For graduate students and young researchers, academic writing can seem nebulous and dry, but it is a skill that can be learned with some understanding, practice, and attention to detail. QuillBot’s Guide to Academic Writing, Overview talks about the bigger picture of writing academic english and introduces the infographic guide we've created to demystify the process. It also discusses why academic writing is so difficult, a researcher's purpose, and tips for becoming a better academic writer.
In Part 1 of this series, we will review the first few tips, #1-#4, in the guide, Part 2 discusses tips #5-#11, and Part 3 finishes the discussion with tips #12-16.
The full infographic appears at the bottom of the page. Students are encouraged to post this in their office or workspace so they can easily refer to it when switching into "academic writing gear". We encourage students to use the examples provided as an academic phrasebank, too. Remember, it's not about reinventing the wheel when you need help with academic writing--it's formulaic and objective. It's not meant to have anything unnecessary or overexplanatory.
1. Use precise language. Be direct.
Precise language sets the tone for your direct, objective presentation of your research and how it fits into the larger scope of your chosen field. Every word choice needs to keep this in mind so that it's very clear as to the "what" and the "why" of your findings.
Do this: "This change precipitated as a result of the following four factors..."
Not this: "It looks like this came about due to a lot of things..."
When speaking of quantities, "a lot" and "several" can be replaced with more precise indicators of the actual number of factors or influences. Similarly, "things" is very vague and should be avoided where possible. If this "thing" is a factor, influence, variable, or anything else associated with your research, name it for what it is to reduce ambiguity. The same is true for using "up/down" instead of "increase/decrease"--concentrations, quantities, and other values do not, in actuality, "go up". They "increase".
Do this: “The concentration increased when…”
Not this: “The concentration went up when…”
Do this: “…because of the…”
Not this: “…as this is due to the…”
Do this: "...such as..."
Not this: "...like..."
2. Avoid contractions and informal language.
Contractions, abbreviations, slang, and other colloquialisms should be avoided in academic papers or research writing.
Write out contractions: “can’t” to “cannot”; “didn’t” to “did not”; etc.
Write out abbreviations: “t.v.” to “television”; “photo” to “photograph”; etc.
Shortening words and using contractions does not yield the formal, direct tone we're aiming for in academic writing. These are easy items to avoid, though some writers find it easier to edit these out in the first round of content edits. Others prefer to avoid them entirely during the drafting period.
Avoid colloquialisms: “The evidence is overwhelming, right?”, "I think the author did a really nice job with their research here."
Colloquial means conversational or familiar, usually informal. Spotting colloquialisms in our writing can be difficult because, for many, there is an inclination to write as you would speak. However, academic writing is only about putting our ideas, observations, and results in the context of those who came before us in our field, while advancing the state of the field with our work.
If another researcher wishes to respond to your work, they will do so by presenting their own findings, while taking into account your previous research. Because of this, questions are usually quite rare in the body of an academic paper, with the exception of presenting research questions or questions to be explored in the next steps of the work. Additionally, we should avoid giving opinions and writing empty phrases about the work of others if it does not specifically contribute to our arguments.
Avoid slang terms, including idioms: "on point", "seems off or fishy", "not it", "spills the tea on..."
Slang terms aren't formal, and they, along with idioms, are only understood by a certain group of readers in specific contexts. We want our work accessible, with as little ambiguity as possible. These terms are not well-suited for the global academic writing audiences because the hidden meanings cannot be correlated with the actual words in most cases.
3. Use impersonal language.
When our goal is to be objective and direct, impersonal language is to be avoided. Our writing goal should be to explain our findings without bias and show how they are supported by external sources. Talk in terms of data, the steps taken to complete the experiments, etc., instead of specifically what "I" or "we" did to accomplish the work.
Do this: "These data show..."
Not this: "I/We found that the..."
Do this: "Three potential issues could have caused..."
Not this: "I have come up with at least three potential which could have caused..."
Do this: "The experimental solution was added first..."
Not this: "To begin with, we added the experimental solution..."
4. Always cite your sources right when you describe an idea or finding that is not your own.
If citing an idea that is not 100% yours, then you need to add a citation, even if it's in the middle of a sentence. When reading through your work, others must be able to easily see which ideas, facts, or conclusions are attributed to the different sources mentioned.
"Smith (2017) noted that carbonate concentrations increased in more saline fluids, though several other studies (Gills et al., 2018; Berry, 2020; Peterson and Halifax, 2021) have since found this to be untrue at certain pressure and temperature conditions."
Keep an eye out for Part 2 of this series, where will finish our review of the remaining 8 points of QuillBot's Guide to Academic Writing.
Still struggling with a few of these concepts? Let us know via email here: Emily.Perry@QuillBot.com.