Learn how to improve your academic writing by removing bias, organizing your paper well, adding variety in the words and sentences you use, writing in active voice, editing thoroughly, and taking advantage of smart tools.
Academic writing requires a specific approach: you’ll need to follow a style guide and write in a way that communicates your ideas clearly and concisely. So if you’ve ever gotten a paper back with a low grade and thought, “I need to improve my writing style,” the six tips below can help you meet your goal.
1. Be fair
Academic writing is about sharing what you’ve learned with others, so it needs to be objective, fact based, and well rounded. It also needs to give credit to other scholars for their work.
Argue from evidence, not passion
There’s nothing wrong with making an argument in your paper, but you must support your opinion or claim with evidence. It’s not enough to simply say, for example, “Children who have ADHD need one-on-one assistance in the classroom setting.” You must point to data that shows whether this type of assistance makes a difference.
Consider multiple perspectives
Part of being fair and unbiased is recognizing that there’s more than one way to collect and interpret data. Besides following standard data analysis practices in your field, you must consider multiple views of the subject matter and the reasons behind them.
Don’t be afraid to play devil’s advocate—presenting other views as thoroughly and fairly as you would if they were your own will help you learn more and make your argument stronger.
When you come up with something new, you deserve credit for it. In the same way, those who have gone before you deserve credit for the work they’ve done.
Citing your sources is mandatory in academic writing, whether what you’re using is a direct quote, a paraphrase, or even an idea. There’s no greater waste of time than having to go back and find sources again after you based arguments on them. As you research and write, keep a running record of every source you draw from.
Cite sources according to the style guide you’re following, both in the text and in a reference list. Besides sparing you from the consequences of plagiarism, giving credit to those your work is built on makes your new contributions even more impressive.
2. Don’t go with the flow—plan it
Academic writing is systematic, not willy-nilly, so you need to know where you’re going before you start and take each step carefully.
Organize your argument
There’s a reason public schools start requiring students to write outlines as early as the elementary grades. Any academic paper, from an essay to a doctoral dissertation, is better written when its author presents the argument logically so that the reader can easily follow it.
Before you begin writing the body of any paper, create an outline. Your instructor or your style guide may require you to include certain items in your paper, such as a Literature Review or Methodology section. These sections offer a starting point for your outline, but they’re not enough. Within each section, your audience needs to be able to follow you from the beginning to the end of your argument.
Here’s an example of a good basic structure for an essay:
Introductory paragraph: Sentence grabbing the reader’s attention and showing why the topic matters. Sentence describing previous thinking on the topic. Sentence laying out the new argument of the paper and listing reason 1, reason 2, and reason 3 that support the argument (thesis statement).
Supporting paragraph: Sentence introducing reason 1. Sentences offering evidence for reason 1.
Supporting paragraph: Sentence introducing reason 2. Sentences offering evidence for reason 2.
Supporting paragraph: Sentence introducing reason 3. Sentences offering evidence for reason 3.
Concluding paragraph: Sentence restating the thesis in different words. Sentence stating what the reader should take away from the evidence you presented.
Besides being useful for writing an essay, this structure is the basic format of an argument in any academic paper. You can use it again and again, back to back, within each section of a longer paper as well. For example, in a literature review, you might use it to present each theme you found in previous studies. The number of sentences or supporting paragraphs may vary, but the basic structure remains the same.
Make smooth moves
As you looked at the sample argument structure above, you may have noticed it sounds a bit robotic and repetitive. That’s because it takes only a big-picture view of good flow, looking at the overall argument. To write well, you have to zoom in and look at the details, too.
To create flow from one sentence to the next and from one paragraph to the next, you need transition words and phrases. You can easily find long lists of these online, but here are a few examples:
|as a result||in addition|
|on the other hand||because||for example||however|
The goal of using transition words and phrases is to show how your ideas relate to each other. By including them in most of your sentences, you can guide the reader through your argument smoothly.
3. Be academic, but not boring
Since academic writing must be formal, many writers are tempted to get pretentious or needlessly wordy. Resist! The goal is to communicate effectively, not to impress your reader. Strike the right balance between cerebral and simple.
Choose words carefully
One of the most important academic writing tips is to use plain, simple word choices whenever you can. For example, compare these two sentences:
We examined the statistical evidence with great care to determine whether individualized attention in fact made a significant impact on the learning ability of students with ADHD.
We looked closely at the data to see whether one-on-one attention made a significant difference in learning for students with ADHD.
The second option is still formal and precise but is much easier to understand and more likely to hold the reader’s attention.
While simple language is ideal, that doesn’t mean you should avoid long words. It just means you should use them when they’re truly the best choice. For example, a longer word may provide nuance that a shorter word wouldn’t. Or it may convey your meaning more efficiently than a phrase of four or five words.
You should also use the right language for your field. If a term is commonly understood and well defined in your field, use it. If it’s not, define it the first time it appears in your paper to prevent confusion.
