6 Actionable tips to improve academic writing
When emailing or texting a friend, you hardly give a thought to the quality of writing; you focus on the contents. Similarly, when talking to friends or engaging in informal conversations, your accent or pronunciation hardly matters. However, when it comes to writing a research proposal, an assignment, or an academic paper, you tend to worry: you wonder whether you are making errors of spelling, grammar, punctuation, or word usage; you are concerned about making a good impression on your readers; and you want to convey your views and information to your readers clearly and concisely—just as you worry about your voice, dress, and posture in giving a speech.
Academic writing is different from informal writing because, as the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English1 puts it, academic language is
- tentative, and
- carefully structured.
You should keep these differences in mind if you want to be better at academic writing, and this article illustrates the above differences with examples.
1. Avoid wasting words: convert abstract nouns to verbs; watch out for redundant expressions.
Good academic writing is concise. Research papers, short communications, case reports, and several other categories that journals use often have word limits, which is why you should avoid repetition of information.
Repetitious information. Authors often repeat themselves in three common ways:
- Repeating in the abstract the information already given in the title; by supplying background information in the abstract – where it is not required For example, if a paper is titled ‘A new method to control rats’, it is pointless for the abstract of that paper to begin thus: ‘A new method of controlling rats was evaluated.’ Similarly, in the same fictitious paper, the abstract should not give any information on the extent of damage caused by rats, on the pathogens they carry, and so on.
- Repeating the same information again in the Introduction section
- Paraphrasing and presenting in text the information already given in a table. For instance, if the same paper has a table that gives data on percentage mortality in rats due to five chemicals, it is superfluous to say in the accompanying text that the mortality due to chemical A was x%, that due to chemical B was y%, that due to chemical C was z%, and so on.
Action verbs - A simple way to avoid using too many words is to shun the ‘tion’: instead of ‘We carried out an exploration’, say ‘We explored’; write ‘80% of the seeds germinated’ and not ‘germination was 80%’; and replace ‘the incubation temperature for the culture was 29 °C’ with ‘the culture was incubated at 29 °C’. Helen Sword, who has carried out extensive research on academic writing,2 calls such nouns ‘zombie’ nouns: watch her entertaining video.
Redundant expressions - Why use two words when one will do and when both the expressions say the same thing? For example, ‘most specimens were blue in colour’ (well, they could not have been blue in shape!) or ‘roots penetrate into the soil to a depth of 5 metres’ (penetrate alone does the job) or ‘the differences were statistically significant at 1% level’ (delete statistically). And always avoid pairing ’for example’, ‘including’, and ‘such as’ with ‘etc.’: all these terms imply that the list is not exhaustive but indicative.
2. Avoid contractions and colloquial expressions.
Good academic writing is formal whereas such contractions as isn’t and can’t and ’phone, for example, typically mark the writing as informal—use is not, cannot, and telephone instead.
Using colloquial expressions correctly (or, ‘getting them right’, to use the informal expression) may mark you as an expert user of language but remember that research papers are meant for an international audience, and many of your readers may not understand you, because colloquial expressions are always local and specific to a given variety of English (British, American, Australian, and so on, each of which also has many regional varieties).
3. Use the exact words or phrases that capture what you want to say.
Good academic English is precise—and so is good science. In fact, it is the emphasis on numbers, on measuring and counting, that separates science from other pursuits. Every subject has its technical vocabulary, which evolves to express the concepts, physical objects, situations, etc. that are specific to each subject, and using the correct word also signals your familiarity with that subject: a font and a typeface or kerning and tracking are not the same to a typographer; a dairy farmer knows the difference between a heifer and a cow; and an entomologist will not refer to a spider as an insect.
4. Maintain an objective, detached tone.
Good academic English is impersonal although that does not mean turgid or boring. Although the use of the first person in research papers is more common now – some journals even encourage it – the passive voice continues to be preferred in many more journals (‘the observations were recorded’ and not ‘we recorded the observations’; ‘It is widely believed’ and not ‘many researchers believe’; ‘a survey was undertaken’ and not ‘we surveyed’; and so on). The passive voice is preferred in some cases because the focus is on the action and not on the actor: what was done is usually more important that who did it.
A more glaring violation of the convention to use an impersonal tone is the use of such adjectives as ‘interesting’ and ‘remarkable’: let your readers decide for themselves whether they find your results interesting or remarkable.
5. Use qualifiers but in moderation.
Although science searches for truth, scientists are also aware that universal truths are few; as new facts come to light, what was believed to be true until that point may change. More powerful microscopes and more sensitive instruments and analytical methods reveal facets of the material world that would have been impossible to know earlier. It is for these reasons that emphatic language is seldom used in science: such language makes good advertising or marketing copy but is frowned upon in research papers—which are often peppered with such phrases as ‘to our knowledge’, ‘under laboratory conditions’, and ‘it is likely that’.
However, such tentative language, or ‘hedging’, may be taken too far: only one such qualifying phrase in a phrase is enough. Do not, for instance, combine ‘may’ with ‘possible’, ‘indicate’, or ‘suggests’, as in ‘It may be possible that’, ‘These observations may indicate that’, or ‘Such features probably suggest that’. Excessive hedging makes your prose weak.
6. Organize your paper to help readers.
Good academic writing is structured and organized logically. In many disciplines, journals require authors to follow the IMRaD3 structure (introduction, materials and methods, results, and discussion). However, some organization is required even within such structure. For example, it is a good practice to follow the same sequence of headings used in the methods section for the results section, which makes it easier for readers to read the details of one experiment and connect them to the results of the same experiment.
Similarly, the introduction section is often organized into a sequence that leads from the broad to the narrow and ends with specific objectives of the research being reported or specific questions being answered.4
Remember that writing is a skill that can be acquired with systematic practice.5 Academic writing is one kind of writing and has its conventions and standards: reviewers expect you to be familiar with them, and if you meet these expectations, you will make a better impression on your reviewers. Here’s wishing you every success.
- 5 Practical tips for writing your first scientific paper [Download publication schedule planner]
1. Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English. 2014. Oxford: Oxford University Press. <https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/academic/>
2. Sword H. 2012. Stylish Academic Writing. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 220 pp.
3. Rajagopalan J. 2014. Tips for writing the perfect IMRAD manuscript
4. Joshi Y. 2018. 4 Step approach to writing the Introduction section of a research paper. <https://www.editage.com/insights/4-step-approach-to-writing-the-introduc...
5. Joshi Y. 2007. A systematic approach to improving writing skills. Current Science 92: 1343–1344 <https://www.currentscience.ac.in/Downloads/article_id_092_10_1343_1344_0...
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