Academic writing can take many forms, depending on your assignment and topic. Writing a book report is, obviously, different from writing a journal article; writing a thesis is different from writing a lab report. Although they're all classified as forms of academic writing, they vary in structure, tone, style, and organization.
Academic writing also varies within the assignment type and can be dictated by your discipline and topic. For instance, an English literature thesis on War and Peace will have a different tone and structure from a civil engineering thesis on the Non-Linear Analysis of Jack-Up Structures Subjected to Random Waves.
If you want to learn about a specific type of academic writing, you can find assignment-specific guides here:
Even though different paper formats require you to follow different guidelines, there are common conventions that are applicable to all forms of academic writing, regardless of content or document type.
We combed the academic resources sections of the websites of 37 top universities from around the world and developed this writing guide based on the advice that was common throughout the guides. No matter your topic, the length of your paper, or your academic level, these academic writing guidelines will not steer you wrong.
You can read our summarized version below or download the list of links to all 37 guides. If you're really serious about improving your academic writing, you can even do both.
Before we get down to basics in this academic writing guide, it's important to keep in mind that above all, you should follow—to the letter—the rules laid out by your professor or by the journal to which you're submitting. Obey word counts and font requirements, and include any necessary analysis or sections requested. When it comes to academic writing, you can't go wrong if you do what you're asked to do.
In addition to the instructions you're given by a professor or journal, here are five rules you should always obey when doing any kind of academic writing.
1. Write for your audience.
In most cases, you will be writing for your peers and superiors in your field of study. This should dictate the tone and language you use.
The tone of your writing will reflect how you want your writing to be perceived. Typically, with anything that is fact-based, you will want to assume a respectful and professional tone.
Since you are writing for experts in your industry, it is appropriate to use technical terms and jargon. However, don't get carried away by academese. If you can say something clearly and simply using small words, do so; don't be tempted to throw in longer or more complicated words in an attempt to sound smarter.
If you think your paper will be read by people who are not in your industry, be sure to define complex words and ideas on first use.
To solidify your authority on the subject, it's also important to incorporate strong, affirmative language. For example:
- "Based on the facts outlined above, the subject might change based on the variables."
- "Based on the facts outlined above, the subject will change based on the variables."
The word "will" holds a lot more power than the word "might." Naturally, you should not overstate the results of your research, but if your assignment requires you to draw conclusions, use words that show your confidence in your research and analysis.
Do not use swear words or slang, as they are not appropriate in any academic writing.
2. Be obvious.
Unless you are submitting a novel, your assignments shouldn't include plot twists or surprise endings. Make your point or argument obvious right from the beginning. The reader should not have to guess at what you are saying.
This can be done by presenting your thesis statement clearly in one or two sentences within the first paragraph or so of your assignment. The exact placement of a thesis statement will vary from assignment to assignment, but telling your reader what you plan to explain or prove will give them a frame of reference for the rest of the paper.
Remember that you may have spent weeks, months, or even years trying to better understand your topic; even if your readers have a background in the subject, they are trying to understand your argument for the very first time. Sometimes, what seems obvious to you is a concept you must explain to your audience before they can grasp your broader point.
3. Edit and proofread.
As the first two sections noted, clarity is extremely important in academic writing. In addition to focusing on clarity in terms of your word choice and overall argument, you must be sure to use correct grammar and spelling, as even minor errors can cause confusion. This is even more vital if your report will be used as a resource in your industry.
Whether you edit the document yourself, enlist the help of a friend or colleague, or get advice from a professional editor, reviewing your work thoroughly will minimize the risk of grammar errors that can lose you points, grade levels, or professional credibility.
4. Don't underestimate the value of presentation.
Adhere to the submission guidelines outlined by your professor or the journal you are submitting to, but always ensure that your work is formatted in the cleanest way possible.
Use an appropriate font in a conventional size (usually 11 or 12 point), and leave sufficient white space after headings and around tables and figures. If you are writing in report format, be sure to categorize your headings in a table of contents so that information can be found easily. Headlines often make it easier to organize information, and it is easier for the reader to gather what you are trying to say.
5. Whatever you do, cite well.
Although your assignment, discipline, and style guide will affect the format in which you cite your information, it is absolutely vital that you cite all quotes, ideas, and references used in your work. This is one of the most fundamental aspects of academic writing, as it demonstrates your ability to engage with and build upon the work of others in your field.
Check your professor's guidelines or the instructions for submitting to a journal to find out what style guide or style of citation to use (e.g., footnotes, a bibliography, or a works cited page). If none is given, you can either query your teacher or pick the one that makes the most sense to you. Under no circumstances should you use other people's thoughts and ideas without providing some form of citation.
Academic writing can be overwhelming, but by following these tips and guides, you can spend less time worrying about how to write and more time focusing on what to write. For more great academic writing tips, be sure to download the full list of academic writing guides from 37 top universities.
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