A beginner’s guide to academic writing
Conventions, if you follow them, show that you belong. Whether it is dining etiquette, use of slang or emojis, or the way you dress, behaving according to expected conventions helps you blend in because others will find nothing amiss and consider you part of the in-group. In the context of writing research papers, observing the conventions means that journal editors, reviewers, and – eventually – your readers will focus on your message and will not be sidetracked or, worse still, will not be prejudiced against you even before assessing the substance of your contribution. This article is meant to introduce you to some of the conventions of academic writing, conventions that you should observe if you wish to come across as someone who is familiar with the genre and not a newbie.
Academic writing is formal. Just as you would not dress casually for a formal occasion, so you should avoid informal expressions in academic writing. Contractions, for example, are taboo; take the trouble to write cannot instead of can’t, it is instead of its, and because instead of ’cause. Avoid colloquial expressions: write people, not guys or folks; difficult, not tough or dicey; abandon, not ditch; and so on. Colloquial expressions date quickly; more important, they are not easily understood by people from different cultures or regions even if they all understand English, for instance. Remember that science is universal, and although English is the predominant language of science at present, when it comes to reading, or even writing, research papers, those whose first language is not English vastly outnumber native speakers of English.
Although idiomatic English comes naturally to native speakers, it can cause difficulties to those for whom English is not the first language; these readers also do not readily understand many idiomatic expressions, including phrasal verbs. It is therefore advisable to avoid such expressions in academic English. For example, he persisted is both shorter and clearer than he dug in his heels and she tried another approach is both formal and easier to understand than she tried another tack. Phrasal verbs refer to typically idiomatic combinations of a verb and a preposition, for example to figure out (to understand or to reason), to cut in (to interrupt), and to bring in (to introduce).
Academic writing is precise. Numbers and quantities matter in academic writing, and you cannot afford to be vague if you wish to be taken seriously. Whereas the more creative genres of writing – fiction or poetry, for example – demand no exactitude, science does. Research is all about measuring and counting: it was careful counting that enabled Mendel to deduce the laws of inheritance. Precision is particularly important in writing the methods and the results sections of your paper. For example, it is not enough to say that beakers were sterilized: How were they sterilized? By using dry heat, as in a hot-air oven? By moist heat, as in an autoclave? (If so, at what temperature and pressure?) By using chemicals? It is not enough to say that most of the patients were elderly; you need to mention the average age. Such details are crucial because reproducibility is important to science: novel results are strengthened and eventually become mainstream when many researchers obtain similar results from similar experiments—which are possible only when the experiments are described in sufficient and exact detail.
Even when you mention the quantities, they must be expressed only as precisely as is consistent with the method of measurement: if you measured length with a tape, you can give the length to the nearest half centimetre; you can give the length to the nearest millimetre if you used a digital device that was accurate to the nearest millimetre; and you can give it to the nearest micrometre (µm) if you used a suitable microscope.
Precision is not limited to numbers and quantities but extends to all writing. The exact word is what you are expected to use. An embryo and a foetus, for instance, are not the same: whereas an embryo typically refers to the yet-to-be-born from the 5th to the 8th week of pregnancy, a foetus refers to the same entity from 8th week onwards up to birth. In botany, not all the underground parts of a plant are its roots: rhizomes, stolons, corms, bulbs, and tubers are all different.
Using the correct term also shows your familiarity with the territory. Jargon, after all, is what experts use and what you are expected to use in writing research papers because they are meant mainly for your peers. However, see if you can avoid jargon in the title of your paper. A recent study shows that jargon in titles leads to fewer citations for such papers (Martínez and Mammola 2021). The trade-off is particularly important if you are writing for a multidisciplinary journal. A term that comes to my mind is albedo: the more frequent meaning is the amount of the light hitting a surface that it reflects back, especially the surface of a planet or other body in space, but the word also refers to the spongy whitish tissue on the inside of the skin of a citrus fruit.
