‘Your academic writing isn’t academic enough.’

‘Your academic writing isn’t academic enough.’

Student on laptop

Jan Vašek from Pixabay

If you’ve ever got this kind of feedback for one of your essays, it can be a bit of a blow. You’ve tried hard to meet the expectations of your assessment criteria by including content you thought was necessary, but something about the way you’ve written the essay doesn’t quite fit the bill. What does ‘not academic enough’ mean?

The paragraph you have just read includes some language that is not appropriate for academic writing. The tone is informal, using expressions we might use in conversation with a friend. Notice the clichés (bit of a blow, fit the bill) and the contractions (‘you’ve’ instead of ‘you have’).

So how is academic writing different? In general, academic writing is more formal. One way you can achieve this is through the use of suitable verbs. Academic writers generally use powerful, single-word verb forms instead of phrasal verbs (verb + preposition). For example, instead of writing ‘bring about’ change, you could say ‘effect’ change’; instead of ‘wipe out’, you might use ‘eliminate’.

For more examples of the difference between appropriate and inappropriate academic language, this is an excellent resource:
‘Using Appropriate Words in an Academic Essay’ (NUS)

http://www.nus.edu.sg/celc/research/books/cwtuc/chapter03.pdf?fbclid=IwAR3pU0fhp_FbM_GrXXloNBub4OBz_q8BAv-2Vxm3gkIvyYKH6z3m7Uv_lHU

Anna Barker
4 April 2019

Lose that redundant paragraph

Lose that redundant paragraph

What’s the best thing to do with the first paragraph of your essay? Write it, then put it in the bin. Now this isn’t always true, but it often is. Many writers ‘write themselves into it’, like an engine warming up before it runs properly. They might write vague opening lines like this: ‘Experts disagree about how best to begin an essay, and it is easy to feel confused by conflicting rules.’ You’ll often find that it is better to start with your second paragraph, which might start like this: ‘A surprising writing tip is to put your first paragraph in the bin.’ Typically, paragraph 2 is where you start getting down to the important stuff — and that’s precisely where your essay should begin. The writer Hilary Mantel put it most memorably. When you write that first paragraph, she asked, ‘are you performing a haka, or just shuffling your feet?’ Most of us, I’m afraid, start with a stiff shuffle. The agile, exciting, showy war-dance of the haka only gets going in paragraph two.

James McConnachie
21 March 2019

Paraphrasing

Paraphrasing

Paraphrasing is explaining what an author has said in your own words. It’s an important skill in academic writing that indicates that you have understood the source and are able to use it to advance your own argument.

Some students think that you can paraphrase by simply changing some of the nouns or verbs but keeping the sentence structure of your source. But to paraphrase properly, you need to really understand what you’re reading and be able to explain it.

Effective paraphrasing is a skill that can be learned. In workshops at Edinburgh University and Heriot Watt University, I try to encourage good paraphrasing by addressing two key principles: using your own words, and employing a sentence/paragraph structure that is different to the original. Here’s how to do it.

Read the passage first. Underline or highlight key phrases. Then put the text away. Now use your voice – I’m talking vocal chords here – to articulate what the text is saying. Pretend you’re explaining it to someone. You could give yourself an opening line, such as ‘Here, X argues for a novel methodology because . . .’ or ‘Y’s theory is important because . . .’ Once you have said it, scribble it down; it doesn’t matter if the style is informal — you can edit it into shape. Now check it against the original. Have you captured the essence of what the author is saying?

Cherise Saywell
7 March 2019

This… what?

This… what?

Writing tipsDo you often start sentences with the words ‘This is’? If so, you might be making your reader sweat, while missing a chance to underline or refine the point you’re making. When you write ‘this is’, your reader is often forced to try to remember whatever it was in the last sentence you were talking about.

So remind them. This . . . what? This belief, this breakthrough, this reappraisal, this campaign, this experiment, this opportunity . . . You need to figure out precisely what you were talking about and then tell the reader in one single, crucial word. This is about more than just reminding the reader. (Actually, that sentence should be, ‘This technique is about more than just reminding the reader.’)

When you add a word between ‘this’ and ‘is’ you force yourself to reimagine, in an abstract way, the underlying nature of whatever it is you are describing. And that little move towards a higher-level evaluation of what it’s really all about, is the very essence of academic thinking.

