5 Tips for Producing Stronger Academic Writing 

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Academic writing often has a reputation for being repetitive, dry, and hard to understand, with esoteric language and unnecessarily wordy structures thrown in to render a paper “fancier.” However, that’s just bad writing, whether in academia or elsewhere—any text that bores its reader and obfuscates the message with overly complicated language demonstrates poor communication skills. A well-written academic paper is clear, concise, and engaging, using language appropriate for the target audience and adequately explaining any concepts the reader needs to know to understand the subject matter without feeling patronized.

While academics are experts in their chosen fields, they aren’t necessarily skilled at producing clear and engaging texts. You can conduct a stellar study and obtain ground-breaking results, but that doesn’t automatically mean your paper will be a hit because writing is an entirely different beast. To help academics hone their writing skills, we offer five simple tips. If you need further assistance with your paper, check out our academic editing service.

1. Read good academic writing

One of the best ways to learn what makes good academic writing is to read heaps of it. You undoubtedly read a lot of academic papers and likely notice when the writing is of high quality (and definitely notice when it isn’t). Zero in on what makes a paper good or bad. Take some time to record your thoughts on the writing, particularly strategies you should adopt or avoid in your own writing. 

If you find the writing in a paper readable, understandable, or engaging, make notes on aspects such as word choice, sentence structure, and tone. When you pay attention to the language used, you’ll start to develop a feel for good, concise, and engaging writing, eventually internalizing it to the point where you can replicate it without even thinking.

2. Use simple language

Academics often cram fancy-sounding words into their papers, fearing that simpler language may prompt the audience to doubt their intelligence. In reality, the opposite is usually true—appropriately simple language indicates good communication skills, whereas unnecessarily complicated language suggests poor communication skills, served with a heaping side dish of pretentiousness to boot.

So, avoid using a complex word when a simple one will do. Be smart about it as there are certainly instances where a more involved term is necessary for the sake of accuracy. Carefully define esoteric terms your audience may not know—then you can use them freely. Otherwise, instead of making the writing sound more intelligent or consequential, excessively complicated vocabulary often ruins the flow of a sentence and adds to the reader’s confusion. 

Simple language is best if you want your paper to be readable and clear as long as you’re not making it so simple that you’re insulting the audience’s intelligence. Don’t write for the foremost expert in your field, but don’t write for a 6-year-old, either—write for a regular adult. 

3. Use the active voice

Whenever appropriate, use the active instead of the passive voice. Depending on when you were instructed in academic research, you may have been taught to use almost exclusively the passive voice or to effectively never use it. Both extremes get it wrong—the passive absolutely has its place, and sometimes it’s necessary. In most cases, however, the active voice is better. It is generally clearer and more direct, and it establishes a stronger link between the action and the agent (the doer of the action). 

Check out these examples of passive and active voice to see the difference:

Passive: Increased levels of irritability were reported by participants.

Active: Participants reported increased levels of irritability. 

Passive: In this study, the cognitive effects of social media on adolescents are examined.

Active: In this study, we examine the cognitive effects of social media on adolescents.

4. Be concise

Readers risk losing the thread if your sentences are long and meandering, so keep your writing concise. Each sentence should present one main point, idea, or bit of information. Examine your sentences for words you can remove without changing the meaning. For example, “aims to” is a commonly used phrase that is rarely needed and may even subtly imply a degree of failure:

This study aims to examine how income inequality increases deforestation.

This study examines how income inequality increases deforestation.

However, be careful when you go through your paper to make your writing more concise. Some tools, such as Microsoft Word’s “conciseness check,” fail to detect even the most obvious of nuances and often suggest revisions that completely change the meaning or overtone of a sentence. Therefore, carefully assess whether an element is absolutely necessary before you delete it. 

Some academic writers may use filler phrases like “aims to” to hit their word count, but this requirement is not an excuse to degrade the quality of your writing. If your paper isn’t long enough, share more details about your methodology or results—thus, you’ll add value to your study, not dilute your writing with meaningless filler.

5. Vary your word choice

Using varied vocabulary is one of the best ways to create more engaging writing. Of course, you’ll need to use some terms frequently, but avoid repetition where you can. Don’t be afraid to refer to a dictionary to find alternatives, but be discerning about it. You don’t want to use obscure vocabulary that your readers are unlikely to know, and you should pay close attention to the nuances of different words to ensure you’re not changing the meaning of a sentence. 

Here are some commonly used words in academic writing and alternatives that can help you avoid repetition:

Discusses: examines, investigates, outlines, surveys 

Analyzes: clarifies, explores, evaluates, identifies

Disproves: contradicts, challenges, invalidates, questions

Practice makes perfect

While these tips focus on simple changes, you don’t need to keep all of them in mind while you write. Even small changes to your writing style can be overwhelming if you try to implement them all at once. Instead, keep a checklist of all the elements and edit for one at a time. For example, go through what you’ve written and look only for cases of repetition. Once you’ve introduced variety into your word choices, read your paper again with an eye to simplifying overly complicated language. As you zoom in on these elements through editing, you’ll start to notice them when you’re writing as well.

If you’d like some expert help with your manuscript, reach out to our academic editors and proofreaders.

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