When you think about academic writing, what words come to mind? Inaccessible, stuffy and boring are some of the words I think of. Writing is a difficult craft no matter which genre you choose, but academic writing presents a special set of challenges. Much of the research that academics do is poorly written. So writers often end up adopting this same style in their own writing. Also, there’s the desire to be taken seriously as an academic and students to apply an extra coat of hyper-intellectual phrasing to their work.
Academic writing is at its best when it’s clean, simple and easy to understand even to the layperson. The academic writer should become skilled at taking complex concepts and breaking them down into bite-sized pieces. Otherwise, no matter how incredible and innovative their idea is, it runs the risk of becoming lost in overly academic language.
Here are some tips and resources to help you become a better academic writer:
Academic Coaching & Writing is a consulting agency that helps writers craft and structure their work more effectively. You can hire a consultant for one-on-one coaching or you can glean the pearls of wisdom from their ample blog that covers everything from “Using APA Style in Academic Writing” to “How Academic Writers Lose Confidence and How to Regain It”.
The Royal Literary Fund offers an excellent Dissertation Guide with practical and conceptual tips such as:
- When should I start writing?
- Note-taking and writing – what’s the link?
- How do I give order to a jumble of notes?
- How do I stay motivated?
- How can I revise my original structure?
- What is the importance of feedback?
- Where can I find guidelines on style?
- When do I stop writing?
- + links to more academic writing resources.
Write a lot
There’s no substitute for practice. The more you write, the better you will get at writing. Write every day. For most, the secret to finding the time to write every day is waking up early and getting an hour or more of writing in before the rest of the world notices you’re awake and starts bugging you. Make sure you make a comfortable space for yourself to work. Physical comfort plays an important part in keeping you motivated to write. A comfortable chair, a heater/air-conditioner and a ritual cup of coffee or tea can help ease you into your writing time.
Read a lot
The more you read, the better you’ll get at sorting through different styles to decide which ones you want to adopt and which ones you don’t. A good reading list is the best kind of classroom for a writer. Read on diverse topics including those outside of your area. Does someone manage to use statistics in a way that engages the reader? Does someone’s research impress you? How can you work these qualities into your own writing?
Reading a lot of other people’s work also helps keep you up-to-date with current trends and emerging concepts. A big misconception about academic writing is that it’s all historical – based on past events and thoughts. In fact, academics have a lot of pressure to stay current. Even if your area is Ancient Egyptian Politics – the questions you should be asking are: How can this knowledge be applied today? Why is it relevant now? How does this information help us understand or solve a question or problem in our own time?
Write the way you speak
Probably the biggest complaint about academic writers is that the writing is too…academic. Imagine that you’re at a party and are trying to explain a concept from your book to someone in a crowded room with a lot of distractions. How would you explain your idea in a way that would maintain the person’s interest? Trade long overly complex sentences for shorter ones. Ditch the fancy vocabulary in favor of the vernacular. Use action verbs and avoid over use of past participle and passive voice. When you’re finished writing, read what you’ve written out loud. If it’s hard to say, it’s probably hard to read. Re-write until it flows smoothly off the tongue and the page.
Use social media
Write blog posts, Facebook or Twitter posts on your topic. See what kind of response and feedback you get. Sometimes people can post comments that lead you to new research in your area that you weren’t aware of before. It can also help you gauge the effect of your writing: is it engaging readers and creating dialogue? Which posts stood out and got responses? Which posts fell flat? Another benefit of posting your work is to help you achieve stages of completion. Rather than thinking of a whole book or dissertation that’s hundreds of pages, post chapters and excerpts. It can help keep you motivated and guide your next steps.
There can be a fuzzy line between which ideas are yours and which ideas are someone else’s as you do your research. Short of copying someone else’s work word for word, plagiarism can be hard for a writer to identify. There are resources available to help you make sure you maintain your academic integrity by understanding the different forms of plagiarism and how to avoid them. Developing excellent citation skills can help you a lot in this area. Harvard offers several excellent guides on how to avoid plagiarism.
Use a reference manager
Since academic writing is research-based, you’ll need a way to organize and manage your references. Keeping your references well-organized also helps you to avoid plagiarism (see above). Try on of these popular reference managers:
- Maintains and organizes all your references.
- Downloads PDFs to your references.
- Make comments and annotations on your sources.
- Choose from 6,000 bibliography formats.
- Automatic formatting available for several types of documents.
- Share with colleagues and professors and other researchers in your field.
- Get advice on which journals are the best fit for your research.
- Syncs across all your devices.
Access sources by using keyword search.
Highlight and annotate sources.
- Use on or offline with full access to PDFs.
- Share with other researchers, colleagues or professors.