Academic writing is mostly impersonal. Because science is objective, academic writing usually sounds impersonal, and the use of personal pronouns is discouraged: the actions and their results are what count, not the agents responsible for the actions. For this reason, academic writing uses the passive voice more often, although it means using more words. Yet, this is for a reason. For example, take a construction such as “air temperature was recorded every 24 hours beginning 0600 hours on the first day of the experiment”, which is not only precise but is in the passive voice because it does not matter who actually recorded the temperature. However, the active voice and the use of the first-person pronouns (I or we) is advisable in expressions such as “I initially ascribed the effect to high temperature but realized later that the change in colour was due to intense sunlight.” Another example is this quotation from the landmark paper by Watson and Crick (1953): “It has not escaped our attention that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for genetic material.”
Academic writing is concise. Concise writing is not limited to the abstract of a research paper but to the entire paper. Many journals stipulate the maximum acceptable length for different kinds of contributions. The weekly journal Science, for example, allows up to 4500 words for a paper based on original research and 6000 words for a review but only 300 words for a letter to the editor and 2500 words for a research report.
If you wish to be concise, avoid repetition in your writing. For instance, it is only too common for the opening lines of an abstract to repeat the information already supplied in the title of the paper and for some parts of the methods and the results sections to be repeated in the discussion section. I recall seeing a paper titled “Primary school teachers’ computer competency” begin the abstract with these words: “The study outlined in this article aims to assess the computer competency of primary school teachers.”
Concise writing is avoiding redundancy even within a sentence. Trim the superfluous words from such phrases as “the fruits are brown in colour” or “the crystal were cubical in shape”. After all, brown can only be a colour and a cube, only a shape.
Academic writing is meant for a well-defined readership. Academic writing differs from writing that appears in the mass media (newspapers and popular magazines) in that it is meant for a distinct readership. After all, a botanist is unlikely to pick up a copy of the latest issue of a journal devoted to particle physics for casual reading – and the particle physicist will no doubt repay the compliment by tossing aside the latest issue of Economic Botany – for the simple reason that the articles are likely to be unintelligible. This is inevitable because each discipline demands a mastery of concepts and jargon and literature peculiar to that discipline. But it also means that the writers of research papers in speciality journals can take such familiarity for granted and need not explain the basics: their writing therefore becomes both concise and precise.
As you will have gathered by now, academic writing as a genre has its distinct characteristics and conventions, and you would do well to observe them. But how do you ensure that? Spelling and grammar checkers are inadequate for the job because your writing can be faultless in terms of spelling and grammar and yet sound unacademic.
Perhaps the conventions of academic writing make for dull reading, and many research papers are indeed dull. Yet, good academic writing does not have to be dull. As Helen Sword (2012) mentions in the preface to her book titled Stylish Academic Writing and demonstrates with examples in the body of the book, “even within the constraints of disciplinary norms, most academics enjoy a far wider range of stylistic choices than they realize” and stylish academic writers are not only published by prestigious journals but “lauded by their colleagues for their intellectual rigor and flair.”
And if you think stylish writing is beyond you at this stage, heed this advice from Zhanna Anikina (2021) for academics keen to learn English: “Read complicated texts—especially PhD theses produced at UK universities . . . they are likely to be written in good academic English.”
Many researchers, irrespective of which stage of their careers they are in, tend to harbor certain misconceptions about what academic writing should read like. As a result, they may write unnecessarily complex or convoluted sentences that their target readers will find difficult to understand. Achieving a balance between clarity and formality or preciseness is a skill that needs constant practice. This is exactly the skill that experts who are part of Editage’s offer. If you aim to publish in reputable international journals and are unsure about whether your manuscript is written well enough to pass scrutiny, this service is for you. It is designed to offer not only language and developmental editing but also in-depth technical review by peer reviewers who have worked with top international journals. This combination of subject-specific knowledge and high-quality academic editing will help you ensure that your manuscript is well prepared and adheres to established conventions of writing in your discipline.
Anikina Z. 2021. Don’t focus on English at the expense of your science. <https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-01905-z>
Martínez A and Mammola S. 2021. Specialized terminology reduces the number of citations of scientific papers. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 288: 20202581. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2020.2581
Sword H. 2012. Stylish Academic Writing, p. vii. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 220 pp.
Watson J D and Crick F H C. 1953. A structure for deoxyribose nucleic acid. Nature 171: 737–73
You're looking to give wings to your academic career and publication journey. We like that!
Why don't we give you complete access! Create a free account and get unlimited access to all resources & a vibrant researcher community.
Subscribe to Conducting Research