James McConnachie
21 February 2019

Summarise your argument

Summarise your argument

students talkingCan you express the central idea or argument of what you’re planning to write, in a couple of sentences spoken aloud? This short but effective exercise works for both academic and creative writing. It will test the project’s roadworthiness before you start. You don’t need to tell an expert; you can present your idea to a friend or a family member — as long as it is someone whose judgement you trust. Your listener can tell you if the argument is compelling and if the connections between the elements are robust and logical. Without doing this simple test, you might waste time writing up an idea that will never work.

Amanda Swift
7 February 2019

Create breathing space in your writing

Create breathing space in your writing

Paragraphs punctuate your writing, clarify your meaning and strengthen your argument. A typed page without paragraphs is like a wall of words; it’s very hard for the reader to find a way in to your writing, and it’s very hard for your meaning to get out. Paragraphs don’t add words but they do help get your point across. Remember: one point per paragraph. As a rule of thumb, I’d advise two to three paragraphs for each A4 page. Every paragraph is different, but many contain the following parts in the following order:

I           Introduce the topic

D         Develop the point / present your argument

E          Give your Evidence

A         Analyse / evaluate the evidence

S         Summarise and lead on to the next point

Each new paragraph is like a breath of fresh air. It breaks up the text and improves readability, helping your reader to grasp the meaning.

Jen Green
24 January 2019

Don’t be boring

Don’t be boring

Do you find yourself starting a lot of sentences with the words ‘there is’? They are not the most exciting words in the language, and they often lead to unnecessarily complicated sentences. See if you can dream up some leaner, cleaner or more colourful ways to express yourself. The trick is often to identify the most important part of the sentence and start there instead. ‘There is a possibility that the results could change if the experiment were repeated under different conditions’ could be rewritten as ‘Repeating the experiment under different conditions might change the results.’ It’s clearer that way, and shorter too.

James McConnachie

10 January 2019

Put your unconscious to work

Put your unconscious to work

Allow time between finishing your research and starting to write. That way, you give your unconscious time to assimilate the information and work out your own response to the topic, which then informs your argument.

I do my non-fiction writing in the early morning, having researched the topic the afternoon before. Just before I down tools, I have a think. How do I want to tell this particular story? I make a little mini-plan of the next day’s writing, listing the headings in the order that makes sense to me, and assign a word count to each section. Having organised and set myself the task in this way, I let my unconscious work on it overnight. This may or may not modify my ‘take’ on the subject, but either way, the next morning I have only to glance at my mini-plan and the writing almost always begins to flow.

Jen Green
6 December 2018

Show or tell?

Show or tell?

Starting a piece of writing can be the most difficult bit. The way I see it, there are two possible approaches: start big or start small. A ‘big beginning’ tells the reader something. A big beginning says: ‘The Juan de Fuca fault line could present the greatest geophysical hazard to Western Canada.’ There’s nothing wrong with a big beginning. But sometimes, a small beginning can be effective. A small beginning shows the reader something: a scene, a process, a case study. A small beginning says: ‘Fifty miles from Victoria, British Columbia, the earth is splitting. Steam shoots out of fissures in the sea bed and heats the surrounding seawater to over 400°C.’ A big beginning packs a punch, while having something concrete to visualize helps convey the significance of your ideas.

Heather Dyer
22 November 2018

Make your text more readable

Make your text more readable

According to Dr Alison Yeung Yam Wah at the University of Surrey, who researches the writing strategies of academics, ‘readability’ is one of the key ingredients of successful academic papers.

Yet academic writers frequently make their text hard to read by seeding it liberally with abstract nouns. These are nouns that express an idea, quality or state rather than an object you experience with your senses. ‘Transportation’ is an abstract noun. ‘Buses, coaches and cars’ are concrete nouns; you can touch, see, hear and smell them – I haven’t tried tasting.

Here’s an example:
The deposition of fish scales in the geological record over the last 1,600 years shows that sardine populations off the US West Coast have exhibited fluctuation – natural cycles of abundance each lasting some 50–70 years.

If we turn the abstract nouns into verbs, the sentence becomes shorter, more readable and no less convincing:

Fish scales deposited in the geological record over the last 1,600 years show that sardine populations off the US West Coast have fluctuated in natural cycles of abundance each lasting some 50–70 years.

Replacing abstract nouns with their equivalent verbs often injects energy into a sentence and usually makes it more readable. Why not try this when you next edit your work?

Trevor Day
8 November 2018

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