If too much of an academic work is muddied in opinions and bias, this can confuse the reader as to what is fact versus simply the author’s perspective. In extreme cases, it may even lead to readers being skeptical as to the validity of an essay. This means that removing the focus from personal experiences is paramount, and that begins with avoiding personal pronoun use.

“In my opinion”, “I think that” and “My belief is” – statements such as these remove a sense of authority from the claims being made in the essay. Where otherwise these sorts of statements could be honest admittances that the author is fallible, in academic writing that fallibility should be largely assumed. If the writer makes a claim, it should be based on the facts presented in the paper, not on personal belief or opinion.

Now we’ve explored some of what should not be done in academic writing, let’s examine some of the things we should aim to do.

Academic writing: what to do and how to do it

Everything discussed above to steer clear of in your academic writing style is unified by one core concern: to avoid removing the focus of the work from the strength of the argument itself. So what are some things we can do, as academics, to ensure our writing style achieves this aim?

Keep it clear

Novice academic writers may try to overcompensate for their lack of experience by loading their essays with unnecessary verbiage. “The director made frequent use of blue imagery” may become “The avant-garde auteur plotted, with respect to the symbolic connotations of the colour therein, to have an abiding reliance on the vast arrays of azure tints found amidst the mise en scene of their grand work”. We’ve exaggerated this example to demonstrate our point, but the fact remains the same. Remember, the purpose of academic writing is clarity in argument, not being the most impressive wordsmith. The goal is to keep the points plain and direct. This means maintaining some level of balance between informality and overbearing dullness.

Effective use of terminology

As a slight elaboration on the above, academic writers should remain conscious of the field being covered in an argumentative essay. While an over-reliance on flowery language and terminology is discouraged, using specific terms relevant to the subject can help illustrate a point to those familiar with the field. “Mise en scene” may be a perfectly suitable term to make use of in an essay covering visual arts and media, for example. Appropriate academic lexis can help reinforce the sense that the writer is knowledgeable in their field, but it cannot be a replacement for solid argumentation.

An extension of this is the use of acronyms and abbreviations. For instance, a student working in microbiology would likely incorporate the term “CDC” (or Center for Disease Control) in their writing. To avoid confusion though, these terms should be spelled out once before being shortened thereafter.

Correct use of sources and references

To make strong, declarative arguments, it’s essential that academic writers employ proper sourcing and referencing of statements throughout their writing. Writers need to gather up clear sources, quotations, and passages that appropriately back-up their claims. If not, arguments will usually be reliant on emotive language and faith on the part of the reader, which rarely constitutes a strong position.

Writers must also pay attention to the format of their referencing. You’ll usually be given a preferred referencing style by your tutor, such as MLA, Harvard, APA, etc. Whatever referencing style you use, you must ensure that it remains consistent throughout the assignment. This not only reaffirms your competence as an academic, but is necessary to avoid accusations of plagiarism. Without clearly traceable sources, it could appear as if you’ve simply stolen a reference to pass off as your own.

To conclude…

Academic writing is not a zero-sum game. Often rules can be bent depending on the subject and question, and what constitutes bending those rules in the first place can be to some extent subjective. If possible, an academic writer should always try to make use of an advisor who can help them along with their work, or at least a proofreader (be it peers or colleagues). If you are an undergraduate or postgraduate student, it’s likely you will find support services on campus or online that can aid in this. No matter what help you seek, remember always that the purpose of formal academic writing is to present a topic using a clear, strong argument. Sticking to the guidance above will steer you in the right direction when perfecting your own academic writing style.

In a world where people are constantly writing on informal platforms such as blogs and social media,  it’s entirely normal for young academics to feel hesitant as to whether they are striking the proper tone in their formal writing. Ultimately, it is only through experimentation and practice that you will find the form that best suits your work.

Remember, the team of expert academics here at Oxbridge Editing is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to achieving an appropriate academic writing style. They can guide and mentor you through one or many of your essays or other assignments to help you understand what you’re doing right and where you can improve.

Contact us today to find out more.