A huge part of what makes the example essay structure in the section above sound so robotic is that most of its sentences are about the same length. Many of them are structured the same way, too, and they use the same words again and again.
Writing sounds much more interesting when it has variety in word choices, sentence lengths, and sentence structures. By mixing things up, you can hold your reader’s attention and ultimately communicate more effectively. Of course, an exception applies to standard terms in your field: stick to using these if using synonyms might compromise clarity.
Follow standard formal writing practices
Is there actually anything wrong with starting a sentence with a conjunction (such as and or but)? Is ending a sentence with a preposition (such as on or about) a grammatical error? No. But both are frowned upon in academic writing.
Play it safe. Unless you know your instructor or your field is more open-minded, follow the usual conventions for academic writing. Doing so will help you maintain credibility and avoid distracting readers from the substance of your argument. You can follow the rules while adding interest by choosing simple but varied words and sentence structures.
4. Use active voice
Another way to keep your reader absorbed in your argument is to use active rather than passive voice. Active voice makes the doer of an action the focus of the sentence, but passive voice focuses on the action and may even completely hide the doer. Here’s an example.
Passive voice: A study of seven types of educational approaches was conducted.
Active voice: We studied seven types of educational approaches.
It’s a common misconception that active voice is wrong in academic writing, particularly in scientific contexts. In reality, the active and passive voices both have their place. It depends on what you’re writing about and what you want to focus on.
If your instructor hasn’t asked you to use passive voice, using active voice at least some of the time can make sentences more concise. It can also add variation in your sentence structures, as we mentioned above.
The same kind of caution applies to the use of first person point of view, which we’ve used in the example of active voice. While many style guides encourage its use, it’s not always appropriate for academic writing. You may need to get clarification from your instructor or style guide in both cases.
5. Edit and proofread
No matter how great the substance of your paper is, a crucial step in learning how to get better at academic writing is learning how to edit your work.
The first draft should never be the last. No matter how well written you think it is, you should always give it a second look—or, even better, a third.
To take your editing abilities to the next level, leave time for a break between editing rounds. When you haven’t seen the text in a week, you can come back to it with fresh eyes and notice missing ideas or information that you overlooked before. You can also more easily recognize details or even whole sections that aren’t as relevant as you thought and can be cut.
Review carefully for errors
Beyond reviewing the text for overall flow and content that’s missing or superfluous, you need to take a second look at the details. Read every word again to check for errors and inconsistencies, such as words that are hyphenated or capitalized at some times but not others.
You can supercharge your error-spotting skills by reading your paper from beginning to end, then reading it backward. By that, we mean reading the last sentence, then the sentence before that, and so on. This helps your brain stop seeing what it wants to see (which makes you overlook errors) and actually focus on each sentence.
Get a second opinion
Once you’ve done everything you can to improve your paper, get a second set of eyes on it. They could belong to a fellow student, a family member, or someone else you think will be able to offer valuable insight.
Other ways to get outside input on your writing are to hire a professional proofreader or use editing software. All of these other perspectives can help you see things in your writing that you may have missed. They can also suggest solutions to your writing problems that you didn’t think of.
6. Use the right tools
Among the countless tools available to improve your writing, some are better than others. The most advanced ones, like QuillBot, leverage the power of AI to give you the benefit of learning from thousands of exceptionally written academic papers. And QuillBot goes even further by offering you this benefit for free.
If you need help with citations, QuillBot’s Citation Generator is an indispensable tool that lets you cite sources according to hundreds of style guides, including MLA and APA. And QuillBot’s Plagiarism Checker can help you make sure you’ve properly credited every author.
QuillBot's Citation Generator will enable you to quickly create citations in APA, MLA, Chicago, and other styles.
Our Summarizer can expertly shorten several paragraphs into one, which you might find useful as you’re writing introduction or conclusion paragraphs. And our Paraphraser is an excellent tool for rewriting a thesis statement in new words.
QuillBot's Paraphrasing Tool will let you do that in many different ways
For the most user-friendly writing sessions ever, try QuillBot’s Co-Writer. It integrates all of these tools into one platform so you can write like a top scholar with no distractions.
The right tools make all the difference: do you want writing that’s first-class or writing that will just pass?
What are 5 features of academic writing?
Academic writing should be unbiased, well organized, well researched, clear and concise, but not boring.
What are the 4 types of academic writing?
Academic writing styles can be narrative (telling a story), persuasive (convincing), descriptive (describing), or expository (explaining).
What is Academic Writing | QuillBot's Guide to Academic Writing, Overview, Part 1, Part 2, & Part 3 | How to Write a Research Paper | What is a Dissertation | How to Write a Research Proposal | How to Write a Literature Review | What is Annotated Bibliography | How to Write a Lab Report | How to Write a Research Question | Research Question Examples |