Academic writing is sometimes seen by students as a mysterious or complex thing, and this often results in a laborious or over-florid style as people try to sound ‘academic’. Yet in truth, academic writing boils down to following a handful of fairly simply rules, which we’ll outline in this Bite.
Whilst content and structure are integral elements of a good essay, there’s little doubt that it’s the actual writing that causes the greatest level of anxiety amongst students. There’s a certain mystique around essay writing, based on the idea that the writing needs to sound ‘academic’. But whilst academic style is indeed important, it’s probably not as far out of reach or as complicated as most people think. By following a few simple ‘rules’, and by combining this with appropriate content and effective structure, most essay writers can achieve a more than acceptable standard of writing far more easily than they might expect.
Indeed the first aim should be to keep things as simple as possible. There’s a tendency in essays to over complicate writing in order to try to sound academic. This can lead to convoluted expression, inappropriate word choice, and opaque writing which is difficult to understand. In fact, your task is to communicate your arguments and ideas as clearly and as simply as you can. Yes, there does need to be a degree of sophistication to the writing, but that sophistication will come from your arguments and from following a few simple steps in order to present these ideas appropriately:
Write OBJECTIVELY rather than subjectively – most academic essays should be written from an objective rather than subjective point of view. This simply means avoiding, or at least limiting, use of the personal pronouns (I/we/you/us/our etc.). For example, instead of writing ‘I think …’ you might instead phrase it as ‘it seems clear that…’ or ‘it can be argued that…’. This rule holds true for most essays, but do be aware that there are some exceptions – such as reflective essays – where you would be expected to use the subjective voice.
Write FORMALLY rather than informally – adopting a formal tone is another way in which to elevate your writing. When writing formally there are a number of things to avoid, such as contractions (so write ‘it is’ rather than ‘it’s’), colloquialisms, slang and conversational language, and the use of rhetorical questions.
Use the LANGUAGE OF YOUR SUBJECT – most subjects have their own technical vocabulary, and becoming confident and competent in handling that vocabulary is another important step. For example, in medical terminology a bruise is called a contusion. By using the word ‘bruise’ in your essay, you can make your point quite effectively. But by using the word ‘contusion’ instead, you are making your point and demonstrating your ability to write in the technical language of the subject area.
EVOLVE your writing – your goal should be that your writing style evolves as you become more confident in writing essays and communicating your ideas. One key tip is to pay close attention to the reading you do. How do other people write about your subject? What kind of language do they use? Where you find something engaging, try to work out why and look to emulate some of the techniques that writer uses. Likewise, when you find something difficult to read or comprehend, try to identify the reasons and avoid incorporating these things into your own writing.
Remember, writing is a CRAFT – proficient writing doesn’t just happen. It’s the result, first, of good research and planning, but beyond that it’s about drafting and editing and polishing. Experiment with words and how they sound. Move things around. Remember, only you will see those early drafts, so give yourself permission to write badly, to get it down on the page, and then you have something to work with.
There are, of course, many other little things that combine to create good writing, things like punctuation and grammar and syntax. But it would be impossible to cover all of these things in any kind of detail in a resource such as this, not least because everyone has their own style, their own strengths and weaknesses, their own blind spots. However, by taking care of the basic elements of academic writing outlined here you’ll be well on the road to improving your writing regardless of your starting point.