There is virtually no such thing as being naturally good at academic writing. It’s a skill honed over years of training, starting from your first expository essay in middle school and gaining momentum throughout high school and university.
The good news is that it’s never too late to learn. If you’re struggling with your academic writing or would simply like to improve the skills you already have, here are some tricks to get you writing better essays:
Craft a clear thesis
One of the biggest favors you can do for yourself is to spend time fine-tuning your thesis statement. The clearer, more well-defined and specific it is, the easier your essay will be to write. That’s because you’ll have a good idea of exactly what to look for. On the other hand, the more vague and broad it is, the harder it will be to research and find supporting evidence for it.
For example: “Young children who are exposed to reading in their home environments tend to perform better academically throughout their education.” vs. “Reading is good for you.” For the first one, you know what age group you’ll be researching, what kind of evidence you need to support it, the types of academic journals you can look for to find evidence to support it, etc.
The second statement could apply to any age group or demographic and could mean anything from staving off Alzheimer’s to alleviating depression. It’s just too broad to know where to begin.
Make it readable
The common belief is that academic writing has to be stiff, boring and full of words that require a dictionary to understand. Actually, an essay’s greatest strength is in its readability. If the ideas are conveyed in simple terms in a way that flows and with supporting evidence, that’s the best you can ask of an academic piece.
Overusing of sophisticated terminology may confuse your reader and make it difficult to understand your thesis. Don’t let your point get buried under unnecessary academic frills.
But don’t be too casual
Though you don’t want to be too stiff, you don’t want to be too casual either. Slang, curse words and colloquial phrases don’t belong in an academic paper. Keep the point of view in the third person present or simple past.
Don’t use the first or second person. Ex: “The beginning of the 21st century can be defined by the use and misuse of social media.” vs. “These days, you need to be careful who you friend on Facebook.” The first one is appropriately formal, the second one is too casual for an academic paper.
Writing an academic paper is a little bit like being a diplomat. You have to make a statement but at the same time tow the line between making an objective observation and stating a subjective opinion. An academic essay should always be objective.
Blanket statements that express bias are not appropriate. Ex: “All Republican politicians are corrupt.” That’s a biased statement and an accusation. It’s also too broad. Try this instead: “Widespread allegations of voter fraud in Florida districts during the 2004 elections have cast a long shadow of corruption on the Republican party.”
Avoid subjective statements that include “all”, “every” and “always”. Instead use objective phrases such as “It’s likely that…”, “It’s possible that…” and “Evidence suggests that…”.
There’s nothing wrong with using quotes. At the very least, they show that you’ve done some research. But it’s all too easy to cross the line into over-quoting. Of course it sounds good coming from the mouth of an expert and it’s tempting to let them do all the talking. But the essay is yours and the professor wants to read your words and your perspective on the subject. Over-quoting not only drowns out your voice, but it robs you of the chance to practice writing. And the more you practice writing, the better you’ll get.
When producing evidence to support your thesis statement, be as specific as possible. Don’t say “A lot of people use alternative forms of medicine these days.” Instead say “According to a study by the American Journal of Medicine, from 2000-2010, use of alternative and holistic medicine has increased in the United States by 23 percent.” Fill your essay with credible information.
Use numbers, statistics, dates, facts, titles, names of institutions and experts. These things lend authority to your writing, making your research so transparent that the reader can essentially trace your steps and verify your research for themselves. No fuzzy blanket statements or fabricated opinions, just solid facts.
Leave time to edit and proofread
Probably one of the most overlooked skills in academic writing is editing. That may be because of a common ailment called procrastination. You wouldn’t be the first or the last student to write their essay at the last minute, but by doing so, you lose a chance to edit. Editing requires time – not only the time it takes to edit, but time in between the writing and the editing process to let your thoughts settle, so you can look at your words with a fresh perspective.
By doing this, you’re more likely to spot grammar, punctuation and spelling errors, identify and fix awkward phrasing and catch any contradictory theories that don’t add to or support your thesis. An essay that’s been edited at least 3 times is usually good to go. Make sure you leave time for this process. There’s really no substitute for it.
For a helpful guide to common grammar errors, crafting an argument and other writing tips, check out this link from the University of Essex.