10 Tips for Improving Your Academic Writing

As a graduate student and then as a practicing librarian, I’ve consumed my share of dry-as-the-Mohave-in-July academic literature. As an academic editor, I’ve helped authors make their prose clear and readable–or at least preferable to a slow death in the desert. From my experiences as a reader, writer, and editor of academic literature, I give you the following top 10 recommendations for improving your academic writing. Bonus: most of these techniques apply to business writing as well, so try them on your next email or annual report.

  1. Be clear. The purpose of writing is to communicate, not to obfuscate or show off. Big words don’t make you sound smart. They make you sound pretentious, and they make your writing harder to read. When you have a choice between an everyday word and an SAT word that means the same thing, go with the everyday word. I am not suggesting you dumb down your work but that you do your best to make your work understandable and accessible. You do want people to read it, don’t you?
  1. Be brief. Use the minimum number of words necessary to communicate your idea clearly. Most of the editing I do consists of deleting meaningless words and redundant points. Every word you write is a request for a reader’s time. Don’t waste that time.
  1. Stay on topic. Think about what you want each article, paragraph, and sentence to do and make sure you stick to that purpose.Tangents and other material unrelated to your purpose will distract or confuse the reader. Help your reader make connections, and guide them through the progression of your ideas. Don’t assume they’ll understand how paragraph 3 relates to paragraph
  1. Show them. Transition words and phrases like therefore, because, and unlike can help you clarify connections without adding lots of extra words.
  1. Organize your thoughts. Use an outline or a mind map or just make some notes and sort them into logical chunks before you write. Well-organized writing is much easier to follow and will make your points clearer. For a longer work such as a dissertation, consider trying Scrivener , a program for writers of long-form work. It is designed to help you organize your ideas and your text. A free trial is available.
  1. Avoid passive voice as much as you can. Some people argue that this is a pointless rule made up by English teachers. They’re wrong. Most readers prefer active voice, because it is much easier to read and understand. Don’t make me hunt all through the dang sentence to figure out what you’re trying to say. Get that subject up front! And yes, sometimes passive voice is hard to avoid in academic writing, because we aren’t allowed to write in first person. Just do your best.
  1. Don’t submit your first draft. Gag your inner editor and get those ideas into words. But when you’ve finished the first draft, allow plenty of time for revision before you submit. For journal articles, I try to allow at least two weeks to revise my initial draft and usually produce at least two additional drafts during that time. And yes, as an editor, I’ve received pieces that were clearly cobbled together at the last minute. One memorable chapter consisted primarily of quotes from other works, pasted together with almost no original writing in between. Don’t do that. You’re contributing to the worldwide body of scholarly literature in your discipline, not writing an undergraduate term paper two hours before it’s due while hung over from last night’s party.
  1. Write with confidence. We academics do a lot of hedging in our writing. “It appears that…,” “The evidence suggests…,” Etc. That’s usually necessary, because we can rarely prove anything beyond all doubt. Now I’m imagining Isaac Newton as a modern academic author:”In repeated trials with a variety of solid objects, those objects accelerated toward the earth. These results suggest that the earth produces a force that acts upon objects of measurable mass, but more research is needed to solidify this thesis.” But I just violated rule 2 above. Drat. Back to the topic at hand. Despite the need for a bit of academic hedging, make sure that your conclusions look like, well, conclusions. “The results of this study suggest that 2 hours of underwater basket weaving per day reduces systolic blood pressure in duck-billed platypuses by an average of 5.3 points.” Put the precious new knowledge you’ve discovered right out there in plain sight.
  1. Write with style. Sure, you’re writing up the results of a Stage 1 clinical trial on the impact of underwater basket weaving on the blood pressure of duck-billed platypuses, not the great American novel, but you can still make your writing interesting to read. Try varying the length and structure of your sentences to enhance meaning. For example, a short sentence in a paragraph of longer ones will stand out, so try a short sentence to emphasize a key point, like I did with the sentence immediately preceding this one.
  1. Get help if you need it. Many brilliant researchers can’t write their way out of a wet petri dish. If that’s you, do not despair. We all have different talents (for example, I can write just fine, but I have the mechanical reasoning ability of a sea sponge). If you know you are a weak writer, or if you’re struggling to write in a language other than your mother tongue, find someone to edit your work before you submit it. Some lucky folks can get professional help from their institutions. My last institution employed science writers to help researchers with grant proposals and publications. If you aren’t so fortunate, see if you can bribe a friend or colleague to help whip your prose into shape. Some of us will work for tacos.

One last point: Writing is a skill that most people can learn, not a black art given only to the lucky few born under a full moon at midnight. If you would like to be a better writer, read a book or take a class, then practice, practice, practice!

Want to learn more? Here are a few articles that expand on some of the ideas above.

Janet Crum is a librarian at Northern Arizona University, published academic author and editor, and fiction writer.

he loves clear, straightforward prose and hates passive voice with the fire of a thousand suns. Janet grew up in Northern California farm country and currently lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, with her husband, son, and three greyhounds. Stop by her blog for writing advice and random ruminations seasoned with lots of childish humor. 

The one where I went to an academic conference for the first time – 86

This past week I attended an academic conference in the Czech Republic. I have always been sceptical about the value of academic conferences, and now I have a much more defined opinion of them.

In short, they are networking holidays.

At the conference I attended, I was in the minority – as a student. Most of the other attendees were professors of big labs with lots of experience. Some of the attendees were business people who are quite easy to talk to. Still, the majority were high ranking scientists that just spoke to each other.

