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Twenty Top Tips for Academic Writing

Academic writing scares many people who have lots of good things and ideas to put forward. Others have been told they should write better without being helped to understand how. But it's not magic and it's not rocket science; it's a set of skills, and you can learn them. I spent two years as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Goldsmiths, and I'm now about to start a year at the Royal College of Music. And all along I've been shaking out and clarifying my ideas of how academic writing does and should work, with a little - or rather, a lot - of help from the RLF's own resources.

Not everyone will agree on which are more important, and disciplines do vary, in both their nature, and their traditions and current forms: an account of an astronomical observation is different from a reflective essay on dance therapy casework. But there are plenty of overall, general ideas which it helps immensely to understand and, suitably adjusted, many of them will help with other kinds of non-fiction writing: reports, articles and talks. So here are the things I find myself exploring with students over and over again; I hope they help you.

If you're panicking, procrastinating from fear, or just in a muddle, take a proper break, even if it's only short. Another twenty minutes of panic-stricken cutting and pasting won't get you a better grade. Twenty minute's coffee, walk and deep breathing just might.

Academic thinking is almost always a process of relating the particular, through the general context and ideas, to the theoretical concepts, and vice versa. For example:

  • How is the behaviour of your art therapy client Jesse, and that of your colleagues' different clients, explained by your understanding of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, or would another theory explain Jesse's behaviour better?
  • How does Humanism as a Renaissance philosophy affect the evolution of Spanish drama in general, and in particular in plays such as Pedro Calderòn's The Mayor of Zalamea? What do Calderòn's plays tell us about Humanism in 17th century Spain?
  • How does the theory of evolution predict what will happen to the AIDS virus in the population of Africa in general, and Johannesburg in particular, and does the data coming in confirm or contradict those predictions?
  • How does your experience of playing Bach without vibrato fit with the evolution of Baroque violin technique, and illuminate concepts of historically informed performance? How might those concepts help you develop your playing further?

Check what kind of discussion the essay question asks for. Common ones are:

  • discuss: this is the most open-ended, which is nice but means you'll have to work out your own spine, so you don't only plonk some facts and some ideas down any old how, but actually start comparing and analysing why they matter, and coming to some conclusions about the topic.
  • reflect: this is more common in practice-led subjects such as art and music, and social work and therapeutic disciplines: it looks back with hindsight, to put what happened in a wider context of this field of study, your experience in it, and how this discipline takes place in a particular culture.
  • compare: this is the basic building-block of academic thinking. Broadly, you're asked to 
    • compare apparently similar things, to work out what's different, and what that tells you about each of them, and about this kind of thing in general 
    • compare apparently different things, to work out what's similar, and what that tells you about each of them, and about this kind of thing in general 
  • analyse: discussing and comparing - maybe reflecting, too - but then also digging in to make a pattern of all these things that you've identified. You'll be setting out how things are related or how they came about as they did, and why they happened that way - and in what I call the "so what?" sentences and paragraphs, why it matters.
  • critically analyse: analysing, but then also showing that you don't take any one experience, or any one statement (your own, or anyone else's) as the only possible way things might be, the only possible truth. Has the evidence taken context into account? Are there reasons this data doesn't actually tell the whole story, or even a true story? Are there biases in the sources which affect what evidence is transmitted, and how it's presented? This will involve being critically analytical of your primary sources and secondary sources, so try to do your reading from the first with these critically analytical glasses on. You should usually be heading for a conclusion that one reading or analysis is more persuasive than others, but you'll only succeed in that if you also make it clear why the un-persuasive ones don't work.

Work out the spine of your essay: the route you're taking through the topic. Do this early, to help you decide what papers and books you must read fully, what you can skim in case it's useful, and what you can safely ignore. [ETA 3rd Oct 2019]: Many people find sticky post-it notes very helpful with this: write one idea on each post-it, work out which are the main vertebrae and which are subsidiary points, and what the best order for them might be.

The simple, safe spine is to take one of the main units you're discussing at a time and say everything that needs saying:

  • if the essay is comparing the history of different countries, you might go country by country;
  • if it asks you to discuss the theories underlying socialism, you might discuss one classic text or author, and then the next.

The more fruitful option may be to pull out topics or themes:

  • with the history of different countries, you might start by comparing economics in all of them, then their different politics, then their different terrain;
  • if you're comparing socialist theories you might start by comparing all the texts'/writers' backgrounds, then their language, then their structure, then the way each was used in the socialist movement.

Arguments can be a good spine: the different theories; the different historical contexts. You then discuss all your material together, heading by heading. 

