How to refine your academic writing style
Writing for academic purposes is very different from almost every other style of writing. It not only requires you to be very structured and organised, but there are a few unspoken rules about how to write for academic publications that take a while to get used to.
Here I’ve listed out the 5 most important things I think you should think about whenever you’re writing a piece of academic work, whether for an internal class essay or for publication in an academic journal.
1. Follow a set structure
Whenever you have to write an essay or article, it's tempting to just jump right in and start getting all your ideas down on paper. But wait! There are certain formulae you have to follow for your article to be considered ‘correct’ in an academic sense.
The ideal structure for an essay or journal article varies from discipline to discipline, but generally speaking, every piece should have an introduction that gives an overview of your argument, several paragraphs outlining your argument and the evidence you have to back it up, and a conclusion to wrap it up. Some subjects may require you to add in other sections, such as the materials and methodology you’ll be using, a literature review, a results section, any weaknesses in your methodology, and overviews of works that contradict your own argument.
Never skip the planning stage when writing an article, and make sure you follow the guidelines for your subject area or discipline. If in doubt, refer to your departmental guidelines!
2. Write like you’re expanding on a single thought or concept
Your article is about one thing. Perhaps you’ve discovered something brand new in your field, or maybe you’re refuting an argument or idea you read in another paper. But if you’re a big thinker with lots of ideas, it’s tempting to put as many of them as possible into a single article in order to show off your brilliance.
Don’t do this. Not only are you increasing your chances of your paper being rejected, but you’re also cutting down on your material for potential future publications!
‘Single concept’ articles are not only easier to grasp the moment you read the title, but are more likely to be accepted by journals, teachers, and the wider academic community in general. Here are some examples of good single concept articles:
Lancaster, Kurt. “What Video-Journalists Can Learn from Alfred Hitchcock's Cardinal Rule of Filmmaking.” Journal of Film and Video, vol. 71, no. 2, 2019, pp. 18–29. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/jfilmvideo.71.2.0018. Accessed 22 Mar. 2021.
Brecher, W. Puck. “Contested Utopias: Civilization and Leisure in the Meiji Era.” Asian Ethnology, vol. 77, no. 1/2, 2018, pp. 33–56. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26604832. Accessed 22 Mar. 2021.
Gillingham, Kenneth, and James H. Stock. “The Cost of Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 32, no. 4, 2018, pp. 53–72. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26513496. Accessed 22 Mar. 2021.
Something else to note about these examples is their length. They grab the reader’s attention immediately by getting straight to the point, and are not overly wordy or complex.
This rule should also be applied to paragraphs - only one idea per paragraph please!
3. Vary sentence length
We all have our preferences when it comes to sentence length. Some people prefer short sentences, while others prefer to use lots of words to get their point across. When it comes to academic writing, what you should be thinking about is your audience. Reading the same type of sentence over and over again can get boring, and using only really short or really long sentences can actually get confusing. To help the reader follow along and create interest, vary your sentence length.
Short sentences are for punch. They’re for when you want to make a snappy statement that gets the point across to the reader in one fell swoop. Longer sentences are necessary for explaining more complex ideas, for outlining a list of ideas, or for explaining why there are multiple reasons for a certain occurrence. Different sentence lengths have different purposes, and you should think about what you’re trying to communicate in each sentence, and whether it requires a lot of words to say or just a few words.
4. Be concise
Concision truly is an art form. It can take a while to master completely, but there are certain tips and tricks you can follow to help you keep your word counts within prescribed limits.
The first is to assume people will be bored reading what you’re writing. It sounds harsh, but if you assume that you’re waffling by default, you’ll find yourself writing and editing your work to be shorter and snappier, and get your point across faster.
The second is to look out for repetition. If you’ve stated something once, give your reader the benefit of the doubt that they’ve got the message, and move on.
Finally, say what you mean. Sometimes you write out a terribly long and complicated sentence, read it back and think “What exactly was I trying to say here?” Don’t be afraid to keep it simple - just because you’re writing for academic purposes doesn’t mean it has to be complicated!
5. Your first draft is no good
It’s always tough to hear, but it’s the truth. The first draft is the weakest.
Get used to writing and rewriting sentences, paragraphs, and even whole sections over and over again until you get the right flow. Even if you’ve spent lots of time writing and rewriting whole chunks of your piece, chances are it still isn’t the best it could be, and why would you want to put out anything less than your best? Make sure you read it through yourself at least once - as if you were your target audience - and be as critical as possible.
Another great tactic is to have someone else read it through. They don’t have to be a professional - it can be a friend or relative - but sometimes you can even ask your professor! If you’re writing a course essay, always ask your professor if they can provide some feedback before the final deadline. Often you can get some feedback to help you improve the overall structure, flow of ideas, or focus on what the major flaws are. It can also be a bit of an ego boost - don’t forget to ask about what you’ve done well and doesn’t need changing!