As a student, it was quite interesting to see how the system works, as far as networking, it was one of the least valuable events I have attended. This is because I don’t really have anything to offer the other attendees. The professors can offer to collaborate on projects or talk to business people to try and get funding. I, however, could only provide questions. My fellow students and I spent most of our time talking to each other, which wasn’t too bad.

There were three days of lectures and one 16 hour excursion that included a tour of a winery followed by wine tasting amid a European heatwave. From the talks, I probably understood around 20% of the subject matter. This is not unusual as there were quite a few different disciplines involved, but this obviously makes it hard to stay interested. I noticed a lot of the higher-ups tended to leave for days at a time to avoid this. As this was my first international conference, I was told that it would be best to stay for all the talks. I ended up doing a lot of work on one of the many projects I have going on, so it wasn’t a complete waste.

We, me and my girlfriend, decided to take some holiday before the conference and explore Berlin. I would say that of all the places I have visited, Berlin was the most liveable. It is the perfect size for commuting via bicycle and has everything one would need. We ended up taking a bicycle tour that cost £16 for 3.5 hours which was fantastic, and it took us around all of the highlights. I could not recommend this enough if you ever visit. The rest of our time we spent mooching around shops and parks as any good tourist worth their salt would do. We also went to this bar that is at the top of a tower block looking over Berlin zoo; It was free to enter, and you could see the monkeys!

After our three days in Berlin, we took the train to Prague, which is a fantastic Journey that meanders along the river Elbe. The journey was relatively slow, taking four hours in total; taking advantage of the relatively cheap train fairs in Europe, we travelled in first-class which would have been unthinkably expensive in the UK.

When we arrived in Prague, we only had a couple of hours before our next train, so we didn’t do much exploring. I had been before, so I wasn’t too bothered about exploration, and we were perfectly happy to sit in a restaurant and avoid all of the rampaging stag dos.

Finally, we had another train journey, this one only two hours, to our final destination in Olomouc – the second biggest city in the Czech republic.

I may have an unpopular opinion here, but for me, cities are fine for a weekend visit and no longer. After that, they start to feel very generic. See the map of a generic city below

Generic foreign city

As a holiday I would give it a 5/10, as work I would also give it a 5/10. If I have my way, I will only attend another conference if it is in a destination that I really want to go to. My suspicions about it not being worth it was mostly accurate – and I was there with six other lab members, so we did a lot of drinking. The conference itself was very well run, and I don’t want you to get the impression that I thought it was terrible itself. It was the opportunity for me that was 5/10.

Pitching to investors – 81

Despite my best efforts to create balance in my life, it has been a slightly rough week. It has been a week where I spent a lot of the time worrying; however, as is the way, the balance was restored at the end of the week when I had a couple of good meetings and phone calls.

Last week I wrote about how I was going to be going to a networking/training event, and I wondered aloud what my feelings were with regards to the point of the event. If I recall correctly, I said something like: ‘It is just an opportunity for students to complain about their studies and for the company to justify their funding’.

I was pleasantly and thoroughly wrong on this count. Past performance is not an indicator of future performance. This could not be more apt for my experience with this training event. Last year it did seem pointless, and this jaded my opinion of the event; this year there was a new approach from the company that was running it, and it was excellent.

We were divided into teams of around six people, and the ultimate goal was to put a presentation together and pitch to a panel of investors so that we could secure grant money – kind of like Dragons Den (I think it is called shark tank in the US?).

For those that don’t know, applying for funding is a significant part of an established scientists job – I assume other industries have the same sort of issue.

We had three instructors helping us put together the presentation; one of the presenters was someone who already had their PhD and had also started their own biochem company. The other two were highly knowledgeable business people that were the ones who give out the grants.

We had to make a business case for conducting some research into ways to reduce water consumption in our imaginary farm. It was based on a real problem that is a major concern in the salad industry. Global warming.

Overall it was a significant improvement over the last time, and to top it off, our group won! It may surprise you, but this is the first time I have ever won anything in academia – that I can remember.

Meanwhile, I have been trying to arrange samples to be sent out to me. Of all the things I do, arranging samples to be delivered is the most anxiety-inducing. Logistics is something I never want to be involved with. It is probably because it is mostly out of my control, and the only way to prepare for potential slip-ups is by assigning a wide margin of error, which is inefficient.

I have been calling my contact for two weeks, and they would not pick up their phone. This was anxiety-inducing as I have a strict window of time to run this trial. The trial takes four-weeks, and I have four weeks until I leave for the Czech-republic for a holiday/conference. So, if it arrives a week late, I will not be able to run the trial and will have five weeks of downtime. This is why I have been a bit more on edge than usual.

However, unbeknownst to me, the supplier I had been calling hadn’t ignored my calls he just didn’t bother responding. So the preparations were being made to deliver my samples, I just wasn’t informed.

One of the most significant differences between academia and Industry is how people communicate. In academia, everyone uses email; the phones remain silent! Whereas, in my experience, those in Industry will only speak to you if you give them a phone call.

When I finally managed to speak to my supplier and he told me it was all taken care of it was a huge relief. Furthermore, I managed to find out the correct statistical technique for some data I have been sitting on and not knowing what to do with. This gave me immense satisfaction because it meant that I could progress quite a bit of work. So, after a tense few days at the start of the week, it all came good, and the mean state of well-being was restored.

Everything seems to work out fine in the end, but thanks to the complexities of evolution we are left over with these unnecessary hormonal triggers.