Having a spine of topics, themes or arguments is almost always the key to getting analytical and critical, because it encourages you to go beyond merely describing what goes on in that country or that text and start comparing them to each other. You can then start to analyse the reasons for the similarity and the differences.

Write the first draft for yourself, to work out what you think, and the second draft for your reader, who doesn't yet know what you're trying to say. Some tips to make the whole process manageable:

  1. Know what today's job on the essay is, and do it. Try not to get side-tracked into another section, or a different job (editing, say, when you should be checking references); if you're worried about forgetting an idea or correction, make a note. Don't fiddle, in other words.
  2. Find ways to get distance from that first draft so you read it as a reader: put it away for a few days or hours; change the font; print it out; put it on your e-reader; do a swap with a friend.
  3. Write the second draft trying to hold on to that sense of distance. Would someone who doesn't already know what this essay is doing or saying, be able to understand what you're saying, and stay with you as you lead them along the spine, vertebra by vertebra?
  4. Then finish by going through looking for slips and typos, checking all the references are done correctly, and finding the places where you've moved bits around and not tidied up the loose ends.
  5. Forgive yourself for all the things there wasn't room to say, and the fact that you're a beginner (yes, even a PhD is a training degree) and haven't got everything right, and hand it in.

Reading aloud is your friend, because in order to speak the words your brain has to understand the sense of them, and get its tongue round the shape and rhythm of the sentences. Either your mind or your tongue will trip up if the sentence doesn't make sense, or isn't written in manageable units of meaning. It's therefore also handy for spotting typos, repetitions and gaps, and where the punctuation should be. 

The introduction is a map of the essay, so use drafting it as a way of thinking about what you're going to do but, when you've finished the essay, check the introduction-map is still accurate. It should probably include:

  1. an opening "thesis statement" sentence: the "headline", the main story of the essay 
  2. a succinct description of the route you're taking through the topic: the spine, in other words
  3. any definitions of terms or concepts that a grumpy tutor might contest; a sensible "working definition" is fine
  4. the boundaries of your discussion: the period you'll cover, the texts you'll explore, the secondary sources or theories you'll mainly draw on
  5. in some disciplines, the conclusion you'll come to. In other disciplines, you'll lead the reader through to that at the end. You may well not know your conclusion till you've worked through the body of the essay, so that's another job for the second draft.
  6. any preliminary scene-setting or context which is essential if we're going to understand the overall discussion: the war that ended in the treaty you're analysing, the government policies and legislation that gave rise to the establishment of the CAMHS that your placement was in. If there's a lot, and it's a long essay, this might get its own paragraph, but be succinct and keep it short as a proportion of the whole: this isn't what the essay's about.

Each paragraph in the body of the essay is the next vertebra of the spine, the next stage on the route: one idea or piece of your discussion.

  • The first sentence - the "topic sentence" - is a signpost for what we're going to be discussing. If the essay is about how Shakespeare uses themes in Hamlet, then a paragraph might start, "Betrayal is a theme which runs throughout the play, from Act 1 Sc.5 when Old Hamlet reveals that he was murdered."
  • Then each sentence leads to the next as you marshal the evidence and explain why/how it supports the point in the topic sentence: "Hamlet sets up the Play scene to embody this betrayal in the hope of Claudius betraying himself, but Hamlet himself betrays his father immediately afterwards, in failing to kill Claudius when he could."
  • The last sentence sums up the "take-home" idea of the paragraph and, ideally, holds out a link to the beginning of the next paragraph/topic: "So betrayal in Hamlet can be sexual, political or personal, but the ultimate betrayal, for Hamlet, is a combination of all three: Gertrude's marriage to Claudius". That would do nicely if the next paragraph starts, "This marriage, however, also embodies the play's exploration of the inconstancy of women..." and then we're smoothly off into the paragraph about that topic.

The conclusion pulls together the big, general idea or theme that you want us to take away, and sets it out. It will have emerged in stages along the way, but here you make it clear in a way that answers the question or implied question in the essay title. Don't bring in new material or ideas: if you find yourself wanting to, then go back and fit them into the body of the essay.

Don't be afraid to write plainly; it helps you to think clearly. The very best in your discipline think well and write well. They're only difficult to understand inasmuch as the ideas are difficult. Good thinkers who are more difficult to understand than they need be are, by definition, not the very best in your discipline. Try to notice what you're reading in terms of good and bad writing: Who makes difficult things clear? Who makes you fight through how it's written before you know if an idea is useful and interesting or not? Who's a pleasure to read? How does each make their sentences work, to have that effect? This will help to train your own intuitions for your own writing. Click here for some examples of good and bad writing.

