Most researchers don't go into their field because they love to write--they pursue an advanced degree and/or a research position because they are insatiably curious about their chosen field. However, due to the global nature of research and the need to share, collaborate, and build upon the existing body of work, students and researchers must learn to become competent academic writers. While it is often an extremely hard-won skill, it is a necessary one to hone in order to get new ideas out into the research community.
Why is academic writing so difficult?
Before diving into the tenants of academic writing, let's try to understand why this specific style can seem so difficult to master.
- Few are born innately great at this type of writing. It takes lots of time and practice in order to become competent because it is very direct, with little room for fluff, humor, or creativity. Further, even those who are great creative writers or bloggers will often struggle with academic writing because of it's distinct and demanding style.
- Our everyday verbal communications feel and sound very different from the way we write in the academic style, which is this type of formal writing can be so tough to comprehend. It's just different from what we're used to.
- Often there are no specific courses offered for academic writing, so students are left to learn from mentors by trial and error. Mentors may be researchers or professors, but either way, they are likely very busy, which can have a distinct impact on a student's learning of this process.
- Academic papers, theses, and dissertations can be lengthy, so the learning curve is much steeper when students are first learning this skill. This can make the overall process of learning while drafting and editing feel at best, extremely arduous, or at worst, insurmountable.
- Typically, these works take several months to complete too, so the lessons learned are spread out over a longer period of time, making it harder for the brain to connect to and reinforce the principles of academic writing.
The infographic guide to academic writing
Below is an infographic we at QuillBot have put together with some of the most basic and important points to keep in mind when writing in the academic style. We will be diving deeper into each of these 16 points over the coming weeks, with tips #1-8 discussed in Part 1 and #8-16 discussed in Part 2.
Hopefully, this doesn't seem too daunting--after all, anything can be accomplished with practice and determination! Academic writing is not beyond anyone's abilities.
What does it mean to do research?
We talked before about how most researchers didn't choose this path because they love to write--it's their interest in the subject coupled with insatiable curiosity that propelled them. So let’s think about that: what does it mean to research? It means to be part of the whole group of people dedicated to working towards understanding things like natural phenomena or solving important problems.
That’s really what the goal boils down to in any field: contribute and advance. This is the purpose of any researcher, and their work is their contribution to advancing the state of their chosen field.
Dear students: You’re not just going to graduate school. You’re a part of something very real and very important, which you chose to pursue. But, in order to reach that wide audience of researchers who might need your work for their next steps or who might want to partner with you in answering questions in the future, you have to be able to communicate your findings--and that is why you must become a proficient academic writer.
Tips for becoming a better academic writer
- Practice. There simply isn't a way around it: practice helps you become a better writer who can draft more quickly. By developing a structured habit of practicing writing, you also take the novelty or uncertainty out of the task. For many people, that means you won't dread it as much because you're used to doing it every working day. Try to build a writing habit where you write for the first 20, 30, or 60 minutes of your workday.
- Use writing and research tools to reduce friction and roadblocks. QuillBot offer a paraphraser to help you articulate your points, a summarizer to help you quickly find, vet, compare, and contrast potential sources, and a grammar checker to polish your work, all for free online. Citation managers, reference libraries, and other great, free online tools are available in the ether to assist you, too. All of these types of tools are there to help you jumpstart your writing and research, especially on those days when you just don't "feel like it". The key is to use your chosen tools to prevent and overcome writing roadblocks like procrastination, writer's block, and imposter syndrome.
- Read academic papers every single workday. You have to read to find sources to build out your argument anyways, so why not make it a daily habit? Reading the style of writing you will be emulating helps you build your own understanding of what good academic writing is. Look back at great papers when you feel stuck on how to begin certain sections, present findings, etc.
- Learn to not take negative feedback personally. In most cases, your work won't be amazing right off the bat, but with some feedback and editing, it can certainly become amazing. However, manage your own expectations on this front, so that when your advisor/mentor gives you back 20 pages full of red marks, you don't become too critical of them or yourself. It doesn't mean they think you are stupid or incapable. They are trying to help you see what works and what doesn't. If anything, an advisor taking their precious time to give really detailed feedback is a sign that they know you are capable of becoming a great academic writer!
- Be kind to yourself as you are learning. Honing this skill is a process, one which you will continue to build throughout the duration of your career. You don't need to be the best right now; you only need to do your best to learn the techniques. Change your perspective to honor the time and work you are putting in to become a great academic writer.
- Build grit. Resilience is important in building this skill because of how long it takes. Commit to never giving up on yourself and your abilities. As with most things in life, if you're willing to put in the work, you will succeed. You would not be in the position you are in now if you weren't capable. The issue is almost never that a student isn't smart enough--it's that they don't have enough grit or confidence in themselves to overcome the academic writing learning curve.
We will be back next week taking a look at #1-8 on the infographic!