You read it, you hear it, but what does it really mean when you are told to “write in academic style”, and how do you do it well?
Academic writing is more than using long words; it’s also about important academic attitudes and values. Measure up your writing against these suggestions from Learning Skills.
Academic writing is logical and objective
Academic style guides often advise writers not to write ‘I think …’. That’s because your writing, and the logic behind it, should focus on analysis and critical thinking rather than your opinions or feelings about a topic. Even reflective writing assignments, which focus on your experiences and understanding, require you to analyse and sometimes critique your own thinking.
To improve: Begin assignments by searching for evidence and then plan a series of related arguments that show critical thinking, which support your central thesis, argument or claim. If you can’t support a point, you probably need to leave it out.
Academic writing is precise and cautious
Any arguments or claims you make must be supported by specific evidence, generally referenced from academic sources. Avoid generalisations unless you have strong evidence. The generalisation ‘All Australians are lazy workers’ seems simplistic and trite, while ‘Unlike some other work cultures, Australian workplaces do not expect workers to complete unpaid overtime’ seems more thoughtful.
To improve: Check you have evidence to support your points and use cautious language to show how sure you are about the points you are making.
Academic writing uses discipline-specific terms
Get comfortable with the specific technical terms for your discipline, or academic tribe, if you like . This shows you’ve turned up to class and occasionally done the weekly readings.
To improve: Underline the key terms in the assignment question and in lectures or readings on your topic. As you plan your assignment, note which terms would be useful to explain your point and use them. The same goes for exams; learn key terms and use them. Note: if you don’t understand it, don’t use it – your reader can tell.
Academic writing is formal
Most written assignments require a more formal style than the websites you’re reading. This means taking out friendly language such as ‘really’, ‘just’, ‘so’, ‘like’. For example: ‘It’s like a really important topic that is just found everywhere’ reads more like a casual comment. You can also rewrite long, stringy sentences (that may be full of words like ‘and’, ‘but’, ‘so’) by splitting or reorganising their structure.
To improve: Try this quick Academic Language Quiz to remind yourself of some basic rules of academic style. Also, check out the ideas and activities in this writing workshop.
Academic writing: what it’s not
Academic writing doesn’t have to be stuffy, wordy or confusing. Law subjects often ask students to write in Plain English; while some academics, such as Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, campaigns against academic writing that ‘stinks’; and Helen Sword, a professor at the University of Auckland who runs academic writing workshops, suggests using fewer zombie nouns.
For more tips on how to write in academic style, login to the iLearn portal for help or get a copy of Academic Culture: A Student’s Guide to Studying at University. Clear and practical, this book is highly recommended as it was written by Brick, J., Herke, M. Wong, D. (2016) – who are all Macquarie academics!