Formal writing is not the same as fancy writing. What matters is precision. Casual language is inexact, but so are elaborate words used wrongly or vaguely. Use technical and abstract terms where you must, look them up to check they really do mean what you think they do, and surround them with clear and simple ones which you are also using accurately. There's no shame in looking those up too; professional writers do it all the time, just as professional writers write second and third and tenth drafts, and use friends as beta-readers, to get the words and the argument to say exactly what they want them to.

Embody abstracts ideas in concrete forms where you can because human brains deal more easily in concrete things. This: "[...] this is a history of the shapers more than the shaped" (Schama, 1987 , p.6) is a much more effective way of making a statement than this: "By concentrating on how economic power is deployed by dominant global actors, analysts of globalizing processes have largely overlooked the ways in which quotidian acts such as consumer demand across the globe influence economic relations, however asymmetrical those relationships might be.". (Prestholdt, 2004, p.755)

They're talking about almost exactly the same thing, although it's a hard to work out what Prestholdt is saying, which is something like, "analysts have concentrated on the shapers and overlooked the shaped". The more concrete one - the Schama - is also much shorter. Why wouldn't you write that way where you can?

Remember "Somebody Did Something". In English the meaning of a sentence is built into the shape subject  + verb + object. If your sentence is in a muddle, check that each chunk of it has that shape.

Long sentences are fine when they're built as a series of short, clear and clearly-related units. For this, commas, colons and semi-colons are your friends, because they help to make those units of meaning clear, and to relate them to each other in a way that short separate sentences can't. And do exploit the connecting words which can express how the two units are related: but, and, in contrast, at the same time, instead of, whereas, subsequently...

Verbs are your friend in trying to write clearly and with energy, especially because it's so important to avoid car-crashes of nouns

  • Avoid things like "The rebel generation of law avoidance strategies conflicted with the government determined military solution option." This has:
    • one main verb, conflicted, making one unit of meaning;
    • two nouns used as nouns, strategies, option
    • one adjective used as an adjective, military.
    • a car-crash caused by no less than five nouns used as adjectives, rebel, law, avoidance, government-determined, solution.
    • one super-car-crash adjective, government determined, which is itself a made of a noun stuck together with an -ed verb; if you must use it, it should at least be written as government-determined so we don't read it as a noun and verb "government determined" 
    • resulting in a classic idiocy: because nouns are put to work as adjectives (rebel) and verbs work as nouns (generation) the opening of the sentence makes the reader think this sentence is going to be about a band of Che Guevara fans... If your reader only realises halfway through it isn't, that's too late!
  • and say instead: "The rebels generated strategies to avoid the laws, but the government decided to use military force, and this led to conflict." This has:
    • three main verbs, generated, decided, led, making three short "somebody-did-something" units of meaning, which are linked together in with "but" and "and", to show us how the three units are related;
    • six nouns used straightforwardly as nouns, rebels, strategies, laws, government, force, conflict;
    • one adjective used as an adjective: military.

Keep the main verb phrase towards the beginning of the sentence. Don't make the reader wait too long to find out what the main somebody-did-something of your sentence will be. In the sentence about rebels, the first version is a single unit, starting with the noun "generation", but then having a car-crash of more nouns before we get to the one main verb, "conflicted". As I said earlier, because the second version is three separate short units of somebody-did-something, it's clear as a bell.

Avoid passive voice constructions even when you're having to leave out "I". In other words, avoid "Somebody had something done to them" where you can. (More on passive voice here)

  • Not: "Inflation was slowly beginning to be defeated by laws which had been passed by the government in the turbulent autumn of 1875". 
    • Inflation was defeated and laws had been passed are both passive voice verbs: inflation and the laws are both having Something done to them. Plus, as so often, using passive constructions makes the structure of the sentence more complicated.
  • but a bit better would be: "Laws that the government passed in the turbulent autumn of 1875 slowly began to defeat inflation".
    • This is clear, and active voice - Laws ... began to defeat inflation. It's not perfect, because there's a long gap between laws as the Somebody, and what they did.

And then you can link several clear, shortish units of "somebody did something" together, to make an actual chain of cause-and-effect:

  • So, more elegantly: "In the turbulent autumn of 1875, the government passed laws that slowly began to defeat inflation".
    • Here, the government is the Somebody, actively passing laws, and the laws are also actively defeating inflation. Plus, by starting with a brief, introductory phrase of scene-setting, In the turbulent autumn... , the heart of the sentence is all together in the middle: the government passed laws, and then we have an amplification about what the laws did.
  • and if you want to say more, add another unit as a tailpiece: "In the turbulent autumn of 1875, the government passed laws that slowly began to defeat inflation, although it was not until 1877 that prices in the shops stabilised."
    • Notice the "although" which explains the relationship of the tailpiece information to what's come before.

Tell the story in the order in which it happened, unless you've got good reasons not to, because that's how humans experience things - forwards in time - so that's how we tell stories too. Making the main point first is usually a good idea, not least because it means the main somebody-did-something comes early on. But if that main point is the last thing to happen in the story things easily get confused and confusing:

  • Telling the story backwards: "Shop prices did not stabilise until 1877, after inflation had begun to be defeated by laws that had been passed by the government in the autumn of 1875".
  • Telling the story forwards: "In the turbulent autumn of 1875, the government passed laws that slowly began to defeat inflation, although it was not until 1877 that prices in the shops stabilised."
  • If the main point is the shop prices, so you want to do it that way round, use words and punctuation which make the relationships very clear: "Shop prices did not stabilise until 1877, some time after the turbulent autumn of 1875 when the government had first passed laws to control prices."

In that last one, notice how, after the first section which is the "headline" of the sentence, the rest of the sentence goes straight back to the beginning and then tells the story forwards from that point on. (More on the uses and dangers of this kind of "front-loading" of sentences here.) And notice the proper use of the past perfect - "when the government had ... passed laws" - so we're safely reading this as having happened before the main "now" of the sentence, which is about shop prices in 1877.

Be cautious about using "I". Some disciplines and traditions still ban it completely: mainly the Sciences, and those of the Humanities which like to think of themselves as sciences. But in general, if you're allowed to use it you should still keep "I think" and "I feel" and the like for the times when you are clearly stating your action or judgements in shaping this argument: this is your opinion and you should mark it as that.

And make sure it's an informed, substantiated judgement, not just a vague feeling, or a way of pulling back from committing yourself in the way we tend in normal life to say "I think he's an idiot", when we know other people might disagree. Instead, back up why you're doing and saying this with referenced evidence from books, journals, other writers, your case notes and so on.

In practice-led disciplines, of course, "I'" is essential when you’re writing about your experience of performance, say, or social work or drama, but it's always good to connect it where you can with references to other people's experience and understanding.

Beware of hidden metaphors: "This action unleashed a flood of hidden opposition which burned everyone implicated in it", has three explicit metaphors (unleashed, flood, burned), none of which make sense with the other. It also has three figurative words which aren't quite metaphors, but do have an underlying physical origin, which confuses things even more (hidden, opposition, implicated).

Beware of value-laden words: You're in a court of law, but you're not making a case for the prosecution, you're the judge explaining what actually happened to the jury, as fairly as possible, so they can decide if the case is proved. Not "Napoleon was a tyrant so he made a cruel decision," but "Napoleon decided that this rebellion must be put down with exemplary force". You are also the jury, of course, since it's your job to come to a conclusion.

Beware of ordinary words used in technical ways, especially adjectives co-opted by your discipline as abstract nouns. "...we need to examine the many manifestations of the public which shaped nineteenth-century politics..." (Rappaport, 2001, p.78) makes me stop to ask "the public what?", before realising it's an abstract concept: "the Public [sphere]". It's not that you should never use such terms, but you need to avoid wrong-footing the reader and so making the argument stumble.

An excellent little book is Brilliant Writing Tips for Students by Julia Copus (Palgrave, 2009). It’s only about £5 in bookshops and online, and is a goldmine of helpful good sense on everything from planning to apostrophes. Other books in that Pocket Study Guides series are very good too: I also use Kate Williams's Getting Critical, and Janet Goodwin's Studying With Dyslexia. Sam Leith's Write to the Point is more aimed at general non-fiction writing but is excellent; Steven Pinker's A Sense of Style is very good indeed, and definitely coming from the academic angle, while Helen Sword's Stylish Academic Writing is the classic of the genre, and goes far deeper into the heart of what we're all doing than the title might suggest.

And, finally, I've assembled a small collection of short extracts of good and bad academic writing, so I'll repeat the link here which is also further up. Have a look at them, and try to decide why the good ones work, and how the less-good ones could work better.

Good luck!


References, because in academic writing everything that's said is either assumed to be the writer's, or must be traceable:

Prestholdt, Jeremy, ‘On the Global Repercussions of East African Consumerism’, American Historical Review 109 (3) 2004 pp.755-81

Rappaport, Erika Diane, Shopping for Pleasure, Princeton, Princeton University Press 2001

Schama, Simon, The Embarrassment of Riches, New York, Vintage 1987